Human Rights and 'cultural relativity' in Myanmar/ Burma

This piece discusses the accusation that foreign criticisms of alleged “human rights abuses” in Asia are merely culturally arrogant and misguided - mechanisms to reinforce Western dominance and to interfere in the internal affairs of Asian countries, with regard to MyanmarBurma.

If you have come to help me you can go home again. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival then perhaps we can work together.” – Australian Aboriginal Woman (Korten 1990:135)

In today’s global village, it is imperative that we leave behind traditional concepts of National sovereignty, and instead foster a spirit of global interdependence, acknowledging the sovereignty of people to decide their own future and development of their country (Korten 19990:159). 

This is more in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 (Brown 2001:600). 

This is also the most fitting description of the universal movement and collaboration between individuals from different countries already taking place, and is the only way to deal with the reality of our interdependence as a global community (Korten 1990:135,160).

In light of the history of persistent internal opposition to the dominant Bhamese government in Burma, and the fact that most human rights abuses are committed against the ethnic minorities, challenging the government’s legitimacy and practices is clearly not an arrogant or misguided assumption on the part of interfering Westerners. 

On the contrary, the campaign for basic human rights and democracy has been proudly led by the Burmese themselves, however divided, and the International community has been surprisingly reluctant to intervene directly.

The Burmese military government is so extremely ruthless and without remorse, that even other Asian nations have on occasion criticised the government (Worldview Rights 21/7/2003), a rare occurrence in Asian politics, as ‘Asian values’ strongly emphasise the importance of ‘non-interference’ – never directly commenting about another’s policies (Firth 1999:228). 

It is plain to any observer that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), like its predecessors of the past four decades, is not only totalitarian in nature, but “predatory” (Kingsbury 2001:135). The only way this government will be replaced with legitimate rule by the people, will be with foreign pressure, like the sanctions of recent years, to remove its power base (Kingsbury 2001:131).

Burmese History and Political situation


The region surrounding the Irrawaddy River system has been occupied by people, surviving on agriculture, since about 2500BC (Kingsbury 2001:105). There have always been many different ethnic groups vying for these fertile plains, and today there are roughly 135 national groups making up the 47 million inhabitants of Burma, with at least 100 separate linguistic groups (WOB 2000:1). This diversity is the source of much friction and bloodshed, involving every kind of human rights abuse imaginable.

British occupation of Burma began in 1824, with a succession of wars conducted from its already well established colonies on the Indian subcontinent (Kingsbury 2001:107). By the beginning of the twentieth century, the British began to grant Burma a level of self-rule, and by 1937 it had its own Parliament (Kingsbury 2001:108). 

In 1948, Independence was granted by the British, but the new Bhamese government did not adhere to the terms previously negotiated with the minorities, as Aung San and others had been assassinated (Kingsbury 2001:110). Ethnic separatist groups consequently rebelled, and have been fighting against the government ever since (Kingsbury 2001:9-112). 

During the turbulent years that followed, the USA was guilty of supporting the Kuomingtang forces against China, who crossed into Burma from China and became well established drug lords, supporting the Karen rebel forces at the same time (Kingsbury 2001:111). 

This was the birth of a horrific new era in human rights abuses, as the cruel regional practices of the warlords over the locals (Kingsbury 2001:134), has a momentum of its own, which will not be easily thwarted.

Military rule

In 1958, the minority Shan group tried to secede from the Burmese Federation, as the pre-Independence agreement had provided for that right, only to be quickly subdued by the military, who took over political control from then onwards (Kingsbury 2001:112). 

The Burmese Road to Socialism, implemented by the military rulers from 1960, was apparently supported by most Burmese at the time, as a reaction against their dismal experiences with colonial and democratic governments in the past (Kingsbury 2001:113). But no one could have anticipated the horrendous human rights abuses that would follow, as this policy was used as empty rhetoric to mask the military’s real aims – to use whatever means necessary to stay in power.

Any political opposition was brutally eliminated, from the 1962 Rangoon University protest, when soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed students (Kingsbury 2001:113-114), to the massacres of 1988, in which thousands of peaceful, unarmed protesters were killed over a few months (Kingsbury 2001:116-117). 

No amount of International outcry at these atrocities deterred the government from pursuing its isolationist path, which simultaneously destroyed the Burmese economy. By 1987, the country had to apply for ‘least developed country’ status from the United Nations (UN), as a result of chronic food shortages, admitting it needed foreign aid (Kingsbury 2001:114). 

This incompetence, as well as the impunity with which the government executed over 600 monks in another peaceful protest in Rangoon in 1992, completely alienated the majority of society, who hold monks in highest esteem and were horrified at this sacrilege (Kingsbury 2001:118-119).

In Burma, long jail sentences are common- even for petty ‘crimes’ ranging from possession of an unregistered fax machine, to distributing anti-government pamphlets or political satire (Kingsbury 2001:135). Most people live in fear, are afraid to speak out, and are constantly being either displaced by government troops or forced to be porters for them as they cross the minefields (Kingsbury 2001:135). 

Forced labour and relocation, sexual slavery, rape, assault, torture and murder are everyday tactics employed by the military forces around the country, to keep the people under control (Peck 2002:10). In comparison with this brutality, the accompanying civil and political rights abuses seem mild, but are equally vital in the struggle for quality of life for the Burmese people. 

Other causes for concern are the use of child soldiers in the ethnic conflicts, and the closure of many schools in minority ethnic areas, due to fighting (HRW 2003:6).

Opposition parties

The National League for Democracy (NLD), fronted by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated Aung San, became a prominent voice of dissidence on the political stage from the early 1990’s (Kingsbury 2001:119). 

The 1990 elections had unequivocally shown the NLD to be supported by the majority of Burmese people, but the military refused to surrender to a democratic Parliamentary system, and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the next decade (Kingsbury 2001:119-120). Even when released for short periods of time, Suu Kyi is always under close surveillance, and seldom allowed to leave Rangoon (HRW 2001:2). 

She has used her International prominence as a Nobel Peace Prize winner to keep International attention focused on the situation in Burma, and in 2002, she began negotiations with the government for a few months, under close UN supervision, before being placed back under house arrest in September 2003 (Jagan 2/11/2003).

Some of the internal division of the country is caused by traditional ties and loyalties within the elite groups, as much as their ideological differences (Kingsbury 2001:130). Even the NLD and Suu Kyi are engaged in a struggle to reclaim the power the post-war Burmese Independence Army had won, which of necessity involves Bhamese majority rule – even with an open dialogue with the minorities (Kingsbury 2001:130). 

This fundamental issue – whether Burma should remain a united nation, is perhaps the most contentious and not one to be decided by anyone but the people of Burma.  It does however appear to be the minority’s desire to break away from the domination of the majority Bhamese ethnic group – and this may not be achievable without some foreign intervention. In 2002, the ethnic minority opposition groups again demanded to be included in negotiations between the SPDC and the NLD, but neither side have agreed to this as yet (HRW 2003:5).

Ethnic Separatists

The Burmese government is considered to have the worst human rights record in the world, and is heavily involved in the illegal opium and heroine trade, making the regime an international outcast (Kingsbury 2001:122). The drugs are grown as cash crops by locals, as they are particularly suited to the hilly terrain inhabited by most ethnic minorities, and the only alternative in such an unstable economy (Kingsbury 2001:122). The social costs of this thriving trade, and its support network, are as destructive as the ethnic rivalry, and indeed funds both sides in their ongoing wars (Kingsbury 2001:122).

The continuing threat of political insurgency from ethnic minority groups, backed by the powerful drug lords, is the stated reason for the military rule of Burma for decades (Kingsbury 2001:117,132). Yet the government has signed a number of cease-fire agreements with various groups, and in the process aligned itself with the most powerful drug lords, allowing their continued production of opium and heroine, and receiving a share in these funds (Kingsbury 2001:121). 

Government troops also aid in the safe transport of drugs across the borders, and tax the producers for their continued protection (Kingsbury 2001:124). Thai authorities have cited the United Wa State Army, the government’s military arm, as “the top narcotics producer in Burma’s portion of the Golden Triangle”, leading to armed confrontation between the military forces of both countries (HRW 2003:4).

Even more alarming is the Interpol statement made by a representative to the Burmese meetings about Opium control in 1999, that the Burmese government “had to allow the drug trade to flourish in order to first bring under control its insurgency problem” (Kingsbury 2001:126). This attitude reflects the general tendency of Western governments today to breeze over human rights issues, in favour of securing political and economic relationships.

Burmese Values

The SPDC, in a speech to peasants in 2002, tried to emphasise its development efforts and gains made in the areas of education, health and rural infrastructure, and claimed that
 “if there were no acts of interference from inside and outside the country….[and] no attempts to push the nation into a different direction, the nation would make progress more quickly and become more prosperous…than it is now” (New Light of Myanmar 2002:2). 

Yet this rhetoric has been sarcastically compared to the Soviet Union’s dictatorship style – “do as you’re told and avoid difficulty by insisting on democracy and freedom for individuals” (New Light of Myanmar 2002:2). 

As an outsider, it may be difficult to gauge the extent of the locals’ opposition to such propaganda, but the number of refugees fleeing this apparent ‘benevolence’ speaks for itself – over 140 000 refugees are in Bangladesh and Thailand’s refugee camps alone (HRW 2003:1). In 2003, it has been estimated that a thousand refugees cross the border daily, even though they face harsh conditions and possibly forced repatriation on the other side (HRW 2003: 2).

A report by the Women’s Organisation of Burma (WOB), written by refugees who “have fled the persecution and oppression they experienced in their country” (WOB 2000:1), was particularly alarming. This report detailed policies like “black areas” where people seen by the SPDC patrols are shot on sight, in an attempt to enforce curfews and prevent internally displaced persons from returning to their former villages (WOB 2000:2). 

They cited the lack of knowledge among women of family planning methods as a concern, but also noted that traditional beliefs were conservative in this respect anyway (WOB 2000:3). This highlights the fact that making a distinction between ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ values is largely unreliable, as all cultures are in a state of flux, and influence each other over time. 

There is a significant proportion of ‘modern’ Burmese who hold values similar to many Westerners, and they can not be dismissed as invalid. The WOB report also confirmed “state-sponsored violence”, frequent rapes by the military as a system of control and demoralisation, and the trafficking of women – roughly 40 000 Burmese women are working as prostitutes in Thailand alone (WOB 2000:6-8). 

This phenomenon violates their traditional values like chastity outside of marriage for women, but their desperate circumstances are forcing the Burmese into compromising these social standards (WOB 2000:8).

International Reactions

Human Rights Organisations

Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs)are not politically aligned, and this makes them less susceptible to hidden agendas and usually more representative of true public opinion, from the grassroots and across all social strata. 

Amnesty International has listed Burma under every type of human rights abuse except ‘disappearances’ in its 2002 Asian Report, and reminded the International community that although close to 500 political prisoners had been released, there are still over 1 300 being detained – without clear charges, fair trial or definite sentences (Amnesty 2002: 2). 

In its first visit to Burma in February 2003, Amnesty was not pacified by the limited steps taken thus far to improve the situation (Amnesty 2002:3) – despite assurances by the SPDC since 2000, that reforms were being made and forced labour and relocations were no longer practiced (HRW 2001:2). 

There is renewed concern over the denial of religious freedoms, as the war on terror around the globe has sparked a series of crackdowns by the government on Rohingya Muslims in Burma (HRW 2003:6).

The UN Human Rights Commission’s calls for an end to human rights violations in Burma, were repeated in March 2003, after their Special Rapporteur found “serious repression and an atmosphere of pervasive fear exist in Myanmar” (HRW 2003:1). 

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have refused further funding to the Burmese government, and profits from the natural gas being mined from the Gulf of Martaban are being used to repay its international debts (Kingsbury 2001:128). 

The Burmese government has, in keeping with its isolationism, refused a loan of a billion dollars (US) from the World Bank, because the money was conditional on political reforms being implemented by them (Kingsbury 2001:132). This refusal has of course caused untold suffering – borne by the Burmese people rather than the government.

While these moves by International Institutions may be interpreted as interfering, they are supported even by Asian Human Rights activists, like Dr. Sriprapha Petcharamesree, who admonished the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN ) political leaders for their lack of action against Burma, saying “the non-interference principle and its selective application are the key obstacles to upholding basic human rights standards” (Asia Tribune 2/11/2002). 

Tony Kassim, a Malaysian activist in the Southeast Asian Committee for Advocacy, expressed her surprise at ASEAN governments for ignoring “the inspiring insights gained from the Asian people sharing their culture and experiences” (Asia Tribune 2/11/2002). These comments display a lack of support among many politically active Asian people for the concept of ‘Asian values’ as a barrier to human rights protection.


In line with its “engagement” policy with the rest of Asia, Australia praised Burma for the release of political prisoners and in 2003 announced a new human rights training program for Burmese officials, to establish a National Human Rights Commission – supported by Aung San Suu Kyi (HRW 2003:3). 

In 2002, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was the first Senior Western official to visit Burma - Australia’s first official visit to the country in twenty years – but he expressed concern over the lack of definite time frames for reform given by the SPDC, and Suu Kyi’s pessimism over the potential for real change (HRW 2003:7). 

Australia prides itself on its strong moral stance with regard to Burma, yet it is evident that this is only possible because the country has little to offer Australia in terms of trade – the amicable relationship with China, another human rights hotspot, proves this hypocrisy clearly (Firth 1999:225-6). Yet even on the issue of BurmaAustralia has not interfered as much as human rights activists would like.


The Clinton administration was very critical of the situation in Burma, but aside from ordering a review of US agencies, to propose ways of increasing pressure on the Burmese government, no direct intervention or help was offered. 

Although the US voted against development projects being financed by the UN, it did contribute US$7 million towards human rights projects, and $1 million towards educating displaced Burmese students (HRW 2003:4). 

This is hardly the approach of an interfering foreign Nation - the nature of these projects implies no real benefit to the US itself.  President Bush’s recent prohibition on new US investment in Burma (HRW 2003:4) as well as the banning of US imports of Burmese products (Worldview Rights 29/7/2003), would effectively block US companies from exploiting a cheap source of production. 

Other than these economic measures, however, the Bush administration has done no more than issue a few statements, criticising human rights violations and the imprisonment of Suu Kyi (HRW 2003:9). 

The US has repeatedly called for more pressure from ASEAN Nations on the Burmese government (TNA 24/10/2003) – presumably wanting to draw in Asian countries, to eliminate the ‘Asian values’ excuse.

This is a marked change from their interventionist policies of a few decades ago, which often led the US into uncomfortable conflicts of interest, and sharp international criticism for supporting foreign governments to help fight against communist insurgency. 

When they switched to improving infrastructure and social conditions for the poor masses of these countries, they risked alienating the governments whose administrative policies and abuse of power were the cause of social injustice and tensions in the first place (Korten 1990:136). 

The fear of communism has since diminished and in its place, the USA and other countries now follow less ambitious foreign policies, which further their own economic interests. 

Development assistance and humanitarian aid are now used to influence governments in the recipient countries (Korten 1990:136-7), rather than having to take a stand against the status quo and risk offending trade partners.

Asian countries

Most of Burma’s neighbours have refrained from criticising its policies openly, and have recently even extended offers of financial aid, and inclusion in ASEAN, which it formally joined in 1997 (Kingsbury 2001:133). 

Japan, Burma’s largest single aid donor (HRW 2003:8), started “constructive engagement” with Burma in 2003, by offering US$29 million in aid – claiming humanitarian goals, and alluded to further aid in future, if continuous dialogue was established with Burma (HRW 2003:3). 

India and Burma have been in dialogue since 2001, over the problem of ethnic insurgency groups along their shared border (HRW 2003:8).

China has been a close ally, trade partner and arms supplier since the 1980’s (Kingsbury 2001:132), and Singapore has been a major investor in the Burmese economy since 1994 (Kingsbury 2001:133). 

But Thailand broke with convention at the 1998 ASEAN meeting, by criticising the human rights violations in Burma, after border skirmishes between the two countries’ militaries caused the deaths of Thai citizens, some of them children (Kingsbury 2001:134). 

The Philippines has also spoken out against the regime’s policies (Kingsbury 2001:134).  Yet Malaysia has been unsympathetic towards refugees, and even initiated harsh measures of forced repatriation (HRW 2003:8). 

These responses from the Asian community seem remarkably patient and unaffected, rather than overbearing and interfering – even recent calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi by ASEAN Nations, was not accompanied by definite ultimatums (Worldview Rights 21/7/2003). 

The Asian states continue to focus on the “primacy of the economic”, to avoid causing offense and potentially disrupting trade patterns or ultimately causing military conflict (Firth 1999:180).


It is increasingly accepted that the idea of the State as benevolent, and the sole legitimate representative of the National interest, or the final arbiter of whatever happens within its borders, is inaccurate and outdated (Korten 1990:159). 

Moreover, we are more aware than ever before of the ways in which other Nation’s problems affect our lives, and the global nature of issues like AIDS, drugs and refugees are on a scale demanding international co-operation and concern (Korten1990:160). 

We have a responsibility as global citizens, to offer any aid at our disposal, including pressure and influence exerted on foreign governments, to ensure the observance of human rights and social justice for all (Korten 1990:161).         

It goes without saying that this responsibility must never be seen as a legitimate excuse to interfere in a country whose government is legitimate in the eyes of its people, or to try to enforce our own Western values and interests on countries simply not wishing to share our way of life. 

But wherever people have rejected authoritarian and repressive regimes, and are striving to assert their basic human rights and freedoms, as they have in Burma, it is obviously no longer appropriate to respect the illegitimate government at the expense of the people (Korten 1990:160).

An added incentive to intervention, is the fact that particularly brutal and repressive regimes, like Burma’s, will not be dissuaded from their current practices without concerted effort, involving both “outside pressure and inside negotiations” (International Herald Tribune 12/4/2002). 

As “the forces for human rights are often relatively weak”, structural support from all levels of the International community – from governments and NGOs - is necessary to defeat the evils of human rights abuses (Sharp 1994:1). 

Politicians tend to have double standards in the areas of morality and human rights, but the majority of the world’s population in the twenty-first century support the protection of human dignity - sometimes to the chagrin of National leaders who would rather avoid potential economic threats. 

This continued pressure to keep human rights on the political agenda is what validates the issue on an International scale, rather than Western governments’ own agendas for intervening uninvited.


Amnesty International, 2002, ‘Asia and the Pacific’, accessed 11/08/2003.

Asia Tribune, 2002, ‘Activists criticize ASEAN leaders for avoiding dialogue’, accessed 31/10/2003.

Brown, C., 2001, ‘Human Rights’ in (eds) Baylis, J. & Smith, S., The Globalisation of World Politics, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, New York.

Firth, S., 1999, ‘Australia in International Politics: an introduction to Australian Foreign Policy’, Allen&UnwinAustralia.

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