Written by U Ne Oo on 2001-10-22

22 October 2001
Dr U Ne Oo
Adelaide Australia

1. Burma in the year 2000-2001

This year, Burma watchers have noticed some encouraging signs for solving the protracted political stalemate between the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the leaders of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In January 2001, the United Nations Special Envoy announced that confidence-building talks had been taking place between Lt. General Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1 of SPDC, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of NLD. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election held in May 1990. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) [1] is the military junta that seized power in 1988 which refused to transfer state power to the National League for Democracy after the 1990 Election. Although there has been confirmation from various other sources about the talks, any official announcement has not been made by both the junta and the NLD. With the news about the dialogue, some prisoners of conscience were released. As of October 2001, a total of 142 political prisoners, many of them high profile cases, were freed. None the less, given the record on cycles of violent political repression and that of slight recesses over the decade, it is still too early to judge that these releases are the result of an irreversible process of political reconciliation in Burma.

Although there is an apparent sign for easing political tension between the political opposition and the ruling junta, there has been no report on a cessation of human rights abuses within the country especially in ethnic minority areas [2]. There have been continuing outflows of refugees into neighbouring countries such as Thailand and India. The military authorities continue to practice forced labour, forced relocation and, on occasion, extortion on the civilian population. There has also been continuing cases of internal displacement in areas where rebel forces are active, such as in the Karen State .

There are signs of weakening in central authority�s grip on power with some observers postulating a rift within the top brass of the military junta [3] . However, the junta has been able to present a united face on the outside [4] . The weakening of support for the junta�s leadership within the military rank-and-file, combined with deteriorating health of retired strong man General Ne Win may have forced the junta to consider negotiating with the opposition [5] .

Burma in the decade of 1990-2000 was marked by cycles of violent political repression and temporary reduction in tension. In retrospect, the struggle for democracy has helped to raise Burma's political leadership along with the realisation of fundamental political issues that are of outstanding and have needed to be solved. These fundamental political issues required attention by present day Burma's political leadership. The first is the transition from military dictatorship to democracy. The second and long-standing issue is the autonomy for ethnic minority people. It is time for all parties to the conflict, i.e. the military junta, Burman political leadership and ethnic minority groups to compromise their positions to achieve dialogue and reconciliation. Pragmatism is required to reach a compromised solution. However, the core truth of the struggle must be respected by all when formulating that solution. The United Nations and international community must also adhere to these principles in seeking solutions to the problems in Burma.

Many decades of neglect of the development and welfare of Burmese population is leading Burma towards a social and economic crisis point. The humanitarian situation within the country, especially, malnutrition, poverty and the uncontrolled spread of HIV/AIDS all need urgent attention by the international community. Whilst it is most important to strive for the emergence of all inclusive dialogue in Burma, a necessary preparation must also be made by all political actors for reconstruction and development of the country. To ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the international community should help relieve the suffering of Burmese people while judicious decisions must be taken to maintain economic sanctions aganist Burma.

2. Broader Dialogue

The Burma democracy movement under the leadership of NLD and Daw Aung Suu Kyi has always been devoted to solving problems through dialogue and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the military junta, time and again, have exploited the negotiation with political opposition as public relation exercise aimed at easing international pressure and gaining support at international forums. For example, the ruling junta in mid-1994 made a posture for reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition [6] . The international community responded with a series of diplomatic effort to initiate dialogue and the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [7] . A US Congressman, a venerable Buddhist monk and the UN Special Rapporteur were among those who carried out this process [8] . After the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in July 1995, it turns out that the junta was unwilling to enter dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the grounds that she was married to a foreigner.

As has been noted, the majority of ethnic rebel forces and exiled groups have long expressed support for initiating dialogue over the years. In recent years, the political dialogue and national reconciliation has been strongly supported by every sector of society in Burma. For example, in November 1999, a most revered Buddhist monk in a Mandalay monastery had written to Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the ruling junta, appealing not to harbour grudges and to work together to rebuild the nation [9] . Bohmu Aung, a member of legendary Thirty Comrades and an independence hero, together with 23 other eminent political veterans issued several statements calling for dialogue in Burma [10] . There is also a strong indication that the rank-and-file within the military have supported the agenda for dialogue [11] . It is of no doubt that the dialogue has been widely supported by every sector of society, including the Burmese military.

Despite unanimous support for dialogue from the community, the public reports on the dialogue have been rather poor. Since the news in January 2001 of talks between military leaders and the leaders of NLD, there has been no confirmation by both sides about the talks. An unusually quiet response by NLD in this regard suggests that the NLD leaders have been gagged before the start of talks [12] . The military junta is likely to prefer, wherever possible, to make deals on an individual basis rather than a broad public consultation on the dialogue that may allow participation of ethnic minority groups. The United Nations and the international community must therefore firstly demand that the military junta and NLD publicly announce the current state of dialogue. The general public must be informed especially by the NLD about the progress, or the lack of, on dialogue. Unless dialogue is conducted in a transparent manner, it will not become a politically successful.

Although the extent to which current dialogue has progressed is not known, this author has identified three main issues that will be central to the dialogue. A possible roadmap for the transition to democracy in line with these issues has already been suggested and has been published in reports elsewhere [13] . Suggestions have been made that the parties to the conflict look into compromised solutions for the following: (i) The result of May 1990 general election and transfer of power (ii) The role of military in near future (iii) The National Convention and the issues of ethnic minorities.

2.1 The result of May 1990 general election and transfer of power:

The UN and international community must continue to strive for full implementation of the result of the May 1990 general election. Over the years, there have been suggestions by various people, including some media, NGOs and even by UN Officials into compromising the result of May 1990 election, to be replaced by a new election. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic solution to a very complex problem. The people of Burma in 1990 have elected their representatives with the expectation that they form a parliament and a government. This truth must be respected. As such, a new election can be held only by the authority of the parliament of the May 1990 election or the Committee Representing the People's Parliament.

As for the transfer of power, arrangements must be made firstly to form a transitional government comprising of military and elected representatives. Such a government should act as a legitimate government until the constitution is drawn up and the parliament approves a new general election.

2.2 The role of military in future politics:

A compromise can be made to include the participation of the military in future politics. Twenty five per cent of federal parliamentarian seats can be allocated to the military. For example, one un-elected parliamentarian can be assigned to every four electorates, to be taken charge on the special tasks for national security, countering terrorism and corruption [14] . It should be remembered that there are decent and educated military officers within the Burmese army.

2.3 The Notional Convention as a forum for tri-partite dialogue:

The national convention initiated by SPDC/SLORC has been stalled since 1996. The NLD boycotted the national convention in 1995 on the ground that undemocratic procedures were practiced. In September 2000, the National League for Democracy announced its plans to draw up a new federal constitution.

Ethnic minorities have been striving for federal state of Burma for decades. Historically, when the British granted independence, Burma proper (mainland) and frontier areas were considered as the separate entities. In the constitution of 1947, the Shan State and Karenni State have the right to secede if these states so choose after a period of ten years [15] . Never the less, this arrangement was interpreted by analysts as a guarantee for these minorities to be treated fairly by the Burman politicians. Since 1962 after the military coup, there have been some Shan and Karenni rebel groups especially, asserting the right to secede from the union. Other ethnic rebel groups, such as the Karen [16] , the Kachin in the past had the objective of seceding from Burma, but now have adopted the view to form a genuine federal union of Burma. Now is the time for these rebel groups to join federal and non-secessionist objectives. It is also time for the military and Burman political leadership to recognise the historical facts and to reach a compromise.

Most ethnic rebel groups who are demanding greater autonomy are united in forming a federal union of Burma. In the federal system of government, there has been the division of power between State and Central governments. Within this context, the aspirations of ethnic minority groups can be accommodated.

3.4 Maintaining principle values

Analysing the events of the past decade, the regime has shown a track record of resorting to violence whenever reaching a point of having to make substantial political concessions. On pressuring the military junta to enter dialogue, the United Nations, the international community and opposition groups must define a set of benchmarks to clearly identify objectives whilst maintaining the core values of non-violent struggle. It should be made clear that the regime will be rewarded accordingly for any tangible improvement or substantive cooperation. By the same token, the international community must not hesitate to punish the junta if it fails to do so. Adherence to the core values of non-violent struggle principally means the result of general election in May 1990 and the rights of ethnic minorities must be respected. As regards to the general election of 1990, the Burmese people have voted with the expectation that their representatives will form a government. As such, only the parliament, or its representative committee CRPP, has the right to alter the results of the election of 1990.

The UN General Assembly should firstly recognize formation of Committee Representing the People�s Parliament (CRPP). The General Assembly should specifically call upon the Committee Representing the People Parliament and the Parliament of May 1990 general election to taken charge of framing Burma federal constitution.

3. Human Rights

Dialogue is the key for resolving long standing political and human rights problems in Burma. The compromise must be made by the parties to the conflict in Burma to achieve dialogue. The international community and United Nations, on the one hand, must not lessen their effort or seek to compromise on redressing the human rights problems in Burma. Summarised in the following are not comprehensive list but those need an urgent attention for improvement of human rights in Burma.

3.1 Forced Labour: There is some optimism for improving Burma's egregious human rights records. One notable progress has been with regards to government exaction of forced labour. The ILO Governing Body in November 2000 decided to take measures on the Burmese military government for its non-cooperation with the ILO and for the continuing occurrence of forced labour. Following this, in December 2000, the Director General of the ILO wrote to international organisations and governments to 'cease as soon as possible any activity that abetts the practice of forced labour' [17] . In June 2001, at the recommendation of Director General of ILO, the Economic and Social Council has taken Burma�s forced labour issue into its consideration [18] . In September 2001, the International Labor Organisation's High Level Team (HLT) was granted unrestricted access to Burma to examine the situation of forced labour. Although the survey of HLT will not be available until the ILO Governing Body meets in November 2001, it is expected that a certain level of exaction of forced labour by local government authorities may be reported.

Under this military government, the most severe occurrence of forced labour was reported during 1994-96 when the junta carried out its 'all round development plan' to improve the country's infrastructure. Observers have noticed that the use of forced labour, especially inside Burma, has been reduced in recent years. However, one cannot expect the complete elimination of forced labour because its root causes, like other forms of human rights abuses, are more insidious. For example, the troops which are poorly paid and being instructed to grow their own food and to live off the land under the government's self-sufficiency scheme, resulting the soldiers simply summon local villagers to work on military owned farms etc[19] . Given the weakening of control on rank-and-file, the military junta will be unable to eliminate these practices at the ground level. Therefore, the military government must allow a permanent ILO presence to monitor the complience of forced labour.

Some within the international community argues that a small presence of ILO monitors will be rather useless for eliminating forced labour . Normally, the measure of success for enforcing government�s anti-forced labour decrees will dependent upon the strength of institutions such as the independent judiciary. In the case of Burma, there has been no independent judiciary. It is clear that the junta itself has no capacity to monitor or enforce the anti-forced labour decree. The ILO presence will provide the public with an opportunity to formally lodge complaints with regards to forced labour to rectify the situation. First and foremost, the military junta must allow the presence of ILO monitoring teams in Burma. Such measures will not be sufficient to totally eliminate forced labour. However, it will help contain the widespread occurrence of forced labour.

One thing that is worth noting is, in rectifying the situation of human rights, in particular forced labour, the UN and international community must neither be too optimistic nor pessimistic. Such insidious problems must be approached in an incremental way and in the right direction [20] .

3.2 The returnees in Arakan and refugees: One notable step in the right direction, since the human rights and humanitarian crises began in Burma, has been the United Nations' deployment of a monitoring mission in Arakan State. Whilst not completely perfect, the deployment of a small team of UNHCR personnel in the region brought some stability.

Unfortunately, in late 1998, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that the current monitoring mission in Arakan will be withdrawn and replaced with other UN agencies by the end of 2001. In this regards, repeated requests have been made to renew the mandate of UNHCR in Arakan by introducing a new Memorandum of Understanding with Burmese authorities. There are more than 220,000 Rohingya returnees in Arakan, with 20,000 remaining in UNHCR administered camps in Bangladesh. Given the military government's tendency to manipulate the muslim minority in the country, the UNHCR should consider extending its presence in Arakan state [21] . If the UNHCR cannot continue operating in Arakan, the international community must consider accepting all those who return from the repatriation.

3.3 Deaths in custody and massacres in Burma: There has been an alarming trend of the Burmese army dealing with ethnic minority rebels. In mid-1997, there was a reported massacre of 300 civilians in Shan State. Amnesty International reported that in May 2000, the 64 unarmed civilians including women and children from a village in Kung-hing district in Shan State were shot dead by the Burmese army [22] . Certainly, remedial measures must be sought to address these injustices. The United Nations and international community must open an inquiry into the death in custody cases and massacres in Burma and bring to justice those who are found responsible.

4. Humanitarian Situation

The grave situation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Burma needs urgent attention. The UNAIDS program last year estimated that as many as 530,000 people in Burma may have been infected with HIV virus [23] . The military government's own statistics indicate that the prevalence of HIV amongst high risk groups are alarmingly high. About 47% of commercial sex workers (female) and 56 % of intravenous drug users are found to be HIV positive. The HIV prevalence rate amongst sexually active groups (male) is 8.1% . Nearly 2 % of pregnant women across cities in Burma are found to have infected with HIV [24] .

The factors contributing to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Burma, and possible remedial measures, have been identified by researchers for some time. As recommended by the Human Rights Special Rapporteur, measures such as promoting public education about HIV/AIDS to the masses, facilitating free HIV tests for the population and providing free needle for intravenous drug users should be carried out in an apolitical manner by all concerned [25] . Further more, these initiatives can be supported by the international community with a relatively small amount of financial resources.

Priority should be given not only to the containment and prevention of this disease. Attention should also be given to creating a safe refuge with respect and dignity for the advanced AIDS sufferers[26] .

The latest UN General Assembly has called upon the Burmese military government to allow unhindered access for humanitarian organisations to Burma. At this General Assembly, the recommendation should be made to the UN Security Council to authorise international humanitarian organisations to freely contact and assist local communities in combating HIV/AIDS.

5 Economic Development

There are inextricable links between the free-market economy, the respect for rule of law, good governance and democracy. There has been disquiet from business quarters about the limited economic sanctions placed on Burma by the United States and the European Union. The common argument from the business lobby groups is that, if Burma is properly opened up for foreign direct investment (FDI), there will be an improvement to the living standard of the population, which in return will foster a democratic society. Some have even call upon the US administration to look at the "US national interest" rather than the interest of "noisy domestic lobby groups" [27] . Following the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997, the FDI approval in Burma has collapsed whilst only 60% of projected investment during 1995-2000 has taken place [28] .

There is no dispute about what FDI can bring to a technologically backward country such as Burma. If properly engaged, FDI will bring much needed capital and most welcome employment opportunities. Further, it can bring along technological know-how and management skills. Unfortunately, the real obstacles hindering these investments are not the protests and sanctions imposed by human rights lobby groups. The real obstacle to FDI is the economic incompetence of the ruling junta [29] [30] . Economic development has more chance of success if transparency in decision making, the respect for the rule of law and due process are in place. Rent seeking by ruling elite, combined with systemic, widespread and chaotic corruption by bureaucracy, have had a major impact on turning away investors from Burma.

Economists note that the form of FDI which brings development are those oriented in the value-added manufacturing and export industries which may impart skills and knowledge to the local population. The existing forms of investment in Burma are not of this type. One is resource extraction, such as oil and mining operations, in which resource depletion could outweigh the employment it has created. The other one is labour intensive manufacturing, such as in the garment industry, of which unacceptable levels of labour exploitation exists [31] . In reality, it is hard to see that the existing forms of investment in Burma will contribute significantly to the development in the short or long term.

There has been some argument by existing investors, especially oil companies, that their presence has in fact a positive influence for democracy and development in Burma, with revenue flowing from their investment in Burma providing the �trickle down� effect on the population. Unfortunately, the �trickle-down� effect simply does not occur because of gross mismanagement and over-spending on military [32] . It is evident that, in the case of Burma, democracy has to be established first before any meaningful opening to business.

Never the less, it is time for the international community to help in planning for an economic opening of Burma. If the dialogue in Burma has progressed in a substantial way, there will be an opening for business and investment. To create an environment conducive for economic development in Burma, rent seeking by elite and widespread corruption in bureaucracy must be tackled seriously. First step in this direction is to make concerted effort to curb illicit drug trafficking and money laundering in Burma [33].

6. Recommendations to the 56th Session of UN General Assembly

At this UN General Assembly, the international community should recognize the Committee Representing the People�s Parliament as well as Burma�s Parliament as the Legislative body for Burma. The UNGA should also support CRPP to write Burma�s constitution and to rewrite forced labor laws. It should also urge UN Security Council to consider the question of human rights and humanitarian situation in Burma.

The UN Security Council should authorise deployment of ILO forced labour monitors and Burmese junta gives unhindered access to humanitarian organisations. Security Council should also place an arms embargo on Burma.

The international community and United Nations must also bring to justice to those responsible for human rights abuses, especially cases of deaths in custody and massacres in Burma.

Recommendation to Burma�s neighboring governments:

Recommendation to United Nations agenciesRecommendation to the 56th Session of UN General AssemblyRecommendations to UN Security CouncilFootnotes:

[1] Formerly known as State Law and Order Restoration Council,. renamed in 1997 as State Peace and Development Council..

[2] Amnesty International, �MYANMAR: Ethnic minorities � Targets of Repression�, AI Index: ASA 16/014/2001, June 2001.

[3] Economic Intelligence Units Country reports, May 2001, August 2001.

[4] Tin Maung Maung Than, �MYANMAR (Burma) IN 2000: More of the Same ?�, VOL XLI, No.1, Asian Survey , January/February 2001.

[5] AFP, 4 October 2001; General Ne Win was submitted to hospital in Singapore.

[6] National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Press release, 12 July 1994.

[7] Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of NLD, was put under house arrest from 1989 till 1995.

[8] In period leading up to the release of DASSK in 1995, US Congressman Bill Richardson, Venerable Sayadaw U Rewattadhama and former UN Human Rights Special Rapporter Professor Yozo Yokota are the people amongst who tried to brokered a political settlement.

[9] Letter from Aggamahapanthida Ashin Aindagabiwintha of Mahaghandayone monastry 25 November 1999. The Venerable Sayadaw urged, in his letter, both parties to (i) Harbor no malice of the past, wipe the slate clean, and make peace one with the other, one group with the other group; (ii) Like brothers and sisters work together hand in hand and strive earnestly to build up the nation..

[10] Since November 1995, Bohmu Aung and 23 veteran politicians have issues several statements and send letter to SPDC, urging dialogue and reconciliation ..

[11] On 25 December 2000 Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition radio source, reported the junta issues an order banning the member of armed forces from having contact with veterans politicians who once fought for independence, and retired military personnels who involved in politics in anyway.

[12] Bertil Lintner, �No News is Bad News�, Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 August 2001.

[13] Transitional Phase and Prospect for Change in Burma

[14] Letter to the UN Secretary General on 29 April 1997


[15] Dr Lian H Sakhong, "The Role of UNLD in the Struggle for Democracy and Federalism in Burma", Rhododendenron Newsletter, Chin Human Rights Organisation, July-August 2001.

[16] The Karen National Union has not signed cease-fire agreement with Burmese military.

[17] ILO Governing Body Report GB. 280/6, March 2001.

[18] The European Union under presidency of Belgium had successfully introduced the issue of forced labour on Burma at ECOSOC meeting in June 2001.

[19] Amnesty International, �MYANMAR: Ethnic Minorities�targets of repression�, June 2001, pp-8. ��..The 1996/97 military program of self-sufficiency included issuing orders to local military commands who instructed troops to feed themselves. Subsequently troops began confiscating land farmed for generations by members of ethnic minorities, and forcing these farmers to cultivate their confiscated land to provide food for the military.�

[20] An example of �incremental way� but NOT in a �right direction� is the Australian government�s initiative to set up a national human rights commission in Burma. The Australian government simply dumps its human rights training package and expects Burmese junta to do the right thing. Australia unilaterally went on that initiative without approval of UN Commission on Human Rights. The NLD charged Australia�s initiative as �Asking a fox to look after the chickens�.

[21] Since early this year, there have been several incidents of anti-muslim riots believed to have been instigated by government intelligence units. On 4 February 2001, the Muslim Libration Organisation of Burma reported that a group of government agents had destroyed 40 houses owned by muslims in Sittwe, capital city of Arakan State. On 15 May 2001, there were also reports of riots in Toungoo City in central Burma in which 20 muslims were killed and more 200 houses destroyed. Of the latest, the Democratic Voice of Burma reports Buddhist-Muslim riots break out in Prome and that a curfew had been imposed since 9 October 2001.

[22] Amnesty International, "Myanmar: Exodus from the Shan State", AI Indes: ASA 16/11/00, July 2000. See also reports by Amnesty International "Myanmar: The Kayin (Karen) state militarization and human rights", AI Indes: ASA 16/12/99, June 1999; "Myanmar: Aftermath--three years of dislocation in Kayah State", AI Index ASA 16/14/99, June 1999.

[23] Special Rapporteur for Human Rights report to UNGA, A/55/359, Para. 34, 22 August 2000.

[24] ALTSEAN report card on May-August 2000/September-January 2001.

[25] Human Rights Special Rapporteur's report to UNGA, A/56/312, para 74, 20 August 2001.

[26] The advanced AIDS sufferers in Burma, are often abandoned by their own family, and have to take refuge in Buddhist monasteries. Those showing symptoms of tuberculosis, a common opportunistic infection for advanced AIDS sufferers, are submitted to normal hospitals under Communicable Disease Control program. These practices further complicate containment of HIV/AIDS in Burma.

[27] Leon T Hadar, �Burma: US Foreign Policy as a Moralty Play�, Journal of International Affairs, No 54, 2. Spring 2001.

[28] Alternative ASEAN Network Report Card, September 2000-January 2001..

[29] U Myint, �Corruption: Causes Consequences and Cures�, Asia Pacific Development Journal, Vol 7, No 2, December 2000. The researcher notes, ��FDI will not come in a big way where policies are unclear and inconsistent, relevant and reliable economic information and data to plan and make sound business decisions are hard to come by, and the courses of action and measures the government is likely to pursue on the major issues facing the economy are difficult to fathom and to predict.�

[30] Khin Maung Kyi, �Myanmar: Will ever flow Ayeyarwady ?�, Journal of Southeast Asian Affairs 1994. This researcher also notes, ��.Going by the experience of successful East Asian countries, power-sharing among different elites, relatively free flow of information, rational economic decision-making, an efficient bureaucracy, and an impartial and effective legal system are deemed to be basic ingredients of all-round development�.

[31] Burmese workers in garment factories receive eight cents per hour for their 48-hours-week work. Source: Federation of Trade Unions of Burma.

[32] The military junta has recently acquired USD 130 million worth of MIG-29 jet fighters from Russia. Far Eastern Economic Reviews, 2 August 2001.

Burma: Towards Peace and Development -- report to UN.