The Burma Insurgency

ANALYSIS, 9 Aug 2010

COVA-Confederation of Voluntary Associations - TRANSCEND Media Service

Ethnic minorities make up about a third of Burma’s population of roughly 50 million (AI 17 Jul 2001). Ethnic minorities live throughout Burma, but are concentrated mainly in the seven states and divisions named after the Shan, Kayah, Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Rakhine ethnic groups (AI 13 Jun 2001). National identity cards, which all Burmese must carry, and passports generally indicate the ethnicity of non-Burmans, either explicitly or through the use of personal titles in ethnic minority languages rather than in Burmese.

Burma’s military government has been pressing former rebels among the country’s ethnic minorities to participate in a national convention to draft a constitution leading to democracy. The government is also trying to draw in several groups that have not signed ceasefire agreements. The convention is part of a seven-point plan aimed at easing Burma’s international isolation. The government faces tough economic sanctions from much of the world because of its harsh treatment of opposition politicians, who won national elections in 1990, but were never allowed to rule.

For 50 years, the army has battled diverse ethnic insurgencies. These ethnic minority insurgent groups have sought to gain greater autonomy, or in some cases, independence from the dominant ethnic Burman majority. The Government justifies its security measures as necessary to maintain order and national unity. However, most major insurgent groups have reached individual accommodations with the SLORC/SPDC in recent years, which provide varying levels of stability and autonomy from central government control. In 1989 the SPDC began a policy of seeking cease-fire agreements with most ethnic insurgent groups along the borders.

Burma is ruled by a highly authoritarian military regime. The military Government known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) seized power in September 1988 after harshly suppressing massive prodemocracy demonstrations. In November 1997, the SLORC announced that the military Government had renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The regime is headed by armed forces commander General Than Shwe and composed of top military officers. Retired dictator General Ne Win, whose idiosyncratic policies had isolated the country and driven it into deep economic decline, may continue to wield considerable influence.

The SLORC permitted a relatively free election in 1990, but it failed to honor the results–which were an overwhelming rejection of military rule–and cede power to the victorious prodemocracy forces. Instead, the SLORC attacked the coalition of winning parties and their leaders through intimidation, detention, and house arrest, and redoubled efforts to consolidate and perpetuate its rule. In 1993 the SLORC established the “National Convention,” a body ostensibly tasked with drafting a new constitution. The SLORC carefully handpicked the delegates and stage-managed the constitutional convention’s proceedings, ignoring even limited opposition views. Although the National Convention has not been reconvened since 1996, the military government appears determined to draft a constitution that would ensure a dominant role for the military services in the country’s future political structure.

In August 1998 the principal democratic opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), winner of the 1990 election, sought to expedite the transition to democracy by convening a parliament based on the election results. The NLD party leaders include 1991 Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. The SPDC responded by detaining 200 opposition NLD Members of Parliament-elect, along with hundreds of other democracy supporters; most remain in detention. On 21 October 1998, one NLD detainee, 52-year-old U Aung Min, died in detention during what the Government described as “exchanges of views.”

The Government reinforces its firm military rule with a pervasive security apparatus led by the military intelligence organization, the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). Control is buttressed by arbitrary restrictions on citizens’ contacts with foreigners, surveillance of government employees and private citizens, harassment of political activists, intimidation, arrest, detention, and physical abuse.

The authorities continue to regard the Muslim and Christian religious minorities with suspicion. Moreover, there is a concentration of Christians among some of the ethnic minorities against whom the army has fought for decades. Religious publications, like secular ones, remained subject to control and censorship. Those residents unable to meet the restrictive provisions of the citizenship law, such as ethnic Chinese, Arakanese, Muslims, and others must obtain prior permission to travel.

Following the breakdown of its cease-fire with the separatist Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in 1995, the army began an offensive in 1996 against the KNPP that continued through year’s end. As part of its campaign to deny the guerrillas local support, the military forces forcibly relocated hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of Karenni civilians. In central and southern Shan state, the military forces continued to engage the Shan State Army (SSA), a remnant of Khun Sa’s narcotics-linked former Mong Tai Army, and began a campaign of relocation against the villagers in the region. Many thousands were forcibly removed from their villages. There are credible reports of retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed by the army against civilians.

The Karen National Union (KNU) is the largest single insurgent group that continues to fight against central government rule. In 1997 cease-fire talks between the KNU and SLORC broke down and were followed by a the SLORC offensive that pushed the KNU out of its last strongholds in Karen state. As a result, over 20,000 Karen civilians fled to Thailand. The Government denied responsibility for attacks on Karen refugee camps in Thailand that were carried out by the DKBA. However, according to credible reports, the DKBA receives military support from the Government.

In conjunction with the military’s campaigns against the Karen, Karenni, and Shan insurgents, it was standard practice for the Government’s armed forces to coerce civilians into working as porters in rural areas in or near combat zones. According to testimony collected by international human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) from refugees, the men–and sometimes women and children as well–who were forced to labor as porters often suffered beatings. On occasion, they died as a result of their mistreatment by soldiers. There were reports that soldiers raped some female members of ethnic minorities in contested areas.

In regions controlled by insurgents groups such as the Shan state, or in areas controlled by groups that have negotiated cease-fires with the Government such as the Wa territory, there are credible reports that these groups engaged in narcotics production and trafficking. In combat zones or in areas controlled by ethnic minorities, the insurgents also subjected civilians to forced labor.

Antigovernment insurgent groups were also responsible for violence, including deploying land mines and conducting ambushes that caused both civilian and military deaths. The SSA insurgents committed retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities against civilians. Karen National Union troops reportedly are led by child soldiers.

The military authorities ruled unchecked by any independent state organ, and the State continued to interfere extensively and arbitrarily in the lives of private citizens. Through its extensive intelligence network and administrative procedures, the Government closely monitored the travel and activities of many citizens, particularly those known to be politically active. Authorities sometimes enter homes during night hours to examine registration documents of occupants as a form of monitoring personal movements. Security personnel attempted to screen all private correspondence and telephone calls and searched private premises and other property without warrants.

To make way for commercial or public construction, and in some cases for security reasons, the SPDC continues to relocate citizens out of cities to new towns, although on a much smaller scale than during the early 1990’s. While facilities in these areas have improved over time, residents targeted for displacement continued to be given no option but to move, usually on short notice. The military authorities also continued the widespread and frequent practice of forcible relocation of rural villages, including their residents, in ethnic minority areas in response to security concerns. This practice, again this year as in 1997, was particularly widespread and egregious in the Shan, Kayah, and Karen states as part of the armed forces campaign against insurgents. In these states, thousands of villagers were displaced and herded into smaller settlements in strategic areas.

The approximately 100,000 Burmese residing in refugee camps in Thailand in January 1998 were joined during the year by thousands of new arrivals fleeing army attacks against insurgencies in the Karen, Karenni, and Shan ethnic areas. A few thousand students and dissidents continued to live in exile in Thailand.

At the end of 1998 there were still 21,000 Rohingya Muslims remaining in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) repatriation program, which since 1992 had succeeded in returning approximately 238,000 refugees to Burma and had been scheduled to end on August 15, 1997, halted prematurely when the Rohingyas as a group rejected repatriation and demanded resettlement in Bangladesh. While the Government agreed to resume repatriation of those remaining, this repatriation has yet to commence. This repatriation is proceeding slowly.

The Rohingyas refused to return because they feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution and other government restrictions. The UNHCR reported that authorities cooperated in investigating isolated incidents of renewed abuse of repatriated citizens. However, returnees complained of restrictions imposed by the Government on their ability to travel and to engage in economic activity.

The quality of life in Burma continues to deteriorate. Poverty is widespread, and the economy has continued to show the effects of a growing government deficit, rising inflation, shortfalls in energy supplies and continuing foreign exchange shortages. The overall human rights situation in Burma remains deplorable, and widespread human rights abuses continue. Burma’s citizens live subject to the arbitrary dictates of the military regime. In ethnic minority areas, there are continuing reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and disappearances.

Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening, and arbitrary arrests and detentions for the expression of dissenting political views continue to occur. One very positive move was the Government of Burma’s decision to permit, for the first time in six years, a visit in April 2001 by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Paulo Pinheiro. It has also allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit all prisons in Burma, and about half the nation’s labor camps. Reportedly, these ICRC visits have had a significant impact on prison and camp conditions.

During the period of March 2001 to September 2001, Burma’s military regime continued the policy of discussion with the NLD’s General Secretary, Aung San Suu Kyi, which it had adopted in October 2000 on the advice of UN Special Representative Razali Ismail. This process has contributed to some mutual understanding. While none of the substance of the current talks has been revealed by either side, a series of confidence building gestures has resulted in the release of approximately 180 political prisoners, including all of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee member. The regime has also halted its virulent attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi and the NL, which had become a staple of newspaper coverage in Burma. In addition, the military government has allowed the NLD to reopen 21 party offices in Rangoon Division and to resume some normal party activities. These included a public meeting held on September 27, 2001 to commemorate the founding of the NLD, which was attended by Ambassadors and Chiefs of Mission from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Norway and other countries. The NLD, for its part, moderated its public criticism of the regime.

Burma is one of the world’s largest producers of illicit opium and heroin. However, production of both heroin and opium has declined in Burma since 1996. In 2000, Burma produced an estimated 1085 metric tons of opium, down approximately 60 percent from the 2,560 metric tons of opium produced in 1996. As opium production has declined, mephamphetamine production has soared, particularly in outlying regions that are governed by former ethnic insurgents. In 2000, the Burmese government seized approximately 27 million mephamphetamine tablets, compared with approximately 6 million tablets in 1996. There are persistent and reliable reports that Burmese government and military officials in outlying areas are either directly involved in drug production and trafficking or provide protection to those who are. Beyond encouraging ethnic insurgents who have signed ceasefire agreements to curb narcotics production and trafficking, the Burmese government recently began to take action against them to curb these activities. For example, in November 2000, the government occupied the territory of the Mong Ko Defense army and arrested its leader, Mon Sa La, on drug trafficking charges. Reportedly, Mong Ko had been the site of almost one-third of the heroin production in northeast Burma. In addition, in August and September 2001, the government made a number of raids on Kokang and local militia in northeastern Shan State that resulted in the arrest of numerous drug traffickers.

Such measures did not appeased Thailand. In addition to the continued problems with illegal immigrants, Thailand believed the SPDC is not able or not willing to to control the flow of mephamphetamines across the border. Thailand began to train and arm members of the Shan State Army in order to help control the drug problem. This represented an about-face in relations between Thailand and the Shan minority, who they traditionaly sided with the SPDC agianst.

Suu Kyi’s release on 6 May 2002 after 19 months of house arrest followed months of talks between her and the SPDC that began in late 2000, prodded by UN special envoy Razali Ismail (U.S. DOS 2 Mar 2002). Following her release, Suu Kyi called for an immediate dialogue with the government on Burma’s political future, with an initial focus on getting more political prisoners freed The highly-publicized release from house arrest of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2002 was only the most visible of a series of changes that have created a tiny opening in Burma’s political space. Since late 2000, the military government that rules Burma has held sporadic talks with Suu Kyi, allowed the party she heads to reopen offices, and released dozens of political prisoners. At the same time, the army, which has held power in one form or another for four decades, has shown no real sign that it plans to stand down.

Cease-fire agreements helped to curb armed conflict. The Burmese authorities announced that terrorist groups operate within the city limits of Rangoon. Two improvised explosive devices were detonated in March 2003, one in a public park and the other near a downtown pagoda. Two people were killed and three others were wounded. Over the past five years Burmese authorities reportedly found other bomb devices. The military government tightened security around the international airport in Rangoon after two RPG devices were discovered near the airport in early 2002. All of these terrorist incidents appear to have been directed at the Government of Burma.

Burma’s military government had reached cease-fire agreements with as many as 17 of the country’s rebel groups. Many of the agreements were reached in talks with officials led by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. He was ousted in 2004 and placed under house arrest. The more hard-line government that replaced him may try to crack down on minority groups. The military hoped to persuade smaller groups such as the Shan to sign cease-fires to put more pressure on larger ethnic forces — such as the Karen, which does not have a formal cease-fire agreement with the military.

In late May 2005 two of Burma’s ethnic Shan rebel groups joined forces – one breaking a cease-fire with the military government – as they stepped up their struggle for an independent state. The move raises fears of renewed violence in Burma if other rebel cease-fire agreements break down. The Shan State National Army, or SSNA, and the Shan State Army agreed to join forces. The agreement between the two rebel groups ended the SSNA’s decade-old cease-fire pact with Burma’s military government. The SSNA accepted a cease-fire in 1995 on the condition that its troops could keep their arms. But Burma’s military in early 2005 called on the Shan to disarm. In February 2005, to add pressure, the military government arrested several Shan leaders and charged them with treason.

On May 7, 2005, three large bombs exploded simultaneously in Rangoon, at two crowded shopping areas frequented by foreigners and at a trade center, reportedly killing at least twenty people and wounding several hundred others. On April 26, 2005, an explosive device detonated at a busy market in Mandalay, reportedly killing at least two people. Both events were a significant departure in terms of targeting and level of sophistication from other bombings that have occurred in recent years.

Source: World Security


COVA (Confederation of Voluntary Associations) is a national network of voluntary organizations dedicated to the issues of social harmony, peace and justice.  The prime focus of COVA is on citizenship rights and on perspective building for harmony and peace in South Asia. Through direct programmes and by networking with other CSOs, COVA organises perspective building activities and programs, carries out campaigns, and conducts research for influencing diverse sections of civil society and the state apparatus to adopt inclusive, secular and egalitarian outlook and policies that would foster rights and secure justice and peace for all.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Aug 2010.

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