The Crisis in Burma
In this section, please find the following topics:
“The struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma is a struggle for life and dignity.” - Aung San Suu Kyi
Since the military coup d'état in 1962 that ended democratic rule in Burma, the Burmese people have been subject to widespread human rights abuses. The subsequent coup d'état by General Saw Maung following the uprising in 1988, which renamed Burma as Myanmar, saw an escalation of abuses towards the Burmese people, in particular towards political dissidents and ethnic minorities. Human rights violations intensified to the threshold of RtoP attention; human rights abuses by the military junta include: the pervasive use of forced labor, forced recruitment of tens of thousands of child soldiers, rampant sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture and the displacement of over a million Burmese people.
The landslide victory in the 1990 elections by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, exacerbated the military junta’s harsh repression of political opposition. The regime’s intolerance towards diverging political opinions resulted in the detention, abuse and torture of political dissidents – including the best-known case of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest for most part of the past two decades – as well as deadly crackdowns on demonstrations and restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
Minority ethnic groups, such as the Karen people and the Rohingya people, faced persecution and were subject to forced labor and displacement; rape was used as a systematic weapon against women of ethnic minorities. In the past twelve years, more than 3000 villages of minority ethnic groups were destroyed or displaced, many burnt and razed to the ground.
The military junta’s neglect of its population and unwillingness to cooperate with humanitarian aid groups in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, as well as its violent crackdown in 2007 on the Saffron Revolution, a peaceful demonstration by Buddhist monks and civilians, has catapulted the often overlooked humanitarian crisis in Burma to international attention. The Responsibility to Protect has been invoked in calls for action by UN officials and leading human rights advocates in response to the Burmese military junta’s mistreatment of its population. The recent trial of Aung San Suu Kyi for allegedly violating her house arrest by allowing an American intruder to rest at her lakeside house refocused the spotlight on the junta’s repression of political dissenters, prompting international criticism and outrage.
II. Escalation of the Conflict in 2007 - Saffron Revolution
In August 2007, large peaceful demonstrations began all over Burma/Myanmar after the junta raised gas and diesel oil prices by 500%. Thousands of Burmese monks, sometimes referred to as the "conscience of the Burmese people", began a peaceful march for change. Inspired and emboldened by the commitment of the monks, the masses took to the streets to march for an end to the military government.
On 25 September 2007 the Burmese government cracked down and banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed dusk to dawn curfews, raided monasteries, and arrested monks and students involved in the demonstrations. The military government has reported that nearly 3,000 citizens have been detained in connection with the protests, although other sources have placed the number as high as 6,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross has attempted to visit many of those arrested, who are reportedly in Insein Prison after being severely tortured. Reports have surfaced of at least one death under interrogation, and close to a dozen deaths of protesters during demonstrations.
III. Response by the International Community to the Saffron Revolution
In September 2006, the UN Security Council had their first meeting on the situation in Burma and, in January 2007, proposed a resolution calling for the cessation of grave violations of human rights, including the campaign of systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated by the military against ethnic minority women and military attacks against civilians in ethnic minority regions. However, China and Russia both used their veto to block this resolution claiming that Burma was not a threat to international peace and security.
In the wake of the 2007 protests, the international community expressed concern over the safety of populations in Burma. Many countries denounced the junta and called for an end to government-perpetrated human rights abuses. The US, France, and the UK tightened economic sanctions on the regime and Japan threatened to cut aid to the country. ASEAN issued a statement expressing their "revulsion" at the crackdown of the Burmese military on peaceful protesters.
The UN Security Council held a series of meetings, on 26 September and 5 October 2007, to discuss the situation in Burma. Special Envoy on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, who was sent to Burma in an attempt to diffuse the crisis, briefed the Security Council on both occasions. The Security Council reconvened again in the second week of October to further discuss the crisis, and produced a Presidential Statement on the situation, deploring the actions of the military junta against peaceful protesters and calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The UN Human Rights Council also convened a special session on Burma on 02 October 2007 and adopted a resolution calling for an investigation into human rights violations during the demonstrations and urging for the release of several political prisoners and detainees, as well as strongly condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters.
IV. The Role of Civil Society and Recent Calls for an Inquiry Into Crimes Against Humanity
NGOs have also referenced the Responsibility to Protect in response to the recent crimes. perpetrated in Burma In an October 2007 press statement released by the Fédération Internationale des Droits de l'Homme (FIDH), they said, "The Human Rights Council should call upon the UN Security Council, based on its "responsibility to protect", to take all concrete measures necessary…"
UNA-USA featured a call for action in October 2007 by Barbara Cossette which stated, "At the world summit in 2005, marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, scores of leaders signed on to a concept (revolutionary for the UN) called 'the responsibility to protect.' In a groundbreaking and still controversial step, countries accepted that when a government will not stop abuses against its own people, the outside world has the right to act. If ever there was a perfect time to test this post-2005 principle it is now in Burma."
In recent months (Spring 2009), an increasing amount of reports and analysis have emerged denouncing the junta for its violations of human rights and international humanitarian law:
Human Rights Watch released several reports on the plight of the ethnic minorities in Burma on 26 May 2009 and 27 January 2009, respectively focusing on the Rohingya and Chin people. Amnesty International reported on 5 June 2008 that the junta’s treatment of the Karen people constituted crimes against humanity.
Jonathon Aitken, Honorary President of the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), in an May 2009 op-ed article, called on the UN to invoke the norm of the “Responsibility to Protect” to investigate the gross human rights violations committed by the ruling military junta.
In May 2009, over 60 British Members of Parliament signed an Early Day Motion (EDM) and urged the UN to apply the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) in relation to the Burmese junta’s gross human rights violations and campaign against ethnic minorities.
On April 23rd 2009, a conference entitled “An International and a Norwegian Responsibility to Protect -Crimes against Humanity in Burma?” was organized by the Norwegian Parliament’s support group for Burma, Norwegian Church Aid, the Norwegian Burma Committee, the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), the Norwegian Baptist Union and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights. See for more info on the event.
The organizers of the seminar followed the event by writing a letter to Ban Ki-moon to encourage him, “based on the international norm of a responsibility to protect” to establish an international group of experts to report on whether serious violations of international humanitarian law have been committed in Eastern Burma. In addition, it urged the Government of Burma to permit access to all parts of the country for international humanitarian assistance.
For more information: see Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC)’s October 2008 report, Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma for a survey compiling 2008 abuses in relation to the legal framework for crimes against humanity.
The US campaign for Burma has also issued calls to stop mass atrocities in Burma by pushing for the UN to send Burma to the International Criminal Court, or establish an international criminal tribunal to arrest and prosecute Burma’s military regime. This call was issued in May 2009 just as five of the world's leading international jurists commissioned a report entitled “Crimes in Burma” from the International Human Rights Clinic at the Harvard Law School, calling for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to establish a Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma act on what they describe as more than 15 years of condemnation from UN bodies on human rights abuses in Burma.
In December 2010, the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), in its briefing entitled Impunity or Reconciliation in Burma’s Transition, recommended the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of crimes committed by the military regime. Patrick Pierce, the head of the ICTJ’s Burma Program, stated that “reconciliation in Burma must include acknowledgement that people have suffered.” The ICTJ has called for the government to release all political prisoners and bring an end to impunity for human rights violations.
V. RtoP Debates Following Cyclone Nargis in 2008
A year ago, a major humanitarian crisis struck the population of Burma. The devastating Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta region on 3 May 2008, leaving 1.5 million "severely affected," as estimated by United Nations agencies. The continuous obstruction of Burmese authorities to let foreign humanitarian aid and workers in the country has caused intense debates in the international community on whether the current crisis in cyclone-struck Burma could be considered a Responsibility to Protect situation. Founders and proponents of the concept (including Gareth Evans, Ramesh Thakur, and Lloyd Axworthy) have issued differing messages on whether the situation is a case for RtoP. R2PCS issued two statements analyzing the debate, dated 9 and 21 May.
Following Cyclone Nargis and the resulting humanitarian emergency, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner invoked the Responsibility to Protect, saying on 7 May, "We are seeing at the United Nations whether we can implement the Responsibility to Protect, given that food, boats and relief teams are there, and obtain a United Nations' resolution which authorizes the delivery (of aid) and imposes this on the Burmese government." Many humanitarian organizations, including the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have criticized Kouchner's interpretation of RtoP. United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes responded to Kouchner's statement; "I'm not sure that invading them would be a very sensible option at this particular moment. I'm not sure it would be helpful to the people we are actually trying to help." Edward Luck, the Secretary General's Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, has argued that "linking the 'responsibility to protect' to the situation in Burma is a misapplication of the doctrine."
In response to Bernard Kouchner's position on RtoP and cyclone-struck Burma, the former R2PCS project reflected on how the responsibility to protect related to the current situation in Burma. Immediately following the cyclone, R2PCS did not advocate using the Responsibility to Protect with respect to the humanitarian disaster that followed Cyclone Nargis. We took this view because of the difficulty of establishing that the regime’s actions constituted one of the four crimes to which RtoP is meant to apply: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Although reports indicated that the regime in Burma had failed to protect its populations and was actually obstructing aid, the Responsibility to Protect, as adopted in the World Summit Outcome Document from 2005, does not provide for the Security Council to act on the basis of neglect and obstruction.
Following the continued obstruction of aid by the Burmese authorities and the discussions in the international community on what should be done, R2PCS issued a revised statement outlining the developments regarding the application of RtoP to Burma. We argued that if it could be shown that the government of Burma's actions would lead to crimes against humanity, the international community therefore should bear the responsibility to prevent these crimes against humanity from occurring, first through peaceful means (diplomatic, economic, political) and through the use of force only a as a last resort.
While we did not put out a statement based on the "crimes against humanity" argument, we remained strongly opposed to invoking RtoP to elicit UN intervention in Burma. Urging military intervention as an application of the Responsibility to Protect is a counterproductive strategy that would not be in the best humanitarian interests of the people directly affected by the cyclone in Burma.
In addition, R2PCS highlighted that RtoP is not just about Security Council action, but about other actors (including regional and sub-regional organization) as well.
For analysis on the crisis in Burma following Cyclone Nargis, please see:
4 June 2008 News Update
21 May 2008 R2PCS Statement on RtoP and Burma/Myanmar & News Update
13 May 2008 News Update
9 May 2008 R2PCS Message on RtoP and Burma/Myanmar
Burma held its first national elections in two decades on November 7, 2010. Leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) called on the ruling junta to ensure that the elections were to be free, fair and inclusive. In the months preceding the vote the Burmese government implemented laws that barred from participation all persons with criminal convictions, thus denying Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners from announcing their candidacy. The National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the elections, and opposition parties, including the NLD, were dissolved by the junta for not meeting deadlines for participation and for protesting the electoral process. Unsurprisingly, the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party won the elections, gaining 76.5% of all parliamentary seats. Three ethnic-based parties won seats in the parliament, proving a symbolic victory for Burma’s ethnic groups.
Following the national elections, opposition leader Aung san Suu Kyi was released from house arrest on November 13, 2010. Although in great support of Suu Kyi’s liberation, human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, were skeptical of the affects her freedom may have as it is believed that the military government only released her as she can no longer pose an electoral threat to the government. Since her sentence ended, Suu Kyi has addressed the media and the public several times in an attempt to raise hope of better governance among the civilian population and called for reconciliation and for the release of political prisoners. On 10 December 2010, for international Human Rights day, she recorded a video message that denounced the “more subtle” forms of discrimination that target those who fight for human rights and stressed that “without human rights there can be no such thing as genuine democratic institutions".