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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 8, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 6
Study: Human Rights Violations Widespread in Eastern Burma

By Kenna Lowe
School of Public Health

Gross human rights violations, including forced displacement, forced labor, attacks by soldiers on civilians, injury from land mines and destruction or theft of food supplies, have been widespread in eastern Burma (also known as Myanmar), with more than half of households in displaced areas reporting incidents in the 12 months prior to a 2004 survey.

The study, completed by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and other institutions, is published in the October issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

"These study results highlight the impact that the oppressive military junta in Burma has had and continues to have on the vulnerable ethnic minority populations that have been specifically targeted by the military regime," said Luke C. Mullany, lead author of the study and an assistant professor with the Bloomberg School's Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

The Back Pack Health Worker Team, a network of mobile health workers who provide basic health care and conduct surveillance in eastern Burma, completed interviews and malaria testing in 1,834 households between October and December 2004. Resource and security constraints required survey modules, including basic malaria diagnostic tests, to be limited to one sheet of paper and only what could be carried inconspicuously and without survey respondent identifiers.

Fifty-two percent of respondents said they had experienced one or more human rights violations during the previous 12 months. More than 32 percent of households reported forced labor, 25 percent reported theft or destruction of their food supply, and more than 8 percent reported forced displacement. Mortality risk for children under 5 years of age exceeded 200 per 1,000 live births. Malaria, diarrhea and acute respiratory infections were given as the most common causes of death. Land mine injuries were reported at a rate of 13.3 injuries per 10,000 persons per year.

The key findings of the relationship between human rights violations and poor population-level health indicators include the following:

The risk of death among children younger than 5 years was five times higher among households that reported multiple human rights violations.

There was a substantial increased risk of land mine injuries among households that reported forced displacement or food theft or destruction.

Poor nutritional status among children was associated with forced displacement and food theft or destruction.

Deaths at any age were more often reported by households that experienced forced displacement or food theft or destruction.

"These data are from 2004, a period in which there was less active conflict in eastern Burma, relative to the current situation. In recent days, the international community has witnessed the military junta's violent crackdown against the nonviolent demonstrations calling for the restoration of democracy led by Burma's revered Buddhist monks and nuns," Mullany said.

"The Back Pack Health Worker survey demonstrates the impact of this regime's policy of oppression against the Burmese people, especially displaced ethnic minorities in eastern Burma," he said. "Systematic human rights violations in these communities lead to high risk of mortality, infectious morbidity and malnutrition."

The study authors explain that combining the collection of data on human rights violations and population-level health outcomes allows for quantifying the relationship between abuses and health status, complementing qualitative methods and facilitating advocacy efforts.

"It is just this kind of hard evidence of the human toll of military misrule that the Burmese military regime has tried to suppress," pointed out study co-author Chris Beyrer, who is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health and Human Rights.

Johns Hopkins researchers Mullany, Voravit Suwanvanichkij and Beyrer co-authored the study. Additional co-authors are Adam K. Richards, of Montefiore Medical Center; Catherine I. Lee and Thomas J. Lee, of the Global Health Access Program; and Cynthia Maung and Mahn Mahn, both of the Back Pack Health Worker Team.

The study uses the name Burma rather than Myanmar. Burma is the form preferred by the leaders of Burma's pro-democracy movement, the legitimate winners of the 1990 elections.


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