PROBLEMS AND HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES FACED BY ETHNIC MINORITIES IN MYANMAR

PROBLEMS FACED BY ETHNIC MINORITIES IN MYANMAR

Both the British and the current military regime employed a divide and rule strategy against Burma’s minorities. The idea was to weaken them and their ability to make trouble for the ruling government by dividing them, and pitting them against one another. In 1982 non-Burmese ethnic minorities were declared “associate citizens” effectively denying them the rights of normal citizens such as holding public office.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “Ever since the British quit their colony in 1948, the country has been riven by ethnic conflict in its vast borderlands. The generals who now rule Burma forced a sort of unity on the country, but at a terrible cost to its ethnic peoples. Burmese soldiers regularly use rape as a weapon against ethnic women, and forced labor is common. An estimated 2 million people are internally displaced, largely because of ethnic fighting and forced relocations. Although most of Burma's lucrative natural resources are located in ethnic-minority areas, the people living there get little profit from this bounty. Ethnically, the junta is entirely Bamar (also known as Burman), and minorities are barred from most civil service jobs as well as the upper echelons of the military. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, January 28, 2013 ><]

In ethnic minority areas, human rights abuses are widespread, including extrajudicial killings and rape. The regime justifies its actions as being necessary to maintain order and national unity. Esther Htusan of Associated Press wrote: “The government sees on-and-off conflicts along northern and eastern borders, where armed ethnic groups have long battled for greater autonomy, as one of the biggest obstacles to a planned nationwide cease-fire agreement. The region is home to several strategic development projects, including a gas pipeline that stretches to China's Yunnan province." [Source: Esther Htusan, Associated Press, January 15, 2014]

Many of the victims of human right crimes have been members of the Shan, Karen, Karenni and Rohingya ethnic minorities. According to Amnesty International. “The Myanmar army has devastated the lives of thousands of Shan, Karen and Karenni people by targeting them simply because of their ethnicity or perceived beliefs...Many have been killed, others tortured and have fled to neighboring countries.” Minorities have claimed that Myanmar soldiers have entered villages and raped and pillaged and murdered and kidnaped young men for Burmese army. Two human rights groups have accused the military regime of employing such tactics against the Shan.

Human rights groups have said that many people have been driven from their villages by the army into relocation camps. No one really knows what has been going on in these areas. There have been reports of the government enslaving people and putting them to work carrying heavy loads. There have also been reports of the shooting of those unfit to work and raping the women left behind by the workers.

Harsh Government Policies Towards Minorities in Myanmar

Citizens and permanent residents are required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), also known as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which permit holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicate religious affiliation and ethnicity. There appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining NRCs. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011]

Many of Myanmar’s vast natural resources are located in its ethnic nationality regions, particularly in Kachin State. The minorities have no faith in the government and resent the majority's domination of politics. Several young Shan professionals used the same word -- "tricky" -- to describe the Burmans. [Source: Washington Post]

Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post: “Burma's military leaders have historically been secretive about their actions. But observers say they are attempting to build a broad security cordon around their new capital near the inland city of Pyinmana, located only a few miles from the border of Karen state. The result has been an extraordinary use of force to clear out existing villages in the area. Since seizing control of the country in 1988, Burma's military junta has taken a series of harsh measures to secure its grip on power...Observers say the junta has reserved its most brutal treatment for Burma's eastern ethnic groups, including the Karenni, the Shan and the Mon, as well as the Karen, the largest minority in the region. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post November 17, 2006]

Min Zin wrote in Foreign Policy, “The central government has tried to forcibly assimilate the local population while committing heinous human rights violations (including large scale murder, rape, and forced relocations, all well-documented). So you just can’t claim that there are “two sides” to these conflicts that are equally worthy of consideration. The ethnic groups’ struggle for political autonomy and self-determination is a justified reaction to domination and repression by the Burman majority. Burmans (a group that includes Suu Kyi and the present author) should be able to understand this. [Source: Min Zin, Foreign Policy, October 8, 2012]

Buddhism, Racism and Discrimination Against Minorities in Myanmar

William McGowan wrote in Foreign Policy: “Buddhism has played a key rule in undermining the military's grip on power. Monastic opposition to the regime, which boiled over in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," posed a significant challenge to the military's popular legitimacy by depicting it as an enemy of Buddha sasana, or righteous moral rule. This is an all-important concept with both spiritual and political resonance rooted in ancient Buddhist scripture, roughly akin to the classical Chinese notion of the "mandate of heaven." To deflect that challenge, the regime has played the Burman "race card," largely through propaganda stressing that Buddhism is the religion of "true Burmese," and that the health and purity of a uniquely Burman form of Buddhism are at risk from "outside" contamination. Although this strategy wasn't successful enough to fend off assaults on the military's legitimacy, it was effective at feeding Buddhist chauvinism and insecurity. The result has been a rising tide of nationalism in which the Buddhist majority might rally behind Suu Kyi and her monastic allies for greater democratic rights -- but still sees other groups in a subordinate and often racist light.[Source: William McGowan, Foreign Policy, September 17, 2012]

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: All the Burmese have racial opinions, but this is not unusual in a country with such a mixed population and with cities yet divided into ethnic districts: Chinatown in Rangoon; a walled-in Gujarati community in Mandalay announcing its vegetarianism with a sign BE KIND TO ANIMALS BY NOT EATING THEM; Tamil and European districts, the most elegant being the American compound for Embassy personnel. (There is an American Club and a private American commissary which stocks peanut butter and cornflakes. The lowliest person at the American Embassy has a car and a driver—officially, Rangoon is "a hardship post.") Whole towns in Upper Burma are populated with Nepalese—the remnants, children and grandchildren, of demobbed colonial soldiers. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971 \\//]

What is your country?" is a question the stranger will ask as you pass him on the street (also: "Change money—good price?" and "Want girl? Chinese, Burmese, Indian, anything?")...I said that I came from Singapore. They know that Singapore is mostly Chinese, and the Burmese have opinions about the Chinese. "Chinese, let me tell you about the Chinese," said a Burman whose name was U Georgie. "They save a lot of money, a lot of money." He made a wrapping motion with his hands and then threw the invisible wrapped thing away. "Then they throw it away. Gambling." He looked at me. "How do the Chinese make money? Easy. A Chinaman wants a cheroot. He sees a broken one in a monsoon drain. He picks it up and wipes it off. He smokes it. He saves a few pyas. Easy. And Indians. Do you know what the Indians do with their women ...?" \\//

Internet, Politics and Racism in Myanmar

Facebook is the main forum for popular political discussion in Myanmar. It also has been used to stir up racist and anti-Muslim sentiments. According to Reuters: “Sectarian hatred in towns and villages in Rakhine State is mirrored online. "They should shoot at least one (to) make them shut up," read a comment on Facebook under a photo purporting to show rioting Muslims. Twitter users are railing against "Rohingya terrorists," one under the hashtag "#OneThingWeAllHate". These sentiments were echoed by nationalistic blogs such as Won Thar Nu, which ran gruesome photos of what it said were Buddhist victims. It accused the Rohingya of staging a "foreign invasion". [Source: Reuters, June 11, 2012]

“Anti-Muslim postings on Facebook, including those with images of the recent deaths and destruction in Meikhtila, have been ‘liked’ by thousands and solicit approving howls from Burmese netizens who show no restraint in expressing their neo-Nazi views in public on-line domains,” Maung Zarni commented. [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 11, 2013 \+/]

“Religious tensions are now being whipped up again in the main city, [Rangoon], largely by Buddhist nationalists using what many pro-democracy activists here thought would be a tool for promoting peace: the Internet,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The paper quoted leaders of the 88 Generation movement of pro-democracy activists expressing dismay at the Internet becoming a tool of extremists. \+/

Discrimination Based on Ethnicity and Religion

Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said: “Under successive Burmese governments, people of non-Burman ethnic and non-Buddhist background find themselves discriminated against their Burman Buddhist counterparts in education, employment and various levels of civil service. Even those in the army and police serving successive governments were systematically denied promotions in rank on the sole basis of their ethnicity and religion. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005 ><]

“Since the 1980s, the new Burmese citizenship law required that every citizen of Union of Burma register for a national identity card on which all particulars including the bearer’s ethnic and religious backgrounds should be provided. Although the initial intention was to exclude “foreigners” such as Indian and Chinese immigrants from citizenship, the introduction of the identity card has had a far-reaching impact on ethnic and religious minority groups. Because the card is essential for travel, employment, health care and higher education, people of non-Burman and non-Buddhist background could be easily denied for employment as well as promotion in civil service on the basis of the particulars provided on the national identity card. In many instances, for Christians and other religious minorities, promotion in civil service is conditioned by their conversion into Buddhism. Many Christian civil servants with outstanding service records have been blatantly denied promotion while their Buddhist peers with less qualification and less seniority quickly rose to high ranking positions. Even a few exceptional non-Buddhist individuals securing high ranking positions were sacked or forced to retire from their positions. ><

Biak To, a Chin Christian who had served in the Burmese army from 1973 to 1990 as a Captain and later became a Lieutenant Colonel in the police explains how he was sacked for no apparent reasons in 2000: “At the time of my dismissal, I was the only person holding a B.A degree among officers of my rank in the entire nine Police Regiments in Burma. In fact, I should have been the first one to be considered for promotions. Obviously, the authorities did not want to see a Chin Christian holding high position that they made a pre-emptive move to dismiss me without any apparent charges.” ><

“Major Thawng Za Lian, who has an excellent record in his military service in the Burmese army until leaving the service in 1997, recounts his experience during his career as an officer with a background of minority religious and ethnic identity in Burma that. “In the army, A, B and C are categories designated for those who can not be promoted in rank. A stands for AIDS symptom, B stands for Hepatitis B and C stands for Christians. Under these categories, those who are carrying AIDS disease are discharged from the military and those who have Hepatitis B are transferred to civil service. And all those belonging to category C (Christians) are not given promotion.” Major Lian eventually left the army when he was asked to abandon his Christian faith and converted to Buddhism by his superior in order to be promoted. ><

See Separate Article on Religion

Repression of Minority Language and Religion in Myanmar

A Kachin woman living in Yangon, working in publishing told the Los Angeles Times that she's told, "Stop speaking that monkey language" by Burmese friends when she and other Kachin speak in their native tongue.

Kelly Macnamara of AFP wrote: “Several of the country's more than 130 ethnic groups, including the Mon, Chin and Karen, are also seeking to persuade the government to add their mother tongues to the official curriculum. "The ethnic issue is absolutely central to Burma's future," said Benedict Rogers, author and rights activist at Christian Solidarity Worldwide. "Even if Burma has all the democratic institutions in place, if there's still conflict or even oppression of ethnic minorities then it's never going to fulfil its full potential," he said. [Source: Kelly Macnamara, AFP, October 21, 2012 <>]

“In Kachin, as in other states such as Chin and Karen, the Christian faith of local people has also put them at odds with a regime that has long demanded conformity. "State resources are currently spent on the aggressive propagation of Buddhism, including to coerce ethnic Chin to convert to Buddhism at vocational training schools in the name of 'union spirit'," said Salai Ling of the Chin Human Rights Organization. "Instead the funds should be spent on improving the mainstream education system, including the teaching of ethnic minority languages in the national curiculum." <>

“Yet there remains an indifference to more nuanced questions of cultural identity among officials, many of whom spent years as soldiers tasked with quelling minority uprisings. "We use Burmese as the common language. So ethnic groups should learn Burmese if they like," a top official involved in the peace process told AFP. "If they also want to learn their ethnic language, they can if they have free time." <>

“In September, Myanmar's Vice President Sai Mauk Kham, himself a Shan, said provisions had been made for teaching ethnic languages during holidays, but added it would be too difficult to have these lessons within school time. Observers say teaching all languages could prove impossible in this polyglot nation, where many areas have several overlapping dialects and the education system is in tatters after chronic underfunding by the junta. The ability to speak foreign languages -- particularly Chinese and English -- is also seen as crucial as the country opens up to the world. <>

See Religious Repression Under religion

Human Rights Violations Against Minorities in Myanmar

The Myanmar military government used to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. Human rights groups accused the Myanmar government using torture, beatings, forced labor, ethnic cleansing, forcibly conscripting 13-year-old into the army, and confiscating land and property and paying nothing. Troops in the Burmese army have been accused of raping women in ethnic minorities and student groups.

Many of the victims of human rights crimes in Myanmar have been members of the Shan, Karen, Karenni and Rohingya ethnic minorities. Some human rights have accused the military government of conducted ethnic cleaning campaigns against the Shan, Karen, Mon and Karenni ethnic groups. Entire ethnic groups have been removed from certain areas and Burma has perhaps one million internal refugees hiding in mountains and jungles. The Myanmar army has wanted civilians to flee their villages so that insurgents can be cut off from the villages that help support them.

Human Rights Watch reports:“The Burmese military continues to engage in extrajudicial killings, attacks on civilians, forced labor, torture, pillage, and use of antipersonnel landmines. Sexual violence against women and girls remains a serious problem, and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. The KIA and some other ethnic armed groups have also committed serious abuses, such as using child soldiers and antipersonnel landmines. [Source: Human Rights Watch <<]

According to the U.S. State Department” “We are deeply concerned about reports of continuing human rights and religious freedom violations in the ethnic nationality regions, including reports of sexual violence, the use of churches as military bases by the Burmese army in Kachin State, and coerced religious conversions in Chin state. We remain concerned about the situation in Rakhine State, which has resulted in more than 100,000 internally displaced persons since violence erupted in June and October 2012. [Source: U.S. State Department, Human Rights in Burma, February 18, 2013]

Tomas Ojea Quintana, the U.N. special rapporteur on Burma has expressed concern over alleged abuses in Arakan State and calling for a credible investigation and a review of the 1982 Citizenship Law, which he said discriminates against Rohingya. He also voiced concern about ongoing abuses in Kachin State and the need to release remaining political prisoners. <<

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continue to invest in and trade extensively with Burma, especially in the extractive and hydropower industries. Burma continued to earn billions of US dollars in natural gas sales to Thailand, little of which is directed into social services such as health care and education. Gas dollars will increase markedly when a gas pipeline from Arakan State to Yunnan in China is operational in 2013. Work continues on that project, which passes through northern Shan State where the Burmese army has moved in to secure territory and where armed conflict has led to abuses such as torture, forced labor, and forced displacement of Kachin and Shan. <<

Rape of Minority Women by the Myanmar Military

Minorities claim soldiers enter villages are rape and pillage and murder and kidnap young men for the Burmese army. The army has been accused of carrying out mass punitive rapes of women, targeting ethnic minorities. In many cases the tactics are intended to control and terrorize ethic population and is believed to be to have been systematically carried out. This is in clear violation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which Myanmar has ratified.

A report by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Woman’s Action Network detailed rapes of at least 625 girls and women by Burmese army troops in the Shan state and said that rape was used as a “weapon of war.” A report by Refugees International entitled No Safe Place documents 63 rapes among Karen, Karenni. Mon, Tavoyan and Han minorities.

Many of rape victims, including a 13-year-old girl, had been gang raped by soldiers. Many were caught as they fled for refugee camps in Thailand. According to the Refugees International reported the rapes took place at military bases 20 percent of the time; high-ranking officers participated in a third of the cases; and the perpetrators were rarely punished and when they were the punishments were weak. The report said in some areas 75 percent of the women have been raped or know someone who has and have convincing physical evidence to back up their claims.

Myanmar Deprives 'Millions' of Vote in Ethnic Areas

Kelly Macnamara of AFP wrote: “Myanmar is scrapping voting in swathes of insurgency-plagued ethnic areas in its first election in two decades -- a move criticised as excluding millions from a poll already seen as undemocratic. State media announced late Thursday that around 300 villages across Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon and Shan states would be excluded from the November 7 election because conditions are not in place for a "free and fair" vote. One Shan leader, who did not want to be named, estimated that in that state alone about two million people -- around 30 percent of the population -- would not get the opportunity to vote. "It's because of the security there," he said. [Source: Kelly Macnamara, AFP, October 21, 2012 ++]

“The "Tatmadaw" state army, which has ruled since 1962, has long fought to control the country's ethnic rebel groups, some of whom have waged decades-long armed uprisings, claiming neglect and mistreatment. The entire region in Shan state controlled by the military wing of the ethnic Wa, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has been excluded from the vote, the Shan leader said. Other groups operating in the affected areas include the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army and the Karen National Liberation Army. ++

“Thailand-based Saw David Taw of the Ethnic Nationalities Council -- a coalition of Myanmar ethnic groups -- said the junta had shied away from a vote in areas where there is friction with rebels, even though some had agreed peace pacts. "It seems to me they have a tense relationship with the ceasefire groups," he said. Trevor Wilson, an academic and former Australian ambassador to Myanmar, said the junta had been forced to admit "in a very dramatic and specific way the shortcomings they have in exercising control over the country". He said the Wa, a group associated with a vast drug smuggling operation that some say funds its weapons and troops, had instructed citizens in its areas not to participate in the election. ++

“But the move to scrap polls in some areas -- which comes after some ethnic minority parties were not permitted to register for the election -- further undermines the credibility of the vote, Wilson added. "The parliaments are going to be even less representative and less inclusive than anybody might have expected," he said. Affected areas are not expected to have any representative in parliament. Soe Aung, spokesman for the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said the latest restriction showed the military regime's "true colors" when it comes to dealing with ethnic groups. ++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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