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Burma’s missing millions

In this file photo from 2013, Kachin IDPs flee Namlim Pa. (PHOTO: Lee Yu Kyung/DVB)

By Guy Horton
November 19, 2014

Last year, when I was in Ma Ja Yang in Northern Kachin State, Burmese fighter bombers, at the height of the peace process, had just flown low over the nearby IDP camp. Two terrified children dug themselves into an earth bank for refuge. In heavy rains the bank collapsed and they suffocated to death: two unrecorded deaths in a sixty year old war involving, arguably, the deaths of millions. But this year these two children may have surfaced, along with millions of others, in the most unlikeliest of places: the government’s 2014 census. Burma’s population, it turns out, is about nine million below what was expected. These two children, and nine million others, are not there. No one is commenting on this. No one is asking why. The most significant and extraordinary information to have come out of the country for decades, identifying 20 percent of Burma’s expected population is “Missing,” is disregarded.

This figure cannot be explained away by the flawed methodology of the census, which, albeit inadvertently, exacerbated the intimidation, persecution and dehumanisation by the Rohingya. It is the result itself which needs to be examined. The census may in fact have come up with an inconvenient Truth: millions of people may be missing in Myanmar who were expected to be alive based on the perfectly modest realistic estimates of the 1983 census which predicted an annual 2 percent growth rate.

Exculpatory explanations for some of the missing millions can, admittedly, be made. Many people were simply not counted, including the Rohingya and some Kachin; so called economic migrants, in reality often refugees escaping persecution, were, by their very nature, out of the country; others were inaccessible; AIDS and drug addiction have probably substantially contributed to many premature deaths; one hundred and thirty thousand perished during Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath; cultural practices, such as celibacy and monasticism, may have lowered birthrates; the1983 census may itself have been flawed. Finally, the global media’s failure to expose decades long destruction may have contributed to the disregard of the result: people slowly dying over decades do not fit the media’s 24 news cycle, especially when most victims have disappeared in remote jungle mountainous terrain far from journalists and diplomats. These factors, amongst others, may help explain away some of the missing millions and the disregard of the result: they do not, however, fully account for millions of missing people.

The elephant in the room is government policy. Widespread, systematic human rights violations, i.e. crimes against humanity, have been identified and condemned by successive UN Special Rapporteurs and General Assembly Resolutions since 1992. The country was specifically placed on the UN Genocide Watch list back in 2005 and, I understand, still remains so. The outgoing UN Special Rapporteur, Tomas Ojea-Quintana, affirmed “Elements of genocide” apply as recently as June 2014. Genocide, we should remind ourselves, involves the physical “Destruction of ethnic, racial, religious or national groups in whole or,” significantly, “In part.” If even a small fraction of these millions of missing people have disappeared due to government policies, the Genocide Convention would apply.

The decades long systematic violations targeting mostly ethnic civilians with destruction need to be seen in their historical context. UN condemnations have been explicit and specific. Special Rapporteur, Rajsoomer Lallah QC in 1998, condemned widespread, systematic violations, including “The killing of women and children,” as:

“The result of policy taken at the highest level entailing legal and political responsibility.” (Situation of Human Rights Myanmar, para. 59, Report to the UN Economic and Social Council, July, 1998.)

Systematic and widespread violations, inflicted for decades have inevitably caused the deaths of many people; the two aforementioned children died as a consequence of the Burma army’s military attack.

We need to reflect on nine million missing people: the number is about the same as the population of Sweden. It is about one and a half times the number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. It is nearly twice the number who died as a result of Stalin’s inflicted famine in the Ukraine. In Burma nearly one in five people is not alive who was expected to be alive based upon a modest estimate of the two per cent population growth rate. Despite its significance, the news does not chime with the media’s brave new world: “Burma Unbound”, “Burma booming”, the “Mandela-like transition.” The figure is met instead with silence.

A connection between systematic, widespread human rights violations and possible missing millions exists, however. Martin Smith, generally regarded as a leading authority on Burma’s ethnic peoples, identified a dramatic “Slump in birth rates” back in 1990, opining:

“The birth rates of most minority races (and not just the Mons and the Karens) have inexplicably slumped.” (“Burma, Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity,” page 38, Zed Books, 1991)

We should note his use of the word “Slump,” i.e. a sudden and dramatic fall.

This “slump” in birth rates, moreover, has been accompanied by some outright “Collapses in population” as identified by Amnesty International:

“In some areas complete collapse in ethnic populations has occurred, such as in Kunhing Township in Shan State where a 70 percent drop in population was recorded.” (“Atrocities in Shan State”, Amnesty International, 1998.)

Smith estimated 10,000 dying a year for four decades back in 1990 which would make 400,000. Extrapolated forward to 2014 the figure would approach 550,000, a figure which would be unlikely to include the hundreds of thousands who have died indirectly from denial of shelter, food and medicines, nor would it include the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya forced to flee, and often die, in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. The Transnational Institute cited a figure of 600,000 casualties in 2005.

“The true death toll,” Smith wrote, quoting former SLORC Chairman General Saw Maung vack in the 1980′s, “Would reach as high as millions”. (“Burma”, Zed Books, 1990 ed. p.101)

Specific evidence of widespread destruction has been documented, often graphically, in Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Delta, Karen, Rohingya areas over the decades. Mass forced location of the Bamar population, we should remember, was also inflicted in lowland Burma during the 1990′s.

These “slumps in birth rates”, and local “collapses in population,” contrast with earlier “Prolific high birth rates of ethnic peoples” identified in the unique, in depth, detailed bench mark study carried out just before Burma’s civil war began by W.D. Hackett. He explains

“The minorities . . . are more prolific than the Burman population and increasing at a very rapid rate.” (The Pao People of Shan State, p. 3, W.D. Hackett, Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cornell, 1953.)

Although Smith does state the slump in birth rates as being “Inexplicable,” observation of what has been inflicted in conflict areas; analyses of infant and maternal mortality rates documented by, amongst others, the Mae Tao Clinic; detailed mapping of widespread, systematic destruction in eastern, western, northern regions and the Delta, including satellite imagery, and numerous reports, demonstrate the destruction must have inevitably resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people.

Moreover, these “collapses in population” and “slumps in birth rates” is certain to be greatest in so called ethnic areas. If the full regional breakdown of the results of the 2014 census is ever revealed, it will probably confirm this. Latest reports, however, indicae this information is not being released indicative of a cover up.

We need to ask, however, what government strategies have contributed to the slump in birth rates and much lower than expected population figure. The central strategy outlined by Smith is known as the Four Cuts strategy which is explicitly intended to destroy the civilian base of resistance. Ethnic civilians are thus the target.

The first circle: killing

Successive military juntas, and the current hybrid civilian/military successor, have been killing and causing deaths for decades.

In January 2013 I was in Kachin State. A young boy, sitting on a wall, described to me how soldiers had come to his mother’s kitchen and shot her while he looked on from the edge of a sugar cane field. An old man sobbed hysterically next to him: he had just described his daughter bayoneted to death through the left breast. Nearby two small boys had dug themselves into a mud wall to hide from fighter bombers. It collapsed and suffocated them to death. These small boys, the old man’s daughter and the boy’s mother are part of Myanmar’s missing millions. In this case they died as a result of a systematic onslaught- not “Ethnic conflict”- by the Burma army. This attack occurred just after President Thein Sein had formally announced a ceasefire on prime time television, supported by a vote of the whole lower house, and dutifully echoed by the global media and Ban Ki Moon.

Along “The ceasefire line” human wave attacks were carried out on Kachin positions involving tens of thousands of troops, helicopter gun ships and fighter bombers. Jane’s Intelligence reportedly estimated five thousand Burmese troops and one thousand Kachin were killed. (That’s double the number estimated killed in the 1988 student uprising.) These deaths predictably remain disregarded, downplayed, understated or denied. They don’t fit the narrative of democratic transition, or the assumptions of top down, urban, Burman centred journalists, politicians and diplomats whose views have been co-opted by the rhetoric of “Transition”. (Needless to say young Burmese conscripts, forced to fight and die are also victims and just as deserving of our compassion, as ethnic victims.)

Let’s rewind to the autumn of 2000 when I was in the mountainous areas of Karen State. Four women were brought into our encampment who had just been forced to watch their husbands being beheaded in front of them. Nearby in a burning village two toddlers had been thrown into the flames. Their dying screams were heard in the surrounding hills for minutes. An old lady, unable to move, burnt to death silently. In a nearby village a Baptist pastor was beaten for three days, his Bible shredded and then beheaded. I could go on.

These people were murdered by the Burmese army. This has been going on for decades, and is still going on. These dead are part of the missing nine million.

These killings include not just individuals, but massacres such as in the Delta in September 2001 and Dooplaya district. Karen State in May 2002 (“Dying Alive,” Images Asia, 2005)

The second circle : cyclone Nargis 

About 130,000 people, more than the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, died in the Delta as a result of Cyclone Nargis. Many of these deaths resulted from the Junta’s criminal negligence failing to warn the population and impeding relief efforts. We can infer that the population of the Delta would now be higher if the government had carried out its responsibilities effectively.

The third circle: sexual violence

If systematic killing is the first circle, denial of aid the second circle, widespread, systematic rape and sexual violence represents the third. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Rajsoomer Lallah QC, condemned it as being a “Regular, routine feature” and “The result of policy” as far back as 1998. It has been condemned in most UN reports. This form of targeted violence of women undermines birth rates because, amongst other things, it often destroys women’s desire and ability to marry and have children.

The fourth circle : indirect destruction 

This encompasses those subjected to slow, indirect violence, defined in the Rome Statute as: “The deliberate deprivation of resources indispensable for survival, such as food, medical services, or systematic expulsion from homes.”(Rome Statute, Genocide, Article 6c).

Burning people out of their homes, like the 3,600 villages documented by the Thai Burma Border Consortium in eastern Burma, or what has been inflicted in Rohingya and Kachin areas recently, leads, indirectly, to death because people lack shelter or basic services. I remember the gloves of a back pack medic being destroyed in order, presumably, so that babies could not be born hygienically and die as result. I recall a report of a man shot through the leg for carrying antibiotics in 2005.The denial and destruction of medical services and supplies, deprivation of clean water and food, often inevitably results in death. (The Rohingya are particularly victimised by this slow motion, low intensity form of genocide.) Very many people have died prematurely and unnecessarily over the decades as a result of these deliberately inflicted conditions. Maternal and infant mortality rates in particular, documented by the Mae Tao Clinic and others, resulting from these conditions have been some of the highest in the world. We should note that two hundred and fifty thousand people, a quarter of a million, have been terrorised out of their homes since “the democratic transition” began and “Peace” broke out.

The fifth circle : persecution

In the fifth circle there are the millions who over the decades have been forced to flee persecution, i.e. the denial of their fundamental rights Many of those in the refugee camps, or those fleeing into the Indian Ocean, or into China, India, Malaysia etc., are not economic migrants, but victims of systematic Persecution. In the case of the Rohingya, as the former Special UN Rapporteur asserted, the conditions they are escaping include “Elements of genocide.”

The sixth circle : enforced migration

In the sixth circle we do admittedly find very many economic migrants working in foreign countries. Many of these have, however, not really made free choices but have had to escape the extreme poverty resulting from government policies which have failed to provide people with, amongst other things, adequate medical and educational services.

The seventh circle : general poverty

Here are the great majority of the Burmese people who are mired in the poverty resulting from governmental negligence. Such conditions can lead people to put off, or not marry, or have smaller families than they otherwise would have had, which leads, in turn, to a probable reduction in birth rates.

In conclusion, decades long State inflicted violence and deliberate deprivation of the necessities for life must have resulted in at least hundreds of thousands, and if former SLORC Chairman General Saw Maung was right “Millions”, of premature deaths. The numerical qualifying criteria of what comprises the attempted destruction of a part of a people to justify a charge of genocide is: “substantial”.

Those two young children should not have died, nor should hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, be allowed to disappear into a vortex of complicit silence. A Truth Commission should be set up to find out what has really happened. Perpetrators should be held to account.

Guy Horton has worked on Burma and its border areas since 1998. His 2005 report, “Dying Alive” and supporting video footage, received worldwide coverage and contributed to the submission of Burma to the UN Security Council in January 2007. As a result of the report, the UN Committee on the Prevention of Genocide carried out an investigation and placed Burma/Myanmar on the Genocide Watch list.

Since 2005 Guy Horton has focussed on establishing a coalition of governments, funders, institutions and leading international lawyers with the aim of getting the violations investigated and analysed so that impunity can be addressed. He is currently a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

He was short-listed for the post of UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar 2014. He can be contacted at:

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