[First published July 11, 2005]While we focus on the repression of freedom in Sudan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, life can be even worse in some non-Muslim countries, such as Burma (Myanmar). The 42.7 million people in this South Asian country are 89 percent Buddhist, have a life expectancy of fifty-five years, and earn in purchasing power parity $1,200 a year. They are ruled by a socialist military regime, which allows no freedom. Life here is hellish, due to the military’s savage repression of dissent, and their barbaric response to the rebellion of nearly a dozen ethnic minorities.
For example, in the nine villages of Dweh Loh Township, northwest of Rangoon and near the Thai border, the Karen ethnic group has long been fighting for independence. During harvest time in March 2000, military forces attacked the villages, burned down homes, and destroyed or looted possessions. By sheer luck, some of the villagers managed to flee into the forest, leaving behind their rice and possessions and risking starvation— starvation made almost inevitable by the military’s burning of crops and rice storage barns. Soldiers even torched the cut scrub needed to prepare the soil for planting. Those who remained in the village who were not killed were seized for forced labor or portering, or pressed into the military. That done, the soldiers mined all approaches to the village to prevent the villagers from returning.
Soldiers kill any male suspected of being a rebel. These are not all easy deaths. Sometimes soldiers gruesomely torture the victim and prolong death to cause as much agony as possible. Women or young girls are only marginally better off—the soldiers “only” rape them. Then they march them, along with the children and the village men left alive, to work sites to build barracks, defensive works, roads, railroads, or fences, or carry bamboo and firewood. Alternatively, the soldiers force them to porter ammunition and military supplies like mules. This is the most dangerous form of forced labor and many die from it.
Even the children do not escape. Soldiers routinely make them do such arduous labor, or even soldier. Worse, the military sell the girls into prostitution in Burma or into the Thai sex market across the border, which already exploits the bodies of 40,000 Burmese girls. Worse still, the military have forced children to walk ahead of soldiers to trigger mines. No military have used human bodies to clear mines like this since World War II, when the Soviets often compelled prisoners to sweep minefields with their feet.
Even for those Burmese children not forced into labor and portering, general conditions are disastrous for their future and that of the country. Even children living outside the civil war zones are unlikely to go to school. No more than one in five get so much as four years of primary school. They are more likely to be working at some job to help their family survive. According to UN estimates, about one-third of all children six to fifteen years of age are doing so. Many children do not survive to adulthood—half of all those that die each year are children.
In the civil war zones, children and adults alike routinely live on the edge of death. For example, anyone living in the township of Dweh Loh that contained the nine villages I mentioned, had an equal chance of doing forced labor, being looted, or suffering extortion by soldiers on the one hand, or of fleeing into the forests on the other. Those living in other townships throughout this area probably escaped to the forests to barely survive there on whatever food they could grow. Were soldiers to find these refugees, they might shoot them or make them porter under threat of death.
Life was no better for those living in the Nyaunglebin District to the west, where handpicked execution squads of soldiers operated off and on in the area, searching for rebels or their supporters. If these soldiers suspected a villager of even the most minor contact with rebel forces, if a villager was even seen talking to someone suspected of being a rebel, they usually cut his throat. Sometimes the soldiers also decapitated the victim and mounted the head on a pole as a warning to others.
There are around sixty-seven different ethnic groups in Burma, each with its own language and culture, many of which have rebelled and are fighting the military government. With more or less ferocity, these rebellions have been going on since 1948, with a death toll of 200,000 or even possibly 400,000 Burmese. Both sides have also murdered outright an additional 100,000 to 200,000 Burmese. Moreover, rebellion, fighting, and brutal military pressure on the Burmese people have caused 500,000 to 1 million of them to be displaced within the country, many of whom the military have commanded to live in inhospitable forced location zones. Others have escaped relocation for bare subsistence in the forests, bereft of home or village. Still 215,000 others have fled abroad and are formally listed as refugees by international refugee organizations. An added 350,000 Burmese are without refugee status and subsist in refugee-like conditions in neighboring Thailand.
The vast majority of Burmese, however, live far away from the civil war zones and are not members of the rebelling minority ethnic groups. They have other things to fear. Burma is a military dictatorship, and this regime is willing to use its weapons on unarmed people who protest or demonstrate. When students demonstrated against the regime on July 7, 1962, soldiers shot one hundred of them to death. On August 13, 1967, soldiers similarly shot over a hundred demonstrating men and women, and even the children that accompanied them. And so on and on, from demonstration to demonstration, until the worst of them all.
On August 8, 1988, doctors, students, teachers, farmers, musicians, artists, monks, and workers took part in peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations in all major cities. The military demanded that the demonstrators disperse, and when they would not, soldiers fired round after round into the crowds. They massacred an incredible 5,000 to 10,000 unarmed people simply trying to express their desire for democracy. Soldiers and police then arrested hundreds of those escaping this bloodbath, and tortured them in prison. Many thousands escaped to border areas, leaving their loved ones, homes, and possessions behind.
Those Burmese who stay home, avoid demonstrations, and arouse no suspicion might still be conscripted by the military for forced labor or porter duty. Socialist in mind and spirit, the military have been ambitious in building railways, roads, airports, and so on. And to do so, they simply draft civilians. For example, those who lived near the route of the 110 mile e-Tavoy railway, built by the military in southern Burma, were among the 200,000 people that soldiers forced to work on the project for fifteen days a month without pay. Then there were the 30,000 the military conscripted for the Bassein Airport extension. Those who missed this might have been among the over 920,000 the military compelled to labor on the Chaung Oo-Pakokku Railroad.
Those who do the forced labor have to sleep at the work site, guarded, and without much shelter—sometimes none. The ground is their only bed. To go to the toilet they have to get permission from a guard. Their only food is what the workers themselves can bring. And they have to be sure not to be injured, because there is seldom any medical care. They also can die, as many do, from sickness or exhaustion. If they try to escape from the work site and soldiers catch them, if they are lucky, the soldiers will only severely beat them. Just resting without permission can get them beaten and killed by guards. This happened to Pa Za Kung, a man from Vomkua village in Chin State’s Thantlang Township, doing forced labor on a road from Thantlang to Vuangtu village.
But portering is even worse than forced labor. The military make those living in war zones porter for them, but since as many as two porters are needed for each soldier to move much of their supplies and equipment, people living outside the war zones are also conscripted. Porters suffer from hunger, malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion. Rebel fire kills them, they step on mines, or soldiers shoot them because they cannot force their bodies to work any longer. Or soldiers simply abandon them with no medical care, no food, no help, no way home. All told, this is another form of slavery suffered by millions of Burmese.
Burmese generally have no rights other than to serve the military. This might have changed in 1990, when the military caved in to considerable international pressure resulting from their 1988 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators, and held real democratic elections— and were shocked when the democratic opposition, under the leadership of 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won 82 percent of the seats in the new parliament. The military then refused to yield power, and have held Aung San Suu Kyi under virtual house arrest ever since. They also arrested and tortured thousands of her supporters and members of other political parties, and have killed or disappeared thousands more. They even arrested hundreds of those elected to parliament, some of whom died under the harsh prison conditions. Member-elect Kyaw Min, for example, died of hepatitis caused by his imprisonment.
Having learned their lesson about the power of the democratic idea, the military no longer allow political activity or criticism. There is no freedom of speech or association. In this Buddhist country, the military keep a watch on Buddhist monks and prevent their involvement in political activity. They also restrict the leaders of other religions. There can be no unions. Just having a computer modem can lead to arrest, torture, and a fifteen-year prison sentence. Having a fax machine may even mean death, as it did for the Anglo-Burmese San Suu Kyi, who was honorary Consul for the European Union. No independent courts exist, and the law is what the military command. The military monitor the movements of common citizens, search their homes at any time, and take them forcibly from their homes to be relocated, without compensation or explanation.
Nor are Burmese free to start a business or invest. Since 1962, when the military overthrew the democratic government, the military have pursued a “Burmese Way to Socialism.” This has left little room for private businesses and a free market, and companies run by the military dominate many areas of the economy, leaving as the most vigorous sector of the economy the heroin trade. This alone may account for over 50 percent of the economy.
The result is what one would expect. Among all countries, Burma has plummeted to near the bottom in economic freedom, possibly better than only communist North Korea. And the country is nearly bankrupt. However, perhaps having learned from this economic disaster, the military are now trying to liberalize their economic control and have invited foreign investment.
Link of Note
“Rice calls for pressure on Burma” (7/11/05) BBC
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called on Thailand and other nations in South East Asia to press for change in neighboring Burma
If ever there was a case for outside intervention, it is Burma. It does not have the military capability to deter such action, as does North Korea. Nor does it have an alliance of like-minded Islamic nations to protect it, as does Sudan. It is vulnerable to outside action, but the international mindset is such that sovereignty trumps Burmese enslavement to socialism and their deaths. The best that Secretary Rice can do is ask neighboring countries to “press” Burma for change?
Say a family down the block is mistreating and molesting their children, who often appear with bruises and cuts, limping and malnourished. How about telephoning the family as pressing them to better treat their children? Crazy? Why do we treat international morality different from what within democracies. Simple. Real Politics.