Human Rights Watch World Report: Burma The Role of the International Community

The international community was still far from developing a common approach to continued human rights abuses in Burma. In March, fourteen governments were represented at a meeting in South Korea convened by the United Nations to discuss how to advance Burma’s political development. They included the U.S., Australia, Canada, and several E.U. and Southeast Asian states, as well as the U.N. secretariat and the World Bank, but no new and coherent strategy emerged.

United Nations

In April, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail as his new special envoy for Myanmar, replacing Alvaro de Soto. Razali made his first visit to Rangoon from June 30 to July 3 when he met with SPDC officials, NLD leaders, and foreign diplomats. During his second visit on October 9-12, he met with Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the first time any special envoy had been able to do so.

The U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed consensus resolutions in November 1999 and April 2000, respectively, expressing concern over human rights abuses in Burma and the ongoing political stalemate. In reports in January and August, U.N. Special Rapporteur Rajsoomer Lallah focused on the lack of respect for civil and political rights, obstacles in Burma to the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights, and abuses faced by vulnerable groups. The SPDC refused to admit Lallah to Burma for the fifth year in a row.

United States

The U.S. government position on Burma did not change. On May 19, President Clinton renewed sanctions on new private investment in Burma. On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected a Massachusetts state law, which would have penalized companies investing in Burma, ruling that Congress had preempted it by establishing a sanctions policy. In another case brought by fifteen Burmese villagers, a U.S. federal court ruled on September 1 that Unocal corporation and its partners knew of and benefited from forced labor on the Yadana natural gas pipeline between Burma and Thailand, but that there was insufficient evidence that Unocal could control the abuses, and that the court therefore lacked jurisdiction over the case. The plaintiffs planned to appeal to the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Two U.S. government reports sharply criticized the SPDC. In February, a Labor Department report concluded that forced labor, denial of the right to organize, and forced relocation remained pervasive, while abusive child labor was not uncommon. In September, the State Department announced that Burma was one of a number of countries that maintained serious restrictions on religious freedom.

On August 31, both Vice-President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeline Albright publicly condemned the SPDC for its treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members and called for the SPDC to guarantee their freedom of movement and other fundamental human rights. In his September 6 address to the U.N. Millennium Summit, President Clinton denounced the SPDC for confining Aung San Suu Kyi to her home. On September 11, the State Department released a joint statement signed by Albright and ten other women foreign ministers condemning the SPDC’s violation of the basic human rights of NLD members.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) tightened sanctions against Burma’s leaders while renewing engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member. On April 10, the E.U. strengthened its common position by prohibiting the sale, supply, and export to Burma of equipment which could be used for internal repression or terrorism, and by freezing the funds of important government functionaries and publishing their names. On September 21, the E.U. issued a statement of concern about the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and called for the SPDC to lift all restrictions on her freedom of movement. The E.U. went ahead, however, with plans for the first meeting of E.U. and ASEAN foreign ministers since Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, scheduled at this writing to be held in December in Vientiane, Laos. Switzerland and Liechtenstein in October placed sanctions on Burma in line with the E.! U. common position. On October 6, the E.U. presidency issued a declaration in support of the U.N. special envoy’s mission.


Japan continued its two-track policy towards Burma, urging democratization and respect for human rights and suspending any new aid until there were “visible signs” of progress, while also maintaining political ties with Rangoon. On November 28, 1999, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met with Senior Gen. Than Shwe at the Manila summit of leaders from ASEAN, China, South Korea, and Japan. His meeting was followed a few days later by a “personal” visit to Burma by former Japanese premier Ryutaro Hashimoto. Both leaders told the SPDC that Japan would not resume official development assistance absent visible political and economic reform. Hashimoto also recommended that the SPDC re-open all Burmese universities. In late June, Japan sponsored a two-day workshop on economic reform in Rangoon, originally scheduled when Obuchi and Senior Gen. Than Shwe met in Manila in November 1999. No new Official Development As! sistance (ODA) loans or grants were announced during the workshop, though it was widely viewed as a possible step towards resuming bilateral aid. Some Japanese companies-including a fertilizer manufacturer and Toyota car dealer-pulled out of Burma during the year due to the difficulties they encountered operating there. In September, the Japanese government protested the virtual house arrest of the NLD executive committee.

In multilateral forums, Japan sought to dilute or deflect actions critical of the SPDC. It voted against the resolution on forced labor at the ILO and did not cosponsor the Burma resolution adopted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.


Australia sought to cultivate greater respect for human rights through a long-term strategy of engagement with Burmese authorities on human rights. Urging the creation of a Burmese national human rights commission, the Australian government financed two human rights workshops in July for mid-level Burmese civil servants and a third in October. On August 10, at meetings of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, the SPDC reiterated its intent to establish a commission. Not everyone within the Australian government had confidence in the SPDC’s rhetorical commitment to change, however. In a July 21 cable to Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Ambassador Trevor Wilson wrote that the SPDC was “determined to remain in power at all cost, allowing only marginal reforms in the economy and society.” The Australian government criticized Rangoon over th! e treatment of the NLD but did not reassess its existing policy.

Association of South East Asian Nations

Thailand broke with the ASEAN position of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations by abstaining from the vote on the ILO resolution criticizing Burma (all other ASEAN members voted against), and, in August, by criticizing the SPDC’s treatment of Suu Kyi and the NLD. Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said Burma’s actions could scuttle the planned December meeting of ASEAN and E.U. foreign ministers. In September, the Thai government called for the ASEAN troika-the association’s present and immediate past and future chairpersons-to address the situation in Burma. Vietnam, the current chair, refused to activate the troika, claiming the issue was a Burmese internal affair.

World Bank

The World Bank in a report in late 1999 linked Burma’s poor economic performance to poor governance. The bank continued to deny loans to Burma and refused to consider sending a high level delegation to Rangoon unless the SPDC affirmed in writing its commitment to carrying out significant economic reforms.

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