Burmanization in Asia
GUY HORTON HAS SEEN PEOPLE DOING FORCED LABOR in Burma’s jungle, smelled the rotting corpses of villagers killed by bayonets, and heard the cries of a small child being tossed by government troops into a burning hut. But it was something seemingly trivial that convinced the 53-year-old British human rights researcher that he was witnessing genocide.
In 2000, Horton was trekking on a fact-finding tour through Karen state, in the Texas-sized country of Burma. He came upon a village of bamboo huts that government troops had torched. While picking through the ashes of the village, he found a metal cooking pot, upside down, with its bottom smashed in. Until that point, Horton had assumed that he was witnessing the spasms of a 50-year-old war between the ethnic minorities in the jungle and the ethnic majority that controls Burma’s government. But the pot led him to a new theory—that the State Peace and Development Council, the junta that runs the country, had come up with a calculated strategy to wipe out the minorities and empty the land. While the villagers who had escaped into the jungle might return and rebuild their homes, they would no longer have the means to cook and sustain themselves.
Horton became interested in Burma in 1998 when he rekindled a childhood friendship with the now-deceased husband of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma. Interest turned to obsession, and Horton has spent the past seven years documenting the junta’s crimes, recently on behalf of the Netherlands government and a British nonprofit group.
Horton is coy about what he has been doing in this period, and why a former radio reporter based in Eastern Europe turned into a crusader for human rights. He has fought his way through Burma’s jungles, which are largely forbidden to Westerners, interviewing victims and taking videos of razed villages. But having been beaten once by soldiers of the junta, Horton worries that additional revelations could place him at greater risk. More importantly, he doesn’t want the story of a Westerner to detract from the Asian realities he is determined to expose.
Horton plans to present to the United Nations this spring the results of his investigation—a 600-page indictment of the Burmese regime, now known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, along with hours of video footage edited by Images Asia, a respected documentary film company. Based on guidance from a key legal adviser in the case against Slobodan Milosevic, Horton will argue that the violence in the Southeast Asian nation now amounts to genocide, defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the U.N. as any attempt, whether successful or not, “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”
Genocide is the most potent term in international law, evoking images of Nazi gas chambers and Rwandan machetes. Burma’s adversity is less dramatic than those catastrophes, and Horton may well be rebuffed. But then again, at first so was Raphael Lemkin, a Holocaust survivor whose multi-volume catalogue of genocides throughout history and relentless lobbying helped inspire the genocide convention. (…)
Horton is making his case on behalf of three ethnic groups. The Karen and Shan each compose just under 10 percent of the population, and the Karenni make up about 1 percent. All three groups cluster in the east and have languages and cultural traditions distinct from the Burmans. There are crucial religious differences too. The Burmans are Buddhists, while many Karen and Karenni are Christian. Other groups in Burma have faced oppression, including the Rohingyas, a Muslim group in the west that the junta has twice tried to drive out of the country. But the discrimination against the Rohingyas is likely not genocidal, because the government’s main goal is apparently not to wipe them out.
The three groups in Horton’s brief sided with the British during World War II, when the Burmans joined forces with the Japanese. Tensions simmered when Britain granted Burma its independence after the war, and finally exploded in December 1948, when the Karen attacked Rangoon and tried to secede. There were similar uprisings in Shan state and also in Karenni state, where rebel leaders claimed that the British had granted them national sovereignty. The battles between the government and insurgent armies continued intermittently for decades, worsening in 1988 after hardliners took over the weakened junta. By 1995, the SPDC had conquered much of the east and had driven many of the ethnic minorities into refugee camps on the Thai side of the border.
According to the 1948 convention, in order to prove the junta guilty, Horton must demonstrate that it has committed genocide in one of five ways. The first is “killing members of the group.” Most experts estimate that several thousand ethnic minorities have been killed annually for the past 50 years. In a rare moment of candor in 1989, the chairman of the junta acknowledged that the death toll “would reach as high as millions.” He was discussing total deaths in the long-running battle, including Burman soldiers, but a high percentage of the dead are ethnic minorities.
The junta doesn’t widely practice two of the other methods of genocide—sterilization and kidnapping children—but it regularly carries out the remaining two: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.”
In addition, Horton must establish that there is an attempt to destroy an ethnic group at least “in part,” a hazily defined threshold that the atrocities in Burma would seem to meet. According to a recent report by the Thailand/Burma Border Consortium, of the 250,000 surviving Karenni, 88,000 are living on the run in Burma’s jungles. Another 25,000 are stuck in Thai refugee camps. In the estimate of the Karen Human Rights Group, an organization based in Thailand, the number of Karen villagers able to live free of massive government oppression in their native state is zero.
THE BURMESE JUNTA DIVIDES THE TERRITORY in the Karen, Shan, and Karenni states into three classifications: black zones, where the insurgents maintain nominal control and mobile villages; brown zones, where land is contested; and white zones, where the SPDC troops, known as the Tatmadaw, control everything. The black zones, which make up about 10 percent of the regions in which the Shan, Karenni, and Karen live, are rapidly shrinking. The brown zones and the white zones each compose 45 percent of the ethnic regions.
In the black zones, the Tatmadaw harasses the minorities to the extent that it can. Soldiers block medical supplies from reaching these areas, and they try to kill the people who bring them from Thailand. Nai Aye Lwin, a 33-year-old doctor based at a Thai clinic, slips across the border unarmed a few times every year with medical supplies in a backpack, bringing antimalarial quinine to villagers and making bamboo splints for people maimed by land mines. Though he doesn’t carry a gun, he has been shot at and believes that, if captured, he would be killed. The Tatmadaw has also targeted medical clinics in the refugee camps in Thailand. In 1996, the SPDC tried to kill an esteemed malaria researcher working in Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. The researcher escaped by hiding underground.
Attacks and raids are the Tatmadaw’s preferred approach in the brown zones. Because the terrain is often impassable by vehicle, the soldiers typically approach on foot. The villagers, on constant lookout, usually spot them and flee into the jungle. An empty village is vulnerable, however. The soldiers often burn entire communities, even though the villagers build their huts far apart to make it harder for them to catch fire. Before leaving, the soldiers often kill the livestock they don’t eat and plant land mines around the village to harm those who return.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of Karen, Karenni, and Shan have been pushed into nearby jungles where they live as what the U.N. classifies as Internally Displaced People. Families in these impoverished regions are barely able to survive even when they are left alone. On the run, it’s much harder. The lucky subsist on a diet of leaves and jungle animals like snakes. The rest starve. Kwa Say, an IDP who spent 10 years living in the forest, said that all of his peers “were killed by the [SPDC] or by malaria.”
The Tatmadaw wreak the most damage where their control is greatest—in the white zones. Executions are common, forced labor is ubiquitous, and rape is pervasive.
Daw Aye Tum, a 50-year-old woman in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand near the Burmese border, was unable to sit still in an interview last fall as she described what she’d been through. She picked her nose, scratched her eyes, coughed, spat on the floor, and smoked. Her village in Karen state was occupied by government soldiers from the time she was a young woman to when she fled five years ago. She was forced to do road work and carry loads for soldiers until she became head of the village. Then, she had to assign villagers to forced labor in order to meet the government’s quotas. Workers whom the soldiers deemed too slow or too weak were beaten. Aye Tum remembers one neighbor dying of exhaustion.
The brutality could be more direct as well. Aye Tum recalled when SPDC soldiers buried four of her fellow villagers up to their necks in the middle of the village and beat them to death with shovels, claiming the villagers had aided insurgents.
Dozens of refugees interviewed in Thailand echoed Aye Tum’s experience with forced labor. Naw Mumu, a 19-year-old Karen who lives in the Umphiur refugee camp, said that she began clearing and building roads for the SPDC when she was 10. “Whoever could handle a shovel would go,” she said. Naw Bobo Sweet, a 51-year-old mother of six in the same camp, said that she performed forced labor “every week, and every month” of her life after Burmese troops arrived in her village in 1991 and forced her to relocate to a new, tightly controlled village. Bobo Sweet fled that village with her family six years ago.
The tasks forced on villagers go beyond road work and basic portering. Naw Mumu, a Christian, said that SPDC troops forced her and her fellow villagers to knock down their church. Saw Tamla Wah, who lives in the Mae La camp, had to raze a neighboring village’s rice paddies.
Major Thawng Za Lian, a Christian former soldier in the SPDC’s army who defected after being told that converting to Buddhism was his only chance at promotion, said that he has witnessed many of these offenses. Lian said that in 1995 he worked in the southern regions of Karen state, protecting a pipeline being built into Thailand to transport natural gas for the French company Total and the American company Unocal. He knew that the region had once had many villages, but when he arrived, “There were no villages. The houses were all collapsed, and the people had all been chased out by the army.”
Lian added that forced labor was frequently used, and he admitted that he had drafted Karen villagers to move the army’s munitions. Lacking sufficient trucks or helicopters, the army needed people to carry its supplies. Almost none of them were paid.
Rape is often the vehicle for the savagery of the SPDC. A 2002 report by the Shan Women’s Action Network, which was also substantiated by the U.S. State Department, notes that “rape is officially condoned as a weapon of war.” Burma defines ethnicity through the father, so a child born as a result of rape means one less minority and one more Burman. But the soldiers have other purposes besides diluting bloodlines. According to the same 2002 report, 10 soldiers in Shan state tied a man to a tree and proceeded to take turns raping his 7-months-pregnant wife close enough for him to hear what was happening. “This is about humiliating the local population and saying ‘We are destroying your community and your women,’ ” said Charm Tong, who contributed to the report.
To Horton, all of this adds up to genocide. “Forced labor isn’t genocide; relocation isn’t genocide; taking food isn’t genocide; torture isn’t genocide,” he said. “But all of them combined mean that you can’t survive.”
HORTON CAN DEMONSTRATE A LONGSTANDING GOVERNMENT POLICY of “Burmanization,” the effort to make all of the ethnic minorities adapt to the norms, values, and culture of the majority. The government bans schools from teaching in the native languages of their students and prohibits cultural festivals as well. According to Charm Tong, traditional dance is often forbidden in Shan state and villagers are made to watch Burman dance ceremonies. “What is the SPDC’s intention? It’s not to kill every Karen. Even the Nazis did not succeed in killing every Jew,” said May Oo, a Karen teacher. “What they want to do is to kill the literature, kill the roots, kill anything that we could point to.”
But Burmanization is a far cry from genocide, and the convention requires proof of intent of destruction. Horton has documents showing that dozens of commanders ordered specific massacres, and he can point to a 1992 speech by Ket Sein, the junta’s health minister, who reportedly declared in front of a large group in Rangoon: “In 10 years, all Karen will be dead. If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon.”
But not surprisingly, few official documents lay out a deliberate campaign of genocide commissioned at the highest levels. According to Major Lian, soldiers were taught about the international rules of war and then warned not to write anything down if they violated them. “If there is something that is not in accordance with the law, that would be given by oral orders,” he said. “For example, in the battlefield, if the village has to be burned, that order would be given orally.”
The crux of Horton’s case is that abuses this prolonged and widespread couldn’t have happened because of a few rogue commanders. In 1998, a special rapporteur for human rights in Burma observed at the U.N. that violations this systemic are “the result of policy at the highest level entailing political and legal responsibility.”
THE JUNTA, ON THE OTHER HAND, characterizes the Karen, Karenni, and Shan as losers in a series of civil wars who prefer battle to compromise and who could end the violence by submitting. “Only when all the national races cherish and love their motherland will they be able to live together with unity and solidarity,” said Than Shwe, the leader of the junta, in 2003. In support of this view, oppression has abated in some areas where rebel groups have laid down their weapons. Supporters of the junta also point out that many ethnic minorities prosper in the country. The only neurosurgeon in Burma, for example, is Karen.
As the junta also insists, the insurgents have committed their share of sins. Simon Po, a former soldier for the Karen insurgency who now lives in Thailand, said that when they captured a soldier of the junta, they’d sometimes torture him, but “usually, we’d just kill him with a knife.”
Horton can’t dismiss these arguments, particularly when they are voiced by activists who genuinely want to reform and would seem to be his natural allies. The president of the U.S.-based Free Burma Coalition, Zarni (many Burmese have just one name), believes Horton’s analysis is distorted, and that the ethnic groups and the junta are engaged in a deep-rooted battle over resources and political power. The minorities want sovereignty, whereas the junta wants to keep the country whole. “The conflict is deeply political with ethnic dimensions, not the other way around, as in Bosnia or Rwanda,” Zarni said.
Other skeptics worry that Horton’s quest could distract from the central aim of bringing democracy to Burma. May Oo, who studied law in the United States before going back to the Thailand-Burma border where she teaches at a school for refugees, said that she has wanted to push a claim of genocide against the junta since the mid-1990s, but that American activists have dissuaded her. She said she was told “not to rock the boat because it would divert attention from the democracy movement.” Another concern is that the junta would be less likely to accept a political settlement if it feared it would be tried for genocide.
Whether the destruction in Burma meets the legal definition of genocide strikes many of Horton’s critics as beside the point. They see the word as a political, more than legal, tool whose visceral strength must be protected from overuse. Applying the term to the situation in Burma now could dilute the term’s power for application in more dramatic cases, like the slaughter of Black Africans by Arabs in Darfur, Sudan. Matthew Daley, a State Department official who worked on Asian affairs from the late 1970s to 2004, said, “There is no country that we are more prepared to criticize than Burma,” but he added that no one in the U. S. government wanted to use the term “genocide” while he was there. David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University and a respected historian of Burma, said that it “debases the term” to describe the numerous abuses in Burma as genocide.
THE GENOCIDE CONVENTION, HOWEVER, WAS INTENDED to apply to places where there’s a genus (the Greek word for people) and a cide (the Latin root for killing). If people want an unadulterated term for what the Nazis did to the Jews—which Winston Church famously called “a crime without a name”—there is one: holocaust. Genocide is also much more than a rhetorical device. It’s the rare crime that the international community has effectively punished. Rwandans and Serbs now sit in prisons because they violated the convention.
In April, Horton plans to travel to the United States, Canada, and Holland to line up allies and explore how best to present his legal arguments. At the moment, he has little real support beyond two Christian groups in England called Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Jubilee Campaign.
His preferred option is to convince one of the nations that has ratified the genocide convention to bring a case against the junta in the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. Horton could also ask the U.N. to set up a commission of inquiry to determine if genocide has occurred in Burma, as a preliminary step to bringing formal charges. Either of these scenarios could help provide legal justification for an internationally sanctioned invasion or a peaceful intervention to remove the junta from power. Horton’s advocacy might also prompt additional sanctions against Burma or greater assistance for the refugees and IDPs. Right now, almost no international assistance goes across the Thailand-Burma border.
Horton knows that however he brings the case, his arguments will be judged based on his answers to a series of questions: Are these ethnic groups being destroyed at least “in part”? Is the SPDC doing one of the five things proscribed by the genocide convention? Does the junta have an intent to commit genocide? While he’s sure the answer to each is yes, Horton bristles at having to meet what he considers a legalistic challenge. “When the SPDC comes into a village, they burn the houses, rape the women, and kill the chickens,” he said. “They don’t worry about these categories.”
By Nicholas Thompson