Basic economic and social rights denied

Burma Lawyers’ Council

Peaceful co-existence and the guarantee of social security for all persons can be ensured only if the people’s right to self-determination is respected through an accountable, transparent and decentralized system of governance. Above all, the issue of people’s severe lack of access to social security must be resolved by three sectors of society: the state, civil society and individuals.

As acountry that has prioritized military expenditure over welfare provisionfor its people during the past four decades, Burma[1]has succumbed to an acute economic and social crisis. The ruling State Peace andDevelopment Council (SPDC), which seized power in 1988, continues to spend over40% of the national budget on the military, while International Monetary Fund(IMF) figures estimate that under 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP) isspent on health and education combined.[2]Consequently, the people of Burma are systematically denied their basic economicand social rights, whether it is access to employment, health care, education,or other fundamental needs.

Hunger is widespread and serious throughout Burma, both in the areas affected bythe ongoing civil war and elsewhere, and it is spreading both geographically anddemographically. The causes of this growing phenomenon have been found to be:

• The destruction of staple crops which provide the local food supply.
• Uncompensated conscription of people to work on state projects which do notleave enough time for them to work their fields.
• Uncompensated conscription of ‘porters’ to areas far from their villagesleaving them without time to grow food.
• Forced relocation of people to areas where rice is difficult to grow, or tounfamiliar terrain making it difficult to find enough food.
• A quota system whereby the villagers must provide a set amount of rice tothe government well below the market price, regardless of whether or not theharvest was adequate, which leaves people in debt and without any rice of theirown to eat (
ThePeople’s Tribunal, 1999).

Malnutrition, child soldiers and theft of women’s hair

Food scarcity has had an especially alarming impact on the health and well-beingof children in Burma. A United Nations report stressed that “the level anddepth of hardship among families in Myanmar[3]is vividly reflected in high rates of malnutrition among pre-school-agedchildren. Even based on official statistics, far too many of Myanmar’schildren suffer from wasting and stunting.” Describing the situation as a“silent emergency,” the report adds: “Deprivation on this scale indicatesnot only immediate need, but also adverse long-term repercussions for the healthand intellectual development of the affected children” (
Lallah, 2000a, para. 36, p. 10). According to the UNICEF report The Progress of Nations 2000, 45% of Burmese children under five arestunted in growth, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 39% areunderweight. Food deprivation, repeated illness, lack or absence of health careand death or forced relocation of parents appear to be the major causes of thephenomenon of stunted growth in children (Lallah, 2000b, p. 10).[4]

The lack of adequate social protection provided by the state forces people toseek their own means of survival. The often desperate measures adopted placepeople at further risk of vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

Families that cannot afford to pay for their children’s needs often send themto work as child soldiers.[5]Burma is reported to have the highest number of child soldiers in the world(CSUCS, 2001), with unofficial sources estimating the figure to be around 50,000(
Lallah,2000b, para. 49, p. 10). Children lacking basicsocial security, such as street children, orphans and children belonging toethnic minorities, are believed to be the most vulnerable to forced recruitment.

Another indicator of Burma’s lack of social security is the growing number ofreported cases of the theft of women’s hair since 2003. Hair purchasingcentres have dramatically increased in Rangoon, where 1.6 kilograms of hair canbe sold for up to MMK 500,000 (USD 400).[6]Rising incidents of women’s hair being cut off at crowded places to be sold tothese centres, as well as women who secretly sell their hair to buy food despitethe dignity associated with long hair in Burma, reflect the increasing need ofthe population to compensate for their lack of income.

A more alarming trend is the continuing incidence of trafficking of women as aresult of poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Due to the failure ofthe state to provide identification documents, these women and girls are deniedtheir right to travel or migrate legally and thus become vulnerable totrafficking. Once trafficked, the majority of women and girls are forced intosex work or sold as wives in China, where they are often exploited and abuseddue to their lack of legal status (
Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, 2005, p. 22).

Factorsthat aggravate social insecurity

A ‘military welfare state’

The principal policy of the SPDC is to strengthen military might through rigidcentralized control. Burma has the highest budget allocation for militaryexpenditure in Southeast Asia, amounting to over 40% of its national budget,which excludes hidden accounts and subsidies to the armed forces (Selth, 2002,
p. 135).The size of its army has more than doubled since 1987, from 186,000 personnel to428,000 in 2004 (Encarta,2007). It is estimated that arms imports comprise morethan one-fifth of total imports (WLB, 2006).

A related SPDC policy is to create a military-dominated society, or a‘military welfare state’, as opposed to a social welfare state that ensuresthat wealth and security are shared by the majority and nobody is excluded. Thispolicy has resulted in the under-development of physical infrastructure for thepeople, such as electricity, transportation and communication systems. Only anelite few are able to receive basic health care services or achieve a moderatelevel of education (

The decision by the ruling military junta to move its capital from Rangoon toNaypyidaw in November 2005 is a case in point. Huge costs have been incurred tobuild a vast military complex, golf courses and high-rise government buildings,yet there are few signs of the schools and hospitals that the government haspromised (Sipress, 2005). Electricity supply to the area, which was alreadyerratic before the move, has become even more unreliable (
McGeown, 2006). In addition, villagers and farmers have been forced off theirland and their properties have been destroyed to make way for the building ofnew administrative offices, residential homes and military barracks (DemocraticVoice of Burma, 2005).

In such times of hardship, the people lack unemployment insurance or publicfinancial support. Despite an existing pension system, civilian pensioners livein dire need of subsidies as the pensions they receive barely cover the cost ofa few days of food.

Obstacles to civil society and privatesector involvement

The government’s failure to adequately transfer its social securityresponsibilities to other sectors is illustrated by
the impact of its resistanceto the emergence of civil society inside Burma combined with its convolutedprivatization policy. The SPDC does not cooperate effectively with internationalorganizations in providing aid to the country’s citizen, while it rigidlyrestricts the operations of local people’s organizations.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) reports that resourcesmade available to combat HIV/AIDS are meagre in comparison with the magnitude ofthe problem, which is exacerbated by the SPDC’s reluctance to permitinternational non-governmental organizations to work in collaboration withcommunity-based organizations. Permits to visit patients are difficult to obtainand access to high-risk groups and vulnerable groups is restricted. UNAIDS haswarned of a growing epidemic in Burma and indicated that the ruling regime haslargely been ignoring it (
Lallah, 2000a).

Flagrant neglect by the SPDC of its own citizens’ health has
resulted in Burma’soverall performance in health being ranked second-to-last: 190th out of 191states (WHO, 2000). Its policies in health “still appear to be indecisive andinadequate” with “wide inequality of access to adequate health care, bothpreventive and curative.” (Lallah, 2000b, p. 7). Denied the basicright to health, some people cross the border to Thailand to receive freemedical assistance at the Mae Tao clinic.[7]It is estimated that over 100 patients from Burma arrive at the clinic each day.The poor quality of public health care services is undeniable and must beaddressed urgently throughout the country.

Laws enacted by the SPDC have contributed to the lack of effective privatizationof social security services. For instance, without declaring a privatizationpolicy, the SPDC enacted the Law Relating to Private Health Care Services on 5April 2007, which is purportedly aimed at the systematic participation ofprivate care services as an “integral part” of the national health caresystem. However, this law essentially lacks positive foundations for thesuccessful operation of private health care services. For instance, there is noprovision authorizing them to communicate with the international healthcommunity independently, and receive financial, material and academicassistance. Nor is there any provision stipulating the obligation of the stateto facilitate access by private health care services to advanced medicalequipment, hospital construction materials, emergency transportation,communication, electricity and other basic infrastructure, or reduced taxes.Instead, the law imposes negative prohibitions on private health care services,and penalties for violations of the law range from a minimum of six months to amaximum of five years imprisonment.

Similarly, the Law Relating to Forming of Organizations, enacted by the SPDC in 1988, obstructs the formation and independentfunctioning of all organizations, including those which attempt to promote thesocial welfare of local people. Section 5 vaguely prohibits “organizations that attempt, instigate, incite, abet or commit actsthat may effect [sic] or disrupt the regularity of state machinery,” andanyone found guilty of such an offence can be punished with a prison term of upfive years. Penalties rendered under the law have created situations in whichorganizations operated by local civilian people are strictly controlled on onehand, while lackey organizations of the SPDC, such as the Union SolidarityDevelopment Association, Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association andMyanmar Red Cross – operated by the military leaders, wives and relatives ofthe military leaders, ex-army personnel and their cronies – enjoyopportunities to communicate with the international community and receivedevelopment and social welfare assistance under the guise of civil society.

Deprivation of livelihood and lack ofincome security

Farmers are effectively deprived of the right to own land. Under the LandNationalization and Agricultural Lands Act of 1953, the transfer, partition orlease of land can only occur with permission from the authorities. The 1963Tenancy Act usurped the right of landowners to lease their land, and the 1963Protection of the Right to Cultivation Act stipulated that land would beprotected from confiscation except in the case of “(a) non-payment of duesowing to the State, and (b) disputes arising from inheritance cases or actionstaken by the State for security reasons.” (
HRDU, 2006).

The regime is further granted authority to confiscate land through NotificationNo. 4/78, enacted on 18 September 1978 (
HRDU, 2005a).This notification establishes that failure to sow the allotted land with theearmarked crops to obtain optimum results, or failure to sell the full cropquota to the state at the stipulated price, would result in confiscation ofland. Currently village and township administrators have the power to confiscateland and the cultivators are compelled to follow their dictates with no means toprotest.

The primary reason behind land confiscation and forced displacement of people isto further extend the SPDC’s military control over the country. This includesthe establishment of military encampments, state enterprises and developmentprojects to bolster the position of the SPDC. Confiscated land is also oftenused to grant concessions to foreign companies, to benefit the SPDC’s lackeyorganizations, as well as to obtain access to natural resources.

One example is the continued sale of Burma’s timber to foreign companies.According to the World Resources Institute (1998), the rate of deforestation hasmore than doubled since the present military regime came into power in 1988.Forest devastation continues in the states of Kachin, Karen and Karenni,benefiting only the SPDC officials and Chinese companies (PKDS & KESAN,2004,

Development projects that have led to forced displacement in Burma include theconstruction of infrastructure, mines, irrigation systems, and natural gas andoil extraction facilities, as well as commercial agricultural fields andmilitary bases
(TBBC,2005; HRW, 2005). According to Earth Rights International,“dozens of large-scale dams (15 meters in height) have been already built orare currently under construction throughout Burma, especially in the centralregion of the country.” The construction and resulting water displacement ofthese hydroelectric dams necessitate the mass relocation of those living in theaffected area.

In addition, the SPDC relocates villagers not to use the confiscated landitself, but to undermine the support base of armed opposition groups by severingtheir connections to recruits, information, supplies and finances. Known as the‘four cuts’ policy, this military-based strategy has been implemented byforcibly relocating villagers from contested areas to SPDC-controlled areas,thereby isolating villagers from resistance forces and placing them more firmlyunder military control (
Global IDP Project, 2005).


Burma is a multiethnic society with diverse cultures, religions and traditions.Ultimately, peaceful co-existence and the guarantee of social security for allpersons can be ensured only if the people’s right to self-determinationis respected through an accountable, transparent and decentralized system ofgovernance. Within the framework of federalism in which civil society exists inevery constituent unit of the union, the country must embrace a structure ofgovernance whereby people’s rights and needs can be expressed and protectedthrough institutionalized inputs to the decision-making processes at all levelsof the administrative system. In essence, the notion of ‘self-rule and sharedrule’ must be respected.

Essentially, the state must take primary responsibility for the social securityof people depending on available natural resources, gross national income, andstate budgets, while promoting the economic, social and cultural rights ofpeople on one hand and fostering the economic welfare of people on the other,through a ‘people-centred’ approach as opposed to ‘state-centric’development programmes. The state is also obliged to respect and promote thegenuine principles of the rule of law with the existence of an independentjudiciary, under which corrupt practices and abuses of power by administrativeofficials can be brought to justice and a transparent society can beestablished.

The emergence of civil society organizations and institutions will help securethe right to social security for all. As such, all oppressive laws and otherrestrictions imposed on the formation and independent functioning of civilsociety organizations must be abrogated, and their communications with theoutside world and among the organizations themselves to seek assistance andcooperation on social security matters must be institutionalized and legalized.

Social security can also be protected when people live in dignity with a securelivelihood. To this end, last but not least, the state must guarantee people’saccess to the resources required, in addition to the cancellation of legal andadministrative barriers which hinder equal rights to employment, equal pay forequal work, and the independent formation and operation of trade unions,commencing with the right not to be forced to work.

Eventually, the right to social security will become a reality when the innerdynamics, interconnectedness and interaction between the state, civil societyorganizations and capable individuals better reflect the dire need of theBurmese people.


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[1] Although the ruling military junta officially changed the Englishversion of the country’s name from Burmato Myanmar in 1989, Burmeseopposition groups continue to use the name Burma because they do not recognizethe legitimacy of the military government.
[2] Figures from KachinWomen’s Association Thailand (2005, p. 15). See also UNDP (2000), whichreported Burma’s allocation of public resources at 0.2% of GDP. 
3 Paulo SérgioPinheiro, Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights on the situationof human rights in Myanmar since 2001, has not been allowed to visit the countrysince November 2003. Consequently, political discussions with the Government ofMyanmar have taken place only outside the country on limited occasions.
4 Voice of America, 25April 2007 [in Burmese].
5 The Kantarawaddy Times,16 May 2007 [in Burmese].
6 Nightingale, 9 January2007 [in Burmese].