Army abuses worsen health crisis in eastern Burma – The Irrawaddy

As a UN rapporteur re-states a call for an inquiry into human rights abuses in Burma, medical groups operating in the country’s east say that abuses perpetrated by the state have contributed to a health crisis in the region, which they say bolsters the case for an investigation.

Diagnosis: Critical –  Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma says that general health for people in eastern Burma is much worse than the national average. According to the document, which was released today at a press conference in Bangkok, abuses such as forced labour and displacement affected one-third of those surveyed, and “serve as major drivers of the health crisis as children in displaced families were three times more likely to suffer from acute malnutrition and 60% more likely of suffering from diarrhea”. In another startling finding, the report says that the odds of children dying before age one were doubled in households forced to provide labour during the preceding year.

The army’s “four cuts” policy was developed in the 1970 to undermine ethnic militia groups, often by targetting civilians. Tactics used include cutting off access to food, funds, information and recruits, with often devastating results. One-third of all households surveyed have experienced some form of human rights abuse, according to the report authors. Charm Tong of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) said today that “systematic rape and human rights abuses continue, which furthers the health crisis.” An estimated 446,000 people have been driven from their homes in eastern Burma, where they are thought to eke out a living in the regions’ dense jungles.

The report is based on research carried out with 27000 respondents in 21 townships across Karen, Karenni, Mon, and southern Shan states, as well as the Tenassirim region of Burma. It was undertaken by The Burma Medical Association, National Health and Education Committee, Back Pack Health workers, with support from Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Low public health expenditure means that ordinary people have to pay for basic healthcare, which often impossible as the average Burmese household allocates around 70% of their budget to food alone, with groups such as the BMA and Back Pack Health workers working to fill healthcare gaps.

Children and women are particularly vulnerable to the impact of human rights-related health problems, according to the report, which says that among those surveyed, “40% of children suffer from malnutrition and 60% die from preventable disease.” One in fourteen women is infected with malaria, which is “one of the highest rates of infection in the world.”

All told, infant mortality figures are equivalent to African warzones such as the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo or parts of Sudan, said Nai Aye Lwin, of the Backpack Health Worker Team. The report says that “one in seven children in eastern Burma will die before age five, almost double Burma’s official figures, which are amongst the worst in the world.” The maternal mortality rate in eastern Burma is 721 per 100,000 live births, compared with a national rate of 240, both far from the UN Millennium Development Goal target of 50, which Thailand has met.

The health crisis in eastern Burma has ramifications for neighbouring countries, according to Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree of Thailand’s Mahidol University, who is Thailand’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Human Rights Commission. She said that “these realities are not confined to Myanmar alone as the burden of these abusive policies is borne by members of ASEAN and beyond”. Dr Voravit Suwanvanichkij works with the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Public Health and Human Rights in Chiang Mai. He said that “90% of Thailand’s malaria cases occur along the border areas with Burma”, another illustration of how Thailand is adversely affected by human rights abuses inside Burma .

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva visited Burma last week to discuss trade an investment issues, according to official statements, amid concerns that Thailand would seek to repatriate refugees and Burmese opposition figures after the November 7 election. However the health and human rights situation in affected regions could get worse in the near term, as ethnic groups are bracing themselves for fighting in the weeks leading up to and after the November 7 election, with an mutual defence alliance formed by six ethnic militias, which will be activated in the event of one of them being attacked by the Tatmadaw.

“One quarter of the Burma Army is now stationed in Shan State”, said Charm Tong, who added that a new railway being built there is designed to facilitate troop movement and supply. Renewed fighting in Burma would see Thailand, which is currently host to over 140,000 refugees from Burma, likely see a renewed influx of displaced Burmese from that country’s east.

Thailand currently holds the Presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which released a report yesterday by Specal Rapporteur on Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana. He re-issued a call for a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, which he first made in March this year. Since then, twelve countries have voiced their support for a COI. His latest report calls on the international community to investigate abuses in Burma, outlining a number of possible steps by which the the COI can be established. Quintana says that the UN can establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity such as “through resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or the Security Council”. Otherwise, he says, “the Secretary-General could establish it on his own initiative.” Dr Cynthia Maung, one of the lead authors of Diagnosis: Critical Health and Human Rights in Eastern Burma said today that the report findings bolster the case for the establishment of a COI.

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