By Lian H. Sakhong

Burma’s thuggish ruling elite traffics in drugs and in people—in forced labor, child labor, slave labor. It throws people into medieval torture chambers at the slightest pretext: for owning a fax machine,
for making jokes about the regime, for listening to foreign broadcasts. There are some 1,800 political prisoners. Universities have been shuttered for much of the past decade, and poverty has deepened.

The Washington Post, July 16, 2001


When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, Burma was one of the first newly independent countries, which enthusiastically endorsed the Declaration.  In fact, the smaller countries in the third world like Burma were very enthusiastic about the Declaration because this was the first international agreement that recognises the equality and dignity of all peoples, regardless of the size of their country, regardless of their geographic or ethnic origin. U Thant, the Burmese Ambassador to UN and who later became the Secretary General of the UN in 1962-1971, said that “the Universal Declaration is the Magna Carta of humankind,” for its provisions constitute “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.”  

Today, however, we have a military regime in Burma, claiming that the provisions of Universal Declaration of Human Rights are based on Western concepts of government and human nature, that it is a tool of Western cultural imperialism imposed on us, and that it ignores the distinctive cultural values of the Burmese people. General Saw Maung, Chairman of the SLORC, for example, said, “I tell you if anyone wants to enjoy the human rights they have in the US, England and India, provided the country accepts; I will permit them to leave. But in Myanmar [Burma], I can only grant human rights suitable for Myanmars [Burmese] people.”  As the regime rule the country under the Martial Law, he also said, “Martial Law is no law at all, but the use of force.”

Present military junta in Burma can best be described as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. After the bloody coup in 1988, gross violations of human rights, including the draconian suppression of political freedoms, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, disappearances, extra-judicial killings, oppression of ethnic and religious minorities, and use of forced labour are continuously increasing. The Index on Human Misery in 1992, therefore, ranked Burma as one of the world’s most miserable countries, estimating that over 16 million of 46 million inhabitants were under the poverty line, and living under insufferable conditions. The year 2003 represented no improvements in human rights in Burma; in fact, the situation of the common people is continuing to worsen. Systematic abuses of economic, social and cultural rights by the regime and army has been continuing to grow as the ruling military junta called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) consolidates its power at all costs.

Since 1991, the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights have for 12 consecutive years adopted consensus resolutions condemning the military’s systematic gross abuse of human rights and its refusal to accept the will of the Burmese people as expressed in the 1990 general elections. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has in effect, expelled Burma from the ILO for the regime’s widespread use of forced labour.

Political crisis, civil war and human rights violations in Burma are always related with notorious golden triangle drug trade.  Since the 1950’s, unable to repel the Chinese Kuomintang troops and unable to pay local defence forces, the Burma Army authorised militia to trade in opium to finance their operations. In the 1960’s more militia to fight Shan nationalists were raised and again they were paid by allowing them to trade in opium. Worse yet, in 1989, fearing that some ethnic armies would join the democracy movement; the military signed cease-fires with them. In exchange for not joining the democracy movement, some of the ethnic armies, among them is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), were given the right to ‘trade’ without any restrictions. So, until recently, Burma was the biggest producer of opium and heroin. The current level of annual production is about 2,000 tons. However, the drug lords in Burma are now switching from heroin to the production of amphetamines which is more lucrative. The fact that cash can be deposited in Burmese banks with no questions asked and the fact that Burma’s drug lords are now known as successful ‘entrepreneurs’ in Burma’s new economy and live in Rangoon, all point to the fact that the regime benefits from the drug trade.

In addition to drugs, Burma is a major source of HIV/AIDS infection, which will in the long run affect regional stability.  Burma after India and Thailand has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in Asia. It is understandable that India with a population of 1 billion has the highest number. Thailand’s HIV/AIDS problem is caused by its rampant sex trade. But through public education and good policies, the situation is slowly being brought under control. Burma’s HIV/AIDS epidemic is mainly caused by drug addiction. It is illegal in Burma to own a needle. Addicts, therefore, share needles. In testing drug addicts in northern Burma over 90% tested positive. The problem is compounded by contaminated blood. When the military requires blood transfusion, the blood is taken from prisoners. There is no screening. The next factor is the fact that more and more Burmese women and girls are being sold into the sex trade in Thailand. When they test positive, they are shipped home without any explanation and the military sends them back to their home villages. There is no information, education or treatment program. The military in Burma is still denying that HIV/AIDs is a problem.  The World Health Organisation and other independent sources estimated at least 500,000 HIV/AIDs positive cases in Burma.

Another major problem, which has a bearing on the matter, is the fact that education in Burma has virtually become non-existent. In the past 14 years, universities have been closed for about 9 nine years. This means that Burma does not now have educated people who can help develop the country. Unable to win the allegiance of students, the military has opted for keeping the universities closed and students scattered rather than provide them with an education for fear that they will organise anti-regime demonstrations which could spark nation-wide unrest. In addition to university closures, an even more disturbing trend was reported by the World Bank recently. According to statistics provided by the regime, in 1989 the education budget was Kyat 1,200 per child per year. In 1999, this figure had decreased to Kyat 100 per child per year! The World Bank also reported that half of the primary school-aged children are malnourished and on average it takes a Burmese child 9.5 years to complete 5 years of primary school. This means that Burma is facing an enormous crisis. Without an educated population, how can anyone build a nation? The statistics take on an even more disturbing aspect when it is realised that this neglect of education is a deliberate policy and not an oversight. During the period that the education budget has been declining, the regime has more than doubled the size of its army from 180,000 men to 450,000 men and purchased US$ 1.8 billion worth of arms from China. The question is why because Burma has no external enemies. The only possible answer is that the regime intends to remain in power at all cost even to the extent of sacrificing the future of Burma’s children.

In this paper, I will investigate the political root of human rights violations and the denial of minority rights in Burma. Instead of compiling detail accounts of human rights violations, I will argue from historical point of view that human rights violations in Burma began with the denial of minority rights by the successive governments of the Union of Burma—even during the so called parliamentary democracy period—in the name of maintaining national sovereignty. Though a certain level of individual rights were guaranteed constitutionally during the parliamentary democracy period, minority rights on the other hand was violated, which in turn became the main source of political crisis as well as gross violations of human rights in present Burma.

While human rights are mainly concerned with individual rights, minority rights are particularly concerned, as a Swedish scholar Alf Tergel points out, with the collective rights “with a view to preserving and developing their specific character and the people’s right to self-determination.”  The central argument of this paper, therefore, will be the issue of “self-determination”; and try to point out that when the rights of self-determination for minority groups in the country are abused by the power holders of the state, the state itself became a mechanism by which the people’s rights area abused, instead of maintaining its fundamental ideal of being an instrument for ensuring civil, political, social and cultural rights.

The main objective of this paper, therefore, is to investigate how the successive governments of the Union of Burma have violated minority rights, including collective rights of self-determination, in the name of “nation-building”, how they abused the rights of minority religious groups in the name of “national integration”, and how the basic human rights are denied in the name of maintaining “national sovereignty”.

Human Rights vs. Traditional Burmese Political Values

In his article “Traditional Values and Universal Rights”, Jack Donnelly argues that every society possesses a perception of human dignity, a particular view of the inner natural and worth of the human person and his or her personal relations to society, perceptions that are reflected in its institutions and practices. He nevertheless maintains that the idea that a person is entitled to equal concerned, respect and a wide range of inalienable personal rights is alien to most of non-Western societies, where social structures and the underlying social visions of human dignity rest mainly on social status, hierarchies and  duties, not on rights. And he concludes his argument, saying that “persons are not seen as bearers of rights but rather as bearers of duties.”

The concept of human persons as the bearers of duties, not as the bearer of rights, was well developed under the absolute monarchy of traditional Burmese authoritarianism and it is still practiced by General Ne Win and his successors, including current military junta, State Peace Development Council. Maung Maung Gyi, therefore, argues in his Burmese Political Values: the Socio-Political Roots of Authoritarianism, that the military coup of 1962 and its consequences of authoritarianism under General Ne Win were “the culmination of a political process”; stemming from a pre-colonial “authoritarian system of native Burmese monarchical rules.”  As Maung Maung Gyi observes, “from 1044 to 1885, for over 800 years, the Burmese lived under an absolute monarchy. Its authority was never challenged by any liberal forces during these years until it was overthrown by alien power in 1885.”  The Burman pattern of thought on the government was therefore moulded during these 800 years, and “the nature of kingship largely determined the pattern of thought.”  Though the “British conquest of Burma in 1885 laid the foundations for a significant change in the infrastructure of Burmese political culture”, he argues, “the impact of British administration was not such as to bring about a revolutionary change in the medieval Burmese mind.”  Another way of putting it is to say that the British administration destroyed “the old Burmese officialdom”, but its “ethos was never broken.” And Maung Maung Gyi concludes his argument by saying:

Suffice it to say that the medieval mind underwent no essential change after being ruled by the British over 60 years (in upper Burma) to over 100 years (in lower Burma). One should not, therefore, have serious doubts as to whether the reversion to a one-man-dominated authoritarian rule pattern in 1962 was not an atavistic trends, a return to the age-old Burmese political system with modern trappings of communist genre, which itself is an offshoot of authoritarianism.

In a society where “one-man-dominated rule” is practiced, “duty” becomes a mechanism of power relations between the ruler and the subjects; for the ruler it is his power tools through which his wills are imposed upon the society, and for the people or the subjects on the other hands, “duty” is the mechanism through which they response the ruler by obeying his order. Thus, a society based on “duties” does not recognize “rights”; for “rights are legal recognition of individual will [not the will of the ruler].”  Another way of putting the same idea, as Costas Douzinas argues, is that “a society based on rights does not recognize duties; it acknowledges only responsibilities arising from the reciprocal nature of rights in the form of limits on rights for the protection of the rights of others.”

“Human Rights” is a combined term. They refer to “the human, to the humanity or human nature” and the reference to “rights” refer to the concept that “all human being are entitled to the same basic rights”, which are indissolubly linked with the movement of humanism and its legal reform. In this sense, human rights are “both creations and creators of modernity”; originated from classical Greek philosophy, continue via the Magna Carta of 1215, to the 1689 Bills of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, and ending with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Thus, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as Douzinas claims, is “the greatest political and legal invention of modern political philosophy and jurisprudence; First, they mark a profound turn in political thought from “duty” to “rights”, from civitas and communitas to civilization and humanity; Secondly, they reverse the traditional priority between the individual and society.”

It is, therefore, no need to build a foundation for human rights on any particular traditional values; not even on “natural human dignity”. It may be tempting to relate, as Michael Ignatieff observes, “the idea of human rights to propositions like the following: that human being have an innate or natural dignity, that they have a natural and intrinsic self-worth, that they are sacred.”  However, “these ideas about dignity, worth, and human sacredness appear to confused what is with what ought to be, they are controversial, and because they are controversial, they are likely to fragment commitment to the practical responsibilities entailed by human rights instead of strengthening them.” Michael Ignatieff, therefore, suggests:

We must work out a belief in human rights on the basis of human beings as they are, working on assumptions about the worst we can do, instead of hopeful expectations of the best. In other words, we do not build foundations on human nature but on human history, on what we know is likely to happen when human being do not have the protection of rights. We build on the testimony of fear, rather than on the expectations of hope. This…is how human rights consciousness has been built since the Holocaust.

The struggle for human rights in Burma, therefore, needs no reference to Burmese traditional political culture or religious value. Human rights—in terms of both idea and practice—is not a subjective value but objective truth, and the creation of human history; it is not account of what is good but what is right, which can be applied universally.

Human Rights and Self-determination

The concept of self-determination has been advanced since the time of the French Revolution, with the idea of the “nation” as the whole people, as the object of ultimate political loyalty, and as endowed with an alienable right to self-determination and separate statehood. When the League of Nations was founded after the First World War, the right to self-determination had become an international phenomenon. The “minority protection” scheme under the League of Nations was in particular a formulation of “the principles of national self-determination”; as Woodrow Wilson put it, “Every people have a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live.”

However, the League of Nations’ scheme for “minority protection” was seriously abused by the Nazis, who encouraged German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland to escalate their demands for minority rights. When the Czechoslovak and Polish governments were unable to meet these demands, the Nazis used this as a pretext for invasion. Consequently, when the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all references to the rights of ethnic minorities were deleted. The hope was that the new emphasis on “human rights” and the principle of non-discrimination would resolve minority conflicts. Rather than protecting vulnerable groups directly, through special rights for the members of particular groups, cultural minorities would be protected indirectly, by guaranteeing basic civil and political rights to all individuals, regardless of group membership.

During the cold war, from 1948 to 1989, both camps of Liberal West and Socialist East put greater emphasis on territorial integrity than on national self-determination. The consensus among the major powers, as Wallensteen explains, was “to describe anti-colonial conflicts as a particular category of conflict”, mainly due to the fact that “the anti-colonial movements provided a potential dilemma and challenge as they argued in term of self-determination”. And he argues:

The goal in the decolonization process was the creation of new states from the territories legally and militarily held by colonial powers. Thus, the issue was control over territory within what was, formally speaking, one state. Some colonial territories were highly integrated into the colonial “motherland”, even with representation in the National Assembly.

The neglect of minority cultures, as Vernon Van Dyke argues, is not a new phenomenon arising during the cold war, but has deep roots in the Western political tradition.  In liberal tradition, as Van Dyke explains, the fundamental issue for political theory is the proper relationship between the individual and the state. He argues that the relentless individualism of the traditional liberal approach makes it incapable of explaining some inherently collective features of political life, including the formation of the state itself, “which suggest in principle that liberalism cannot be trusted to deal adequately with the question of status and rights for ethnic communities, most of which are minorities within the state”.  Liberalism, in Van Dyke’s view, cannot and does not offer a clear basis for the right of nations or peoples to self-determination, as a right accruing to groups. The liberal tradition, with its individual conception, is he says “unduly limited”, and “it is not enough to think in terms of two-level relations, with the individual at one level and the state at another”.

The problem with the liberal tradition, according to Van Dyke, is that “its theorists have often taken for granted that citizens feel themselves to constitute a distinct group, sharing a common language and a common desire to live together”, and that this community has organized itself into a state through some form of social “contract”. Contrary to this assumption, only in very few countries in the world do all citizens share the same language, or belong to the same ethno-national group. In many countries, he argues, there are two or more ethno-cultural communities living together in a single state. Since liberalism ignores the group basis for political life, “it is blind to the injustices suffered by minority cultures, which can only be rectified by supplementing liberalism with a theory of collective rights”. The flaw of liberalism, in a nutshell, is “its individualism, which cannot accord any status to groups between the individual and the state”.

In the name of “internationalism”, Marxist tradition, on the other hand, ignored the right of self-determination for ethnic minorities during the cold war. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx mentioned that the proletariat have no nationality—they are workers of the world. Marxist tradition therefore views cultural and national divisions as temporary stopping points, whether it is a question of language rights or national autonomy.  Thus, in their understanding of national questions, Marxists define their theory in terms of “historical vs. non-historical nations”. For Marx and Engels, “historical nations” or “modern nations” came into existence “through the embryonic capitalist economy in transition from feudalism to capitalism. As a direct result of this process, the feudal society was slowly united under the structure of the embryonic modern state.”  The concept of “non-historical nations”, on the other hand, implied “the people (Völker) who had proved to be unable to build a state over a period of time”.  Marx and Engels repeatedly argued that “national communities incapable of constituting ‘proper national states’ should vanish by being assimilated into more ‘progressive’ and ‘vital’ nations.”  They therefore accepted the right of “the great national subdivisions of Europe” to independence, and hence supported the unification of France, Italy, Poland and Germany, and the independence of England, Hungary, Spain and Russia. But they rejected the idea that the smaller “nationalities” had any such rights, such as the Czechs, Basques, Welsh, Bulgarians, Romanians and Slovenes. These smaller nationalities were expected to assimilate to one of the “greater nations”, without the benefits of any minority rights, whether it be language rights or national autonomy.

During the cold war, the socialist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, strongly supported non-interference and territorial integrity rather than the rights to self-determination. One of the reasons, as Wallensteen observes, is that “the Soviet Union was the country that had made the largest territorial gains as a result of the Second World War. This included the annexation of the Baltic States, the incorporation of territory which formerly was part of Eastern Poland and Germany, and taking over Bessarabia from Romania.”  Thus, the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc became a strong defender of the territorial status quo. However, during the cold war, the Soviet Union applied double standards in their international relations: on the one hand, its concern for secure borders and political influence in Europe made it a strong defender of territorial integrity; on the other, anti-colonial movements in the Third World, which were very much anti-Western and anti-capitalist, made it a supporter of self-determination. However, as Wallensteen points out, “Soviet support for [self-determination] applied only to colonial situations”.

As we have seen, both liberal individualism and socialist internationalism clearly led to a denial of the rights of minority cultures, especially the right to self-determination, during the cold war. International communities and bodies, including the United Nations, followed the lead given by the two superpowers. Moreover, there is relatively little recognition in international law for substantive minority rights, such as the right to self-determination, although it has been based primarily on the non-discrimination model.  Rather than protecting collective rights directly, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights focuses only on basic civil and political rights for individuals, regardless of group membership.

However, it has become increasingly clear, as Kymlicka argues, that existing human rights standards are simple unable to resolve some of the most important and controversial questions relating to cultural minorities.

The right to free speech does not tell us what an appropriate language policy is; the right to vote doesn’t tell us how political boundaries should be drawn, or how powers should be distributed between levels of government; the right to mobility doesn’t tell us what an appropriate immigration and naturalization policy is. These questions have been left to the usual process of majoritarian decision-making within each state. The result has been to render cultural minorities vulnerable to significant injustice at the hands of the majority, and to exacerbate ethno-cultural conflict.

Since the end of the cold war, there has been increasing interest at the international level in supplementing traditional human rights principles with a theory of minority rights. For example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a declaration on the Rights of National Minorities in 1991, and established a High Commissioner on National Minorities in 1993. The United Nations has debated both a Declaration on Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1993) and a Draft Universal Declaration on Indigenous Rights (1988). In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted a declaration on minority language rights (the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages).  This new development, after the collapsed of Soviet, is the most encouraging sign for our struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.

During the cold war, however, ethnic nationalities in Burma did not receive enough support, internally or internationally, in their struggle for the right of self-determination, including greater autonomous status for their national states within the Union. Instead, most of the international community, especially the UN and neighbouring countries such as India, supported the territorial integrity of the newly independent Burma. Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, the newly independent Burmese government’s efforts towards “nation building”, “national integration” etc. were directly and consciously influenced by historical developments in the West, and also by the anti-colonial movements in their fellow developing countries.

Thus, human rights violation and denial of minority rights in Burma should be analysed within the historical context of “state formation conflict” which began soon after gained her independence in Burma. State formation conflict in Burma is a vertical conflict between a Burman military-monopolized “state” and ethnic nationalities whose rights have for so long been suppressed by the “state”; not a horizontal ethnic conflict between different segments of the country’s population. The political crisis in Burma is therefore a constitutional problem stemming from the reversal of Aung San’s policy of federalism and the principle of “unity in diversity” on which the historic Panglong Agreement was based. We therefore need to take a closer look at how Aung San’s policy, particularly his policy relating to the Panglong Agreement, was constitutionally reversed by his successor, U Nu.

Human Rights, Religion and Nation Building

Aung San, who persuaded the Chin, Kachin, Shan and other ethnic nationalities to join the Union, had a clear policy of “nation building” based on the principles of “equality” and “unity in diversity”. He criticized the notion of religious-oriented traditional Burmese nationalism of “our race, our religion, our language”, which he said “have gone obsolete now”. And he clearly states “religion is a matter of individual conscience, while politics is social science. We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including the right to freedom of religious belief and worship. We must draw clear lines between politics and religion because the two are not the same thing. If we mix religion with politics, then we offend the spirit of religion itself.”

However, after Aung San was assassinated, U Nu adopted the state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration”. Buddhism, indeed, had been inseparably intertwined with the Myanmar national identity, as an old saying so clearly put it: Buddha bata, Myanmar Lumyo (“To be a Myanmar is to be a Buddhist”). Thus, it was quite reasonable for leaders like U Nu to believe that Buddhism could make a significant contribution to some aspects of national integration. Historically, Buddhism had played a most important role in binding together diverse ethnic groups such as the Burman, Mon, Shan and Rakhine (Arakanese).

Although Buddhism had been a powerful integrative force in traditional Burman/Myanmar society, the modern, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation-state of the Union of Burma was a very different country from the pre-colonial Myanmar Kingdom. Thus, the fundamental question for the Union of Burma is: Can Buddhism, a vital source of political legitimacy for traditional Burmese kingship, provides equally effective support for the present democratic regime? The question of legitimacy is closely related to the psychological problem of identity. The concomitant questions are therefore: Can Buddhism provides the values needed to create a modern Burmese national identity? In an attempt to solve the problems of political legitimacy and national identity through religion, what happens to religious minorities and the delicate fabric of national unity?

It seemed that that answer for U Nu was “Yes”; and when he became the leader of the Burmese independence movement and Prime Minister of the newly independent Burma, he reversed Aung San’s version of Union Constitution, particularly the clause of separation between religion and politics, declaring: “In the marrow of my bones there is a belief that government should enter into the sphere of religion.”  U Nu’s government, therefore, adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration”; that is, an attempt was made to achieve homogeneity by imposing religious and cultural assimilation into the predominant group of Myanmar Buddhists. In so doing, Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs was created to promote the process of assimilation, even before Buddhism was promulgated as a state religion.  The official view, as John Cady observes, was that:

A unity of culture existed among the people of the Union and those existing differences are only expressions of the same culture at different stages of development. The Burman and Pyu peoples had long since been amalgamated; the Mon had almost been absorbed, the Shan assimilation was in progress. The Karens, Kachins, and Chins were also mainly Tibeto-Burman, and all were allegedly suitable for becoming parts of a closely knit cultural organism.

U Nu’s official government policy of “unity in culture” was oversimplified. The Chin, for instance, never accepted Buddhism either as a culture or as a religion. In contrast to the government’s view, the amalgamation of the Burman and Pyu, or the extinction of the Pyu, was a historical reminder which served to awaken the Chin people’s self-awareness of a separate national identity, without which they might one day cease to exist as the Pyu people had once done. The Chin therefore, far from accepting assimilation, took the view that U Nu’s confessional policy of religion, or what the government called “unity in culture”, must be resisted at all costs; and they took arms to defend themselves from assimilation in 1964.

The revision of Aung San’s version of the Union Constitution thus proved to be the end of his policy for a secular state and pluralism in Burma, which eventually led to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of the Union of Burma in 1961.

For the Chin and other non-Burman nationalities, the promulgation of Buddhism as the “state religion of the Union of Burma” in 1961 was the greatest violation of the Panglong Agreement in which U Aung San and the leaders of the non-Burman nationalities agreed to form a Union based on the principle of equality. They therefore viewed the passage of the state religion bill not only as religious issue, but also as a constitutional problem, in that this had been allowed to happen.  In other words, they now viewed the Union Constitution as an instrument for imposing “a tyranny of majority”, not as their protector. Thus, the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion of Burma became not a pious deed, but a symbol of the tyranny of the majority under the semi-unitary system of the Union Constitution.

There were two different kinds of reactions to the state religion reform from different non-Burman nationalities. The first reaction came from more radical groups who opted for an armed rebellion against the central government in order to gain their political autonomy and self-determination. The most serious armed rebellion as a direct result of the adoption of Buddhism as state religion was that of the Kachin Independence Army, which emerged soon after the state religion of Buddhism was promulgated in 1961. The “Christian Kachin”, as Graver observes, “saw the proposal for Buddhism to be the state religion as further evidence of the Burmanization [Myanmarization] of the country,”  which they had to prevent by any means, including an armed rebellion. The Chin rebellion, led by Hrang Nawl, was also related to the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion, but the uprising was delayed until 1964 owing to tactical problems. Thus, the Chin rebellion was mostly seen as the result of the 1962 military coup, rather than the result of the promulgation of Buddhism as the state religion in 1961.

The second reaction came from more moderate groups, who opted for constitutional means of solving their problems, rather than an armed rebellion. The most outstanding leader among these moderate groups was Sao Shwe Thaike of Yawnghwe, a prominent Shan Sawbwa who was elected as the first President of the Union of Burma. Although a devout Buddhist, he strongly opposed the state religion bill because he saw it as a violation of the Panglong Agreement. As a president of the Supreme Council of United Hills People (SCOUHP), formed during the Panglong Conference, he invited leaders of not only the Chin, Kachin and Shan, the original members of the SCOUHP, but also other non-Burman nationalities—the Karen, Kayah, Mon, and Rakhine (Arakan)—to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, to discuss constitutional problems. Unfortunately, these problems still remain unsolved. The conference was attended by 226 delegates and came to be known as the 1961 Taunggyi Conference, and the movement itself was known later as the Federal Movement.

At the Taunggyi Conference, all delegates, except three who belonged to U Nu’s party,  agreed to amend the Union Constitution based on the Panglong Agreement of 1947, that is—the principles of political equality for all member states of the Union, the rights of self-determination for all ethnic nationalities in the country and democratic rights for all citizens of Burma. In short, they wanted to amend the Union constitution in accordance with the principles of federalism and democratic decentralization

In response to the demand of the 1961 Taungyi Conference, U Nu had no choice but to invite all the political leaders and legal experts from both Burman and non-Burman nationalities to what became known as the Federal Seminar at which “the issues of federalism and the problems of minorities would be discussed with a view to finding a peaceful solution.”   The meeting opened on 24 February, 1962 in Rangoon while the parliament was meeting also in regular session. But before the seminar was concluded and just before U Nu was scheduled to speak, the military led by General Ne Win seized state power in the name of the Revolutionary Council in the early morning of 2 March, arresting all the non-Burman participants of the Federal Seminar and legally elected cabinet members, including U Nu himself, dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution and ending all the debate on federal issues.

In the final analysis, U Nu’s greatest hope was “that Buddhism would be the unifying identity in which all Burmese [Burman and non-Burman alike] could discover their nationhood, but in the end it proved one of the decisive dividing factors that led to his defeat and the end of the parliamentary experiment in Burma.”  Thus, it was obvious now that Buddhism, which used to be a vital source of political legitimacy for traditional Burmese kingship, could no longer provide the values needed to create a modern Burmese national identity in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural plural society of the Union of Burma.

Denial of Religious and Cultural Rights under Ne Win’s Dictatorship

As mentioned above, U Nu adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of national integration. In this section, I will analyse the nature of General Ne Win’s dictatorship, and how the de facto government of the military regime legitimized itself through traditional Burmese political concepts. As David Steinberg observes, “there have been five foci for the legitimization of Burmese governments or pretenders to power in the twentieth century: nationalism, Buddhism, socialism, military leadership and election”.  Since the independence movement, nationalism had been an enduring element of the Burmese concept of political legitimacy, the “sine qua non of political life”, as Steinberg so aptly puts it. As we have seen earlier, U Nu apparently mixed nationalism with Buddhism in his attempt to legitimize his government. General Ne Win, on the other hand, mixed nationalism with socialism, and he also used military leadership as a means to introduce national integration to achieve homogeneity in the country.

Nationalism, for both U Nu and Ne Win, was simply based on the notion of “one race, one language and one religion”—that is to say, the Burman or Myanmar race, Myanmar-sa and Buddhism. Although their approaches to “national integration” were different, U Nu and Ne Win both had the same goal of creating a homogeneous people in the country. While U Nu opted for cultural and religious assimilation into Buddhism as a means of integration, Ne Win removed the rights of the country’s religious and cultural minorities, including all civil and basic human rights, as a means of creating a homogeneous unitary state. U Nu and Ne Win thus complemented each other, although their approaches in depriving cultural and religious minorities of their rights were different in nature.

In his campaign against the rights of minority cultures and religions in the country, General Ne Win targeted Christianity as an unwanted foreign religion, while viewing Christian missionaries as people who kept “imperialism alive”. Consequently, he expelled all foreign missionaries from Burma in 1966. Until 1966 when the missionaries were expelled, non-Christian Burman nationalists like General Ne Win viewed and understood the existence of Christians in Burma merely in terms of the church’s social missions, such as schools and hospitals, and the presence of foreign missionaries in the country. Without these two factors, they thought that “the church will soon weaken and die”.

Thus, in order to suppress both Christian movements and different ethnic nationalist movements, General Ne Win’s government not only expelled foreign missionaries, but also nationalized all the missionary schools and hospitals in the country. At the same time, the government intensified its military campaign against the Chin, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic nationalist movements. Ironically, when the government suppressed the military aspects of the Chin nationalist movements, the indigenous form of Christianity, that is, the church without foreign missionaries became a more valid expression of the Chin national identity in Burma.

Restriction on Religious Freedom

The nationalisation of private Christian schools and hospitals had made it clear that the so called “religious freedom” under General Ne Win’s regime did not include permission to maintain such Christian institutions.  Likewise, the expulsion of foreign missionaries from the country in 1966 indicated that, under the military regime of the Revolutionary Council, religious freedom did not include the right of Christians in Burma (mainly Chin, Kachin and Karen) to invite missionaries from abroad to assist the churches within the country. In addition, the continuing inability of Christians to secure Burmese passports to enable them to attend international Christian conferences was an indication of a further limitation in their freedom of religion.

It was in the area of Christian publications that the increased governmental control was felt very keenly. In 1965, the Revolutionary Council issued the “Censor Law”, requiring four copies of any manuscript of a religious nature to be submitted for approval before it could be published. This order included magazines, tracts, and Sunday school materials, as well as books. No arrangements had been made to read or pass on such manuscripts unless they were written in either the Burmese or the English language. Along with manuscripts written in any language other than these two, four copies of a translation into Burmese or English had to be submitted along with the originals. Although a considerable amount of Christian publishing was done in Burmese, nevertheless there was a very great demand for Sunday school materials, hymnals, etc. in the languages of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and others who constituted the overwhelming majority of the Christians in the country. As can well be imagined, having to translate manuscripts from these languages into Burmese or English entailed a great deal of work, increased time for preparation, and extra expense.

Once the application to the government had been made, after a period of three weeks as minimum and perhaps several months as a maximum, one could expect information as to whether or not the government had approved the manuscript. Upon receipt of approval, an order could then be given to a printer to do the work. The printer, on the basis of the order, then applied for permission to purchase from the government the paper needed for the job. When that permission finally came through, the printer very often found that he had been granted less paper than requested, and often of a different size and of poorer quality! Average and better qualities of paper were reserved for government printing; only the cheaper qualities were available for the general public, including religious organisations. Thus, in the printing of any piece of religious material it was always necessary to anticipate a delay of a number of months, even years. It was obvious how difficult and trying this could be, especially in publishing materials which have a time limit such as Sunday School lessons.

The 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law and the 1965 Censor Law immediately hit not only the publication of Christian literature, but also all the literature of non-Burman nationalities. Following the nationalisation of schools, which used to be the centre of learning for the literatures of non-Burman Christian nationalities, such as the Chin, Kachin and Karen, “successive BSPP administrations embarked on what ethnic minority leaders allege was a straightforward policy of Burmanization” or Myanmarnization. Since then, as Martin Smith correctly observes:

Minority language area rarely taught or used beyond the fourth grade in school; ethnic minority publications are restricted to little more than folksy, housewife magazines, such as the Karen Our Home and Go Forward. The distribution of religious literature, including the Bible, has been restricted and BSPP officials and censors have complained to Christian pastors about the militant language of the Old Testament, which they claim, is incitement to rebellion.

Since the military government came to power in 1962, as Martin Smith point out, the Christians in Burma, especially non-Burman nationalities have mostly been unable to print the Holy Bible in their own language inside Burma. Chin Christians, for instance, printed the Bile in the Chin language in India, and smuggled it into Burma in the 1970s and 1980s. Even the Holy Bible in Burmese, which was translated by Rev. Judson in the 1820s, never received permission to be reprinted from the Censor Board of the BSPP, or at least the Old Testament never did. Only the New Testament, together with Psalms and Proverbs, once received permission to be printed during the entire period of BSPP administrations, that is, from 1962 to 1988.

Restriction on Freedom of Expression

As far as social change under the military regime was concerned, the most drastic change took place in the realm of the press and other publications. The RC imposed the strongest ever restrictions and pressures, not only on the press but also on libraries and publishing companies. Newspapers were operated either by the government, which had founded The Working People’s Daily, or else completely under government control. All news from abroad was channelled to the papers through the News Agency, Burma (NAB), a government news office. In this way, “Burma’s previously lively press was effectively brought under state control within a few years of the coup.”  Prior to the military take-over, Burma had had more than thirty newspapers. Apart from the leading ones in Burmese and English, there were also five in Chinese, two in Hindi and one each in Urdu, Tamil, Telegu and Gujarati. Moreover, there were many locally run newspapers in non-Burmese languages, such as in Karen, Kachin and Chin. A well-known weekly newsmagazine in Chin, Hruaituthar (literally: New Leaders), run by Rev. James Sang Awi, was also banned by the military government.

The same restrictions were placed, as indicated above, on libraries and publishing companies. The RC promulgated the “Printers and Publishers Regulation Law” in 1962, which scrutinised not only “the text, language and subject of new books and journals but even the number of copies printed.” This resulted, as Martin Smith observes, “in a plethora of privately-owned magazines containing only short stories, for these were easier to replace if rejected. All were for entertainment; no news periodicals were permitted. Over the years the same laws were extended to film, music and video companies.”

In short, the 1962 Press Act and the 1965 Censor Act nullified the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, which have been guaranteed to all the people by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for the people of Burma.

Religious Persecution under Current Military Junta (A Case of the Chin Christians)

Since the military coup in 1988, the distinction between the army and state ceased to exist, and gross violations of human rights become part of everyday life in Burma. In addition to gross violation of human rights, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has launching relentlessly the campaign of “Myanmarnization” or “Burmanizing” the country by systematically destroying significant and symbolic identities of non-Burman ethnic groups.

Since the early 1990, the regime has turned its attention to the north-western part of the country, particularly the Chin State, to expand its military establishment there in an effort to gain effective control over the Chin population, who had hitherto remained relatively free from direct Burman control. Although only one army battalion was stationed in Chin State prior to 1988, more than 10 infantry battalions, about five thousand soldiers, are now active in the area. The junta’s justification was to meet Chin insurgent threat, a movement which began in 1988 with the formation of the Chin National Front by a few exiled politicians and members of Chins students and youths who fled to India in the aftermath of the 1988 nation-wide democracy uprising. The Chin National Front is fighting for the restoration of democracy in Burma and self-determination for the Chin people. Neither the SLORC nor SPDC have acknowledged the CNF in the state-run media; nor do they mention the CNF when speaking of the “armed groups” that have yet to “return to the legal fold.”2 In stead, some officials refer to them as “misguided youths” who would sooner or later see the light and would return to the “legal fold”.

Because the Chin State has the largest concentration of Christians in the whole of Burma in terms percentage, it was not only a large army of soldiers that was brought into by the Burmese regime. In the name of “Hill Regions Buddhist Mission” the junta brought in an army of Buddhist monks who were then dispatched to various towns and villages across Chin State. Protected by the soldiers, these Buddhist monks have considerable powers over the Chin population. In many cases, local people have pointed out that the monks are military intelligence operatives who are more powerful than local army commanders. The Chin Human Rights Organization reported about the monks stationed around Matupi Township as follow:

The monks who live at Zakam, Rezua, Leisen, Vangvai and Tinsi villages rule the communities. Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks orders is reported to the SLORC/SPDC army and he/she is punished by the army. The monks give judgment on all cases. For those who become Buddhist, they are free from any persecution such as forced labour, portering, extortion of money, etc. Whenever and wherever a monk visits, he is accompanied by the army and they arrange a porter to carry the monk’s particulars. The villagers were forced to build a Buddhist monastery and temple. But they refused, insisting “we are Christians”. Even though the army threatened action against them, they didn’t build it yet. Now the monks and army are holding a meeting to discuss this. Nobody knows what will happen.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization report, the method that the “Hills Regions Buddhists Mission” is applying is as follows:

1.  To attack Christian families and the progress of Christians.
2.  To criticize against the sermons which are broadcast from Manila, Philippines.
3.  To criticize God as narrow-minded and egotistical who himself claimed that “There is no god except eternal God”.
4. To criticize Christian ways of life as corrupted and inappropriate culture in Burma.
5. To criticize the preaching of Christians wherever it has penetrated.
6. To criticize Christianity by means of pointing out its delicacy and weakness.
7. To stop the spread of the Christian movement in rural areas.
8. To criticize by means of pointing out “there is no salvation without purchased by the blood of Christ”.
9.  To counterattack by means of pointing out Christianity’s weakness and overcome this with Buddhism.
10. To counter the Bible after thorough study.
11. To criticize that “God loves only Israel but not all the races”.
12.  To point out ambiguity between the two testaments.
13. To criticize on the point that Christianity is partisan religion.
14.  To criticize Christianity’s concept of the Creator and compare it with the scientific concept.
15. To study and access the amount given in offerings.
16.  To criticize the Holy Bible after thorough study.
17.  To attack Christians by means of both non-violence and violence.

A 40-year-old Chin Christian from Matupi Township recounted how he was converted to Buddhism, recruited and trained to be part of a campaign against Christians, as follows:

I was invited to attend social welfare training by the [SLORC (now SPDC)] authority from Matupi on 27/2/95. When I arrived at the place, the authority told us that it is to attend Buddhist hill tract missionary training run by a Buddhist monk named U Razinn at Mindat. As we are Christian, we said we didn’t want to go. But the monk persuaded us saying, ‘it is no problem if you are Christian, it is just religious training’. So 5 other persons and I took part in the 10 day training. In the training, we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians.

Since they came into power, the military junta has ordered the removal of several crosses erected by local Chin Christians on tops of mountains beside a number of villages and towns throughout Chin State. Since early 1980s, Chin communities in various villages and towns have erected wooden crosses on mounds and hill tops beside their villages and towns to symbolize their faith in Christianity, and to remind themselves of the fact that Christianity has played an important role in shaping their modern society and culture. In some cases, however, the erection of these crosses were in response to what the Chin regarded was the State-sponsored importation of Buddhism into Chin State with the construction of pagodas and temples in certain urban areas in Chin State which began in the 1970s.

Destruction of crosses and churches started around early 1990’s with the rapid increase in army battalions being established across of Chin State. Since then, almost every cross in all the nine townships in Chin State had been destroyed by the regime. Destruction is usually ordered by the township authorities or by army battalion commanders in whose jurisdiction the cross is erected. After an order is issued, the church or community responsible for erecting the cross is given a timeframe during which they must dismantle the cross. Failure to do so within the given period often meant the cross being destroyed by the authorities and Church leaders being arrested for defiance of order.

While crosses have been removed in several townships, perhaps the most publicized case so far was the removal of a cross in Thantlang Township in January of 1999. The year 1999 marked one hundredth year of Christianity among the Chins. The Centennial Celebration was originally planned for March 15 in Haka, the capital of Chin State where the first American missionaries established their first mission centre in 1899. However, before the official celebration in Haka, advance celebrations were also held locally in various townships under the leadership of local churches. In Thantlang, the celebration was organized jointly by all the different denominations in town from January 1 to 3, 1999. The CHRO reported the accident as follows:

On January 5, when the celebration was over, the organizers erected a Centennial Memorial Cross on a hilltop on Vuichip ridge, located west of the town. Though primarily in remembrance of the early American missionaries, selection of the location for the cross had other significance. In addition to its good view from town, the spot has a spiritual and religious dimension to it. Before the advent of Christianity, Thantlang residents had traditionally believed that Vuichip ridge was the dwelling place of evil spirits and there had been legends surrounding the spirits roaming the ridge. The erection of the cross on that particular location was to signify that evil spirits have been defeated by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross.  The cross was decorated with looking glasses so that it would be more recognizable when it glows with the reflection from the sun.

On the very night the cross was erected, the Township Peace and Development Council ordered the destruction of the cross, compelling the very people who had erected the cross to destroy it. When the people refused, a section of local police were sent to destroy the cross. Six Christian pastors responsible for organizing the Centennial Celebration and the erection of the Memorial cross, Rev. Thawng Kam, Rev. Biak Kam, Rev. Thantu, Rev. Tha Ceu, Rev. Cung Bik and Pastor Beauty Lily were arrested and interrogated by the army.  In response, on January 6, the whole town stage a silent protest by closing down their businesses and refusing to go to work, and by observing a 24-hour fast and prayer vigil in their local churches and homes. Fearing the news of protest might spread to other towns; the authorities shut down telephone connections of Thantlang and arrested 20 more Church leaders. Nevertheless, on January 9, Churches in the Chin State capital, Haka, joined the protest, prompting Chairman of the Chin State Peace and Development Council in Haka to go to Thantlang to end the strike by threatening and intimidating them.

The leaders of the Church, Rev. Thawng Kam and Rev. Biak Kam were arrested, and put into jail without trail.

In addition to destruction of the Chin Christian symbol of cross, the soldiers also disrupted worship services and religious ceremonies, and rounded up people going to Church for forced porters. Moreover, the military has tried to coerce people into converting into Buddhism by targeting Christians for forced labour and other abuses. In many instances, Christian pastors have been physically abused and mocked by the Burmese soldiers. The junta has refused to grant permission to construct new Church buildings and other Christian religious buildings while it has allocated State funds to construct new Buddhist pagodas in various parts of Chin State.

In many major towns in Chin State, partially completed church buildings are still standing unfinished because the State Peace and Development Council does not granted permission to resume the construction. The Carson Memorial Hall was being built in Haka, the capital of Chin State in 1999 by the Haka Baptist Church to be inaugurated on the occasion of one-hundredth anniversary of Christianity among the Chins since the first arrival of American missionaries, Arthur and Laura Carson in late 1890s. The construction was set to be completed before the start of the Centennial Celebration which was scheduled for March 15, 1999.  But the junta halted the construction half-way saying that the Church did not obtain authorization from the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs in Rangoon, although the Hall was constructed within the parameters of Church properties.

As many evidences have pointed out, the Burmese military regime has actively sought after symbolic targets in its campaign of Burmanization and ethnocide against various ethnic groups in the country, and use religious persecution as a means of destroying religious and ethnic identity in the country.


In this paper, I have investigated the root cause of human rights violation and the denial of the rights of religious and cultural minorities, instead of compiling detail account of human rights violations and the denial of democracy in Burma. I have argued that total denial of human rights in Burma began with the rejection of the right of self-determination for non-Burma ethnic nationalities, who joined the Union of Burma voluntarily as equal partner in 1947.

In so doing, I have explored how successive governments of the Union of Burma have abused the rights of religious and cultural minority groups, including the collective rights of self-determination, in the names of “national-building”, “national integration” and maintaining “national sovereignty”. I argued that during parliamentary democracy era, U Nu’s government has adopted state religion of Buddhism as a means of “national integration” by imposing cultural and religious assimilation into the predominant group of Burman/Myanmar Buddhists, as occurred with the promulgation of Buddhism as State Religion in 1961.

While U Nu opted for cultural and religious assimilation into Buddhism as a means of integration, Ne Win removed the rights of the country’s religious and cultural minorities, including all civil and basic human rights, as a means of creating a homogeneous unitary state. U Nu and Ne Win thus complemented each other, although their approaches in depriving cultural and religious minorities of their rights were different in nature. Current military regime also shares the same goal but with slightly different approach; they apply the method religious persecution as a means of destroying ethnic identity, especially against the Chin Christians. In short, ever since General Ne Win took over the state power in 1962, the distinction between the army and state ceased to exist, and gross violations human rights become part of everyday life in Burma.

I maintain, in this paper, that the root of human rights violations in Burma related with constitutional crisis and it must therefore be solved through constitutional means of establishing a democratic federal system of government. A democratic federal system—based on the principle of equality for all member states of the Union, the right of self-determination for all ethnic nationalities, and the democratic rights for all citizens of the Union—is the best means to restore the Union of Burma. Thus, for all the democratic forces and ethnic nationalities in Burma, the ultimate goal of democracy movement is to establish a genuine democratic federal union, where various ethnic nationalities from different religious, racial, cultural and historical backgrounds can live peacefully together.

Lian H Sakhong
Manila (2003-11-10)

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