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Initial report submitted on 14 March 1999 (CEDAW/C/MNR/1)


Myanmar, known as Burma until 1988, is an ethnically divided country with a history of deep-seated ethnic conflict and battles over transport routes and economic control. The Burmese are the dominant and most powerful ethnic group, and the Karen, Karennyi, Shan, and Mon are the main ethnic minorities. 


Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta since 1988, and the military has played a significant role in national leadership since 1962.  Myanmar, along with Afghanistan, has become the world’s largest grower of opium and exporter of heroin.  The fight for control of the transport roads from Burma’s poppy fields to Thailand exacerbate the country’s unstable political situation. 


Government and Politics


Recent History

In 1988, a series of widespread, peaceful demonstrations broke out against the military regime.  The governing military body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), with it’s goal of “disciplined democracy,” [1] crushed the demonstrations with brute force.  The SLORC also renamed the country. Hundreds of thousands of students and pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the army, universities were shut down, and over 10,000 political protesters, mainly students, were forced to flee across the Thai border. [2]


Confident in the success of its campaign of terror, the SLORC legalized political parties and planned to administer general elections in 1990.  The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma’s revolutionary General Aung San, emerged as the country’s main opposition party.  SLORC placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in 1989 and invalidated her candidacy, but the NLD swept the elections by an overwhelming majority, winning 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats.  SLORC denied the election results and continued intimidation, detention and house arrest of opposition figures.  SLORC was reconfigured to form the current State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in November 1997, but its leaders remain essentially the same.  Since 1988, the country’s most senior military officer also is SLORC chairman, prime minister, defense minister, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. [3]   The ruling SPDC spends at least half of the national budget on the military. [4]


Migration and Forced Relocation

Refugees have been steadily pouring out of Myanmar since 1988, mainly to Thailand, Bangladesh and India, placing an increasing burden on regional structures.  In addition,  the army has forcibly relocated approximately four million (nearly ten percent) of the country’s 48 million citizens since 1990, particularly in the central southern Shan state, Kayah (Karenni) state, Karen state and Tenasserim division, all  areas where peace talks or cease-fires have broken down in the past four years. [5]   There are currently 37 refugee camps in Thailand along the Thai-Myanmar border, holding over 100,000 people. [6]   According to Human Rights Watch, the army has launched terror campaigns against Karen refugees in refugee camps in Thailand, killing four, wounding 50, and making thousands homeless. [7]


Freedom of Expression and the Women’s Movement



The Committee to Protect Journalists deems Myanmar as one of the world’s most closed regimes, naming Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the SPDC, one of the top ten worst enemies of the press in 1998.  Myanmar lacks independent, privately held newspapers or broadcast outlets.  Fax machines, computer modems, satellite dishes and videotape recorders are strictly licensed; unlicensed owners risk heavy fines and prison sentences.  Local and foreign reporters are regularly prohibited from interviewing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political opposition figures.  According to one magazine published in exile, the Irawaddy News, a senior member of the NLD party was sentenced to twenty years in prison because she spoke on the telephone to a reporter from the British Broadcasting Corporation. [8]  


Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

As a result of government oppression and intimidation, virtually all human rights organizations, including those concerned with the status of women, trade union rights and free press, are forced to operate outside Myanmar.  Even leaving Myanmar does not entirely protect NGOs from intimidation and threats from the Army.  The exile limits women’s human rights advocacy as organizations are geographically dispersed.  It is also fragmented ethnically. 


One of the most prominent women’s advocacy groups is the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU), which is currently preparing a shadow report to CEDAW from its base in Thailand.  Other advocates include the Women’s Rights and Welfare Association of Burma (WRWAB) in New Delhi, India, and a number of individual activists associated with the NLD and other political or ethnic groups.




Myanmar is rich in natural resources, including minerals, gems and timber.  In addition, multinational corporations such as Amoco, Texaco and Unocal have invested over US $ 200 million in oil exploration. [9]   The government has taken steps to improve economic growth and establish trading ties with Asian nations and become a member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  SLORC introduced a so-called “open-door” market-oriented economy, but the government retains control of key natural resources and controls foreign exchange. [10]


Forced Labor

The government and military forces have responded to current economic problems by the increasing use of  forced labor.  According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the government has subjected over 800,000 of its citizens to slavery.  ICFTU accuses the military regime of condoning crimes against humanity [11]   and of forcing at least two million people, including women, children and the aged, across the country to work without pay in the construction of roads, railways and bridges. Myanmar’s Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt dismissed the charges as a Western plot. [12]


In April 1999, a group of 13 plaintiffs initiated a landmark class action law suit against the Unocal to hold it responsible for forcible relocations to work on a natural gas pipeline.  The plaintiffs are all named John or Jane Doe because they fear retaliation from Burmese forces. [13]   In a landmark decision in June 1999, the International Labor Organization (ILO) voted to expel Myanmar de facto from its membership after a report found that compulsory labor was practiced in a “systematic manner with a total disregard for the human dignity, safety and health” of the people. [14]








Art. 12 and Art. 147 of the Constitution of Myanmar guarantee equality before the law “regardless of race, religion, status, or sex.” [15]     But the constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination against women.





The government of Myanmar has established two mechanisms to promote women’s enjoyment of their human rights, the Maternal Welfare and Child Association, and the Myanmar Women Entrepreneurs Association.  However, according to Earthrights International, the leadership of these two bodies is comprised of women who are related or married to high-ranking SPDC officers.  According to Earthrights, “It is well known in Burma that these organizations have no independent authority or expertise in establishing equality for women.” [16]





According to a recent report by Earthrights International, the SPDC maintains that “Myanmar women have been bestowed equality with men as an inherent right.  Since the inception of Myanmar civilization 2000 years ago, there has been historical evidence that Myanmar women and men did enjoy equal rights.” [17]   As this and other reports suggest, however, the depth and breadth of human rights abuses in Myanmar inhibit women’s enjoyment of their rights.


The Status of Women in a Militarized Culture

The dominating presence of the military regime in Myanmar promotes the notion that men are the soldiers and women the protected, which exacerbates women’s already disadvantaged position in society.  The traditional notion of women’s roles as caregivers and subservient to men persists.  In addition, according to Earth Rights International, the SPDC and the Tatmadaw  (the Burmese Army) present an image of the military as the “heir to a long, honorable tradition of protecting the Burmese people and preserving the Burmese nation,” [18] promoting gender stereotypes that exclude women from political, economic and social power structures.





Burmese women are increasingly being identified for trafficking in other countries.  According to Earth Rights International’s report on the status of women in Burma, women who are forced out of Myanmar to Thailand find themselves as “illegal economic migrants.” Confronted with language and cultural barriers, desperate financial circumstances, and lack of legal status, these women are easy targets for exploitation.  Some, according to Earthrights International, are forcibly recruited into the sex trade through trafficking, while many women “choose” to enter the sex trade due to the “dire economic conditions in Burma, conditions created and exacerbated by the repressive regime.”  Women are presented with “the false choice of engaging in sex work or risking dire poverty, physical harm, or death, either at the hands of their agents or by the Burmese military.” [19]   The SPDC deemed efforts to monitor the impact and scope of traffic in women as “extremely shameful accusations which the accusers have made with the intention of demeaning the dignity of Myanmar women.” [20]





Although women historically played significant roles in the independence movement in Burma, they continue to have no representation at the national level today.  The 19-member SPDC is all male, and there are no women in the 39-member cabinet.  Women are not represented in the military.  According to 1997 statistics, there are no women in Myanmar’s legislature. [21] Myanmar had the only all-male delegation to 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. [22]


Historically, women have run for and won seats in the legislature.  As the head of the NLD and would-be leader of Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is undoubtedly the most prominent female political activist and leader in Southeast Asia.  However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other women who were elected to political office in the 1990 elections continue to be subject to arrest, incarceration and intimidation. [23]




The literacy rate for women in Myanmar is 76 percent, compared to 88 percent for men, despite constitutional guarantees of right to education. [24]   Forty-eight percent of students enrolled in primary school are female, but girls constitute just 39 percent of secondary school students.  Forty-seven percent of students enrolled in higher education are women. [25]





The Tatmadaw is the “largest and wealthiest employer, the custodian of political power, and the owner of all major businesses” in Myanmar. [26]   As women are officially excluded from its ranks, they are de facto denied access to political and economic power and shut out from the country’s most powerful institutions. [27]




Reproductive Rights

According to 1998 statistics, maternal mortality rates are 580 per 100,000 live births, as compared to 80 for Malaysia and ten for Singapore.  Most maternal deaths are the result of induced abortions.  As Myanmar has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, [28] abortions are often performed in secret under unsanitary conditions, yet the lack of access to birth control and reproductive health services leaves many girls and women with little other choice.  Fourteen percent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 have had at least one abortion during their married lives.  Between 17 and 22 percent of women use modern contraception, compared to 66 percent in Thailand and 40 percent in Bangladesh. [29]



In 1997, UNAIDS estimated that 440,000, or one percent of the population, had contracted the HIV virus.  The HIV/AIDS virus is increasingly affecting the general population, including women and children.  In a border town in the Shan State in 1995, between six and 10.6 percent of pregnant women who registered at the public maternal and child health center clinics were HIV positive.  Women are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection because of unprotected sexual relationships with infected male partners, and infected blood transfusion after childbirth, received because of anemia or poor prenatal care.  In at least two states, blood products are not screened. [30]  


As Burmese prostitutes are often forced to have unprotected sex, the HIV rates among that population are much higher,  74 percent in Rangoon, 84 percent in Mandalay, and 91 percent in Myitkyina.  The rates of HIV contraction among urban prostitutes is much higher than in neighboring Thailand.  Many experts believe that the figures are actually even higher in Myanmar and will continue to rise, largely due to the lack of public knowledge about HIV/AIDS, as well as the stigma attached to sexually transmitted disease.  The rising levels of HIV infection lead to a greater and greater demand for child prostitutes. [31]



..."I have not known of any soldiers punished (for committing rape) myself.  The punishment for them was just being told they were blamed for raping the women.  Nothing else will happen to them."

-Tatmadaw Soldier, reported in School For Rape, by Betsy Apple, Earth Rights International


Rape as a Weapon of War

Since 1993, international human rights organizations have documented hundreds of incidents of rape by Burmese soldiers, particularly against ethnic women.   The Burmese Women Union has published interviews with rape survivors and their own reports. Rape by the military is documented in reports by the Human Rights Watch, Karen Human Rights Group, and by many Burmese ethnic minority groups. [32]   The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma stated in January 1999 that Burmese troops have been abducting “increasing numbers of women, including young girls and the elderly” who have become the victims of rape and other abuses. [33]


According to Betsy Apple, expert on violence against women in Burma, incidents of rape by military forces are seldom revealed and never punished, thus creating a culture in which “rape can thrive because it is never effectively confronted.” [34]   Many human rights activists maintain that the high levels of unpunished rape are actually part of the government’s plan of “Burmanization,” which encourages Burmese soldiers to use rape as a tool of war against ethnic women in order to “change the ethnic balance, demoralize ethnic minority communities, and kill ethnic women. . . One of the ways Tatmadaw soldiers undertake this practice is by coercing women from non-Burman ethnicities to marry them.  This is often achieved by forcing women to submit to unwanted physical contact or rape; the shame of such an experience often compels women to submit to marriage.  Furthermore, either within these forced marriages, or as a consequence of rape, many women are impregnated against their will.” [35]


Domestic Violence

In a recent publication on the status of women worldwide, Myanmar was recognized as one of six countries in the world where wife abuse is uncommon.  It is not socially acceptable and carries harsh penalties. [36]





Report of the Special Rapporteur.  On 17 January 1999 the Human Rights Commission issued a resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar (DOCUMENT REF. NUMBER NOT LISTED), available at http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf.  Following are points raised specific to the status of women.


Summary of Concerns, Conclusion and Recommendations:


·        Welcomes accession to the CEDAW Convention.

·        Deplores the continuing violations of human rights in Myanmar, as reported by the Special Rapporteur, including abuse of women and children by government agents and the widespread use of forced labor.

·        Deplores the continuing violations of the rights of women, especially women who are refugees, internally displaced women and women belonging to ethnic minorities or political opposition, in particular forced labor, sexual violence and exploitation, including rape, as reported by the Special Rapporteur.

·        Deplores the widespread disrespect for the rule of law.

·        Bring legislation into conformity with CEDAW and CRC. 

·        Cease the laying of landmines.

·        Take urgent and substantive measures to establish democracy in accordance with the will of the people as demonstrated in the 1990 elections, and to engage in a genuine dialogue with the leaders of political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to ensure that political parties and NGOs can function freely. 



On 22 January 1999, the Commission on Human Rights issued a report in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/63 (E/CN.4/1999/35).


Summary of Concerns, Conclusions and Recommendations:


·        Since his appointment in June 1996, the Special Rapporteur has not been allowed by the Government of Myanmar to see firsthand the situation in the country or to have direct access to the Government and people of Myanmar.

·        Concern over the estimated internally displaced people in Myanmar, which is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 displaced people in the Karen State, over 300,000 in the Shan State, 70,000 in the Karenni State and 40,00 in the Mon State.

·        Concern that many of the displaced, particularly women and children, report being raped, abused and terrorized, both before taking refuge in Thailand and during incursions into the emergency zones or relocation sites.  In some areas, women who work in the fields face significant risks of being targeted and victimized.

·        Concern about the serious psychological problems faced by women and children affected by the crisis.  Abuses against women range from having seen their children or husband killed to being raped and losing their home and means of subsistence.  These experiences are exacerbated by cultural inhibitions to discussing sex and the social implications of rape and assaults on women, as well as by the lack of health services. 

·        Female headed households are less able to become self reliant and are therefore more in need of assistance. 


Committee on the Rights of the Child:  Myanmar. 24/01/97. CRC/C/15/Add.69.


Suggestions and Recommendations:


·        Bring national legislation into conformity with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, particularly in the area of non-discrimination, citizenship, freedom of association, corporal punishment, child labor, adoption and the administration of juvenile justice. 

·        Gather all national data on the situation of children in the areas covered by the Convention, particularly on children in the most vulnerable groups.

·        Take steps to reduce the rates of school drop-out and repetition; allocate resources to translated school materials into minority languages in order to encourage schools and teachers in the appropriate regions to provide education in minority languages.

·        Investigate systematically and thoroughly all reported cases of abuse, rape and/or violence against children committed by members of the armed forces; apply and publicize appropriate judicial sanctions to perpetrators. 

·        Take appropriate measures to prevent and combat child abuse, including sexual abuse, and the sale and trafficking of children, child prostitution and child pornography;  establish bilateral agreements between concerned parties to prevent and combat transnational trafficking and sale of children for sexual exploitation.


[1] “World Report 1999: Burma,” Human Rights Watch, available at http://www.hrw.org/worldreport99/, accessed 25 August 1999.

[2] Mya Maung, “The Burma Road to the Past,” Asian Survey, March-April 1999, v. 39 I.2 p. 265.

[3] Andrew Seth, “The Burmese Army,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 November 1995, Vol. 7, No. 11, pg. 515, Nexis, 14 September 1999.

[4] “Brutal Junta Should Not Be Recipient of Foreign Aid,” South China Morning Post, 12 March 1998, Nexis, 14 September 1999.

[5] “World Report 1999: Burma,” Human Rights Watch.

[6] Mya Maung, “The Burma Road to the Past,” 265.

[7]   “World Report 1999: Burma,” Human Rights Watch.

[8] “Country Report:  Burma,” Committee to Protect Journalists, available at www.cpj.org, accessed 26 August 1999.

[9] Sunderrini Kakuchi, “Burma-Japan: Tokyo to Resume Aid Despite Rights Abuses,” Inter Press Service, 8 March 1994, Nexis, 14 September 1999.

[10] Mya Maung, “The Burma Road to the Past,”  265.

[11] “Fresh Evidence of Forced Labour in Burma,” Trade Union World, Number 6, June 1999, p. 21.

[12] Free Trade Union Reports, p. 75

[13] William Branigin, “Rights Victims in Burma Want a U.S. Company to Pay; Suit Alleges Army Abuses While Pipeline Was Built,” The Washington Post, 13 April 1999, Nexis, 25 August 1999.

[14] Tani Freedman, “ILO Votes to De Facto Expel Myanmar for its Pervasive Use of Forced Labour,” Agence France Presse, 17 June 1999, Nexis, 23 June 1999.

[15] The Constitution of Myanmar (1989 (1974). In Albert P. Blaustein & Gisbert H. Flanz, eds. Constitutions of the Countries of the World (New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., June 1990):14-61.

[16] Earthrights International, “The Situation of Women in Burma,” available on-line at http://www.earthrights.org/our_publications/si-wome-Bur/CEDAW_ARticle_6.html, accessed 13 September 1999.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, Where Women Stand (New York: Random House, 1997), 486.

[22] http://www.burma.net/women/index/htm

[23] Earthrights International, “The Situation of Women in Burma.”

[24] The Constitution of Myanmar (1989 (1974). In Albert P. Blaustein & Gisbert H. Flanz, eds. Constitutions of the Countries of the World (New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., June 1990):55.

[25] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 490.

[26] Earthrights International, “The Situation of Women in Burma.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 504.

[29] Ibid., 502.

[30] Cesar Chelala, “Burma:  A Country’s Health in Crisis,” The Lancet, 15 August 1998, Nexis, 25 August 1999.

[31] “Democracy Leader Suu Kyi Calls for UN Action Against Burma,” Burmanet News, 9 April 1999, on-line, August 25 1999.

[32] Earthrights International, “School for Rape:  The Burmese Military and Sexual Violence,”  February 1998.  Available on-line at <http://www.earthrights.org>.

[33] Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean, “Rape as a Weapon of War in Burma,” The Nation, 13 September 1999. 

[34] Ibid.

[35] Earthrights International, “The Situation of Women in Burma,” available on-line at http://www.earthrights.org/our_publications/si-wome-Bur/CEDAW_ARticle_6.html, accessed 13 September 1999.

[36] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 153.


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