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FOCUS March 2008 Volume 51

Social, Economic and Cultural Rights in Burma

Neil Lawrence*

* Neil Lawrence is a writer and editor with The Irrawaddy, a news magazine published in Thailand by Burmese journalists.

Human rights violations are an endemic feature of Burmese life. Although the most blatant and highly publicized violations are those committed against adversaries of the country's ruling junta - particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a host of ethnic resistance groups, as well as student activists and members of the Buddhist monastic community - there is scarcely a sector of society or an area of life which is not adversely affected by the regime's disregard for fundamental human rights.

Last year's crackdown on monk-led protests and an attack on supporters of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi nearly five years ago left many dead and many more in detention. However, it is commonplace among Burmese dissidents to refer to their entire country as a prison, which many have been forced to flee to preserve their freedom and their lives. But the reality they are describing is not merely their own personal circumstances. For ordinary people, too, material and spiritual survival in Burma is a daunting struggle.

The country's ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) exerts almost total control over social institutions and the economy, and is obsessive in its efforts to circumscribe expressions of cultural values. Its involvement in each of these spheres - social, economic and cultural - has served only to strengthen its hold on power, and has been deleterious both to the lives of individual citizens and to the country as a whole.

Social Rights in Burma

There are few social institutions in Burma which are not subject to some degree of control by the military. Even ordinary interaction in such venues as teashops is affected by the presence of low-level informers to the SPDC's military intelligence apparatus, whose role, apart from collecting information, is to instill in the minds of Burmese a habit of extreme circumspection about overt expressions of political sentiment.

In formal institutions, such as schools and hospitals, the degree of control is nearly absolute. Educational institutions, insofar as they are available and affordable, are especially subject to severe restrictions, as they are regarded by the regime as potential hotbeds of dissent because of the historical role of students in the country's independence and pro-democracy movements. Consequently, teachers are required to join the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a junta-backed mass-based organization which has been implicated in violent attacks on opposition figures.[1]

The curriculum at public schools is confined to areas which are regarded as non-threatening to the SPDC's agenda of promoting a narrowly interpreted notion of national unity. However, many students do not receive even this rudimentary form of education, due to poverty or isolation in underdeveloped rural areas, as well as to government budgets which typically spend a vastly larger portion of the nation's wealth on the military than on education.[2]

When it is not able to control students, the regime does not hesitate to shut down educational institutions. Throughout most of the 1990s, almost all of Burma's universities were closed to prevent student protests.[3] Since then, new campuses have been designed to isolate students from each other and from urban centers.[4] Despite the reopening of universities, however, graduates face limited opportunities for employment, forcing many to seek a subsistence income through self-employment or to go abroad, often to work illegally in other countries in the region.

The lack of adequate healthcare has had even more far-reaching effects than the limited access to education. Here, again, neglect is coupled with an overarching preoccupation with control to produce results which have been devastating to the country. Spending on healthcare as a percentage of the total budget is among the lowest in the world.[5] The strain this places on the healthcare system is barely mitigated by privately funded facilities, which often operate on a charitable basis, or by international aid.

International aid to Burma is problematic for a number of reasons. One is that the democratic opposition has called on the international community to refrain from offering means of support to the ruling junta, although this position has been softened in recent years in regards to efforts to address the country's health care crisis.[6] But the problem most often cited by relief agencies is the lack of cooperation, or outright interference, from the SPDC.[7] The result has been that efforts to contain diseases such as HIV/AIDS have met with limited success. In a country where poverty has fueled a thriving sex trade and widespread intravenous drug use, the overall impact of a failing health care system on the well-being of the country and its people has been inestimable.[8]

Economic Rights in Burma

The current regime seized power in the wake of massive nationwide protests that were triggered, in part, by a failing economy which grew drastically worse due to a sudden demonetization of large denominations of the national currency, the kyat, in 1987. Similarly, twenty years later, the SPDC raised the price of fuels, in some cases fivefold, without regard for the impact of their decision on the general population. This is relevant because it demonstrates that, despite the supposed liberalization of the country's formerly socialist economy, the military remains very much in control of Burma's national assets. And it also shows that the vicious cycle of economic mismanagement leading to hardship and protests, which in turn lead to brutal crackdowns and further consolidation of military control, is far from broken twenty years after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Burma's economy operates on several very different planes. In terms of natural resources, the country possesses wealth that is the envy of the region. Thus extractive industries, such as gem mining, logging and the exploitation of offshore natural gas fields are firmly in the hands of the military and the cronies of top leaders, and, to a lesser extent, armed ceasefire groups which have been granted limited economic concessions in exchange for "joining the legal fold."[9]

In many cases, these activities have been directly linked to specific human rights abuses. For instance, the construction of pipelines used to transport natural gas to Thailand from the Yadana and Yetagun natural gas fields has involved forced labor and forced relocation of local villagers (although the regime's international business partners, including Total of France and the US energy giant Unocal, have denied direct responsibility for the actions of the Burmese military in these areas).[10] Investors from China - the regime's most important international ally - dominate the trade in gems and teak, in close partnership with regional military commanders.[11] Logging, which has resulted in massive deforestation, is carried out without any attempt to limit the environmental impact on surrounding populations.[12] Meanwhile, the exploitation of labor in the gem mining industry is closely associated with intravenous drug use, which is fueled by the nearby cultivation and trade of opium.[13]

The poor are not the only victims of the SPDC's control-oriented approach to economic management. Entrepreneurs who do not enjoy high-level military connections - or whose military connections have been purged in occasional attempts by the top generals to consolidate their dominance - have also been subject to the junta's arbitrary approach to economic management. In 1998, for instance, Yaung Chi Oo Trading, a Singapore-based company owned by a Burmese national, lost its US $6.3 million investment in the Mandalay Beer Co., Ltd. after the company was abruptly nationalized.[14] Many smaller investors have reported similar experiences, which are often prompted by the desire of powerful figures to eliminate competition or simply seize control of profitable businesses.[15]

Cultural Rights in Burma

As noted above, some ethnic ceasefire groups have enjoyed a degree of economic autonomy in their areas of influence in exchange for ending hostilities with the regime. However, cultural autonomy for non-Burman ethnic minorities remains anathema to the country's nationalistic military leaders, who recognize only cosmetic differences among Burma's multitude of ethnic nationalities.

Education, which is woefully under-funded throughout the country, is in a particularly poor state in areas where most students belong to ethnic minorities. Children are not permitted to study in their native language, even when there are no Burmese-language schools provided by the government. In Mon State, for instance, there has been a concerted campaign to close Mon-language schools since a ceasefire agreement between the regime and the New Mon State Army was signed in 1995.[16]In areas where hostilities have not ceased, efforts to eradicate any evidence of a distinct ethnic identity regularly escalate to the level of atrocity, as in the Karen and Shan States, where villagers suspected of harboring sympathies towards ethnic insurgent armies are routinely subjected to rape, summary execution, and use as forced porters and human minesweepers by the Burmese Army.[17]

The denial of basic cultural rights is not confined to ethnic minorities. In urban areas, where there is a higher rate of literacy, access to information is severely restricted. All non-state publications are heavily censored, and are required to publish propaganda attacking the democratic opposition.[18] Journalists and academics are frequently given lengthy prison sentences for disclosing information regarded as damaging to the state.[19]


The situation described here would seem to indicate that there is an almost total absence of basic human rights in Burma. Indeed, some argue that the country's cultural values preclude a rights-based political orientation. However, there is abundant evidence that Burmese people are deeply aware of their rights. For instance, since the International Labour Organisation was permitted to open a liaison office in Rangoon in February 2007, it has received numerous complaints of forced labor and abduction of children for the purpose of military recruitment, despite the threat of reprisal by the authorities.[20]

Last year's crackdown on monk-led protests has demonstrated that, despite its self-appointed quasi-monarchical role as defender of the Buddhist faith, the SPDC has acted almost exclusively in its own interests. Geopolitical factors - chiefly, the ability of the regime to rely on the economic and military support of China and other regional neighbors which have little interest in protecting human rights at home, much less in Burma - explain the country's current situation far better than any supposed cultural predisposition to authoritarianism. Although human rights can scarcely be said to exist in Burma today, the continuing insistence of its citizens on a more equitable and accountable form of governance serves as evidence that the current situation is not the country's natural condition.

For further information please contact: Irrawady Publishing Group, P. O. Box 242, CMU Post Office Chiang Mai 50202m Thailand; ph (66 53) 273 ext. 303;fax (66 53) 273 986 ; e-mail:neil ;


1. "The USDA now has a reported 23 million members nationwide. Public servants, local officials and even university students have been coerced into joining the organization." See Human Rights Watch, "Burma: Violent Attacks on Rights Activists" (24 April 2007).

2."Analysts have estimated that about 50% of the central government's budget has been spent on defense since 1988." See Asia Times Online, "Myanmar's junta fears US invasion " (28 April 2006).

3. For much of the past decade, Burma's universities and high schools have been silent." See BBC News On-line, "Burma's Lost Generation" (14 August 1998).

4. "[Campuses] had been shifted from the capital to paddy-field locations and next to army bases to prevent them from becoming hotbeds of resistance." See The Straits Times (Singapore), "Myanmar university re-openings "a sham" (available in "Burma Related News --Aug 23, 2000").

5. "Burma's government spends least [in the world on health care], at 0.5 percent of GDP." See Progressive Policy Institute, "Almost Half of All World Health Spending is in the United States" (17 January 2007)

6. "The position of the National League for Democracy (NLD) on humanitarian aid has been described by some analysts as remaining ambiguous." See Refugees International, "Ending the Waiting Game: The Aid Dilemma" (2004)

7. "[NGO] project staff is so limited that they must be accompanied by at least [one] responsible official of the government." See Burma Issues Weekly, "Burma to create a body in charge for NGO's" (16 February 2006).

8. "[Decades] of repressive rule, civil war and poor governance in [Burma] have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases there." See UC Berkeley News, "Burma junta faulted for rampant diseases."

9."[Many ceasefire] groups [have been] co-opted by State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime (formerly SLORC) through offer of economic (e.g. timber) concessions." See International Crisis Group, "Conflict history: Myanmar/Burma" (updated 22 September 2004).

10. "In 2000, a United States federal judge found there was clear evidence that Unocal knew that the military government held a poor human rights record prior to joining the energy project." See EarthRights International, "Another Yadana: The Shwe Natural Gas Pipeline Project" (27 August 2004)

11. "'For local people, it just gets more difficult,' said a community leader in Kachin state, in Northeastern Burma, bordering China, where Chinese logging has stripped mountains bare. ... 'The commanders sell our natural resources and our local people get nothing.'" See The Washington Post, "Corruption Stains the Timber Trade " (1 April 2007).

12. "Forests that for centuries provided the livelihood and cultural milieu for many ethnic minority peoples are being destroyed at an alarming rate exceeding that of Amazonian rainforests." See Burma Project, Open Society Institute, "Country in Crisis: Environment" (updated October 2005).

13. "The 2003 UNAIDS epidemic update says intravenous drug use and commercial sex are responsible for most HIV/ AIDS infections [in Burma]. It says migrant workers, especially gem miners and loggers, are becoming a major conduit for the spread of the virus." See ADB (Asian Development Bank) Review, "Fatal Attraction" (May-June 2004).

14. "The SPDC forcibly took over the business with all its assets and ejected all personnel, with no compensation. Yaung Chi Oo's bank accounts were frozen and the owner was threatened with arrest." See Burma Lawyers' Council, Legal Issues on Burma Journal No. 9 (August 2001)

15. "Around 1994-95, the car import market in Burma grew dramatically because of an increased demand fueled by a mini-economic boom. And this growth sector caught the attention of many generals and their relatives. " See The Irrawaddy, "Used Car Salesman" (1 January 2001).

16. "[Since] 1998 there have been reports of government and military officials forbidding even Mon community schools from using the Mon language as a medium of instruction, despite the NMSP's initial successful efforts in building up this system of private schools." See Minority Rights Group International, "Myanmar/Burma: Mon"

17. "There were new reports of 'atrocity demining,' with civilians used as human minesweepers in front of Army troops." See Landmine Monitor, "Burma (Myanmar)" (2004)

18. "The military government has constantly hounded Burma's journalists during the three months that have gone by since 27 September, the day that Japanese video reporter Kenji Nagai was murdered by a soldier in Rangoon." See Reporters sans Frontieres, "Three months of quiet repression, arrests, censorship and propaganda" (26 December 2007).

19. "[Journalist U Win Tin] has been sentenced three times since 1989, each time while imprisoned. U Win Tin was most recently sentenced in March 1996 to seven years imprisonment. He was penalized for communicating with the United Nations." See Amnesty International, "Human Rights Defender Turns 75 in Prison."

20. "Till last September, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) office in military-ruled Burma had received few complaints about children being forced to join the army. But that is no longer the case." See Inter Press Service, "RIGHTS-BURMA: Back to Child Recruitments " (18 March 2008).

Additional Information on Burma

Most observers estimate the total population to be around fifty million persons. There are eight major ethnic groups in Burma, each comprising part of the total population. Karen and Shan groups comprise about 10% each of the total population, while Akha, Chin, Danu, Indian, Kachin, Karenni, Kayan, Kokang, Lahu, Mon, and Naga groups comprise the rest.


The economy is dominated by agriculture, which accounts for over fifty-nine percent of the gross domestic product and employs about two-thirds of the labor force. Rice is the main product. Production declined after independence but increased during the late 1970s and early 1980s because of the introduction of high-yielding varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation. Since that time, production has barely kept pace with population growth, and Burma, once the world's leading exporter of rice, is barely able to meet the subsistence needs of its own population. It continues to export some rice to earn foreign exchange. The production of narcotics from poppies and other sources is widespread in the northern highlands, and Burma is the world's leading supplier of opiates. Foreign investment is concentrated in "extractive" industries - US$142.6 million in oil and gas out of a total of $158.3 mil- lion in 2004/2005, compared to $35 million in 2005/2006 out of a total $35.7 million.


A military junta has been ruling the country despite general elections in 1990.

Source: US Campaign for Burma, figures.html; ALTSEAN-Burma,;