Concealed Ethnic Cleansing in Burma

By Mai Mang Khan Cing (Bianca Son)


The modern political history of Burma reads like a checklist of political experiments “gone bad.”  Before British rule, Burma consisted of independent kingdoms, princely states, chiefdoms and independent communities.  Under British rule, the above mentioned all became a part of British India.  After Independence in 1947, the Union of Burma was formed. General Aung San, father of the famous Nobel laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, drafted a Constitution.  Part of the draft Constitution was the Panlong Agreement in which General Aung San promised the non-Burman, e.g. the ethnic minorities equality and autonomy.  However, just months after the Panlong agreement, General Aung San and his entire cabinet were assassinated.  U Nu took over and the draft constitution was altered, betraying both the letter and spirit of the Panlong Agreement.  The amendments invalidated the recognition of the formerly proud nations and all were claimed under the same umbrella–the Union of Burma. The former independent states did not then, nor now, identify themselves as “Burmese.” After a military coup, Burma became a military dictatorship under General Ne Win.  The military dictatorship continues in present day.

The Military regime is not about politics, rather about power.  There are no attempts to invade other countries to gain larger territories, resources or to spread its ideology—whatever that may be.  Their primary goal, as it appears, is for economic power—more specifically, money for those in-charge, namely the military heads of power. Burma is abundant in natural resources.  It has rich teak forests, mineral wealth and natural gas.  Moreover, it is strategically placed within Southeast Asia.   The natural resources are often located in the hill areas that are occupied by the ethnic minorities who are, typically, subsistence farmers. Besides the natural resources, the ethnic minorities are also an abounding source of forced labor—and are used till they are, literally and actually, an exhausted human resource.  These Ethnic minorities often rebel by creating insurgent groups to fight the Burmese military.   Therefore, Burma has no enemies other than its own people—the ethnic minorities.  Not only do they rise up as insurgent groups, occasionally alert the international community and report about the atrocities happening in Burma, they also occupy valuable territories.  It is, therefore, crucial for the regime to “cleanse” itself of these ethnic minorities.  In order to avoid international intervention, the Burmese regime operates to achieve its end in concealment. In this paper, it is argued that the Burmese have managed to conceal overt ethnic cleansing by avoiding outright mass murder, employing isolationism and forced migration.

Ethnic Cleansing Defined

The definition of ethnic cleansing is contested.  The scholar, Angelica Means argues the definition of ethnic cleansing, “The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ has a long usage. It refers to the removal of one group to achieve the cohesion necessary for state formation and nation-building. The theory is that ‘one people, one state’ lessens internal violence, and actually makes possible the comity of states.”    This is certainly true in the case of Burma.  One reason that the Burmese military actively attacks ethnic groups is due, in part, to the high number of opposition and insurgent groups.  Vumson (2001) argued that Ne Win fostered insurgent groups in order to justify the attacks, displacement, and killings of ethnic groups.    A more appropriate definition may be, “Although ‘ethnic cleansing’ is not formally defined under international law, a U.N. Commission of Experts has defined the term as a ‘purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas. . . . This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups.”   

In 2003, using the above definition, the United States government passed a bill stating that what is happening in Burma is, in fact, ethnic cleansing.  It reads, “ (6) The SPDC is engaged in ethnic cleansing against minorities within Burma, including the Karen, Karenni, and Shan people, which constitutes a crime against humanity and has directly led to more than 600,000 internally displaced people living within Burma and more than 130,000 people from Burma living in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.”

The above solidifies the argument that ethnic cleansing is occurring in Burma.  Further, it is important to state that the notion of ethnic cleansing may evoke impressions of campaigns.  Campaigns are usually held in short periods of time where much energy and focus is given to a specific end.   In Nazi Germany, for instance, ethnic cleansing occurred in a relatively short period of time—a matter of five to seven years.   The ethnic cleansing of Kosovo also happened in a relatively short period.  “Relative” in that other cases of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and or attempts at ethnic cleansing took longer to achieve.  The occupation of Korea by the Japanese, for example, took over a century.  Although the term “ethnic cleansing” is rather modern, the acts of the Japanese fall under the same definition.  The Japanese invaded Korea and forced Koreans to take Japanese names and disallowed the Korean language.  Their intent was to take the Korean peninsula and make it Japanese.  The English invaded Wales and also disallowed the use of the Welsh language.  The Welsh claim, today, that the English attempted to cleanse ethnic Welsh by forcing them to become English.   In short, ethnic-cleansing campaigns may take decades to achieve.  The Burmese are not rounding up ethnic groups and murdering them.  They are proceeding slowly.  If they were to do so, the ethnic cleansing could not occur in concealment.

Avoidance of Mass Murder
One way the regime employs ethnic cleansing is by using ethnic minorities as land mine sweepers. Land mines are victim-activated weapons that kill or maim its victims—indiscriminately. Burma is second to Afghanistan in land mine victims–surpassing Cambodia.  Evidence suggests that at least one person falls victim to a land mine each day.  Further, Burma’s regime has refused to sign the Mine Ban Treaty at the UN in 1999.   The regime plants mines on supply and escape routes used by refugees, villagers, or insurgent and resistance groups. Of late, land mines are also planted to “protect” oil pipelines and natural gas pipelines which run through both, Eastern and Western Burma. Some ethnic insurgents group plant landmines to protect themselves against the military regime.  However, they themselves are likely to be maimed or killed by these mines. Often villagers who have been forcibly relocated will attempt to return to his/her “motherland.” where they fall victim to a mine.  

One interviewee described being a human land mind sweeper for the Burmese military, “…[I] was forced to seek mines using a long sharpened bamboo prod, piercing the ground and removing any found mines by hand.”  Along the same journey, two other villager porters stepped on landmines and both of them were immediately killed. ”  

Other villagers had similar stories.  One man reported that, “On 2nd March, the SPDC  troops came to my home village in Karen State; just a few hours walk from the Thai border. The villagers tried to escape to the forest, taking with them what they could. When the troops arrived, they caught the chicken, killed the pigs and burned down some houses. They also destroyed the rice stocks. One villager was killed and the landmines planted by the soldiers maimed two thers. Three other villagers were forced to work as army porters, to walk ahead of the troops in the front line.”
Fink (2001) also interviewed an ethnic minority who spoke about his experience as a human land mine sweeper. Cho Zin who lived near the Thai-Burma border explained that in 1996, he along with dozens other villagers were forced to sweep for mines.  The Burmese Army told them to clear the route, “…with their legs…” (p. 126).  Two land mine sweepers including Cho Zin stepped on mines.  The other two died on the spot-instantly.  Cho Zin was lucky.   Fellow villagers got him to a hospital in Thailand, his lower leg was amputated and he survived. According to Cho Zin, in the four or five villages near his own, there were over a hundred amputees.

Forced Labor

The regime also uses the ethnic minorities as forced labor for numerous projects from creating space for an oil pipeline to building palaces for tourism.  According to a None Governmental Organization ( NGO), “Gendersite,” the use of Ethnic minorities as a means of forced labor is widespread and responsible for thousands of deaths each year.     The International Labor Organization (ILO) has described forced labor in Myanmar as “an endemic abuse affecting hundreds of thousands of workers who [are] subjected to the most extreme forms of exploitation.”

Forced labor is employed to deforest Burma. Keating (1997) interviewed villagers, “Everyone in an unnamed town and its surrounding area were forced to work in rotating shifts. Each village and section of town was directed to send people to work two of each three months. ‘Each day,’ reported one conscript, ‘My section of town has to send [as many as] 20 people, depending on how many the soldiers demand. There are 60 houses in my section. I’ve had to go twice to cut the trees, for one day each time. We had to take all our own tools, machetes and saws. They make us cut everything down, even the bamboo trees. Then we have to dig out the stumps too, and give them to the Army. It’s all taken away by Army trucks”    Keating further argues that as the forests are cleared out, the rainwater runs off instead being reabsorbed.  This will eventually lead to drought leaving the people without means for growing their own food.

Another example of forced labor is the “Death Ponds”. About 20,000 people have been forced to dig ponds each dry season. Villagers must provide all their own tools or work with their hands. Each family is assigned two ponds and must also use the excavated earth to build smooth terraces around on which they must plant banana trees. These ponds will eventually serve as cooling off sites for tourists.  People who are forced to dig these ponds have named them the “Death Ponds”, because more than 100 people have already died of sickness and exhaustion made worse by sunstroke while working on the project. Officers of the Southern Command have driven out all of the subsistence farmers who used to own this land. This illustrates both, forced labor as well as forced migration.  

Prisoners are also a source of labor.  The conditions are treacherous, especially in the Mon State, which boasts several mineral and semi-precious excavating mines.  Prisoners starve to death, die of exposure, are killed in accidents involving mine explosions, are beaten to death and many commit suicide because of the atrocious conditions.

Further, for villagers to lose a family member for even one week can be devastating in terms of income.  Worse is when the family member becomes ill with malaria or dysentery.  Many die from work related injuries.  Zaw Htun on the Thazi dam in northwestern Burma explains that in 1995, he and his brother were forced to build the dam under constant guard of Burmese soldiers.  The soldiers were always drunk; they molested the girls and women and beat them indiscriminately. Some were beaten to death and their bodies were simply thrown into the jungle
Fink (2001).  Again, although no overt mass murders are occurring, the ethnic minorities are slowly being killed.

Prohibition of Foreign Journalists

In order to keep the international community from realizing the atrocity occurring in Burma, the military government does not allow any foreign journalists into the country.  In fact, even local journalists are under scrutiny.

Burma is not the first nation that has prohibited foreign media.  The Chinese were notorious for keeping foreign media out of its borders.  The Tianaman Square media coverage came about when a Mikhail Gorbachev was to visit China in May 1989.  Students took advantage of the foreign press and created signs and banners designed to gain international attention.  The Chinese government appeared to have had trouble managing the protests and thus, did not respond immediately.  This way, the international media was not forced out immediately and managed to capture the protests.  Eventually, CNN and the BBC were thrown out of the country and coverage was terminated.  Still, the Tianaman Square Massacre brought the world’s attention to the Human Rights violations occurring in China.  The Burmese government is aware of the impact journalists may have and go to great lengths to avoid international attention.

One paramount event in Burma’s modern history was an uprising that, virtually, eluded the international media.  The uprising of students and common people alike occurred in August of 1988 referred to as “8888”.  There was virtually no coverage of the protests since foreign journalists had long been prohibited.  In this way, Burma was able to shield itself from international scrutiny, from criticism and intervention.  That is, the generals in Burma benefited from Burma’s relative low profile on the international stage.  In terms of inside Burma, however, paranoia is justified.  Although difficult to document, it is said that in every fifth house and every third person in a teashop may be a spy for the regime.  It is dangerous to discuss politics and worse yet, to speak to foreigners—everyone is a potential journalist.  And journalists may report to the world that the Burmese regime is cleansing itself of ethnic minorities and anyone else who opposes them.

Foreign journalists are not the only ones prohibited.  Burmese journalists face even greater risks.  That is, media in Burma is strictly state-controlled and functions strictly as a mouthpiece of the government.  Media personnel who resist government control are either jailed or forced to leave the country. U Thaung, publisher and editor of a newspaper Mirror Daily, was one amongst them.  He was jailed for three years by the government for his criticism against the government.  Most journalists eventually leave Burma and continue their work in foreign countries reporting on the ethnic cleansing.  However, because the international community is slow to recognize the regime’s actions, many are deported back and are either imprisoned or killed.  Some simply “disappear”.


Along with Burma’s admittance to ASEAN, hope emerged that there would be constructive engagement–that ASEAN’s non-intervention policy would be upheld whilst creating a road map for Burma’s future.  However, once Burma became part of ASEAN, its members were even more strongly tied to the non-intervention policy. (Guan, 2001)  This caused a rift between the European Union and ASEAN and meetings were suspended for several years.  When meetings resumed, several EU members did not attend, perhaps in protest.  Guan continues by addressing Burma’s economic situation.  He focuses on the fact that Burma must reduce its isolationism in order to participate in global economics and that its reliance on China is not viable–economically.  However, although Guan’s argument has merit in terms of economics, the isolation Burma employs is not only a means of hanging on to political power, but also to conceal the atrocities committed in Burma.  Ganesan (2006) has a similar argument, that ASEAN’s non-intervention policy in Burma is allowing Burma to further slip into poverty.  He further argues that Burma’s tentative openness for dialogue involving Aun San Suu Kyi is improving its position.  Still, although he mentions the atrocities and ethnic cleansing, Ganesan refers to them as “…secondary issues…(p. 32).  Needless to say, the Burmese regime appears to cooperate, yet the reality of its ethnic cleansing remains concealed.

Another country actively employing isolationism is North Korea.  It is often refereed to as the “Hermit Kingdom”.  It is the only country that had its communist dictatorship pass from father to son.  Few outsiders have entered North Korea.  When foreigners, be it journalists or potential investors do enter the country, visits are always limited to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.  Foreigners are never permitted to visit the country side which is said to be a wasteland and where thousands of people are, literally, starving to death while Kim Jong Il holds on to his ideology of “self-reliance.”   Like Burma, North Korea realizes that isolationism means protection from the international community.  That is to say, if the world were aware of the atrocities occurring in both countries, governments and/or other organizations may be compelled to intervene.

One example of such intervention is Kosova.  The ethnic cleansing occurring there were so treacherous that the UN finally elected to stop the overt ethnic cleansing happening in Kosova.   A United States Government 2001 Executive summary reads:

“Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo: An Accounting.  [It] is a new chapter in our effort to document the extent of human rights and humanitarian law violations in Kosovo, and to convey the size and scope of the Kosovo conflict. The information in this report is drawn from refugee accounts, NGO documentation, press accounts, and declassified information from government and international organization sources. The atrocities against Kosovar Albanians documented in this report occurred primarily between March and late June 1999. This document is a follow-up to the U.S. Department of State’s previous human rights report, Erasing History: Ethnic Cleansing in Kosovo, which was released on May 10, 1999. The report reads, “A central question is the number of Kosovar Albanian victims of Serbian forces in Kosovo. Many bodies were found… in June 1999. The evidence is also now clear that Serbian forces conducted a systematic campaign to burn or destroy bodies, or to bury the bodies, then rebury them to conceal evidence of Serbian crimes. On June 4, at the end of the conflict, the Department of State issued the last of a series of weekly ethnic cleansing reports… at least 6,000 Kosovar Albanians were victims of mass murder, with an unknown number of victims of individual killings, and an unknown number of bodies burned or destroyed by Serbian forces throughout the conflict.”  

The Burmese regime learned a great lesson from Kosova.  If the world were aware of the ethnic cleansing occurring, intervention would be sent and the regime dismantled.  That is, the above clearly indicates the power the international community has to stop atrocities.  If, again, they are concealed however, atrocities continue without intervention.

Forced Migration

Forced migration is another means of ethnic cleansing. The International Association for the Study of Forced Migration defines forced migration as “…a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (people displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.”
The manner in which forced migration is employed are numerous.  Three ways of achieving ethnic cleansing by forcing ethnic minorities to leave their territories, is by attacking the identities of ethnic minorities as related to their belongingness to their soil.  Other means are the use of systematic rape and the creation of human zoos on the borders of Burma.

Disconnection from Soil

Malkki (2006) discusses the notion of identity as related to soil. She questions, “…[ is it] necessary to rethink the question of roots in relation–if not to the soul—to identity, and to the forms of its territorilization.   The metaphorical concept of having roots involves intimate linkages between people and places…” (p. 24).  Malkki emphasizes the fact that scholars have argued that people have emotional ties to their soil.  She gives examples such as the fact that bodies and ashes of deceased are often transported back to their original homelands for burial to, “…the land where the genealogical tree of the ancestors grows (p. 27).”   Similarly, the Karen report that military soldiers cut down the very trees where Karen bury their miscarried and stillborn infants.   The trees, for the Karen, take on a symbolic meaning of life.  By cutting the trees down, they, literally become detached from their own soil (Fisher, 2006).

By extension, Malkki argues the fact that deterritorilization and identity are intimately linked as well.  Formulating her argument that identity and soil are not necessarily connected and that the assumption of it may have negative impacts; she quotes Cirtautus, “Homelessness is a serious threat to moral behavior…At the moment the refugee crosses the frontiers of his own world, his whole moral outlook, his attitude toward the divine order of life changes… [The refugees] conduct makes it obvious that we are dealing with individuals who are basically amoral, without any sense of personal or social responsibility…They no longer feel themselves bound by ethical precepts which every honest citizen…respects.  They become a menace, dangerous characters who will stop at nothing (p. 32).”  That is to say, the homeless person, as the Burmese government has assigned its ethnic minorities, are seen as potential dangers and must either be controlled or forced out of their regions. The Burmese government has itself told the international media that they are attacking the Karen State, because they want to protect themselves against “terrorist insurgents.”  As stated above, the minorities are often seen as a threat, especially once they are forced out of their own territories.  


Another means of forced migration is the overt use of rape.   A report released last year focused on the rape of Chin women (Zahau, 2005).   Her report is based on actual interviews of rape victims.  She interviewed villagers inside Chin State and on the Chin border over a period of five months. All interviewees were aware that their story was one among many.  However, in fear of retaliation from the Burmese soldiers as well as fear of social stigma kept many from sharing their stories. The Chin have strong Christian beliefs. Victims of rape often blame themselves and are shamed for having lost their virginity making them impure and unfit for marriage. Silence is often the only option.   After the rapes, many victims devote their lives to religion in an attempt to deal with their shame and trauma.  Some victims, in an attempt to adhere to their religious beliefs, accept marriage proposals from their rapists.  Other victims leave their villages in fear of further attacks.

Zahau further reports that in an effort to further “Burmanization,” the regime supports Burmese soldiers raping Chin women. Burmese soldiers are promised 100,000 kyat should they marry an educated Chin woman.   Yet, Chin women who marry Burmese soldiers have no legal protection.  If their spouse and/or father of their children abandon them, they have no legal recourse and are forced to raise their children without any financial support; while living in shame within their communities. Brutal beatings and gang rape is also a form of punishment for women who the Burmese authorities suspect supporting insurgent groups.

Kachin women’s rights groups have also issued a report, “Driven Away” which focused on the rape of women and girls in the Kachin State.  First, soldiers rape these girls who often opt to escape into China.  Some girls are sold to work in brothels or to become of the wives of Chinese men.  One young girl explains that her own aunt-a drug addict sold her to a trafficker.  She managed to escape and returned home.  Many others, however, disappear or are found murdered.  The Burmese regime has made no efforts to stop the trafficking of women. (Kachin Women’s Association, Thailand 1999)

Shan women’s organization also published a report, “License to Rape” in which they illustrated dozen of rape cases of Shan women by Burmese soldiers.  Their report mentioned migration after rape.  It reads, “In twenty-two of the cases documented (13%), the women, with or without their families, moved to Thailand following the rape. In some of these cases, the women moved immediately after the rape, in fear of further assault. In one of these cases, the 18-year-old woman was encouraged to leave by the village headman: Worried for her safety, he told her, ‘If you have a place to go, you should go. If you have a place to move, you should move. You shouldn’t face those soldiers again.’ And so Naang Yin (not her real name) stayed on the move, spending each night at a different relative’s house. Her parents were anxious about her security, but they didn’t dare complain to the military for fear of repercussions. Ten days after her release (from detention and gang rape), Naang Yin’s mother took her to Thailand. (Case 133).“

Other reports of rape are replete.  The trauma of rape or the mere fear of rape forces girls and women to flee.  In some cases, such in the case of the Arakanese, entire communities flee to Bangladesh.  That is, although these women and/or communities are not murdered outright, they are still being cleansed out of Burma.  Hence, clearly it is simply a matter of concealed ethnic cleansing.

Religious Persecution

Under the umbrella of forced migration as a means of ethnic cleansing also falls Religious Persecution.  One method of attacking the minorities’ religion, recently reported by the Women’s League of Chinland (Zahau 2006), is to force ethnic women to marry Burmese soldiers.  Many ethnic minorities such as the Chin and some of the Karen are Christian.  Hence, marrying a Burmese soldier means forfeiting her religious beliefs. Burmese soldiers are reportedly paid for marrying, and thus converting, an ethnic minority or a person who practices Christianity. On the other hand, according to Fisher (2006), many of these soldiers “convert” to Christianity temporarily, until they are asked to join a different post, in which case, they denounce Christianity often even leaving the wife and children abandoned.  Zahau further reports that although the ethnic community may be aware of the women’s situations, that their ‘husband’ abandoned them, they are no longer willing to accept her as a member of their community.  Hence, that woman is encouraged, internally (by herself) and by others to leave the community because she is no longer pure and thus, no longer a “good” Christian.   Although leaving the community may not destroy her ethnic identity, but it certainly will be difficult to maintain given that communication is virtually impossible in Burma.  Without continued interaction with her community, which fosters identity, she may eventually distance herself completely—as is reported by Zahau.

More open religious persecution perpetrated by the Burmese is the destruction of Christian symbols.  A non-governmental organization, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported that in 2005, a giant Christian cross on a mountaintop in one of the ethnic minority districts was destroyed by Burmese troops.  It was destroyed on direct order of the highest-ranking military commanders in the region. After destroying the 50-foot cross, Burmese soldiers hoisted a massive Burmese flag in its place and announced plans to build a Buddhist pagoda on that site in the near future.

There is also a Muslim Ethnic minority in Arakan, in the southwestern region of Burma, otherwise known as the Rohinga.  The Rohingas have experienced decades of discrimination and have been forced to flee into Bangladesh primarily because of their religious orientation. The Rohinga have reportedly suffered from systematic rape, which has caused entire communities to flee into neighboring Bangladesh (Zahau 2005).   The government refuses to give citizenship status to Muslim Rohingas because there is no recorded history of their ancestors having occupied Burma during British rule.  

There have been further reports that Muslims residing in the capital of Rangoon suffer religious persecution as well.  In 2001, it was reported that several men from the Arakan State were forced off a bus and imprisoned.  Some were sentenced to seven years in prison for travelling without proper identification papers.   In 2001, a Muslim man was taken off a plane in Kawthaung airport in southern Burma, bound for Rangoon without apparent reason; his ticket was cancelled.    Clearly, again, these Muslim ethnic minorities are discriminated against, have their identities attacked and are forced to migrate to avoid further persecution, the rape of their women, or worse risk of incarceration and even death.

The primarily Buddhist Burmese military does not only persecute differing religions, they in fact, persecute other fellow Buddhists as well — ethnic minority Buddhists.  In the case of the Shan, which are located in the central eastern region, Burmese military soldiers have reportedly slipped old shoes and underwear into the wet concrete of pagoda constructions to defile the purity of the temple (Fisher, 2006).  Hence, religious persecution is a significant means of ethnic persecution not only for ethnic minorities who are Christians or Muslim, but for the Buddhist ethnic minorities as well.  Religious persecution is an effective means of attacking identity-forcing minorities to leave their regions, individually or collectively.  Once they are out of their territories, it is extremely difficult for them to maintain identity.  One reason is that once they are disconnected from their “motherlands”, they are no longer permitted to speak in their mother tongues and are forced to take on Burmese names—further forfeiting their sense of identity (Mirante, 1993, 2005; Fink 2001; Carey, 1999).

Eminent Domain
Another means of ethnic cleansing through forced migration is the regime’s claim of its “eminent domain.”  Burma is rich in natural resources such as lush forests and minerals.   Most natural resources are located in ethnic minority regions.  These regions are also important for the regime in that it lays oil pipelines from and to the Yunnan region of China. Natural gas pipelines are laid in the Arakan State. The government often relocates entire towns displacing whole communities in order to claim the resources or the land.

Recently the Chinese government bought mineral rights to Chin State’s Mwe Taung mining area.  in order to harvest the precious and semi-precious minerals.   Recently, natural gas was discovered in the Arakan region in Eastern Burma.  Ethnic minorities are being forced out of their regions.  Gas and oil pipelines now run through towns and land mines are laid to “protect” the pipelines.  In fact, it keeps ethnic minorities from returning home to their villages.  They are forced to migrate and become displaced either inside Burma or they migrate into neighboring Bangladesh.

The forest is also considered “eminent domain” by the regime and deforestation is prevailing in Burma.  A Chin pastor explains, “There is a forest about six miles from a village called Tlauhmun. We call it Aikon forest. It’s a forest that has grown for probably hundreds of years. In 1999-2000 the military forced the people to cut down all these trees. The military had the trees sawed into planks for building. Then they sell the planks and get the money. They sold the lumber to the Public Works Department, which is also a government agency. They used it for bridges – but this “hual” wood is not good for bridges, so in a year or two the wood gets rotten. The vicious cycle goes on. The military get the money for their living. Sometime last year, [a man] was forced to move a log, but he could not because the log was too big. So they shot him, but he did not die. The government gives permits to businessmen, mostly Chinese, to cut the wood, and take the gold and cane for trading. Because of the logging and mining, most of the mountains and the hillsides have been emptied of forests. Everything’s changed, even the wildlife. In the past we heard the sounds of wildlife. But no more. They all ran away. You can hardly see any wild animals in the area anymore.”    Eventually the people, like the wildlife, will have to leave their territories as well.  Johanson (2003) argues that the “…indigenous people in Burma…have been impressed into slave labor to harvest the world’s last sizable forests of teak by the country’s military rulers…[who have] been logging roads to allow access for oil and gas exploration in indigenous homelands.  Many of these forests are home to rare species, such as the Asian Rhino, Asian Elephant among others, as well as the aforementioned indigenous peoples.” (p. 1)
Undocumented Cases of Concleaned Ethnic Cleansing

There are other undocumented incidentes such as the above.  Again, because journalism is prohibted and because Burma is extremely isolated, documentation is difficult.  However, based on reports stemming inside Burma, other similar cases are and have occurred.  For example, forced labor is still occuring.  It is reported that 5000 ethnic minorites were rounded up in Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin State for forced labor.   They were abducted at a Cinema.  It is said that only 500 survived the forced labor.

Forced migration is also occuirng in concert with ecological destruction.  The BBC—Asia reported in 2006 that in Kachin State, thousands of acres of forest has been plundered.  Litteraly it was reported that, “…in Kachin State, seven days on foot is now deforsted…”

Ecological destruction as a means of forced migration is also reported in the Shan State.  Shan ethnic minorities are rounded up and warehoused until needed for forced labor.

In the whole of the country, HIV infected soldiers are said to be taken to ethnic minority territories to spread the deadly virus.  The same means of ethnic cleansing was employed when the Americas were invaded.  Blankets infested with yellow fever were given to the Indians knowing that they would perish when infected.   

Finally it is said that in the future, the Karen will only be featured in museums.


As mentioned above, Burma’s military has only one real and actual enemy, the ethnic minorities.  These ethnic minorities were forced to join the Union of Burma after independence from the British. They ethnic minorities did not then nor do now, identify as Burmese. They view themselves as separate independent groups with inalienable rights. The ethnic minorities occupy areas rich in natural resources. The Burmese, being the majority, have taken control of the country and are engaged in ethnic cleansing. Instead of committing mass murder, however, the regime employs concealed methods of ethnic cleansing.  That is, it realizes the power of the international community and therefore operates systematically and under concealment to cleanse itself of the ethnic minorities.

The regime employs, among others, three means of ethnic cleansing.  First, they do not engage in overt mass murders.  Instead they “use” the ethnic minorities as land mine sweepers and forced laborers, literally and actually exhausting them.  The regime, perhaps having learned from other historical events, staunchly prohibits foreign journalists.  Another means the regime manages to avoid international attention is by practicing isolationism.  That is, although it is a member of ASEAN, Burma’s regime appreciates the non-intervention policy.  Burma’s military regime is trying to avoid another Kosovo where the UN intervened.  So, although they agree to dialogue with neighboring countries, even including Aung San Suu Kyi, it refuses to address Human Rights violations let alone ethnic cleansing.  

A more insidious means of forced migration to achieve ethnic cleansing, is the overt rape.  Rape and the mere fear of rape causes entire communities to flee.  Religious persecution is also a horrific means of ethnic cleansing and forced migration. The regime also cuts ethnic minorities off from their territories by cutting their “ties” to the soil.  Finally, the regime claims that everything within the borders of the Union of Burma is their eminent domain.  Hence, they claim territories, relocate entire towns, or displace large communities.  

Human Rights organizations as well as Non-governmental Organizations have focused on Burma for over 60 years, yet little has changed.  Burma seems to offer little to the world in terms of resources.  Although it was once one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia, it no longer has much to offer the international community, other than, perhaps China.  Further, interest from scholars has paled.  Those in the business of studying areas are declining in number (van Schendel, 2001).  That is, the Burmese regime has cleverly “left the map”.  By doing so, the regime continues to operate under concealment and may, literally, achieve its end of ethnic cleansing.


Carey, P. 1997.  Burma: The Challenge of Change in A Divided Society.  MacMillan Press:
London, St. Martin’s Press, Inc.: New York
Fink, C., 2001.  Living in Silence:  Burma under military rule.  White Lotus: Bangkok,  University Press Ltd: Dhaka, Zed Books: London & New York
Ganesan, N. 2006.  Thai-Mynamar-ASEAN Relations: The Politics of Face and Grace.  Asian
Affairs, pp. 131-149.
Guan, A.C. 2001.  Myanmar:  Time for a Unified Approach.  Institute of Defence and Strategic
Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Sage Publications, vol 32 (pp.
Hein, F. 1993.  Revolutionary and Antievolutionary Genocides:  A  Comparison of  State
Murders in Democratic Kampuchea, 1975 to 1979, and in Indonesia, 1965 to 1966.   Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, pp. 796-813.
Hinton, A.L. 1998.  Why Did You Kill?  The Cambodian Genocide and the Dark Side of Face
and Horror.  The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 1 (February 1998) pp. 93-122.
Johnson, R.G. 1988.  History of the American Baptist Chin Mission, vol. 1.  Published by  Author.
Karl, R. 2005.  Creating Asia: China in the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth
Century.  The American Historical Review, vol. 103, no 4, pp. 1096-1118
Keating, Tim. “Forced-labor Logging in Burma. Draft: Second in the Rainforest Relief Reports
Series of Occasional Papers; In Cooperation with the Burma UN Service Office of the
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.” June 1997.
Malkki, L., 1992.  National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the
Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.  Cultural
Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 1, Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference, pp. 24- 44
Mirante, E. 1993.  Burmese Looking Glass:  A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle  Revolution.  Atlantic Monthly Press:  New York.
Mirante, E. 2005. Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontier.  Orchid
Press:  New York.
Rothfels, N., (2002).  Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo.  John’s Hopkins
Press:  New York
Said, E., (1979). Orientalism.  Penguin Books: New York
Shamsul, A.B., 2001. A History of an Identity, an Identity of a History: The idea and
Practice of ‘Malayness’ in Malaysia Reconsidered.  Journal of Southeast Asian
Studies, vol. 32, no 3., pp. 355-366
Smith, M., 1999.  Burma:  Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity.  White Lotus:  Bangkok,
Tan, E. 2001.  From sojourners to citizens: managing the ethnic Chinese minority in
Indonesia and Malaysia.  Ethnic and Racial Studies. vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 949-978.
van Schendel, W., 2002.  Stateless in South Asia: The Making of the India-Bangladesh
Enclaves.  The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 115-147.
van Schendel, W., 2002. Geographies of knowing, georgraphies of ignorance: jumping
the scale in Southeast Aisa.  Environment and Planning D: Society and Space,
vol. 20, pp. 647-668.
von Hardt, O., 2005.   From human zoos to colonial apotheoses: the era of exhibiting the
Other by Pascal Blanchard, Noclas Bancel and Sandrine Lemare (English
version). Africacultures.
Vumson, Zo History.  1986. Published by the Author
Wu, J.C. 2001. The Mineral Industry of Burma (Myanmar)
Zahau, C. 2006.  Crimes Against Chin Women: The Preliminary Report by Women’s
League of Chinland.

Share it on

Leave a Comment

To protect and promote human rights and democratic principles