“When I lived in my village, the SPDC would come and shoot and kill us [the villagers] who were in farm field huts and when they saw our children, they would beat them dead. But no [punitive] action was taken against them [the soldiers]. My parents were killed by the SPDC. They always looked forward to killing our Karen people… There were child abuses in my village, like children who were beaten, shot dead and forcibly taken away. We didn’t see these children come back to the village after they were taken away by the SPDC”. (Naw P—, a 19-year-old female from L— village, Pa’an District, interviewed in August 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 129)

A fundamental principle of international humanitarian law is that persons taking no active part in hostilities shall in all circumstances be treated humanely. Nevertheless, arbitrary and summary executions committed against civilians by Burmese government military soldiers and their proxy army soldiers as well as other government officials including Military Intelligence (MI) and the police take place in a culture of impunity in Burma.

Victim of Burma Army

Woman who was shot and her two children killed by the Burma Army in 2010. (Photo: KHRG)

Extra judicial killings seem to be largely committed against people who are suspected of supporting or sympathising with ethnic opposition armies, as well as against those enduring forced labour or portering for the armies. Women are commonly killed after being raped by soldiers, and villagers attacked and killed after been arbitrarily arrested and interrogated.   All these crimes are most commonly directed towards ethnic nationality members living in armed conflict areas.

In Kachin State, several human rights organisations have documented killings of Kachin civilians by the Burmese army since the conflict began in June 2011 (e.g. Fortify Rights, 2014a; Human Rights Watch, 2012c; KWAT, 2013b; Partners Relief and Development, 2011). Kachin villagers have described how Burmese army soldiers have attacked them and razed their homes, fired indiscriminately against civilians as well as threatened and tortured them during interrogations for information about KIA. In a similar vein, military attacks and killings of civilians have been commonplace throughout areas under ethnic opposition army control in the Karen State.  Based on over 160 interviews conducted between January 2006 and March 2008, KHRG (2008) reported high numbers of attacks on villages and murders of civilians, including children. Extra judicial killings continue to take place in ethnic conflict areas with and without active armed conflict (KHRG, 2014a; ND-Burma, 2013b).

The repeated abuse and threat of violence in government-controlled areas is used to instil fear in the local population as a means to enforce compliance with military demands. Many executions have been carried out in line with the government’s Four Cuts policy (Human Rights Watch & KHRG, 2011; ND-Burma, 2012a). As villages have been moved to areas under tight military control, village chiefs and villagers suspected of supporting ethnic insurgences have often been detained, tortured and killed. Villagers found outside the control areas have often been shot on site without warning when assumed to be ‘rebels’ or their supporters, even if they are only carrying food or tending to their farms.

KHRG has found shoot-on-sight killings of children and other villagers more prevalent in areas where the Burmese military lacks a strong hold on the civilian population (KHRG, 2008). Villagers have also reported to KHRG that it was clear the Burmese army soldiers knew they were shooting at very young children but this did not appear to hold them back (KHRG, 2008). Killings and disappearances in ethnic areas continued throughout the year 2012 (ND-Burma, 2013a; US State Department, 2013), 2013 (ND-Burma, 2013b; US State Department, 2014), and 2014 (ND-Burma, 2014a), although observers have found marked decreases in the prevalence of these abuses.


“Two or three of my cousins were caught by the SPDC, two people tried to escape and they were shot by the SPDC. If the SPDC see us they shoot us and we start to run away. If you die it’s better for you than if the SPDC captures you because your problems are all over”. (Saw K—, a 23-year-old male from T— village, Nyaunglebin District, interviewed in February 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 136)

 “Some of the villagers were arrested whilst working on their farms, they were tied up, crucified and finally, had their throats cut”. (Naw Pee Sit, a Karen Buddhist woman from Dooplaya District, KWO, 2010, p. 72)

“A problem that I faced with the SPDC as the village chief was when they arrested my villagers and asked them to dig a hole. Then they put the villagers in the hole and covered them with earth. They covered them with earth but they left the villagers’ heads and stomped on them on the ground. Then they took out the villagers and beat them and brutally tortured villagers for a month and after that they killed them”. (Naw Chaw Chaw Kyi, a Karen Buddhist woman from Thaton District; KWO, 2010, p. 92)

“In 1999, SPDC soldiers arrested two villagers while they were looking after their cows near the village. They were accused of being Karen soldiers and were taken to the lower part of the village and were killed. Their bodies were buried in the same grave, but the heads were not”. (Interview 31, KWO, 2010, p. 12)

“They started to beat and torture me. They beat me on the chest, then tied me up and beat me with a bamboo stick until the stick broke. I was then shoved into a dark room and left for two days”. (Naw Dee Nor, a 35-year-old Karen woman and village chief from Pa’an District; KWO, 2010, p. 103)

“The SPDC would torture the villagers by setting them alight with fire ball, pouring water into their nose, and throwing stones at their chest”. (Naw Mae Thu, a Karen Buddhist woman from Thaton District, forced to serve as a porter for SPDC; KWO, 2010, p. 74)

Widespread use of torture in Burma has been well documented by the international community over the course of the past decades, particularly since the 1988 uprising. Torture and ill treatment take place in two distinct contexts in Burma; in prisons or detention centres and in ethnic nationality areas (AAPP, 2011; ND-Burma, 2012a). In both contexts, torture is generally carried out with three main goals; to extract information, to punish, and to instil fear. Torture has not been explicitly prohibited under Burma’s law and Burma has not ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In prisons and detention centres, political prisoners are the main targets for violations and torture usually takes place during interrogations. According to AAPP, torture is a state policy in Burma, used to break down political activists and to instil fear into the general public (AAPP, 2005, p. 102; AAPP, 2014b). AAPP (2005) reports that arrests and torture also take place so that the victims can return to their villages and display the physical and psychological wounds to their family and friends. ND-Burma has documented at least two cases of deaths of political prisoners as a result of torture and ill treatment in the post-2010 election period (2012a, p. 26). In a more recent report, AAPP (2012) reported that the new government has done nothing to eradicate the use of torture in Burma’s prisons, which “is widespread, systematic, and carried out in an organised manner arguably as a matter of state policy” (p. 3).

Ethnic nationalities are also targeted; counter-insurgency efforts by the government have resulted in heavy presence of Burmese army soldiers in ethnic nationality areas, where ND-Burma (2014a) has recently found torture to be the second most common human rights violations after confiscation and destruction of property. Torture accounted for 14% of all human rights violations documented by ND-Burma. ND-Burma has also found that patterns and kinds of torture and ill treatment faced by civilians in ethnic nationality areas are different than those used against political prisoners (ND-Burma, 2012a). Unlike political prisoners, who face torture and ill treatment in government facilities, civilians in ethnic regions face these abuses in villages, army camps or in remote rural areas where victims are enduring  forced labour or portering for the Burmese army.

Ethnic nationalities are also often tortured in the context of interrogations about ethnic resistance groups. There are continuing reports of the government torture and beating of civilians alleged to be working with ethnic insurgent groups (US State Department, 2014). Teenagers and children have not been spared; in the Karen State, students have been interrogated about KNLA activities and KHRG (2008) even reported of a six-year old boy been threatened at gun point by the government troops.

According to KHRG (2008), the Burmese military and its proxy armies have regularly threatened and tortured villagers also in areas under their control. By killing or torturing one activist or a disobeying villager, the government sends a message dissuading others from even considering opposing the government. It seems to be in the government’s interest to keep the public so afraid and beaten down that they are unable to resist the military’s demands or supporting ethnic opposition groups.

KWO (2010) has reported on finding both the perpetration of torture by Burmese state authorities in various circumstances as well as the government’s failure to create and implement effective measures to prevent torture and ill treatment. In ethnic nationality areas, village chiefs have often been targeted for torture. This has led to a break down in social structures as villagers have become reluctant in becoming chiefs. Since the 1980s, as Burmese army has expanded control and increased persecution of lowland Karen areas of eastern Burma, women in these areas have been increasingly elected as village chiefs (KWO, 2010). Testimonies of women chiefs gathered by KWO show, however, that they have also faced ongoing systematic abuse including gender-based violence; one third of the 95 women chiefs interviewed by KWO had been physically beaten or tortured. In fact, women chiefs’ vulnerability to gender-based violence as well as their vulnerability while pregnant or nursing appeared to have been deliberately exploited by the Burmese army. One of the most common means of torture was water torture; covering the victims’ faces with plastic and forcing their heads into the water, being repeated many times (KWO, 2010, pp. 12-13).


“First they beat him, and then they put a bag over his head and tied it tight around his neck…. When his head was covered with plastic, they poured the water, and the plastic was close on his nose and mouth and he couldn’t breathe. Even though he couldn’t speak, they kept asking if he was a soldier. They kept beating him severely”. (Mae Nu, a 40-year-old woman who witnessed Burmese army soldiers torture an 18-year old man, Kachin State, November 15, 2011; Human Rights Watch, 2012a, p. 40)

“I didn’t have much time to think about the cold, because the soldiers always came for me at night. Because I am young and single, they all wanted to rape me and every night I got raped worse than most of the others. An officer who the soldiers all called “Bo Gyi” always came for me. He also raped a young Indian girl very often. All night long, the soldiers would gang rape all of us one after another. You could always hear women’s screams at night, if they were strong enough to scream. Then in the morning they made me carry the bombs again”. (Naw W—, a 17-year-old female from T— village, Thaton District, interviewed in January 1992; KHRG, 2008, p. 126)

Sexual violence is prohibited under customary international law and international human rights law, including by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Burma is a state party. Sexual violence is also prohibited under international humanitarian law, and rape is a crime under domestic law in Burma. Nevertheless, in Burma, rape is used as a weapon of war (e.g. KWAT, 2012a; SHRF & SWAN, 2012; WLB, 2014a). Although many women do not report incidents of sexual violence due to the stigma attached to rape, widespread use of rape and sexual violence has been reported throughout ethnic border areas in Burma. When government soldiers commit rape in ethnic areas, the army rarely takes action to punish the perpetrators (WLB, 2014a).

Whilst rape and sexual assault are primarily perpetrated against women and girls in ethnic areas, these forms of torture have also been perpetrated against men and political prisoners (ND-Burma, 2012a). Men and boys also face a different type of shame and stigmatisation after the event (KHRG, 2008).

In 2004, KWO published a report documenting 125 cases of the systematised rape and sexual abuse of women in the Karen State, committed by the Burmese military over a period of twenty years. In their 2010 report on women village chiefs in Karen areas, KWO also found clear evidence of a prevailing climate of impunity for sexual violence committed by Burmese army troops. The women described incidents of gang-rape, rape of young girls, and rape-murder. All of these crimes were committed in the victims’ villages, and the victims were unable to seek redress. High levels of militarisation in ethnic areas coupled with the culture of impunity heighten the vulnerability of villagers to sexual abuse, as also reported by KHRG (2008) in the Karen State. It seems that incidents of rape serve the Burmese army in its aim to cultivate fear among rape survivors and the wider community.

A joint report by SHRF and SWAN (2002) License to rape detailed 173 incidents of rape and other forms of sexual violence, involving 625 girls and women in the Shan State. These crimes were committed by Burmese army troops mostly between 1996 and 2001. The report gives clear evidence that during this time, rape was officially condoned as a weapon of war against the civilian populations; the incidents were committed by soldiers from 52 different battalions and 83% of the rapes were committed by officers usually in front of their own troops. The report also highlighted that the rapes involved extreme brutality; 61% of the incidents were gang-rapes and as much as 25% of the rapes resulted in death, with bodies sometimes displayed to local communities. These crimes typically took place within military bases and there were reported cases of women been abducted for sex slaves for periods of up to four months. Complainants were fined, detained, tortured and sometimes killed by the military. In only one case was the perpetrator punished by his commanding officer. Evidence from the report also showed that increased militarisation and counter-insurgency activities in the Shan State significantly increased the vulnerability of women in rural Shan areas to rape. Fear of sexual abuse against women and girls is one of the main reasons that villagers in ethnic areas flee into hiding in the forest when ordered to relocate to areas under Burmese army control.

Fleeing to Thailand

Displaced villagers flee to Thailand by boat in 2009 as insecurity grows amidst the Burma army and DKBA troop build-up in the area. (Photo: KHRG)

SHRF & SWAN (2002) found that rape victims who survived had to spend long periods in hospital, the cost of which they had to pay themselves. Women also suffered severe mental trauma, commonly reporting insomnia, loss of appetite, loss of weight, and lack of energy. One victim was thought to have become insane while another became an opium addict. Whilst family members were usually supportive of the victims, there were also a number of cases where the survivor was blamed for the incidents. 13% of the women victims moved to Thailand following the rape (SHRF & SWAN, 2002). A strong women’s pro-democracy movement has subsequently formed in exile, largely along the Thailand-Burma border.

In the Kachin State, Human Rights Watch (2012c) recently spoke to a witness of multiple rapes and cases of sexual violence, a practice which community members confirmed. Other organisations have also reported numerous rape cases since the armed conflict resumed in the state; in the first two months of the conflict in 2011, KWAT reported 37 rape cases, in which 13 of the victims were killed (KWAT, 2011a). Later the same year, KWAT reported that four women were being held as sex slaves by Burmese army soldiers near the China border (KWAT, 2011b). More recently in May 2012, the gang-rape and prolonged torture of a woman in a church near the China border demonstrated the ongoing impunity for sexual violence enjoyed by the Burmese army (KWAT, 2012a). According to the KWAT coordinator Moon Nay Li, “the message from the Naypyidaw Supreme Court is clear: The Burmese military can rape and kill ethnic women with impunity”. In September 2013, Kachinland News reported that several Kachin women and girls were taken into a nearby forest by Burmese military soldiers, gang raped and later released naked (Kachinland News, September, 2013).

Since the elections of 2010, WLB (Women’s League of Burma)’s member organizations have gathered reports detailing cases of rape or other forms of sexual violence committed by Burma Army soldiers (see WLB, 2014a – Same Impunity, Same Pattern). The report, published in January 2014, found 69 different incidents where a total of 104 women were subjected to sexual violence, most of these cases linked to military offensives in northern Shan State and Kachin State. WLB believes these are a small fraction of the actual violations committed in this period.

On June 10, 2014, a soldier from Burma Army in Matupi Township reportedly attempted to rape a local Chin woman, badly injuring her (WLB, July, 2014). Local women who peacefully protested for the soldier to be prosecuted, subsequently faced charges themselves while the soldier walked free.

 “Most of the women village chiefs were raped by SPDC troops. They did not care whether they were single or married women”. (Interview 54, KWO, 2010, p. 14)

“Also, some girls stayed in the hill field farm house during the time when they were planting rice and the SPDC dragged them away and raped them and killed them”. (Naw P—, a 19-year-old female from L— village, Pa’an District, interviewed in August 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 125)

State polices such as Four Cuts and ‘living off the land’ have resulted in widespread confiscation of property and forced relocation of villagers in ethnic nationality areas to military confines in Burma. In these areas, Burmese army soldiers have often confiscated property and land, either to support themselves in line with living off the land, or to prevent villagers from supporting armed ethnic resistance groups in line with Four Cuts. As outlined in Patterns of state abuse, both policies have also directly led to forced relocations as villagers have been forced to move to fenced areas subject to tight military control where they provide a ready pool of supplies for the army and are unable to support ethnic resistance.

According to a 2006 report, forced relocation has commonly been accompanied by widespread summary executions, confiscation of land and property, torture, and compulsory arbitrary taxes (BPHWT, 2006). Confiscation and destruction of property, as well as constant fear of forced relocation and other ill treatment, severely destabilise civilian livelihoods and impact food security of the civilian population in ethnic areas.

House destroyed by DKBA

The remains of a house in a village in Hpa-an District, which DKBA forces destroyed on October 8, 2008, after issuing forced relocation orders to the local residents. (Photo: KHRG)

The Burmese military has also long engaged in the destruction of villages in rural Burma in line with the counter-insurgency strategies and also as a means of punishment. In Karen, Shan and Karenni states, more than 3,500 villages have been destroyed (KWO, 2010, p. 5).

ND-Burma found in the first half of 2014 that confiscation and destruction of property was the most frequently reported violation of human rights; ND-Burma member organisations reported 36 cases of confiscation or destruction of property, comprising 35% of all reported cases of human rights violations (2014a). In an earlier report, ND-Burma’s member organisations explained that the Burmese army soldiers often take livestock, rice and other supplies from ethnic nationality villagers and should the villagers refuse or be unable to provide such items they are threatened and beaten by the soldiers (ND-Burma, 2012a).

Forced relocation occurs both in ceasefire and active conflict areas albeit for different reasons. In ceasefire areas forced relocation is a result of development projects and in conflict zones a result of conflict (ND-Burma, 2013b). Recent ceasefires in the Karen State have not stopped forced relocation, which is now primarily a result of development projects which are implemented without consulting, compensating or often even notifying villagers (KHRG, 2013a). Many villagers report increased land confiscation in the state since the signing of a preliminary ceasefire between KNU and the government in January 2012 (KHRG, 2013a).

“Since [Tatmadaw] Battalion # 549 came and based here, my properties are gone and no one has pity on me. One things starts to belong to the battalion, then two things belong to the battalion. You go back to your plantation and they ask: “What kind of paper [land title] do you have? This is military land. It all belongs to the military”. (Naw L— (female, 54), T— village, T’Nay Hsah Township, Hpa’an District / Central Kayin State; interviewed in June 2012; KHRG, 2013b, p. 27)

“Another change that we have seen is that more companies have come to build relationships with regional [KNU/KNLA] leaders for permission to do natural resource [extraction], such as for gold and different kinds of minerals. Recently, companies have entered Hpa-an, Thaton and Kyaikto Townships and have forced villagers to sell their land for mining; [these instances] have become more and more frequent. This can threaten villagers’ future occupation and livelihood options”. (situation update written by a community member, Bilin and Kyaikto townships, Thaton District / Northern Mon State; received in July 2011; KHRG, 2013b, p. 29)  

“The release of political prisoners is the most important thing for all those who truly wish to bring about change in Burma”. (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, August 2002, as cited in AAPP, 2005, p. 9)

“They arrested everyone who came back from the rice farm …after they finished asking questions they beat everyone and then released them”. (Naw Chiner Su, a Karen Buddhist woman from Dooplaya District; KWO, 2010, p. 94)

Arbitrary detention of both civilians for their political affiliations and ethnic nationalities suspected of supporting ethnic resistance has traditionally been commonplace in Burma.

Burma has various laws that allow for the imprisonment of opponents of the regime, laws which are often used to arbitrarily arrest political dissidents. These laws include the Emergency Provisions Act (1950), the Unlawful Association Act (1908), the Printers and Publishers Registration Law (1962), and the State Protection Law (1975). Prisoners in Burma are commonly tortured, denied liveable conditions, sometimes killed, and often held without charges or beyond their sentences. Torture is endemic in Burma’s 43 prisons and interrogation centres (e.g. AAPP, 2012) and serves the dual function of breaking down suspected political dissidents and creating a climate of fear.

According to AAPP (2005), upon arrest, political prisoners are typically held longer than 24 hours without warrant, are uninformed of charges against them, and are denied access to legal assistance, their families, and medical treatment. Trials typically last between 5 and 15 minutes, and are characterised by practices such as lack of independence of the judiciary and inability of the defendants to call and question witnesses, judges being intimidated by the presence of the MI, and trials often ending with the judge reading out the sentence from a pre-prepared sheet of paper.

Throughout the year 2012, the Burmese government detained more than 200 political prisoners, and placed restrictions on released political prisoners (US State Department, 2013). In July 2013 President Thein Sein made a promise to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of year, and the government subsequently claimed this promise had been fulfilled (see AAPP, 2014b). AAPP reported, however, that at the year’s end, 30 political prisoners remained behind bars. During 2014, the government has continued to detain activists. In September 2014, the country reportedly had 80 political prisoners and 130 awaiting trial (AAPP, 2014c). The government also abused some prisoners and detainees, and held persons in harsh and life-threatening conditions (US State Department, 2014).

Political prisoners who have been released have also hardly received the treatment that they deserve. As pointed out by a number of human rights organisations (FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, FORUM-ASIA, & FDB, 2012), Burma’s political prisoners should not have been arrested in the first place and therefore their release must be unconditional and accompanied by effective remedies. Upon release, political prisoners must be guaranteed the full restoration and respect for their civil and political rights. FIDH et al. (2012) report that the release of 300 political prisoners on 13 January 2012, for example, was not unconditional; under Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code the ‘amnesty’ could be revoked at the discretion of the President who can order their re-arrest without a warrant. The government still uses oppressive laws such as Section 401(1) as political weapons even after political prisoners are released (AAPP, 2014b).

According to KHRG (2008) those released are constantly watched by the MI and moreover, as political prisoners have commonly been tortured while in prison, they suffer from associated trauma and other difficulties, resulting in a need for counselling which is currently not met. Since 2013, however, AAPP has been working to create a mental health support program for ex-political prisoners, counselling around 165 clients in 2013 (AAPP, 2014b).

AAPP reported in 2005 that since March 1988, approximately 5,000 people have been held as political prisoners. This figure, however, is a gross understatement as it only reflects cases that could be adequately verified. AAPP estimated in 2005 that the actual number of former political prisoners was likely to be around 10,000 or more (AAPP 2005, p.  25). These figures are also exclusive of people who have been detained, interrogated, and tortured for short periods of time as well as of people in ethnic rural areas who are detained and tortured in inaccessible unknown locations.  In rural ethnic areas, villagers are often arrested and interrogated for information about ethnic opposition armies (e.g. KHRG, 2014a). As pointed out by ND-Burma (2012a), with ongoing fighting in Kachin and Shan states and continued military presence in ethnic areas across the country, it is likely that arbitrary arrests and accompanying torture of civilians will continue in Burma.

Arbitrary detention is still widespread and systematic in Burma. The people of Burma, knowing that dissident can lead to arrest, torture and long-term imprisonment in urban as well as in ethnic rural areas, still fear acting in any manner that could even be perceived as being in opposition to the government. The culture of impunity serves to exacerbate these well-founded fears. While there are changes under way in Burma, activists who speak out are still often detained and arrested, and ethnic civilians suspected of supporting ethnic resistance armies continue to be detained and interrogated.


“Some of the women porters were very young and at night they raped them all. For men if they could not work, they beat them to death”. (Naw Chu Cha, a Pwo Karen Buddhist village chief from Pa’an District; KWO, 2010, p. 96)

“We were carrying food up to the camp and one porter stepped on a mine and lost his leg. The soldiers left him, he was screaming but no one helped. When we came down the mountain he was dead. I looked up and saw bits of his clothing in the trees, and parts of his leg in a tree”. (“Maung Nyunt”, an escaped convict porter, interviewed in March 2011; KHRG, 2011a, p. 1)

Millions of people in Burma have been pressed into forced labour on construction projects or as porters for the Burmese army, in what has sometimes been called ‘modern day slavery’.  Burma’s junta’s use of forced labour has been widespread particularly throughout the country’s rural ethnic areas and conflict zones “where the military continues to routinely force civilians into carrying supplies or providing labour for a range of military related duties” (KHRG, 2011a, p. 7). Walk Free, an Australian based rights group estimates that in 2013, 360,000 – 400,000 people were enslaved in Burma (see Walk Free, 2014).

Forced labour

Villagers clearing roadside bush as ordered by Burma Army soldiers in 2010. (Photo: KHRG)

Forced labour is widely performed by men, women, children and elderly persons. In many cases, the families or the village chiefs are responsible for filling the forced labour quotas or compensating money to the military instead (KWO, 2010). Forced labour has often been imposed with the threat of physical abuse, beatings, torture, rape and murder, all which are also used as means to punish those who are disobedient or too weak to fulfil their duties (e.g. ND-Burma, 2012a).

As a member of the ILO, Burma is obliged to uphold the ILO core conventions, which prohibit the use of forced labour. Although Burmese laws also prohibit forced labour, except as a criminal punishment, the government and military’s use of forced labour remained a serious problem in 2013 (US State Department, 2014). While the Child Law in Burma sets a minimum age of 13 for the employment of children, one human rights group recorded 21 cases of forced labour of children under 13 years of age in 2012 (see US State Department, 2013).

In response to reports of widespread human rights violations and forced labour in 1996, ILO launched a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into forced labour in Burma in 1997 (ILO, 1998). In its report issued in July 1998, the CoI found that the Convention had been violated in law, as well as in practice, in a widespread and systematic manner. Forced labour was occurring in ‘epidemic proportions’ during the 1990s, often also taking place under dangerous conditions. ILO has also noted that the systematic nature of the use of forced labour may constitute a crime against humanity (e.g. ILO, 2006). In 2000, ILO adopted an unprecedented resolution calling on all ILO members, including governments and private companies, to review their relations with Burma. An international campaign led by the trade union movement has since also been urging companies to close down business operations in the country.

In 2012, the Burmese government reported to the ILO a number of points in relation to the CoI’s earlier recommendations: “The Village Act and the Towns Act of 1907 were repealed and replaced by the Ward or Village Tract Administration Act. The new Act contains no provision which in any way condones or permits the use of forced labour. The definition of forced labour in the Act directly derives from Convention No. 29 and the Act unambiguously criminalises the exertion of forced labour” (ILO, 2012, III 19 a, p. 8). The Burmese government also reported that: “Other rules that authorised forced labour, such as the Jail Manual, are in the process of being revised through the Prisons Act to ensure that their provisions do not give rise to any form of forced labour that would be contrary to Convention No. 29″ (ILO, 2012, III 19 b, p. 8). The government also proposed a benchmarked strategy for the elimination of all forms of forced labour in the country by 2015, signed by both the ILO and the Burmese government on March 16, 2012 (ILO, 2012, III 19 d, p. 8). In 2011, 2012, and 2013, the government officials have reportedly participated in ILO workshops on forced labour (US State Department, 2011, 2013, 2014).

The ILO’s assessment of Burma is seen as a crucial indicator for the reduction of further international sanctions. It seems, however, that while a reduction in the use of forced labour has been seen in certain areas in Burma, the Burmese government still continues to use forced labour, usually for portering, infrastructure projects, and military support activities.

Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project argued in June 2012 that it would be premature for the ILO to lift the measures it adopted in 2000: “In Northern Rakhine state at least, Myanmar [Burma] has yet to take concrete steps to effectively implement two key recommendations of the 1998 ILO Commission of Inquiry – eradicate the practice and prosecute perpetrators – and to translate formal commitments into action on the ground in all regions of the country” (Chris Lewa, as cited in Hindstrom, June 2012). Despite some improvements, a fact finding mission in early May 2012 concluded that many challenges remained, including the continued incarceration of ten labour activists and an absence of Rule of Law (see Hindstrom, June 2012). Nevertheless, in June 2013, the ILO lifted its remaining restrictions on Burma (Michaels, June, 2013).

Covering a period between January and June 2012, ND-Burma (2013b) documented 20 cases or 13% of the documented human rights violations being forced labour, making it the third most common human rights violation in Burma at the time. In ND-Burma’s report covering the period between December 2011 and January 2013, forced labour was the second largest percentage of cases documented, with 58 cases of forced labour accounting for 19% of total violations (ND-Burma, 2013a). Forced labour was imposed by the government and its supporters in nearly all of Burma’s 14 states and regions. Karen State was particularly hard hit with nearly half (25) of the cases found in the state.

A 2012 PHR report (Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards & Beyrer, 2012) found that out of all 665 households surveyed in the Karen State, 26% of households reporting some kind of forced labour in the past year, including being porters for the military, growing crops, and sweeping for landmines. In the Kachin State, Burmese army soldiers have abducted numerous ethnic Kachin people for forced labour since the conflict began in 2011 (Human Rights Watch, 2012c).

According to US State Department (2014), forced labour continued in 2013 in the form of forced portering, mandatory work on public infrastructure projects, and in activities related to the military’s “self-reliance” (‘living off the land’) policy.

In rural ethnic areas, particularly in conflict zones, forced portering for the government troops or their proxy armies is a form of forced labour and unarguably one of the most dangerous. Porters are required to carry huge heavy loads of ammunition, food and other supplies for the army, over rugged mountains which are inaccessible to vehicles. Porters are allowed very little food, water or rest, and no medical care. They are also often used as human mine sweepers, put in front of army troops facing ambush or sent first down mined roads or trails. The wounded are left to die while those trying to escape are frequently executed (KHRG, 2011a). The Burmese army also uses civilians who are not porters to sweep or remove landmines. According to the US State Department report (2011), Burmese army used children as young as five years of age as human shields and mine sweepers in Shan State’s Maingshu area in May 2011.

Forced portering

Villagers portering Burma Army rations. (Photo: KHRG)

Portering of army supplies is a very risky activity not only due to the threat of landmines and military attacks, but also because of abuse such as beatings and repeated rape and sexual violence committed by the soldiers that porters are forced to serve (KHRG, 2008). Many porters die as a result of mistreatment and lack of adequate food and water. The torture and ill treatment that is often associated with forced portering has greatly increased the fear of becoming a porter for the Burmese army (ND-Burma, 2012a). According to ND-Burma (2012a) the fear of torture and ill treatment as a porter or other forced labourer is one of the main reasons that many villagers leave their communities and flee to neighbouring countries, especially Thailand. Not only men and women are forced to be porters, but also children and the elderly; government forces operating in Karen State have used children at least as young as 12 to porter military supplies (KHRG, 2008).

On top of the conscription of children and other villagers for portering duties, the Burmese government has used a large number of convicts to serve as porters on the frontlines, a practice that has been documented by Human Rights Watch, KHRG, UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and Amnesty International (see KHRG, 2011a). KHRG (2008) reports that convict porters are “especially brutalised and frequently murdered when – due to overwork, under nourishment and mistreatment – they are no longer able to carry their loads” (KHRG, 2008, p. 150). Furthermore, many convict porters have reportedly not even committed crimes, but have been imprisoned solely due to the regime’s increased reliance on convict porters (KHRG, 2006). The use of convict porters has been reported in the past in Mon, Karenni, and Shan states (see KHRG, 2011a, p. 7). Moreover, some of these convict porters have been children (KHRG, 2008).

Based on Human Rights Watch and KHRG interviews with 58 convict porters who escaped to Thailand between 2010 and 2011, Human Rights Watch and KHRG published a report detailing the abuses endured by convict porters in the Karen State (Human Rights Watch & KHRG, 2011). They concluded that “the practice is ongoing, systematic, and is facilitated by several branches of government, suggesting decision-making at the highest levels of the Burmese military and political establishment” (Human Rights Watch & KHRG, 2011, p. 3). Despite the ongoing reforms in Burma at the time, the government gathered an estimated 700 prisoners from approximately 12 prisons and labour camps throughout Burma to serve as porters for an ongoing offensive in southern Karen State, and another 500 prisoners for use as porters during another separate military operation in northern Karen State and eastern Pegu Region (Human Rights Watch & KHRG, 2011). AAPP (2011) also reported that the use of prisoners as forced labourers continued in June 2011; following the outbreak of fighting in Kachin state, 150 prisoners were transported from Insein Prison to be used as porters or human minesweepers.

US State Department reported that throughout the year 2013, the government continued the practice of forcing civilians to serve as military porters in Shan, Karen, and Kachin States, and the Burmese military also reportedly used Kachin village children as human shields (US State Department, 2014).

“The SPDC laid landmines on our farm road. We have to walk carefully when we go to our farm”. (Saw G—, a 43-year-old male from D— village, Nyaunglebin District, interviewed in August 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 122)

“The situation here is very bad and unstable. SPDC soldiers have put landmines around our rice fields and betel nut fields. Very recently, five villagers accidentally stepped on landmines and died. We don’t even dare to go and take them to the village [collect their dead bodies]. We were very upset about this incident. We held a memorial service for them as well”. (Saw B—, a 38-year-old male from T— village, Tenasserim Region, interviewed in June 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 137)

Landmines in Burma present an added risk to villagers already facing other forms of abuse. Antipersonnel mines are designed to explode from the presence, proximity, or contact of a person. As victim-activated munitions, they are indiscriminate and can be triggered by anyone, whether a child or a soldier. Landmines are a particularly problematic method of warfare as mines planted during a conflict can still kill or injure civilians even decades later (International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2011). In Burma, government troops, non-state armed groups and civilians all use landmines. Since the publication of its first report in 1999, Landmine Monitor has consistently documented the extensive use of antipersonnel mines both by government troops and by non-state armed groups in Burma (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013).

Landmine victim

Saw Nu—, 18, stepped on a Burma Army landmine when returning to his home on a jungle path. (Photo: KHRG)

In 2012, with 106 casualties Burma ranked as number eight in landmine casualties in the world (International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2013, p. 39). As this figure only includes recorded casualties the actual casualty total is likely to be much higher. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty that comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel mines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims has not been signed by the Burmese government. Burma was also one of 12 states identified as potential producers of antipersonnel mines, and one of 19 countries that abstained from voting on UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 67/32 on December 3, 2012, which called for universalisation of the Mine Ban Treaty (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013). Burma and Syria were the only two countries in the world where government forces used antipersonnel mines, and the only two countries where both state and non-state armed groups used them in 2012-2013 (International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2013). At least 17 non-state armed groups in Burma have used antipersonnel mines since 1999, including the KNLA, the KA, the DKBA, and the KIA. For the second year in a row, there was a decrease in report of mine use by non-state armed groups in Burma in 2013 (International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2013).

Landmines are a particular problem in ethnic states due to decades of armed resistance and government-led counter-insurgency strategies. Some 33 townships in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Arakan, and Shan states, as well as in Pegu and Tenasserim Regions suffer from some degree of mine contamination, with Karen State and Pegu Region suspected of containing the heaviest mine contamination and having the highest number of recorded victims (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013).

In 2010, Free Burma Rangers (FBR) reported that Burmese army Battalion 232 laid new mines in Paletwa Township near the India-Burma border in Chin State (FBR, 2010). In the Karen State, KHRG (2012c) reported new planting of landmines between January 2011 and May 2012. Landmines were planted by the government in all seven geographic research areas, and by KNLA and DKBA in four research areas; Toungoo, Papun, Dooplaya and Pa’an districts. In January 2012, FBR reported that BGF forces had told the villagers in the Karen State not to return to their village because of landmines the BGF had laid there (FBR, 2012). In the Kachin State, both parties to the conflict, the Burmese army and the KIA, are reportedly using antipersonnel mines (Human Rights Watch, 2012c).

Since the ceasefire was signed between the KNU (Karen National Union) and the government in January 2012, KHRG has documented the ongoing laying of landmines in the Karen state by both KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) and BGF (Border Guard Force – armed group under the command of Burmese military), albeit to a lesser degree than before (KHRG, 2014a).

Landmines restrict livelihoods

Landmine contamination in eastern Burma severely jeopardises civilian livelihoods through restricting the villagers’ movement and ability to attend to their farms. Landmines will also severely impede any attempts of repatriation of Burmese refugees in the future.(Photo: Liz Bordo)

In areas under the control of the government troops or its proxy armies, landmines have routinely been laid around villages, paths, roads, and army camps (KHRG, 2008, p. 122). The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor (2012), among other organisations, explain how the prevalence of mine use in eastern Burma has resulted in the spread of military weapons and thinking into the civil realm of society. While some civilians view the use of landmines as a threat to their safety, others view it as a source of protection (see also KHRG, 2012c).

Not only armed groups but also civilians use landmines; some communities in non-government-controlled areas in the Karen State, for example, have themselves deployed homemade landmines in order to defend their villages from Burma Army attacks (KHRG, 2008). Some civilians also report that the KNLA’s deployment of landmines has served to defend the villages from potential Burmese army attacks, or given them a window of time in which to flee (KHRG, 2008).


An improvised KNLA landmine. (Photo: KHRG)

As pointed out by Davis et al. (Davis, Gittleman, Sollom, Richards & Beyrer, 2012), mines not only cause direct physical injury to civilians but also prevent people from accessing their land or returning to their village if they flee. As displacement and inability to access fields can contribute to food insecurity and malnutrition, ongoing mine contamination especially in eastern Burma continues to put civilians’ livelihoods at grave risk. KHRG (2012c) has described how the prevalence of landmines in the Karen State has led many villagers to develop strategies to reduce the negative impact of mines: Villagers pass information about mined areas to other villagers; seek to identify areas in which it is deemed safe to travel; use alternate travel routes to avoid areas known to be mined; and adopt precautionary measures while travelling, including sweeping the ground with sticks ahead of them, walking on stones, and avoiding areas in which the ground is obscured by leaves or bushes.

In March 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar [Burma] again urged the government to develop a comprehensive plan to end the use of landmines, establish accurate data on their location and use, ensure their systematic removal, and rehabilitate victims (see Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013). In April 2013, the UNHCR noted that more than 450,000 refugees and internally displaced people can’t return home because of landmines, and stated, “There will be no active promotion of return until land mines areas are identified, openly marked and cleared” (see Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013).

Despite severe landmine contamination in Burma, some positive signs are in the air. In February 2012, President Thein Sein requested assistance for mine clearance, marking the first time that Burma requested bilateral assistance for mine action (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2012). The government also recently expressed increased interest in Mine Ban Treaty and accepted to receive a delegation from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines for the first time (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013).

During the latest reporting period (from mid-2012 to mid-2013), information available to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor indicates a continued lower level of new mine use by ethnic opposition armies and a return to small amounts of new use by government forces. While there were 106 reported casualties in 2012, this represents a significant drop from 381 casualties in 2011 (International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2013). There were a few credible allegations of mine use by the Burma Army in Kachin and Arakan States. There was also continued use of mines into mid-2013 by government-controlled BGF. There were no further reports of use of, or fabrication of, improvised mines by civilians (Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, 2013).

“I can’t remember how old I was the first time in fighting. About 13. That time we walked into a Karenni ambush, and four of our soldiers died. I was afraid because I was very young so I tried to run back, but [the captain] shouted, ‘Don’t run back! If you run back I’ll shoot you myself!’“(Aung Zaw, describing his first exposure to combat; Human Rights Watch, 2007, pp. 60-61)

Human Rights Watch estimated in 2002 that over 70,000 soldiers in Burma Army were under the age of 18, making it by far the largest recruiter of child soldiers in Burma and, indeed, throughout the world at the time (Human Rights Watch, 2002). Despite the government’s insistence that its national armed forces is an all-volunteer force, and that the minimum age for recruitment is 18 (KHRG, 2007, p. 6), there is evidence that the army has obtained most of its recruits by forced and coerced conscription (KHRG, 2008). In 2008, KHRG was receiving continuing reports of child soldiers who had been forced or coerced into joining the Burmese army, and then denied permission to leave (KHRG, 2008).

The government of Burma has publicly affirmed its legal commitment to protect children as evidenced by its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991 as well as its enactment of the Child Law in 1994. The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime (article 8.2. (e) (viii), Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court). The statute considers such recruitment a war crime whether carried out by state or non-state armed groups. The definition includes not only children’s direct participation in combat, but also their use as soldiers in other military activities such as portering.

Even though Burma is not a state party to the ICC statute, individuals who are responsible for recruiting children under the age of 15 into armed forces or groups may still be criminally responsible for acts amounting to war crimes under customary international law.

Child soldier

A 16-year-old deserter from the Burma army pictured in April 2009. (Photo: KHRG)

Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and international organisations such as the ILO and the United Nations have all made repeated expressions of concern to the government of Burma about its recruitment of child soldiers (e.g. Human Rights Watch, 2007; International Labour Conference, 2007; Security Council Report, 2012; UNICEF, 2002).

Burma has been on the Security Council Agenda of situations of armed conflict where parties recruit or use children every year since 2006 (see Security Council Report, 2012, p. 38). Many international organisations such as UNICEF, ILO, ICRC, and UNHCR, have attempted to address the issue of child soldiers in Burma in a variety of ways, including case work aimed at releasing specific children from the army as well as broader preventive initiatives aimed at keeping children in school, raising public awareness, and engaging with the government, the Burmese army, and non-state armed groups on child rights issues (see Human Rights Watch, 2007). Human Rights Watch reports that in some cases international and local organisations have been able to have child soldiers released, while broader initiatives have met with limited success. Many of these efforts have been undermined by poverty, economic mismanagement, and corruption.

In 2008, KHRG argued that the international attention paid to the Burmese army’s recruitment and use of child soldiers seemed to have had led the Burmese government to take extra measures to deny that the practice is taking place rather than working to eradicate the practice. Despite extensive documentation about the systematic and widespread use of child soldiers, the government of Burma continued to ignore and deny the credibility of such reports. In 2003, the government of Burma released a highly controversial statement:

“…The armed insurrection groups also have come back into the legal fold and there is peace in the country. Although there are no children involved in armed conflict, there are other difficult situations that the children in Myanmar have to face, as in other countries”. (Government of Burma, 2003, p. 54, IX A art.22 / 217)

A central aspect of understanding the Burmese military’s forced conscription of child soldiers is related to the army’s unrelenting recruitment quotas. In 1997, the Burmese military announced a program to expand its strength to 500,000, and began much more intensive attacks throughout the country (Human Rights Watch, 2007). In 2007, Human Rights Watch published a report Sold to Be Soldiers, based on research conducted in border areas of Burma, Thailand and China, between July and September 2007. Human Rights Watch suggested that the Burmese military’s increased reliance on child conscripts stems from the inability of Burmese military recruiters to meet recruitment quotas.

Burmese military expectations for continued expansion coupled with high desertion rates and a lack of willing volunteers has made recruiters turn to children “because they are far more easily frightened and bullied than adults” (KHRG, 2008, p. 142). In 2007, Human Rights Watch of a steady increase in the prevalence of children among new recruits, with children comprising more than half of all newly arriving recruits in some battalions (Human Rights Watch, 2007). Burmese military staffing crisis led young boys in Burma to become a commodity, the boys being bought and sold by military recruiters who are desperate to meet recruitment quotas imposed by their superiors (Human Rights Watch, 2007). US State Department (2011) reported that in July 2011, the Burmese army paid 200,000 kyat to purchase five child soldiers from a female trafficker in Pegu Region.

Some boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch (2007) told how they had been detained and beaten, bought and sold from one recruiter or battalion to another, and eventually transported to recruitment centres. Child soldiers also reported being abused throughout the course of their training and time in the military (Human Rights Watch, 2007). In August 2011, in a military supply and logistics battalion in Pegu Region, soldiers reportedly beat a number of child soldiers to death. The government did not hold the alleged perpetrators responsible (US State Department, 2011). Those who escape the army are often imprisoned or re-recruited on their arrival home, and as a consequence, many child soldiers no longer dare to return home.

Child soldiers who have managed to flee to Thailand have usually remained outside of refugee camps (Human Rights Watch, 2007). In the camps, these children may be discriminated against and excluded by the refugee population who have fled Burmese army abuses and who mostly belong to ethnic nationality groups. Going to a camp could also make them visible to Thai authorities, who could arrest them and hand them back to the army. Former child soldiers thus face a difficult situation; one UNHCR representative told Human Rights Watch that it is extremely difficult for UNHCR to provide any form of protection for people outside refugee camps, while NGO representatives added that it is simultaneously becoming harder for people to gain admission to refugee camps (Human Rights Watch, 2007).

Human Rights Watch (2007) reported child soldiers in Burma to be as young as 10 years old, while US State Department (2011, 2013, 2014) found the youngest recruits in 2011, 2012, and 2013 to be 11 years of age. Recruitment officers consistently register child recruits as being 18 years old even when the child states otherwise:

“They filled the forms and asked my age, and when I said 16, I was slapped and he said, “You are 18. Answer 18.” He asked me again and I said, “But that’s my true age.” The sergeant asked, “Then why did you enlist in the army?” I said, “Against my will. I was captured.” He said, “Okay, keep your mouth shut then,” and he filled in the form. I just wanted to go back home and I told them, but they refused. I said, “Then please just let me make one phone call,” but they refused that too”. (Maung Zaw Oo, describing the second time he was forced into the army in 2005; Human Rights Watch, 2007, p. 45)

The forced recruitment of children commonly occurs when Burmese military recruiters approach street children or children found alone at train stations and ask for identification. Upon failure to produce identification, the children are commonly given two options; go to jail or join the army. Sometimes recruiters also offer incentives, such as a good salary, continuing education, and housing if the child joins while other children are simply abducted (US State Department, 2014).

Despite the attention to the issue of child soldiers by the UN Security Council, Human Rights Watch reported in 2007 that the UN country team had been only minimally involved on child soldier issues and did not appear to have seriously advocated on behalf of child soldiers in Burma. As an example, when the special representative of the Secretary General on children and armed conflict visited Burma in June 2007, the UN had not even informed the UWSA that it had been listed in the Secretary General’s report in 2006 as a party that conscripts child soldiers; the UWSA expressed surprise that it had been.

The recruitment of child soldiers by the Burmese army as well as ethnic armies continued in 2013 (UN General Assembly Security Council, May, 2014; US State Department, 2014). Non-state armies are, however, much smaller in troop strength and have far fewer child soldiers than the Burmese army. They also differ greatly from the Burmese army in how these children are recruited and treated (Human Rights Watch, 2007). Many child recruits volunteer to serve in ethnic armies either because their families cannot support them or because they are seeking to fight back against human rights abuses that have affected their families and villages. It also appears that most of the non-state armed groups treat their soldiers more humanely than the Burmese army does.

“When I grow up I am going to be a soldier because I am unable to bear the SPDC oppression and torture of our people.” (Saw M—, a 14-year-old male from K— village, currently an orphanage resident in D— village, Papun District, interviewed in March 2007; KHRG, 2008, p. 155)

DKBA soldier

A 20-year-old deserter from the DKBA who told Karen Human Rights Group in 2009 that “there were six soldiers who were 13 years old in my security detachment [the ‘Brigade Security Force’]“. (Photo: KHRG)

According to Human Rights Watch (2007), ethnic armies differ greatly in their willingness to stop using child soldiers and to engage with international actors. Some ethnic armies, including the KA and the KNLA, have taken extensive measures to bring their practices in line with international standards (Human Rights Watch, 2007; see also UN General Assembly Security Council, May, 2014). Others, including the SSA-S and KIA, are wary of engaging the international community on this issue, the former appearing to have taken some measures on its own and the latter considering accepting children into non-combat roles in the army as a perfectly acceptable form of foster care for vulnerable children. Some groups, including the DKBA and the UWSA, simply deny having child soldiers despite clear evidence to the contrary. A senior KIA general fairly recently acknowledged KIA’s use of child soldiers to Human Rights Watch and emphasised the KIA’s commitment to end the practice, adding that the KIA does not actively recruit children (Human Rights Watch, 2012c):

“We do have some child soldiers, and we are trying to find solutions. They are coming for many reasons, so we need to settle it. We are preparing pamphlets about child rights and child soldiers to be taught in schools…. We do not recruit child soldiers. Yes, there are a few [even under age 15]”. (Human Rights Watch interview in Kachin State, November 12, 2011; Human Rights Watch, 2012c, p. 62)

Independent media, however, reported that in October 2012 the KIA had arrested 22 civilians, including children, purportedly for forced conscription into the KIA (US State Department, 2013). In 2014, KIA reportedly continued to conscript child soldiers to its ranks (US State Department, 2014).

On the positive side, the situation in Burma has improved to some degree, and the Burmese military has recently released hundreds of child soldiers from its ranks (see e.g. Patteran, 2014; US State Department, 2014). In 2012, the military also dismissed three officers from the military and imprisoned two of them in civilian jails for the use of child soldiers (US State Department, 2013). Since 2008, Burmese military officials, in cooperation with UNICEF, have also trained approximately 1,000 military officers, including recruitment officers and officers up to the rank of captain, on international humanitarian law (US State Department, 2014).

Nevertheless, forced recruitment of child soldiers continues and it is unknown exactly how many children remain in the army. According to the UN General Assembly Security Council (May, 2014), children used by the Burma Army also continued to be deployed to the frontline as combatants and in other roles, in particular in Kachin State (see UN General Assembly Security Council, May, 2014).

The Burmese army and non-state armed groups should immediately end all recruitment of children and demobilise all children from their ranks. They should also end impunity and impose effective penalties on those who recruit and continue to use child soldiers, and cooperate with international agencies to verify recruitment practices. Greater measures should be taken to guarantee former child soldiers adequate protection and aid.


“If the Burmese soldiers find us outside the village or in the forest, they detain, interrogate and torment us. They accuse us of being rebels and threaten to kill us on the spot just like they have been ordered to do”. (Shan man, Mong Nai Township, June 2008; TBC, 2008, p. 18)

Freedom of opinion, expression, movement, and the press have been virtually non-existent in Burma since the military coup of 1962. While all people of Burma experience restrictions on their freedom, ethnic nationality groups have experienced a particularly significant amount of marginalisation and constraints on cultural expression. For more information on the situation of ethnic nationalities, refer to Burmanisation and Discrimination.

According to a number of human rights reports, despite some prominent positive changes fundamental freedoms in Burma remain severely curtailed and the government continues to infringe on citizens’ privacy and restrict freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement (Human Rights Watch, 2012a; US State Department, 2014).

Article 354 in the 2008 Constitution provides that “every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of expressing and publishing freely their convictions and opinions”, as long as exercising these rights is “not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity or public order and morality” (Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008). In practice, as Burmese authorities continue to monitor, harass and intimidate citizens for expressing political opinions critical of the government, many remain wary of speaking openly (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, July, 2014; US State Department, 2014).

On a positive note, some media restrictions have been relaxed since 2011. There in an increased access to the internet and broader scope for journalists to cover formerly prohibited subjects, and mentioning of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and displaying her photo also became permitted in 2011 after a long ban (Human Rights Watch, 2012a). US State Department (2011) reported that in 2011, the government media engaged in more substantive reporting than in previous years, covering parliamentary debates and providing more extensive reporting of meetings than in the past. The same trend continued in 2012 and 2013 (US State Department, 2013, 2014). On August 20, 2012, the state censorship board announced that newspapers no longer needed to submit their publications for pre-publishing scrutiny, although they were still required to submit them post-publication.

There has also been a decrease in the frequency and severity of the government harassment in recent years. In 2012, the government’s reform efforts resulted in significant human rights improvements especially in central areas of the country. Over 2,000 names were removed from the blacklist and all imprisoned journalists were freed during the year (US State Department, 2013). This is a significant development considering that the same year Burma still held the second highest number of jailed journalists per capita in the world (AAPP, 2012, p. 18). In 2013, exiled media groups including The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Mizzima, opened offices in the country (US State Department, 2014).

Newspaper stand in Myawaddi, Burma

Some media restrictions and censorship rules have been relaxed since 2011, including allowing newspapers to display the photo of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after a long ban (Photo: Burma Link)

Nevertheless, significant hurdles remain. The government continues to monopolise and control all domestic television broadcasting, and The Electronic Transactions Law of 2004 prohibits the electronic transfer of information that may undermine the security of the state. During the year 2012, the government temporarily suspended three newspapers for charges such as ‘instigating public unrest’ (US State Department, 2013). Existing laws prohibit citizens to pass information about the country to media located outside the country, and domestic media practices self-censorship in fear of government reprisals (US State Department, 2014).

In July 2014, four journalists and an editor of Unity Journal were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour under the 1923 State Secrets Act (Zarni Mann, July, 2014). In September 2014, a local journalist was allegedly killed by the Burma Army (Saw Yan Naing, October, 2014).

Although the 2008 Constitution and the 2011 Law of Peaceful Assembly and Procession provide the right to freedom of assembly, albeit with significant limitations, this right was often not respected in 2013 (US State Department, 2014). Nevertheless, citizens throughout the country have been granted permission to hold legal assemblies, protests and demonstrations since 2012 for the first time in more than 20 years. Freedom of speech in these rallies remains highly restricted, and some protests are denied. In November 2012, the government violently supressed an unauthorised peaceful protest in Sagaing Division severely injuring scores of people, a large number of whom were monks, during the crackdown.

Allowing citizens to form associations and organisations remained restricted throughout the year of 2013. The government also blocked efforts of ethnic and religious associations to meet and teach (US State Department, 2014). The government continues to interfere with and monitor the movement of people of Burma. Burmese law requires that persons who intend to spend the night at a place other than their registered domicile must inform local ward or village authorities in advance, and there were reports of regular unannounced night time checks by officials (US State Department, 2014).

Restrictions on movement in Burma have not only been imposed directly through repressive laws but also indirectly through military strategies such as the Four Cuts policy. According to ND-Burma (2012a), the Burmese army and the state police frequently establish and enforce arbitrary restrictions on the movement and activities of villagers in ethnic nationality areas. Furthermore, these restrictions have often been accompanied by torture and other ill treatment. In some instances, security forces require villagers to show their identification card and often demand money when villagers pass through checkpoints. Upon failure to comply with these requests, or simply questioning the practice, villagers are often beaten or threatened. Restrictions on movement are enforced particularly in ethnic nationality areas where armed opposition groups are thought to operate. ND-Burma (2012a) reports how many ethnic nationalities have faced an impossible choice; torture at the hands of the army if they attempt to travel to their farms or starvation for their families if they do not.

Citizens of ethnic states reported that the government continued to restrict the travel of, involuntarily confine, and forcibly relocate IDPs and stateless persons in 2013 (US State Department, 2014).

Despite some significant recent positive changes in Burma, fundamental freedoms remain severely curtailed in the country. In ethnic nationality areas in particular, the people are yet to enjoy freedoms guaranteed by new laws enacted by the government.


Burmese government officially recognises 135 ethnic groups who qualify for citizenship. The country’s Rohingya population is not included in the list and nearly all Rohingya are denied any benefits of citizenship. According to UNHCR, over 800,000 legally stateless persons, mostly Rohingya, reside in northern Arakan State near the border with Bangladesh (UNHCR, 2014a). In addition, the majority of the internally displaced people (IDPs) are also believed to be without citizenship.

In 2012, NGOs estimated the number of Rohingya in Burma at around two million persons (US State Department, 2013). Officials and most Arakanese claim that Rohingya are illegal migrants from Bengal. Rohingya do not dispute their origins from East Bengal but hold that they have resided in Burma for decades if not centuries and thus deserve citizenship. Click here for more information on the situation of Rohingya in the Arakan State.

Throughout the country, scores of ethnic nationals also have no access to official ID cards or documents proving their citizenship.

Updated October 27, 2014

Continue to International Crimes and Impunity

  • For more detailed information on conflict and HRVs in specific areas in eastern Burma (Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states as well as Tenasserim and Pegu Region);

TBC (2008). Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma. The Border Consortium. www.tbbc.org/idps/report-2008-idp-english.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013.

  • For more detailed information on specific HRVs in Burma;

FIDH, ALTSEAN-Burma, & BLC (2009). BURMA/MYANMAR, International crimes committed in Burma: the urgent need for a Commission of Inquiry. A joint report by International Federation for Human Rights, ALTSEAN-Burma & Burma Lawyers ‘ Council. www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/bu08.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013.

  • For more information on Burmese army soldiers;

Human Rights Watch (2002). “My gun was as tall as me”. Child Soldiers in Burma. Human Rights Watch report, October 2002. www.hrw.org/reports/2002/burma/Burma0902.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013. © 2002 by Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch (2007). Sold to be Soldiers. The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma. Human Rights Watch report, October 2007. www.hrw.org/reports/2007/burma1007/burma1007webwcover.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013. © 2007 by Human Rights Watch

KHRG (2008). Growing up under Militarization: Abuse and Agency of Children in Karen State. Karen Human Rights Group, April 2008. http://www.khrg.org/sites/default/files/khrg0801_3.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013.

  • For more information on the effects of militarisation and abuse for communities and children;

KHRG (2008). Growing up under Militarization: Abuse and Agency of Children in Karen State. Karen Human Rights Group, April 2008. http://www.khrg.org/sites/default/files/khrg0801_3.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013.

  • For more information on conflict porters;

Human Rights Watch & KHRG (2011). Dead men walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma. Human Rights Watch and Karen Human Rights Group, July 2011. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2011/07/12/dead-men-walking. Accessed December 19, 2013. © 2011 by Human Rights Watch.

List of All References