Burma: Violent Attacks on Rights Activists, Government Militias Beat and Harass Opponents

Apr. 25, 2007

(London, April 24, 2007) The Burmese military government should stop
attacks against political and human rights activists by its civilian
supporters, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called
on the government to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of such

At around midday on April 18, a group of approximately 100 men
carrying clubs and other homemade weapons attacked and beat Myint
Naing and Maung Maung Lay, members of Human Rights Defenders and
Promoters, at Oakpon village in Hinthada Township, 100 kilometers
northwest of Rangoon. Both men were admitted to hospital in Rangoon
with head injuries, and one remains in serious condition. The attacks were
carried out by members of the Union Solidarity and Development
Association (USDA), a social welfare movement formed and supported by
Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The local
secretary of the USDA, U Nyunt Oo, was reportedly present at the
incident and coordinated the attack.

“This brutal attack against grassroots human rights defenders is the latest
in a series of assaults on peaceful political activities in Burma,” said Brad
Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should
order its thugs to stop harassing people for promoting human rights.”

On April 22, plain-clothed police officers arrested several people who
were staging a demonstration against deteriorating living standards and
rising inflation. Some of the protestors had staged a similar demonstration
in downtown Rangoon in late February and had been arrested and detained
for several days.

In contrast, demonstrations of the USDA youth wing outside the US and
British embassies in Rangoon in late January 2007, were permitted by the

The USDA was involved in attacks against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in the National League for
Democracy (NLD) in Rangoon in 1997, and implicated in killings during
the attack on the NLD at Depayin in Upper Burma on May 30, 2003.
Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo, another NLD leader, have remained
under house arrest since that attack. The USDA has been at the forefront
in harassing NLD supporters across the country, pressuring their members
to resign and keep their offices closed. The USDA has also harassed,
intimidated and threatened groups calling for peaceful dialogue and
reform, such as the 88 Students Generation led by former political
prisoners Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, who have recently called for an
end to the “suspicion, hatred, intimidation and fear” perpetrated by the
SPDC and their allies.

The USDA now has a reported 23 million members nationwide. Public
servants, local officials and even university students have been coerced
into joining the organization. Legally registered as a social welfare
organization, the USDA is designed to skirt rules banning public officials
from being members of political parties. Its ideology and aims mirror
those of the military government, and its national patron is President Than
Shwe, while its secretary general is Major General U Htay Oo, the SPDC
Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation.

Many observers believe the SPDC plans to have the USDA lead a civilian
government that will act as a front for the military when the long-running
National Convention to write a new constitution concludes. In the past two
years, the USDA has been promoted by the SPDC as a local partner for
international development agencies and the United Nations. In December
2005 the USDA demanded that some of its members accompany the
International Committee of the Red Cross during visits to political
prisoners, which have been suspended since that time.

“The routine use of violence by the USDA represents the true face of an
organization being groomed to take power in Burma as a surrogate for the
military,” Adams said. “This makes it hard for anyone in the international
community to take them seriously as a partner for development.”

Human Rights Watch expressed concern that abuses are being committed
by civilian organizations that have received paramilitary training from the
military in the past several years under the guise of protecting the nation
from domestic threats and as part of the government’s “people’s militia
strategy” to defend Burma against international military intervention. This
has included military training for security details within the USDA and for
members of the Myanmar Fire Brigade and Myanmar Red Cross. On
March 20, 2007 40-year-old Thet Naing Oo was beaten to death by
municipal authorities and local Fire Brigade officials after a domestic
dispute at a market in Rangoon.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate the incident
at Hinthada and the killing of Thet Naing Oo and to make a public
commitment to protect peaceful political activists throughout the country.

“This is the division of labor for repression in Burma,” Adams said. “In
the countryside the military attacks civilians, burns villages and uses
people as slave labor, while in the cities government-backed groups beat
opponents and force thousands to attend staged mass rallies in a fake
display of loyalty to Burma’s ruling council.”

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