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Human Rights in Union of Myanmar

Amnesty International Report 2008

Head of State: Senior General Than Shwe
Head of government: General Thein Sein (replaced General Soe Win in October)
Death penalty: abolitionist in practice
Population: 51.5 million
Life expectancy: 60.8 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f): 107/89 per 1,000
Adult literacy: 89.9 per cent

The human rights situation in Myanmar continued to deteriorate, culminating in September when authorities staged a five-day crackdown on widespread protests that had begun six weeks earlier. The peaceful protests voiced both economic and political grievances. More than 100 people were believed to have been killed in the crackdown, and a similar number were the victims of enforced disappearance. Several thousands were detained in deplorable conditions. The government began prosecutions under anti-terrorism legislation against many protestors. International response to the crisis included a tightening of sanctions by Western countries. At least 1,150 additional political prisoners, some arrested decades ago, remained in detention.

A military offensive continued in northern Kayin State, with widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. In western Rakhine State, the government continued negotiations on a large-scale Shwe gas pipeline, preparations for which included forced displacement and forced labour of ethnic communities.


In September, the government completed drafting guidelines for a new Constitution, the second step in their seven-step "Road Map" for moving toward democracy. In December, the government appointed a 54-member commission of military and other officials to draft the Constitution. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party, has not participated in this process since the early stages, and legislation criminalizing criticism of the process remained in place.

The government had ceasefires in place with the armies of all but three ethnic groups, but forced displacement, labour, and portering by the military continued in all seven ethnic states.

Following a visit by the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar, the Myanmar authorities met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi toward starting dialogue on national reconciliation, but the NLD party leader remained under house arrest, where she has been for 12 of the past 18 years.

Freedom of expression

Members of the NLD were subjected to harassment and threats all year, forcing many to resign from the party. Campaigners and demonstrators for democracy were arrested. In particular, the 88 Generation Students group (88G), formed in 2005 by former students active in the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, was targeted and threatened by the authorities.

With the economy already in decline, the government raised fuel prices exponentially in August, triggering peaceful protests across the country. When a group of demonstrating monks in Pakokku was attacked by the authorities in September, monks began leading the protests nationwide, primarily in Yangon, Mandalay, Sittwe, Pakokku, and Myitkyina. The authorities violently cracked down on protesters between 25 and 29 September. Monasteries were raided and closed down, property was destroyed and confiscated and monks were beaten and detained. Other protesters' homes and hiding places were raided, usually at night, and authorities took friends or relatives as hostages to put pressure on wanted persons and to discourage further dissent. The All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA), a new group formed by the protests' religious leaders, became a main target. The authorities took photographs and recorded the demonstrations, later warning the public that they had these records and used them in their raids. The internet throughout Myanmar was cut during the crackdown, and when a small group demonstrated at the one-month anniversary of the crackdown. Journalists were targeted and arrested.

Killings and excessive use of force

Two members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group were attacked by more than 50 people on 18 April in Ayeyarwaddy Division, causing their hospitalization with head injuries. Senior members of the village police and the Secretary of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), a state-sponsored social organization, were reportedly present.

Thirty-one people were confirmed killed during the five-day crackdown on protesters in September although the actual number is likely to be over 100. Rubber bullets and live rounds were fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators by state security personnel or groups supported by them. The total number of people killed or injured by gunfire was not known. Given eye-witness testimony of shots being fired from atop military trucks and from flyover bridges, as well as the profile of the victims, it is likely that the authorities deliberately targeted real or perceived leaders of the demonstrations.

  • Thet Paing Soe and Maung Tun Lynn Kyaw, students at State High School No. 3 in Yangon, were shot and killed on 27 September.
  • Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot and killed at point-blank range on 27 September.
  • State security personnel and groups supported by them also beat protesters with sticks. Victims included monks as well as men, women and children who were either directly participating in the protests or onlookers. In some cases these beatings were administered indiscriminately, while in other cases the authorities deliberately targeted individuals, chasing them down to beat them.
  • Ko Ko Win, a 22-year-old NLD member, died as a result of injuries sustained when he was beaten near Sule Pagoda in Yangon on 27 September.
  • Crimes against humanity

    In Kayin State, a military offensive by the tatmadaw (Myanmar army) continued on a slightly lesser scale but still included widespread and systematic commission of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law on a scale that amounted to crimes against humanity. Destruction of houses and crops, enforced disappearances, forced labour, displacement and killings of Karen villagers were among the abuses.

    Political imprisonment

    Even before the large-scale demonstrations began in August, the authorities arrested many well-known opponents of the government on political grounds, several of whom had only been released from prison several months earlier.

    Once the protests were underway but before the 25-29 September crackdown, more arrests of NLD and 88G activists took place many of which were clearly a pre-emptive measure before the crackdown.

    Mass round-ups occurred during the crackdown itself, and the authorities continued to arrest protesters and supporters throughout the year, making use initially of a three-week curfew in October. Between 3,000 and 4,000 political prisoners were detained, including children and pregnant women, 700 of whom were believed still in detention at year's end. At least 20 were charged and sentenced under anti-terrorism legislation in proceedings which did not meet international fair trial standards. Detainees and defendants were denied the right to legal counsel.

  • Ko Ko Gyi, Min Ko Naing, Min Zeya, Pyone Cho, and Htay Kywe, all 88G leaders, were released from detention without charge the day before the UN Security Council voted on a resolution on Myanmar in January. The first four were detained again on
  • 21 and 22 August for participating in protests, while Htay Kywe in hiding for about a month was captured on 13 October.
  • Zargana, a comedian and former prisoner of conscience, was detained at the start of the crackdown on 25 September. He was released on
  • 17 October, only to be detained again for several hours days later.
  • Mie Mie and Thet Thet Aung, women leaders of the 88G, were arrested on 13 and 19 October, respectively. Both had participated in the demonstrations in August but had been forced into hiding. The latter's husband was also detained, as had been her mother and mother-in-law as hostages.
  • U Gambira, head of the ABMA and a leader of the September protests, was arrested on 4 November and reportedly charged with treason. Two of his family members who were previously detained as hostages remained in detention.
  • Su Su Nway, a member of the youth wing of the NLD, released in July 2006 after being detained for reporting forced labour to the International Labour Organization (ILO), was detained on 13 November while putting up anti-government posters.
  • Eight members of the ethnic Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) were arrested on 24 November reportedly on account of the KIO's refusal to publicly renounce a statement by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi regarding national reconciliation talks.
  • Prisoners of conscience and senior NLD leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Daw May Win Myint and Dr Than Nyein, all held without charge or trial the latter two since October 1997 had their detention extended by the maximum term of one year. Senior ethnic leaders, such as U Khun Htun Oo of the Shan National League for Democracy, also remained in detention. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to meet three times with the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar, but was not released from house arrest.

    Enforced disappearances

    During and after the September crackdown, there were at least 72 confirmed cases of enforced disappearance.

    Prison conditions

    Following a deterioration of prison conditions in 2006, standards fell even further during the crackdown when the authorities detained thousands of people during the five-day period. Large-capacity, informal, secret detention centres were opened which failed to meet international standards on the treatment of prisoners. There was inadequate provision of basic necessities such as food, water, blankets, sleeping space, sanitary facilities, and medical treatment. The International Committee of the Red Cross was denied the opportunity to carry out its core mandate activities in prisons throughout the year.
    Torture and other ill-treatment

    During the crackdown, some detainees, including Zargana, were held in degrading conditions in rooms designed for holding dogs. Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment including beatings in custody were reported. One detainee was made to kneel bare-legged for long periods on broken bricks and also made to stand on tiptoe in an uncomfortable position for long periods (known as the bicycle-riding position). Monks held in detention were stripped of their robes and purposely fed in the afternoon when their religion forbids them to eat.

    Deaths in custody

    An unconfirmed number of prisoners died in detention after the crackdown in September due to their treatment during interrogation.

  • Venerable U Thilavantha, Deputy Abbot of a monastery in Myitkyina, was beaten to death in detention on 26 September, having also been beaten the night before when his monastery was raided.
  • Ko Win Shwe, an NLD member, died in Plate Myot Police Centre near Mandalay on 9 October. Government authorities cremated his body before notifying his family, thereby preventing any confirmation of reports that he died as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.
  • From 27 to 29 September, a large number of bodies were reportedly burned at the Ye Way municipal crematorium in Yangon during the night. It was reportedly unusual for the crematorium to function at night, and normal employees were instructed to keep away whilst the facility was operated by state security personnel or state supported groups. On at least one night, reports indicate that some of the cremated had shaved heads or signs of serious injury.

    International developments

    The UN Security Council voted on a resolution criticizing Myanmar on 12 January, which China and Russia vetoed. On 26 February the Government of Myanmar reached a "Supplementary Understanding" with the International Labour Organization, designed to provide a mechanism to enable victims of forced labour to seek redress without fear of retaliation.

    During the crackdown in late September, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a critical statement on Myanmar, but allowed Myanmar to sign its new Charter in November. The UN Human Rights Council called a Special Session on 2 October and passed a resolution strongly deploring the crackdown on protesters. In November, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar visited Myanmar for the first time since 2003. Following this visit, the UN Human Rights Council passed another resolution, based on his report requesting a follow-up mission. The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement in October that strongly deplored the crackdown, while the UN General Assembly strongly condemned the crackdown in a resolution in December.

    The Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Myanmar visited Myanmar in October and November. The USA, EU, and other Western nations enacted or tightened sanctions. In December, India reportedly suspended arms sales and transfers to Myanmar.

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