Documenting Human Rights Violations: Increasing Recognition of Civil and Political Rights in Burma

Elyse Lightman Samuels, American Jewish World Service

Following years of repression by the ruling military junta, Burma’s civil and political rights movement has recently undergone dramatic changes. In 2010, Burmese military authorities released democratic opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest. In 2012, it released hundreds of political prisoners and signed a cease-fire with ethnic resistance leaders.

At the root of these changes are civil society organizations and the movement they have built to promote civil and political rights. AJWS began funding civil society organizations along the Thai/Burmese border in 2002, and today funds 30 organizations working inside Burma and in exile. These groups monitor gaps in what the government says it provides to citizens and what it actually delivers; document violence towards ethnic groups; and offer humanitarian aid.

Funding a diverse range of these organizations’ activities has strengthened their skills and ability to bring international attention to local human rights abuses, which can pressure national governments to take action. A major outcome of this grantmaking strategy is AJWS grantees’ expanded capacity to document and expose human rights violations.

Effective documentation can garner international attention to human rights violations. In anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s visit in 2011, for example, the Women’s League of Burma — comprised of 13 women’s organizations, founded by several AJWS partners — sent the US Secretary of State a letter requesting that she demand an end to rape as a weapon of war against ethnic women in Burma. The letter highlighted a report by AJWS grantee, Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, describing the rape and murder of a woman and her teenage daughter, and the killing of her father.[1] During her visit, Clinton condemned rape as a weapon of war and raised this issue with the Burmese government.

Strengthened capacity for documentation, improved coordination of civil society organizations, and increased credibility among the international community better enabled AJWS’ grantees in Burma to influence a significant public figure to speak out on critical human rights issues.


[1] Women’s League of Burma, “Women’s League of Burma: Letter to US Secretary of State Clinton,” November 25, 2011. Web. Accessed 20 March, 2012. Available at:

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