History and Current Events
Human Rights in Burma
Despite some claiming that the situation is improving, human rights abuses are still both widespread and systematic in Burma. The Burmese military continues to be responsible for abuses against civilians in conflict areas, including forced labor, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, the use of “human shields,” and indiscriminate attacks on civilians. Other human rights abuses, such as arbitrary detention and imprisonment, use of child soldiers, and various other forms of human rights violations also remain rampant. There is still little or no rule of law and civil society still struggles against various forms of political repression and media censorship. In its report ‘The Worst of the Worst’ from 2011, Freedom House put Burma third on the list of the worst countries in the world, placing it behind only North Korea and Somalia in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
 Human Rights Watch, ‘Country Summary Burma’, January 2012, p.1.
 Freedom House, ‘The Worst of the Worst 2011: The World’s Most Repressive Societies’, p. 7.
Free of speech, Freedom of the Press, and Censorship
Burma has traditionally had little to no free speech or free press, and relied heavily on the censorship board to keep the media, and general population, in line. Some media restrictions have been relaxed since the 2010 elections, including increased access to the internet and broader scope for journalists to cover formerly prohibited subjects. Many propaganda slogans have also been removed from magazines and newspapers, and mention of Aung San Suu Kyi and display of her photo is now permitted after a long ban. Nevertheless, official censorship constrains reporting on many important national issues and the censorship board continues to ban stories deemed politically sensitive. An estimated 20 media workers are in prison, including a 21- year-old videographer who received a 16-year sentence in September 2011 for taking video footage after a bomb blast in central Rangoon.
 HRW, ‘Country Summary Burma’, January 2012, p. 3.
Health and Education
The state of healthcare and education in Burma is very poor. This is primarily due to lack of financing. According to the data of international institutions, the Burmese government spends only around 3% of the GDP on health and education. Consequently, there are no resources to ensure that healthcare and education are accessible to everyone and that their quality is satisfactory.
Education is compulsory only until the age of 9 and most children drop out after that. The official attendance rate for primary education is around 90%, while for secondary education it is only around 40%. However, the data do not reflect the truth entirely - according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Burma, less than half of children are able to complete their primary education. The main reason behind this is the cost of education and the inaccessibility of schools, especially in rural areas. Very often, families have to send their children to schools in other villages, sometimes far from home. This is especially harmful for girls, who will often have stay at home and do not receive proper education.
Moreover, the education is heavily politicised - the curricula are controlled by the government and the schooling is often used to impose ethnic discrimination. Ethnic peoples are not allowed to learn their own language and culture. Furthermore, the access to higher education is impeded, so as to prevent the outbreak of student protests. Another problem is lack of resources in Burmese - books on many vital issues, such as human rights, sanitation and healthcare are available only in English. This seriously impairs the quality of education and affects the health of the Burmese people as well.
Lack of knowledge about healthcare and sanitation as well as lack of skilled health professionals seriously affect the healthcare system in Burma. The problems are severe and result in many unnecessary deaths every year. The two main mortality causes are injuries and diarrhoea - factors that could easily be eliminated in the presence of proer medical equipment, skilled staff and basic health education. According to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), more than 240 thousands people live with HIV in Burma. The levels of tuberculosis (TB) are also high, making Burma one of the 22 countries with the highest levels of this disease.
Another major problem is maternal health and young children mortality. According to WHO, Burma’s under-5 mortality rate reaches 6%. Moreover, the rate of the so-called maternal deaths, that is deaths related to pregnancy or giving birth, is extremely high - 1 in 180 women in 2008. Reducing the number of maternal deaths is one of the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. However, Burma is far from achieving this aim, which is primarily due to lack of education, as well as limited number of skilled personnel to assist with births and low prevalence of contraception. Only 41% of women between the age 15 and 49 have access to contraception in Burma, compared to 84% in the UK. This affects both maternal death rates and HIV prevalence.
World Health Organisation: http://www.who.int/countries/mmr/en/
Medecins Sans Frontieres: http://www.msf-me.org/en/mission/in-the-field/msf-projects-world-wide/myanmar-1.html
Arakan Human Rights and Development Organisation: http://arakanhrdo.org/2011/09/13/health-and-education-in-burma/
The long civil war that has been raging in Burma since around 1962 has forced many people from their homes, and approximately 500,000 people are internally displaced due to conflict in eastern Burma, with an additional 140,000 refugees in camps in Thailand. For the period of 2006-2007, the UN Myanmar Special Rapporteur documented reports that over 40,000 villagers had been internally displaced in Karen State and thousands rendered homeless in the “past months” referring to the recent military offenses. The Special Rapporteur consistently linked forced displacement in the ethnic areas with armed conflict. Members of the rural populations, sometimes on short notice, are moved from areas of suspected or real armed activity to areas under army control. Villagers may be given only a few hours or days to pack essential items and move, and they are given no compensation or material assistance. In many instances the government has also unlawfully confiscated land, without compensating the people for the land taken, leaving many displaced or forcibly relocated to other designated areas.
 HRW, ‘Country Summary Burma’, January 2012, p. 4.
 ‘Crimes in Burma’, The International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, 2009, p. 44-45.
 ‘Crimes in Burma’, p. 46-47.
The Burmese government is well known for using forced labour on government construction sites, especially using local populations, and for forcibly employing children and adults alike. When building roads, or other government projects, local populations are often forced to provide at least one person per household to do the work, without pay, transportation, or food. Another form of forced labour in Burma is the use of convicts, and regular villagers as porters for the army. There is a longstanding practice to use prisoners drawn from prisons and labour camps transported to frontline units, and forced to carry military supplies and material to the frontline, often being used as “human shields” to deter attacks or clear anti-personnel landmines. Porters are often tortured, beaten, and subjected to ill-treatment during their forced service. In January 2011 Burmese army units in Karen State forced convicts to work as porters in ongoing operations in combat zones.
 For more information see, Human Rights Watch, ‘Dead Man Walking: Convict Porters on the Frontlines in Eastern Burma’, 2011.
Under the provisions of Directive No 13/73 (1974) of the Myanmar Defence Services and War Office Council, persons under 18 are not permitted to be recruited into the armed forces. Nevertheless, both government forces and ethnic groups are known to recruit and use children to fight in the war, or as mine sweepers and other general support. In 2002 Human Rights Watch reported that Burma had the largest number of child soldiers in the world, putting the number somewhere around 70,000, and that the number was rising. The army continues to actively recruit and use child soldiers, even as the government cooperates with the International Labour Organization on demobilizing child soldiers. Recruiters for Burma's army frequently apprehend boys at train and bus stations, markets and other public places, threatening them with jail if they refuse to join the army. The boys are given no opportunity to contact their families, and are sent to camps where they undergo weapons training, are routinely beaten, and brutally punished if they try to escape. Once deployed, boys as young as 12 engage in combat against opposition groups, and are forced to commit human rights abuses against civilians, including rounding up villagers for forced labour, burning villages, and carrying out executions. Human Rights Watch interviewed two boys, ages 13 and 15 at the time, who belonged to units that massacred a group of 15 women and children in Shan State in early 2001.
Children have also been present in Burma's armed opposition groups, although child recruitment is now generally decreasing as many opposition groups have shrunk in size and resources in recent years. According to a HRW report form 2002, The United Wa State Army, the largest of the opposition forces, forcibly conscripts children and has the largest number of child soldiers of the opposition groups. The same report claims that The Kachin Independence Army also forcibly recruits children, and according to witnesses, is the only armed group in Burma to recruit girls. Other opposition forces, including the Shan State Army (South), Karen National Liberation Army and the Karenni Army, have stated policies against recruiting children under the age of 18, but appear to accept children who actively seek to join their forces. Although many armed opposition groups have ceasefire agreements with the government, children in opposition forces may also participate in combat, sometimes with little training.
 See ‘Child Soldiers Global Report 2008 – Myanmar’.
 See Human Rights Watch, ‘”My Gun Was as Tall as Me”: Child Soldiers in Burma’, 2002. For testimonies from Burmese child soldiers, see ‘Testimonies from “My Gun Was as Tall as Me”: Child Soldiers in Burma’.
 HRW, ‘”My Gun Was as Tall as Me”: Child Soldiers in Burma’, 2002.
The Burmese government has not signed the Mine Ban Convention, and the Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of anti-personnel (AP) landmines, which pose a clear and present danger to civilians in the conflict areas of Burma. The most recent figures available (2008) suggest that mine accident rates are in fact amongst the highest in the world, only surpassed by Afghanistan and Colombia. AP mines have been produced and used by both the government and armed ethnic groups in the internal conflict that has continued since independence. The army typically uses factory-made mines from the army’s own landmine factory or mines imported from other countries, including Russia and China. The results are devastating: 34 of Burma/Myanmar’s 325 townships are contaminated with landmines, millions live in affected townships and more than ten thousand victims use or are in need of rehabilitative care. The townships affected by landmines are mainly located in areas dominated by ethnic minority groups, the majority along the border of Thailand, and some townships along the China and Bangladesh borders are also affected.
Until 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operated one prosthetic clinic and also provided materials and technical assistance to six other government-owned clinics inside Burma. However, in 2005 the Burmese authorities withdrew permission for the MRE programme and, in 2006, ordered the ICRC to close all of its field offices. In 2009, the Protection Working Group of the UN mission in Burma initiated a sub-group on landmines, which allowed for a dialogue on the landmine issue to open between UNHCR and the Government. However, the national authorities have not yet granted permission to start mine action operations. Moreover, the landmine issue has been overshadowed to a great extent by the overall dire humanitarian situation in the country.
 Geneva Call, ‘Humanitarian Impact of Landmines in Burma/Myanmar’, 2011, p. 7-9
 Ibid, p. 16
Rule of Law
Along with the lack of civil rights, the discrimination and persecution of ethnic minorities and the poor state of health and education, the absence of the rule of law constitutes one of the major problems for human rights in Burma. However, this topic receives less publicity, partly because it is more vague what should be understood by the term.
Some theorists argue that rule of law consists simply in the transparency of the legal procedures, government’s adherence to the laws and accountability of the authorities. However, in the context of human rights, it makes more sense to adopt the so-called “thick” definition of the rule of law, which states that the procedures must not only be transparent, in accordance with the state law and accountable, but that they should also adhere to the international standards and guarantee fundamental rights of the citizens. Thus understood, the rule of law becomes - to use the words of William H. Neukom, the president of the World Justice Project (WJP), “the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity” and “the predicate for the eradication of poverty, violence, corruption, pandemics and other threats to civil society”. According to the WJP, the rule of law consists in four universal principles: 1) the accountability of the government under the law, 2) clarity, publicity and fairness of laws and its commitment to the protection of fundamental rights of citizens, 3) fairness and efficiency of the system of law enactment, and 4) competence and independence of the judiciary. The WJP has not conducted an analysis of Burma, however, as Stephen Bloom claims “the clear reality to any Burmese citizen or Burma observer is that the country does not presently have anything approaching the rule of law".
Lack of accountability of the government, discrimination and unequal treatment of ethnic peoples, lack of basic civil liberties, such as the freedom of expression and lack of transparency in the law-making, as well as judiciary process are all symptoms of the lack of rule of law in the country. Therefore, if any reform in Burma is to have real impact, it is crucial to ensure that the rule of law is introduced. This would require significant changes to the Burmese law and constitution, for example changing the role and competencies of the judges, who - at the moment - cannot hold a trial in an open court, or hear the parties before making a decision. According to Basil Fernando, director of policy and programmes at the Asian Legal Resource Centre, "there are many enormous structural and institutional obstacles to the rule of law in Burma". Therefore, the change will have to be thorough and fundamental - it is not enough to change the procedures, or release prisoners. What Burma needs at the moment is a deep reform of its legal system to ensure that it is in accordance with the WJP rule of law universal principles and thus helps to protect human rights, instead of threatening them.
The process of introducing rule of law is long and difficult, but it is also necessary. And this necessity seems to be acknowledged by the Burmese opposition. In her speech during a Union Day Ceremony in 2011, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi stressed Burma’s need for unity and said that she believes that rule of law is necessary for that, as it will make all ethnic people equal before the law. Absence of the rule of law is undoubtedly one of Burma’s greatest problems, also because it is not easy to tackle. However, there are some things that can be done. Firstly, Burma should invite an independent institution, such as WJP, to evaluate its system and give recommendations regarding the introduction of the rule of law. And secondly - and equally importantly - the importance and the meaning of the rule of law has to be communicated to the people. With the poor state of education this might be an over-ambitious aim, but it can be achieved, for examples, through including this problem in the public speeches of leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity
The Burmese military continues to violate international humanitarian law through the use of anti-personnel landmines, extrajudicial killings, forced labour, torture, beatings, and pillaging of property. Sexual violence against women and girls remains a serious problem and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice and the army continues to actively recruit and use child soldiers. The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School found in a report that the Burmese government has committed widespread and systematic human rights abuses as part of a governmental plan or policy. The recognition that many violations occurred in the context of armed conflict strongly suggests that these violations may amount to war crimes, as well as crimes against humanity in contravention of international criminal law. The report also highlighted that ethnic nationalities are particularly vulnerable to the systematic abuses most often reportedly perpetrated by the Burmese military forces. In light of these findings, the report called for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry, which has yet to happen. In September 2011, the Burmese government has created its own National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), composed of former ambassadors, academics, and civil servants, charged with promoting and safeguarding the fundamental rights of citizens in accordance with the 2008 Constitution. The NHRC has received widespread international criticism however, for its lack of independence and statement that it would not investigate human rights abuses in the ethnic conflict areas.
 HRW, ‘Country Summary Burma’, January 2012, p. 3.
 'Crimes in Burma’, The International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, 2009, p. 2-3.
 For more on the NHRC, see Burma Partnership: http://www.burmapartnership.org/campaigns/nhrc-monitor/.