Democratization, Human Rights, and Social Justice in Myanmar
Htoo Chit – Executive Director of the Foundation for Education and Development (FED)
Under the military dictatorship, the people of Burma/Myanmar are not only losing their civil and political rights, they are not able to enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights because the military dictators have purposefully chosen to ignore and deny them their rights. While the military expenditure is more than fifty percent of the national budget, a mere less than five percent are allocated for both health and education. The people of Burma/ Myanmar, therefore, are experiencing human rights violations in all forms.
I am from a mining community in the Kayah (Karenni) state of Burma. I was involved in the demonstrations for the restoration of a democratic government; known as the “8888” movement, because the general strike was called on 8/08/1988. On 18 September, 1988, Burmese military region took the military coup and general strikes have been crackdown. Human of thousand of students are killed and arrested. As an additional consequence of my involvement, I was under house arrested to six months. Months after I released and I have been forced to transfer to southern parts of Burma, it was very far with my native town. I crossed into Thailand to avoid persecution and to aid in the underground resistance movement. In Thailand, I was soon arrested and imprisoned for several months for illegal entry-an opportunity, which used to learn and become fluent in Thailand.
Although Burma became a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has, in practice, been extremely weak and defective in following and implementing these conventions. A case in point is the forced recruitment of children into the army. Because of rampant forced recruitment of children by the Burmese military, children constitute a big portion of the Burmese army making Burma the country with the largest number of child soldiers in the world according to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Situation in Burma in previous regime
Throughout 2004 the United Nations, particularly the International Labor Organization (ILO), was active in Burma but the SPDC is still using forced labor, especially in rural areas where the Burmese military regime, the State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC), has increased the presence of their forces and built military bases. The SPDC army has confiscated many acres of land in order to grow paddy and vegetables for Army’s rations. In areas under SPDC control, even in places where there is no resistance threat, the local people are regularly summoned to do one or more days of forced labor at military camps and farms. Whenever a new battalion moves into an area, the nearby villages are forced to provide most of the building materials such as wood and bamboo for the camps. At least one person per household is required to perform forced labor building the barracks and bunkers, digging trenches and erecting fences. They also have to work the paddy fields, build and maintain the camp buildings and surrounding fences and do other work for the army. Demands for these kinds of labor, as well as demands for porters and various fees, are often dictated at regular meetings called by the local military units that must be attended by village heads and heads of households.
Porter fees take on two forms. In one, each household in a village is required to pay a certain amount each month in order to compensate the conscripted porters. In the other, villagers are forced to pay a fee so that they are not conscripted as porters. Porter fees are a burden on villagers that should not be underestimated as its affects their livelihood in almost the same way that pottering does. Villagers who cannot afford to take time away from their livelihood to porter also cannot afford to pay money to avoid pottering.
Many thousands of newly arrived refugees are still crossing the Thai/Burma border and seeking safety and jobs in Thailand, because some areas of Burma are still facing the civil war.. Urban residents are also suffering basic human rights abuses; civil and political rights are virtually non-existent and natural disaster. The many kinds of government “tax” are persistent problems for people living in rural and urban areas. These pervasively ominous conditions are the obvious and powerful reasons for fleeing to the border area.
Burmese Migrant Workers’ Situation in Thailand
As previously mentioned, poverty, lack of job opportunities and human rights violations as well as the lure of higher incomes in neighboring countries, have significantly contributed to the migration of millions of people into Thailand. In 2014, the Thai Ministry of Labor registered almost two million Burmese migrants. It is estimated that an additional two to six million Burmese have entered Thailand illegally, and have not registered with the government. This situation has created multiple opportunities for human traffickers to lure their victims into Thailand with lies and false promises of a better life.
In 2014, at least half of the Burmese migrant workers in Thailand were undocumented; while in 2015 two-thirds are undocumented.
Despite the relative economic security of the Thai labor market, Burmese migrants remain in a highly vulnerable position. Approximately, 80 percent of all migrants in Thailand are Burmese/Myanmar and because most of them are un-documented, they live and work in Thailand illegally. Burmese/Myanmar tend to do the “3D Jobs or Dangerous, Dirty (Domestic) and Difficult” jobs that Thai people refuse to do…
Many of these work situations involve severe exploitation (working for extremely poor pay, or working as slaves, with no pay at all), confinement, psychological abuse, and physical and sexual violence.
Many Thais believe that Burmese migrants are highly dangerous, and represent a threat to Thai civil society, a perception that is perpetuated by the Thai media in news coverage and ongoing reminders of tension and conflict in historical Burmese-Thai relations. Thais often believe that Burmese migrants take Thai workers’ jobs, failing to recognize that Burmese migrants most often work in industries and jobs largely rejected by the Thai workforce.
Some migrant workers are still facing human rights violations by Thai officials, the local community and employers. Common human rights violations facing Burmese migrant workers are:
- Uncompensated overtime
- Low salary
- No life insurance or compensation
- Rape and torture
- Human Trafficking
The past five years brought changes to Burma that would have been previously un-imaginable. Despite some progress, such as the release of political prisoners, many serious problems remain. The road to reform is lengthy and challenging.
Due to above problem and, in order to solve these problems, I found the non-government organization called FED, (Foundation for Education and Development) in 2000.
Foundation for Education and Development
The Foundation for Education and Development (FED) was the first Burmese-led NGO registered in Thailand. FED has over fifteen years of experience in implementing projects designed to aid the Burmese migrant community’s struggle for recognition of their basic rights in Thailand.
FED provided legal aid to Burmese migrant workers who were living in southern Thailand that was affected by the 26 December 2004 Tsunami. At that time, the Thai community and authorities ignored the Burmese migrant workers.
Currently, FED is focused on advocacy for migrant worker rights, capacity building for member organizations and safe migration in the Southeast Asia region. Indentured labor and exploitation, with Burmese almost being forced to work as slaves, especially in fishery industry.
Advocacy is an essential part of the process of finding solutions to migrant issues. One of the most sensitive issues in the region at that movement is that concerning the Rohingya boat people. FED dedicates a lot of time to working with its partners in the region to find solutions to this crisis by raising awareness, providing information, and enabling people to express their concerns while advocating for their rights. It is working together with local and national state and non-state agencies to understand the issues so that solutions can be found.
We are focusing on provinces with high migrant populations, first strengthening their visibility and then providing individuals with social services long denied under current Thai laws. As the first registered foundation in Thailand conceived by Burmese nationals, it has the potential to serve as an umbrella organization to link the work of other non-registered Burmese organization throughout the country.
On 8 November 2015, current Myanmar government lead by H.E president Thein Sein, arranged the successfully general election and well know and democratic icon, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy won the nation-wide. Even though political situation would be changed in Myanmar near future, there has been no speed up significant change for economic as well as jobs opportunity under the new government; the flow of migrant workers into Thailand remains the same as before. At the same time, new government has to find solution of civil war, poor economic, and poverty as well as trust building with Burmese/Myanmar military. Current government reached the national wide cease-fire with (8) ethnic’s arms groups and over ten ethnic groups are still refusing to sing the agreement. Some cease-fire groups are still fighting with central government for many reasons. Whatsoever, we are hoping to positive change in Myanmar, but we have to take time in order to restore human rights and democracy in Burma/Myanmar.