Burma: End the repression of ethnic minorities before elections

Burma’s government must halt its repression of ethnic minority activists before forthcoming national and local elections, Amnesty International warned in a major report released today.

The 58-page report, The Repression of ethnic minority activists in Burma, draws on accounts from more than 700 activists from the seven largest ethnic minorities, including the Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Chin, covering a two-year period from August 2007.

The authorities have arrested, imprisoned, and in some cases tortured or even killed ethnic minority activists. Minority groups have also faced extensive surveillance, harassment and discrimination when trying to carry out their legitimate activities.

  • Troops refused to rescue a pregnant woman in the wake of Cyclone Nargis when she told them she was Karen and Christian
  • A retired member of the staff New Mon State Party medical staff was tortured to death by soldiers
  • On 7 January 2008, authorities arrested Sai Maung Tun, 25, a member of the Shan Literature and Cultural Committee (SLCC). He had sung a Shan song at the Shan New Year celebration in Mong Yai township (held 1-4 January)
  • In late 2007, soldiers gang raped four Kachin girls, all under 18, for singing Kachin sings at a karaoke club. The story was covered by BBC Burmese and as a result the girls were caned in front of their classmates and sentenced to a year in prison for defaming the government. The soldiers escaped without punishment

Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma expert, said:

'Ethnic minorities play an important but seldom acknowledged role in Burma’s [Burma’s] political opposition. The government has responded to this activism in a heavy-handed manner, raising fears that repression will intensify before the elections.'

Many activists told Amnesty International that they faced repression as part of a larger movement, as in Rakhine and Kachin States during the 2007 Buddhist monk-led ‘Saffron Revolution’. Witnesses described the killings and torture of monks and others by the security forces during its violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in those states.

Others said they were pursued for specific actions, such as organising an anti-dam signature campaign in Kachin State.

Benjamin Zawacki said:

'Activism in Burma is not confined to the central regions and urban centres. Any resolution of the country’s deeply troubling human rights record has to take into account the rights and aspirations of the country’s large population of ethnic minorities.'

More than 2,100 political prisoners, including many from ethnic minorities, languish in Burma’s jails in deplorable conditions. Most are prisoners of conscience who have expressed their beliefs peacefully.

Amnesty International urged the government to lift restrictions on freedom of association, assembly, and religion in the run-up to the elections; to release immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience; and to remove restrictions on independent media to cover the campaigning and election process.

Amnesty International called on Burma’s neighbours in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China, Burma’s biggest international supporter, to push the government to ensure that the people of Burma will be able to freely express their opinions, gather peacefully, and participate openly in the political process.

Benjamin Zawacki added:

'The government of Burma should use the elections as an opportunity to improve its human rights record, not as a spur to increase repression of dissenting voices, especially those from the ethnic minorities.'

Background:

Ethnic minorities constitute some 35-40 percent of the country’s population, and form the majority in the seven ethnic minority states. Each of the country’s largest seven ethnic minorities has engaged in armed insurgencies against the government, some of which continue to date.

Amnesty International has documented serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity by the government in the context of the Burma army’s campaigns against ethnic minority insurgent groups and civilians.

Read the full report: 'The repression of ethnic minority activists in Burma ' (PDF)

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