Is "Peace" Really a Weapon to Help The Long Suffering Burmese People?

[This article, written by Dr. Alice Khin Saw Win -- a director of Burma Watch International, appeared in the 1999 Vol. XIV No. 3 issue of "Speaking About Rights" -- a newsletter of the Montreal-based Canadian Human Rights Foundation.]

Take more than 47.5 million men and women, not including approximately half a million army personnel. Force them to work for free at gun-point. Starve them. Abuse them verbally and physically, and call anyone who disagrees with the government a traitor or infidel.

This is a picture of Burma's illegitimate military regime, the self-proclaimed "State Peace and Development Council" (which renamed the country Myanmar). Millions of Burmese, particularly those involved in the development of peace and democracy, and including members of ethnic minorities, suffer through brutality and subjugation as the order of the day. No one in Burma lives in freedom.

Burma: a 38-year dictatorship

In 1962, after 14 years of democracy, a group of army general led by General Ne Win, the commander-in-chief, staged a military coup, installed a new government dominated by the military and eradicated all traces of democracy in Burma. There was only one party, called the Burma Socialist Party (BSP), and no other political parties were allowed. Since then, the BSP totally isolated Burma from world communities. The military controlled every aspect of Burmese life, including the media, education and the economy. Throughout the next 26 years, periodic protests and bursts of ethnic insurgency were easily subdued by the army.

Finally, in August of 1988, due to continued political oppression and economic hardship, Burma erupted with "People's Power" street demonstrations. A nation-wide uprising, on August 8, was brutally gunned down by army troops, killing thousands of unarmed demonstrators, including schoolchildren, pregnant women, and Buddhist monks. Soon after, with mounting international pressure, the regime had no other choice but to allow the establishment of political parties.

An election was held in May 1990. The National League for Democracy party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi (winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful struggle for freedom and democracy in Burma,) won a landslide victory, sweeping 82 per cent of the parliamentary seats, and this while Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

Rather than concede power to the elected party, the military regime (at that time called the State of Law and Order Restoration Council) ignored the election result and launched a strengthened campaign of intimidation, torture, and detention. The repression and hardships became worse and continue to the present day.

A deteriorating situation

Over the last 11 years, the demands of the Burmese people for peace and justice have not only been neglected, but the situation is getting even worse. Economically, conditions have sunk to such a level that hospitals cannot provide patients with any medicine at affordable prices.

According to UNICEF(1), the infant mortality rate in 1996 is 105 per 1,000 live births compared with 33 in Vietnam, 31 in Thailand and 11 in Malaysia. One million Burmese children are reported to be malnourished. The incidence of HIV/AIDS is increasing at alarming rates with estimates that as many as 500,000 people are HIV positive at the present time. The health of the population cannot be isolated from the political situation in the country. Under present conditions, it is possible that people's health will continue to deteriorate.

In terms of education, the colleges and universities have been closed for the past 11 years, and more than half a million children of primary school age are dropping out of school because of poor economic situations.

If foreign investments are numerous in Burma, they only help the military junta. French oil giant Total and US-owned Unocal have been in business with Burma's military regime since 1992. Since the Yadana gas pipeline project began in Southern Burma in 1992, villagers have been forcibly relocated and coerced into serving as porters for soldiers protecting the pipeline and into building support facilities for the project. American politicians, members of the information mission on oil and gas corporations, have reported that the Burmese army imposed forced labour in the Yadana project, and they have evidence that the pipeline area workers were "hired" by the military and not the oil companies (2).

Concerning human rights violations, every kind of documented atrocity has been committed in Burma. Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Commission have documented religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced relocations of indigenous communities, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, the use of civilians as human minesweepers, and gang rapes (3).

Because of these deteriorating conditions, the National League for Democracy formed a committee representing the People's Parliament in mid-September 1998 and has repeatedly tried to initiate dialogue with the junta. The party's intention is for Burma to follow the democratic process in a non-violent systematic way. It gave ten members power-or-attorney to act on behalf of the MPs elected and earned recognition from a number of international governments and organizations. International bodies such as the United States, those of the European Union and Australia have been trying hard to push for an official dialogue between the junta and the National League for Democracy. These efforts are fuelled by mounting evidence of the complicity of the Burmese junta in the international drug trade. More than 80 per cent of the heroin in Canada and the United States originates in Burma. So far, international efforts to curb this trade have been to no avail.

Is peace possible for Burma?

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, said that "One of the major challenges we continue to face at the close of twentieth century is the achievement of genuine lasting world peace." (4) In May 1999 the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference, held in the The Netherlands, defined "peace" as not only the absence of conflict between and with states, but also the absence of economic and social injustice. They have appealed for improvements in humanitarian law and the creation of a culture of peace for the world's oppressed people. With recent events in East Timor, it is clear that the democratically expressed will of the people should not be overturned through violence and intimidation. As in East Timor, the Burmese people are lacking peace in their own country and continue to live with severe oppression.

In September 1999, a group of student activists infiltrated the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, took approximately 89 hostages and demanded peace and democracy in Burma. Eventually, the hostages were released without injury after being held for 25 hours. This act of violence at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok came about as the direct consequence of many acts of injustice and cruelty repeatedly perpetuated by the military regime in Burma. The student activists were desperate and frustrated and, as it was observed, they did not use violence gratuitously but as a means of deterrence. This was evident by the feedback from the hostages, who expressed their support for the cause of the captors when they were released.

The experience of East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, to name a few, has taught us that violence does not lessen if we turn away; rather it escalates and grows in power and atrocity until people finally have no option but to resort to violence themselves.

The Hague Appeal also demanded the speedy and effective intervention of humanitarian forces. It is extraordinary that so little attention has been paid to the idea of establishing a standing intervention force. Civil society should consider new forms of civilian intervention as a matter of urgency.

We have witnessed successful experiments with active non-violence struggles for independence and civil rights by unarmed people's movements. We have seen the replacement of dictators by democratic governance. The people of Burma have suffered grievously and still suffer in their struggle for the restoration of democracy in their country. Democracy is the only system that ensures respect for basic human rights; without these rights there can be no peace in the world. It is time for the international community and the United Nations to face what is happening in Burma and intervene diplomatically to enable democracy and peace to become a reality.


1. Chelala, Gesay, Burma: A Country's Health in Crisis. The Lancet 1998, vol. 352, p. 1230.
2. FIDH report on Thai/Burmese Gas Pipeline 23-9-96. Katz Alex, Unocal implicated in Burma Strife, LA Weekly.
3. UN Resolution on Burma, Fifty-second Session, Third Committee, A/c.3/52/L.63, November 1997. 1997, Amnesty International Report on Burma.
4. Handerson, Michael, All Her Paths Are Peace: Women Pioneers In Peace Making, Forward, 1994, Kumaraian Press.

Alice Khin Saw Win is a Faculty Lecturer at the University of Alberta, in the Faculty of Nursing and Medicine. She is also one of the directors of Burma Watch International and was one of the leaders in organizing the participation of health professionals in the people's demonstrations in Burma in 1988.




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