Plagued by decades of military rule, suppression of political dissent, and one of the world’s longest running conflicts, Myanmar (also known as Burma) was long viewed as a pariah by the international community. In the wake of the 2010 general elections, the human rights situation has become more complex. Fighting has diminished and the political arena has opened up in significant ways. Violent abuses continue in conflict zones, however, and uncertainty remains on many fronts about the future. Major rights questions persist about whether, for example, the rule of law will take hold and what will be done about past abuses.
For the last nine years, the International Human Rights Clinic has engaged with human rights issues in Myanmar, ranging from high-level policy advocacy (both public and private) to major documentation efforts and humanitarian interventions. We have documented the use of forced labor; developed human rights training manuals; studied issues related to environmental rights; investigated abuses associated with natural resource extraction; supported refugees and resettlement; and examined whether international crimes have taken place in the country. Some highlights of our work include:
In 2005 and 2006, the Clinic along with the HLS Immigration and Refugee Clinic undertook the first in-depth study of the broad definition of “terrorism” under U.S. immigration law and its effects on refugees fleeing Myanmar. The study found that as many as 80 percent of such refugees could be labeled “terrorists” despite their legitimate claims to refugee status. Working in conjunction with advocacy partners, the Clinic sought solutions for these refugee populations, and the U.S. government instituted the first waivers of their kind for these groups to allow them to resettle to the United States. The Clinic also filed an amicus brief on behalf of an affected asylum seeker from Myanmar dealing with similar issues.
For several years, the Clinic advocated to prevent abuses anticipated in light of the Shwe gas pipeline development project. Building on its expertise from a similar project- the Yadana pipeline, built by Total and Unocal- the Clinic and partners filed one of the first complaints of its kind with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2008. The Commission did not accept the complaint for procedural reasons, and the Shwe gas pipeline continues to receive scrutiny from rights groups at present.
The Clinic began investigating war crimes in Myanmar in 2008, and a year later released a major report, Crimes in Burma, which showed that there was a prima facie case of international criminal law violations occurring in the country and recommended UN Security Council act to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate these grave breaches further. By 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur and more than a dozen other countries supported calls for such a Commission if the government did not take action to investigate and prosecute abuses in the country.
Since the release of Crimes in Burma, the Clinic has continued to document human rights violations in the country and has significant ongoing efforts related to military policy reform, transitional justice, and sustainable energy use by communities. In November 2014, the Clinic released findings from a four-year-long investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Eastern Myanmar. The Clinic’s legal memorandum implicates senior Myanmar officials, including the current Home Affairs Minister, in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In October 2015, the Clinic and Fortify Rights released a report concluding that Myanmar police officers used excessive force during a crackdown on protesters, in which they arrested more than 100 individuals in Letpadan, Bago Region in March. The report, “Crackdown at Letpadan: Excessive Force and Violation of the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Expression,” calls on authorities to release individuals wrongfully detained for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
The Clinic has also hosted events at Harvard related to human rights in Myanmar, including “Ties To The Top: The Role of Government Officials in Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar,” a panel featuring advocates U Teikkha Nyana, a Buddhist monk seriously injured by white phosphorus during a peaceful protest, and who is now suing the local police chief, as well as the Home Affairs Minister; U Aung Thein, a Supreme Court advocate who is helping him; Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights; and Roger Normand, of Justice Trust. Watch video from the event.
Point person for Myanmar/Burma: Tyler Giannini