Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Burma six months on: Children and their families are still in need of international assistance

11 Nov 2008 05:39:48 GMT

(Alert Net) - Cyclone Nargis cut a swath of destruction across Myanmar’s southern coast on 2-3 May 2008.

More than 130,000 people, including tens of thousands of children, died or disappeared, while more than 1 million people lost their homes. In addition, the agriculture and fishing industries in the Irrawaddy Delta were devastated, leaving families with no way to earn an income or feed themselves.

The storm also flooded low-lying areas, contaminating wells, containment ponds and rivers. Salinity of these traditional sources of drinking water remains high. As the dry season begins this month in Myanmar, families will have few options for obtaining clean drinking water, increasing the risk of disease.

“The water shortage that typically comes with the dry season is being exacerbated by the unusually high salt content in water sources in the Delta — a lingering result of the cyclone,” said Andrew Kirkwood, Save the Children’s country director in Myanmar. “The lack of clean water will directly impact the health of children. Scarce family resources will be further strained if they must purchase water, as will relationships among communities if they must compete for this resource.”

Source: Save the Children - Australia
Reuters and AlertNet are not responsible for the content of this article or for any external internet sites. The views expressed are the author's alone.

88 Generation Activists Given 65 Years

The Irrawaddy News
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fourteen leading activists, including five women, from the 88 Generation Students group were each given 65-year sentences on Tuesday morning for their political activities during the monk-led uprising in Burma last year, according to sources close to their families.

The lengthy imprisonments were seen as an indication the Burmese military government was invoking harsher punishments on dissidents.

The 14 activists— Min Zeya, Jimmy (aka Kyaw Min Yu), Arnt Bwe Kyaw, Kyaw Kyaw Htwe (aka Ma Kee), Panneik Tun, Zaw Zaw Min, Than Tin, Zeya, Thet Zaw, Mee Mee, Nilar Thein, Mar Mar Oo, Sandar Min and Thet Thet Aung—were sentenced at a court inside Insein Prison, said the sources.

The 88 Generation Students group were seen to be involved in the mass protests against the increased fuel prices enforced by the Burmese government in August 2007.

Meanwhile, a prominent labor rights activist, Su Su Nway, was sentenced to 12 and a half years, said a source who visited Insein Prison on Tuesday.

In late October, nine leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kyew, were sentenced to six months imprisonment under Section 228 of the penal code—for contempt of court—by the Northern District Court inside Insein Prison in the northwestern suburbs of Rangoon.

Military Accused of Crimes Against Humanity

The Irrawaddy News
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BANGKOK — An onslaught by Burmese troops in the eastern part of the military-ruled country, running for three years now, is laying the junta open to charge of ‘crimes against humanity’.

This new charge adds to a growing list of human rights violations that the Southeast Asian nation’s ruling military regime is being slammed for, including the use of rape as a weapon of war in military campaigns in areas that are home to the country’s ethnic minorities. The country has been under the grip of successive juntas since a 1962 military coup.

Eyewitness accounts from civilians fleeing the territory under attack reveal a grim picture of the ‘Tatmadaw’, as the Burmese military is called, targeting unarmed men, women and children in a "widespread and systematic way," say human rights and humanitarian groups.

An increasing number of refugees have been crossing over to northern Thailand from among the Karen ethnic community, the second largest ethnic group in Burma, or Myanmar. Many of them live in the mountainous Karen State, the territory where Southeast Asia’s longest—and largely ignored—separatist conflict is being waged between Burmese troops and the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU).

"Myanmar’s troops are overtly targeting civilians; they are actively avoiding KNU military installations. That is why we are describing the attacks as ‘crimes against humanity’," says Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International (AI), the global rights lobby. "The violations are widespread and systematic."

"This campaign started in November 2005 and has escalated. They did not even stop during the annual monsoon period (from May to October), which was not the case before," he explained during an IPS interview. "There has been a shift in strategy and intensity. It is no more a dry season offensive."

The military campaign is the largest and the longest sustained drive in a decade. "The Burmese army is rotating soldiers every six months and they have penetrated areas deep in the Karen area," David Tharckabaw, vice president of the KNU, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. "Nothing is being spared. They are even destroying fruit plantations like mangosteen."

The list of abuse document by AI, and corroborated by other humanitarian groups, include villagers being beaten and stabbed to death, being shot by the ‘Tatmadaw’ "without any warning" and being tortured and subsequently killed. Karen civilians have also reportedly been subjected to forced labour, disappearances and their rice harvest being burned down.

"Before the soldiers left the village, they planted landmines, one of them in front of the church. An old man, maybe 70 years-old, stepped on a landmine and was killed," a female rice farmer told an AI researcher of an incident in early 2006, when the ‘Tatmadaw’ burned 20 of the 30 houses in her village.

"I lost everything—kitchen, furniture, rice stocks—not a single piece of paper was left," she added. "The same happened to the other 19 families whose houses were burned."

The unrelenting campaign, which has included the Burmese infantry and heavy use of 120 mm and 81mm mortar shells, has shrunk an already limited space for Karen civilians and internally displaced people (IDPs) to escape to. "The more the Burmese military occupies areas in a worsening situation, the less space there is for civilians to escape to," says Duncan McArthur, emergency relief coordinator of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an alliance of 11 humanitarian groups helping refugees from Burma along the Thai-Burmese border.

"Nearly 66,000 people from 38 townships have been forced to flee their homes due to the armed conflict and human rights abuses," he told IPS. "They had to because the violations are being committed in a climate of impunity."

Some of the victims have poured into north-west Thailand, where there are already nine camps that house 120,000 refugees who fled intense phases of the conflict going back over a decade. "There are about 20,000 unregistered new arrivals and the natural growth in the camps," added McArthur. "There is no avenue for redress if they were to stay back."

That is reflected in Burma’s over half a million IDPs, nearly 451,000 of which live in the rural ethnic areas, according to TBBC. It places Burma in the same league as countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which have internally displaced running into the hundreds of thousands.

But what sets Burma apart is the lack of any international agencies to help the victims and serve as neutral observers in the conflict zone.

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was helping to provide artificial limbs for landmine victims, was hampered by new restrictions to its operations in 2006. In mid-2007, the Geneva-based humanitarian agency broke its famed silence in an unprecedented attack on the junta to explain why it had to end its operations in Burma, including the Karen areas.

The ICRC’s denunciation of major and repeated violations in the conflict zones in eastern Burma confirmed what many analysts had said of a region that is cut away from international scrutiny and media exposure. "The repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law," the organization said.

The Karens, who account for nearly seven million of Burma’s 57 million people, have their own distinctive culture and language and have Buddhists, Christians and animists among them. The Burmans, who are the majority, are predominantly Buddhist by faith, speak Burmese, and have a culture and history shaped by kings before being subjugated by British colonization.

The Karen fight for independence began in 1949, a year after Burma got independence. And the KNU has refused to sign peace deals with the Burmese regime unlike some of the other separatist rebels from ethnic groups. The latter settled for ceasefire deals over the past two decades, only to learn, subsequently, that the junta’s promises of more political autonomy were hollow.

"The Burmese military’s latest strategy is to keep attacking the KNU and Karen civilians in order to drive them to the Thai-Burma border," says Tharekabaw, of the KNU. "Their goal is to control all the land and all the people, which has never been the case before."

"If they cannot control, they have to kill the people or to wipe them out," he added. "The regime is a fascist regime. Their ideology is extremism, racism and militarism."

Quote on Justice

“Ah-dhhamma (injustice) is winning now,
but one day dhamma (justice) will win.”

--Aung Thein, Defence for Ashin Gambira

Court sentenced blogger for over 20 years, poet for two years - Nay Phone Latt

by Than Htike Oo
Mizzima News
Monday, 10 November 2008 23:37

Chiang Mai – A court in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison on Monday has sentenced a popular Blogger Nay Phone Latt to over 20 years in prison.

Nay Phone Latt, who was arrested on 29 January, on Monday was sentenced by the Insein prison court on three counts including charges under section 505 (b) of the Penal Code - crime against public tranquillity.

The Blogger's mother Aye Aye Than, told Mizzima that her son was sentenced to two years under section 505(b) of the Penal Code, three and half years under sections 32(b)/36 of the Video Law and 15 years under section 33(a)/38 of the Electronic Law.

"We were waiting outside during the court proceedings and after the court session we asked the judge about the quantum of punishment. The judge and prosecutor informed us regarding the judgement," she said.

The 28-years-old, Nay Phone Latt, a famous blogger, is also a youth member of Burma's main opposition party - National League for Democracy. He runs internet cafés in several townships in Rangoon including "The Explorer" in Pabedan Township, and "Heaven" in Thingangyun Township.

His mother Aye Aye Than said that she had no idea why they had sentenced her son to such a long term in prison.
(JEG's: someone ought to tell her...)

"He is the first ever blogger to be arrested in Burma. I have no idea why they punished my son with such a harsh judgement. Blogging is perhaps a very serious crime in the opinion of the authorities," his mother said.

Meanwhile, Nay Phone Latt's defense counsel, Aung Thein, was also sentenced to four months prison-term in absentia on November 7, for a charge of contempt of the court.

Similarly, poet Saw Wei was also sentenced to two years in prison on Monday with charges of 'inducing crime against public tranquillity'.

He was arrested in February, after his poem entitled 'February 14' was published in the Weekly 'Ah Chit' (love) Journal. In his Burmese poem, putting together of the first words of all the lines spells out 'Power Crazy Snr. Gen.Than Shwe', which provokes the authorities and he was immediately arrested.

"I am worried about his health. I want to arrange proper medical treatment outside the prison for him, where X-ray facility would be available in order to diagnose his back and waist pain. Currently, he cannot get these treatments inside the prison. He has to cover his body with a towel all the time. This morning too at the court, he could not sit for a long time and had to stand up frequently to ease his pain when speaking," Saw Wai's wife told Mizzima.

Soe Maung, the defense counsel of Saw Wai said, despite of the court's verdict, he will continue filing appeals for revision, as he thinks the trial were not free and fair enough.

"We will file an appeal against this judgment at all levels of the courts including an appeal for a revision case. We intend to do as much as the law and judicial proceedings permit us to, within the legal framework, until we reach the last stage. I am preparing for an appeal on my client's instruction," Soe Maung said.

Meanwhile, media watchdogs the Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) and Burma Media Association (BMA) has slam the junta for its unfair trials on the two writers – Nay Phone Latt and Saw Wai – and the verdict to sentenced them.

The two organisations said, they are appalled by the combined sentence of 20 years and six months in prison that a special court in Insein prison passed on Nay Phone Latt and two years to poet Saw Wai.

"This shocking sentence is meant to terrify those who go online in an attempt to elude the dictatorship's ubiquitous control of news and information, and we call for his immediate release. Saw Wai, for his part, is being made to pay for his impertinence and courage as a committed poet," the two organisations said in a press statement.

The two media watchdogs also call on all bloggers and poets around the world to show their solidarity towards Nay Phone Latt and Saw Wai.

"There is an urgent need now for bloggers all over the world to demonstrate their solidarity with Nay Phone Latt by posing his photo on their blogs and by writing to Burmese embassies worldwide to request his release. Similarly, we call on poets to defend their fellow-poet, Saw Wai, who has been jailed just because of one poem," said the two organisations.


Young Burmese Blogger Sentenced to more than 20 Years in Jail
The Irrawaddy News

A young Burmese blogger who was a major source of information for the outside world on the brutal regime crackdown on the September 2007 uprising was sentenced to 20 years and six months imprisonment on Monday.

Nay Phone Latt, 28, was sentenced by a court in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, according to his mother, Aye Than. He was convicted of contravening Public Offense Act 505 B by posting a cartoon depicting junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe on his blog site.

Nay Phone Latt’s colleague Thin July Kyaw was sentenced to two years imprisonment, Aye Than reported.

Another dissident who ridiculed the regime, Saw Wai, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for publishing a poem mocking Than Shwe in the weekly Love Journal, according to Rangoon sources. The first words of each line of the Burmese language poem spelled out the message “Senior General Than Shwe is foolish with power.”

Nay Phone Latt’s blogs during the September 2007 uprising provided invaluable information about events within the locked-down country.

Two Rangoon journalists, Htun Htun Thein and Khin Maung Aye, of the privately-owned weekly News Watch, were arrested on November 5 and are being detained in Insein Prison. The media rights organizations Reporters without Borders and Burma Media Association have demanded their immediate release.

The current regime crackdown is also aimed at silencing legal attempts to ensure fair trials for dissidents now appearing before judges in closed court sessions.

Two weeks ago, three defense lawyers, Nyi Nyi Htwe, Aung Thein and Khin Maung Shein were imprisoned for between four and six months for contempt of court after complaining of unfair treatment.

Four other defense lawyers, Kyaw Hoe, Maung Maung Latt, Myint Thaung and Khin Htay Kyew have been barred from representing their clients since November 5, according to Kyaw Hoe. The lawyers are representing several dissidents, including members of the 88 Generation Students group.

“I asked a prison authority why I was not allowed to appear in court,” said Kyaw Hoe. “He said there was no reason and that the order had come from higher officials.”

Members of the 88 Generation Students group were now appearing daily in court without their defense lawyers, Kyaw Hoe said.

Two lawyers, Myint Thaung and Khin Htay Kyi, who represent the prominent labor activist Su Su Nway, withdrew from court proceedings at the weekend, citing unfair treatment, according to the accused’s sister, Htay Htay Kyi.

Htay Htay Kyi said Su Su Nway would be sentenced on Tuesday. The winner of the 2006 John Humphrey Freedom Award was originally charged with “threatening the stability of the government,” under articles 124, 130 and 505 of the penal code, but new charges have now been added.

In a statement in Washington, the US State Department criticized the imprisonment of the four defense lawyers and urged the Burmese regime to drop all charges and release them.

Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood called on the junta to stop harassing and arresting citizens for peacefully practicing their internationally recognized human rights, to release all political prisoners, and to start a genuine dialogue with democratic forces and ethnic minority groups for democratic reform in Burma.
Monday, November 10, 2008

Burma Resolution Introduced in the UN

The Irrawaddy News
Monday, November 10, 2008

Forty-three nations voted to send a resolution highly critical of the Burmese government to the UN General Assembly for a vote, probably in December.

Among the countries sponsoring the resolution were Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, Norway, South Korea, Britain and the US.

The resolution, which will be debated in committee before it is taken up in the general assembly, urged the governing junta to ensure full respect for human rights and to take steps for the restoration of democracy through a free and fair election.

In addition, it called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest for the past 13 years, and urged the release of all political prisoners, including leaders from the National League for Democracy, 88 Generation Students and ethnic groups.

The resolution called on the junta to fully implement previous recommendations of the UN special rapporteur on Burma, the General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council, Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization.

The resolution also called for the Burmese government to lift all restraints on peaceful political activities and to ensure unhindered access to media information.

Expressing its support for the good offices role of the UN secretary-general and his special envoy on Burma, the resolution urged the resumption of a dialogue with political opposition groups, including the National League for Democracy and representatives of ethnic nationalities. It also urged that arrest of political opposition group members be halted immediately.

Friday, 7 November 2008

More Burmese Defense Lawyers Jailed for ‘Contempt of Court’

The Irrawaddy News
Friday, November 7, 2008

Two lawyers representing detained Burmese political activists were sentenced to four months imprisonment for contempt of court on Friday.

One of the two, Aung Thein, told The Irrawaddy he and Khin Maung Shein had been charged after attempting to defend their clients in court.

The two lawyers had earlier withdrawn from court proceedings, complaining that they were being hampered in their defense work.

Aung Thein said the authorities were prejudiced against lawyers defending political activists. Aung Thein represented the prominent Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira, but resigned his brief on October 1, complaining that he was not being allowed to prepare a proper defense.

Gambira was one of the leaders of the demonstrations in September 2007 and is charged with offences connected with his participation in the mass protests.

Aung Thein said justice would win in the end—and quoted Buddhist teaching.
“Ah-dhhamma (injustice) is winning now, but one day dhamma (justice) will win.”

His colleague, Khin Maung Shein, also recently resigned his brief after the court refused to allow him to ask questions on behalf of his clients.

In late October, another defense lawyer, Nyi Nyi Htwe, who represented 11 youth members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), was sentenced to six months imprisonment for disrespect of the court.

Nyi Nyi Htwe and Nyi Nyi Hlaing are among 13 lawyers defending detained political activists, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Nine leading activists, including Min Ko Naing and other prominent members of the 88 Generation Students movement, were sentenced in late October to six months imprisonment for contempt of court.

The Burma Lawyers’ Council in exile released a statement on Friday lamenting the lack of free and fair trials in Burma and complaining that lawyers representing political clients lose their right to freely defend their clients in court.

A court in Insein Prison increased the list of charges against the prominent Burmese labor activist Su Su Nway on Friday, according to her sister, Htay Htay Kyi.

Su Su Nway, winner of the 2006 John Humphrey Freedom Award for her labor rights work, took part in last year’s demonstrations and was charged with “threatening the stability of the government,” under articles 124, 130 and 505 of the penal code. Six new charges had now been added, Htay Htay Kyi said.

In other developments, appeals by six NLD members, including well-known pro-democracy activist Win Mya Mya, against long prison sentences, have been rejected.

Burmese authorities are also apparently ignoring an appeal by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi against her continuing house arrest. The appeal was lodged in Naypyidaw on October 8, according to her lawyer, Kyi Win, who is still being kept waiting for a response.

Suu Kyi was visited by her doctor at her Rangoon home on Thursday, in accordance with an agreement with the authorities.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Junta sends prisoners in short-term sentences to Hard Labour camps

Written by KNG
Saturday, 01 November 2008

Burma's ruling military junta has been sending prisoners serving less than a year's prison term in a prison at Myitkyina, the capital of Burma's northern Kachin State to Hard Labour camps in lower Burma, according to local sources.

Prisoners serving prison terms between six months to five years in Zilon Prison have been selected and sent to the Htonbo Hard Labour camp in the south of Mandalay and the Hard Labour camps in the war zone in Karen State, sources close to the prisoners said.

The sources added that the prison authorities mainly selected young male prisoners for Hard Labour and if the prisoners wanted to be excluded from the list of Hard Labour candidates then their families or relatives would have to pay a bribe between 250,000 Kyat (US $105) to 300,000 Kyat (US $246) per prisoner to the prison authorities within a given time.

The main reasons for sending prisoners serving short-term prison sentences are that the prisons are becoming more and more crowded with the death toll of prisoners dying from Tuberculosis (TB) and AIDS increasing day by day, according to the prison.

Currently, both the diseases have not spread among too many prisoners however, policemen guarding the prisons are also falling victim to the diseases, the prison authorities said.

In Zilon Prison, there are prison cells to accommodate about 700 male prisoners and 500 female prisoners. However, there are now about 1,300 male prisoners and about 500 female prisoners in the prison. About twenty prisoners have to stay in a prison cell and most of the prisoners are the cases related to drug addicts and smugglers, according to the prisoners.

Of them, most prisoners are ethnic Kachins because they do not have enough money to bribe the policemen for avoiding imprisonment, the Kachin community sources in Myitkyina said.

Earlier, the junta used to send prisoners with more than five years prison terms in Zilon Prison, to the Hard Labour camps around the country and also as porters in the wars between Burma's army and the Karen National Union (KNU) on the Thailand-Burma border in the Southeast of the country, added local sources.

According to prisoners in Zilon Prison, if the prisoners are sent to the junta's Hard Labour camps, most of them have high chances of dying of torture and malnutrition.

Comparison of BSPP's and SPDC's Political Manipulation

Wed 29 Oct 2008 (Mon News) - The Burmese Army took power not during the bloodshed of 1988, but through a coup in 1962. The military has ruled the country under many different names. The commanders of Burma’s Army have noticed how delicious power tastes, and do not want the make way for democratic governance. They continuously manipulate the situation in Burma to maintain power. They will again during the election of 2010.

Under the name “Revolutionary Council,” General Ne Win ruled the country from 1962 to 1974. He ruled without any constitution, like the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – and subsequent State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – ruled from 1988 to 2008, and maybe will past 2010.

Ne Win imprisoned hundreds of democratic and ethnic leaders, including former Prime Minister U Nu and Mon leaders Nai Aung Tun. Similarly, SLORC's Gen. Saw Maung and Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt arrested many activists – student leaders, NLD members and 1990 MPs – and imprisoned them for many years. SPDC's Sr. Gen. Than Shwe has been more aggressive and notorious. He ordered the imprisonment of almost all of ‘88 Generation Student leaders and killed unarmed monks and civilians during the 2007 September's Saffron Revolution.

Ruling the country without a legitimate constitution is lawlessness. And it is illegitimate in the eyes of international and diplomatic communities. Ne Win and his military men drafted a socialist constitution in 1974 and called for a sham “People’s Referendum.” Unsurprisingly, 99% of the people were said to support the one-party rule Socialist Constitution. Burmese Army's commanders took off their uniform, and took over politics through one-party elections and seats in the parliament and cabinet.

History is repeating itself. The SPDC's Sr. Gen. Than Shwe held a sham “National Convention” to draft a sham constitution. The product guarantees the military controls 25% of seats in parliament. After the 2010 Elections, the military will rule without taking off a uniform.

If compared with these situation, the current regime more openly expresses that they love the taste of power and will continue military rule of the country as long as possible. As prominent Journalist U Win Tin said, “all of us will die in this roadmap.” This roadmap cleared the way for military rule and it is the genuine political will of this regime. Therefore, there will be no liberal or participatory democracy in Burma.

The Faltering Asean Way

The Irrawaddy News

It is ironic that just as the much-heralded Asean Charter received its final approval through ratification by Indonesia, two Asean member states faced off across a disputed patch of land and started shooting at each other. It was an inauspicious start to what the Charter's preamble refers to as 'a region of lasting peace, security and stability...'

The Thai-Cambodian border is not the only fault line that threatens peace in South-east Asia. In recent weeks, Malaysia has rattled Indonesian nerves with the threatened exploitation of disputed waters off the island of Borneo. The reaction in Jakarta? Instead of requesting the good offices of the Asean Secretary-General to mediate as envisaged in the Charter, security agencies hurriedly planned a military exercise to practice confrontation with the Malaysian navy.

Southeast Asian nations have lived in relative peace and harmony for the past half-century. But they have been reluctant up till now to formalize the mechanism by which peace is maintained. Asean member states have displayed an allergy to formal security cooperation. They have preferred instead to use informal channels and personal connections to resolve disputes.

This was a fine arrangement when Southeast Asia was a more clubbable place, its leaders more or less on the same political plane, sharing the same demons (communist insurgency and uppity peasantry). But today, Southeast Asia has become a patchwork of rather different political landscapes.

In Indonesia, a vibrant democracy has injected nationalist stridency to the country's diplomacy. In Thailand, bitter domestic political conflict is doing the same as one side seeks to undermine the other by questioning its nationalist credentials. In the Philippines, the legislature holds the threat of impeachment over the President's head and makes it hard for the country's chief executive to follow a consistent foreign policy agenda.

Pluralism, therefore, is making it hard for Asean officials to knit together the much-vaunted regional consensus. Now more than ever, Asean needs to build a framework for dispute resolution that will allow the collective security of the region to trump domestic politics and nationalist breast-beating. The Asean Charter lays a good foundation for doing so.

But despite the Charter's ratification, there are few signs this is happening. The other day when Thai and Cambodian troops started trading fire, Asean officials were at a loss to know how to intervene. Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan asked regional leaders like Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to appeal for restraint, which he did. Foreign ministers from Indonesia and Malaysia fell over themselves to offer mediation, but no invitation came from either of the parties. The current Asean chairman, Thailand, is a party to the dispute.

Eventually, calm was restored when it emerged that the Thai and Cambodian leaders would meet on the fringes of an Asia-Europe meeting in Beijing, which they did. That is hardly an endorsement of Asean's ability to resolve disputes.

At the heart of the problem is the reluctance of Asean member states to yield an inch of sovereignty in the interests of collective security. The past few months have seen a number of attempts to gently push the boundaries of acceptable intervention, but it has not been easy.

Witness how easily domestic politics derailed a Malaysian-brokered deal between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. Often, when regional mediation does get under way, jealous or competitive neighbors seek to sabotage or hamper these efforts. Not only has Bangkok been reluctant to embrace Jakarta's good offices as a mediator in the southern Thailand conflict, but also Malaysia appears to be unhappy to see Jakarta involved in a dispute along its border with Thailand.

Ever since the high-profile resolution of the long-running conflict in Aceh on the back of the devastating December 2004 tsunami, many in the region saw the so-called 'Aceh model' as a path to peacemaking easily replicated elsewhere, which is not necessarily the case.

Without a more formal mechanism to channel and regulate conflict management, with the implicit role of third-party intervention, Asean's efforts to forge a region of peace and security will fall on stony ground. There is something of a built-in contradiction between bedrock principles in the Asean Charter: on the one hand, it stresses respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; and on the other, a 'shared commitment and collective responsibility' for peace and security. Put another way: How can Asean ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes when the Charter insists on non-interference in the internal affairs of member states?

This contradiction needs resolving.

When neighbours cannot settle quarrels between themselves, outsiders should be called on to do so. The irony of not allowing more space for regional mediation is that it leaves the door open for larger powers—like China in the case of the current Thai-Cambodian dispute—to act as the mediator.

The writer is Asia Regional Director for the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and this article recently appeared on Jakarta Post.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Min Ko Naing Transferred

The Irrawaddy News

Former student leader Min Ko Naing and eight leading political activists from the 88 Generation Students group were transferred on Friday morning from Rangoon’s Insein Prison to Maubin Prison in Irrawaddy Division two days after they were sentenced to six months imprisonment for disrespecting the court, according to sources inside Insein Prison.

A staff member at Insein told The Irrawaddy on Friday that Min Ko Naing and eight political prisoners were loaded into a prison truck, which left the prison at about 7am escorted by two police vehicles.

The nine members of the 88 Generation Students group were sentenced to six months imprisonment on Wednesday under Section 228 of the penal code—for contempt of court—by the Northern District Court inside Insein Prison in the northwestern suburbs of Rangoon.

According to the source, the nine political prisoners were named as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Pyone Cho (aka Htay Win Aung), Htay Kywe, Mya Aye, Hla Myo Naung, Nyan Lin, Aung Thu and Myo Aung Naing.

Several members of the 88 Generation Students group were arrested, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Pyone Cho, after they led a march on August 19, 2007, against sharp increases in the price of fuel and other commodities, which led to mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks the following month.

Since August 2008, more than 35 members of the 88 Generation Students group have been charged by the Insein Prison Special Court under a variety of charges, including Section 4 of the SPDC Law No. 5/96 (Endangering the National Convention).

The joint-secretary of Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP-Burma), Bo Kyi, said that the nine members of the 88 Generation Students group were moved to Maubin Prison because they verbally appealed to the judge for “free and fair justice.”

“They will not get regular family visits in Maubin,” Bo Kyi said. “The prison transfer will cause trouble for the prisoners’ health, their families and their lawyers.”

According to the AAPP-Burma, a political prisoner, Kyaw Myo Thant, died in Maubin Prison in 1990 under what it called “awful” conditions.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Than Shwe’s Daughter Goes Shopping for Gold

The Irrawaddy News

A BBC radio report that a daughter of Burmese junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe went shopping for gold worth more than US $80,000 is a hot topic of discussion these days at teashop tables in Mandalay.

The London-based BBC’s Burmese service reported that an unnamed daughter of Than Shwe visited the Aung Tharmarde gold shop on Mandalay’s 22nd Street and bought gold worth 100 million kyat ($80,645).

“People were shocked to hear about the extravagance,” said a Mandalay gold dealer. “I’d like to ask her where the money came from when most Burmese people are poor and some are starving.”

The report reignited anger over the extravagance of the marriage in July 2006 of one of Than Shwe’s daughters, Thandar, who draped herself in the precious metal when she married Maj Zaw Phyo Win. The bridal pair were showered with expensive gifts estimated to have cost the equivalent of $50 million.

One Rangoon gold dealer suggested that Than Shwe’s family wanted to invest in the precious metal at a time when the price of bullion had dropped.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Myanmar's failed non-violent opposition

By Norman Robespierre

YANGON - The one-year anniversary of Myanmar's military crackdown on non-violent protests in Yangon and several other cities calling for political change came and went without incident.

While the Buddhist monk-led demonstrations briefly raised global awareness of the Burmese people's plight, it also highlighted the failure of the opposition's long-held non-violence strategy as the best means to bring change to the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime that views the failure to use violence as a sign of weakness.

While outwardly a spontaneous gesture in reaction to economic woes, the demonstrations were the culmination of years of planning by opposition forces inside and abroad for non-violent action to confront the regime. Opposition to the ruling regime is figuratively headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, the founding father of Burmese independence. Her commitment to non-violent struggle for political change has earned her the Nobel Peace Prize and global admiration, but two decades since soldiers opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, there is little else to show for her two decades of non-violent struggle.

The resounding victory of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 1990 elections was the political high-water mark for the opposition. While the regime refused to honor the poll's results, the election provided political legitimacy to the NLD and a handful of opposition activists. Many of those elected still cling to demands that the election's results be honored, but with each passing year those claims to legitimacy become less germane. Close to 40% of the elected members of parliament have been dismissed or resigned and a full 20% have died.

The opposition defined broadly is comprised of a plethora of political organizations. Among the best known are the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, headed by Dr Sein Win, Suu Kyi's cousin, the All-Burma Student's Democratic Front (ABSDF), Democratic Alliance for Burma, National League for Democracy-(Liberated Areas).

Additionally, there are several umbrella organizations such as the democratic Alliance for Burma (DAB) and the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), which count membership from various political groups and ethnic insurgent armies. These organizations receive substantial backing from Western organizations, such as the Open Society Institute and National Endowment for Democracy.

The vast majority of the opposition follows Suu Kyi's guidance that political change can and should be achieved through non-violence. That doctrine was further promulgated by the Albert Einstein Institute of Geneva and New York. In 1994, it sponsored a consultation on political defiance for Burmese democracy leaders. Included in the audience were representatives of ABSDF, NLD-LA, DAB, and the NCGUB, represented by Dr Sein Win. A key speaker at the pivotal event was the institute's founder, Gene Sharp.

Sharp's involvement with the Burmese opposition was specifically mentioned in a June 1997 press conference condemning foreign support to terrorists by then Secretary-1of the SPDC, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. In hindsight, rather than condemnation, Khin Nyunt should have heaped laurels on Sharp for promoting non-violence.

The opposition's adherence to non-violence has given the regime a monopoly on fear that allowed it to solidify its position, condemning generations of Burmese to life (and in some cases, death) under the military regime. Additionally, limiting the prospect of violent consequences removed one aspect which may have motivated the regime to negotiate change.

Further, the promotion of non-violence undermined the united opposition against the regime. Under the tutelage of Khin Nyunt, the regime succeeded in enticing numerous armed ethnic opposition groups to surrender their arms and "enter the light" - or at least accept a ceasefire. Khin Nyunt used a variety of incentives to the groups and particularly their leaders to gain their cooperation. The elevated principle of non-violence made it easier for group leaders to accept the bribery.

The success of the regime's effort to pursue ceasefire deals continues to haunt the opposition with fragmentation and conflicting interests. Ethnic armies whose cooperation could have tilted the "Saffron" revolution to effect real change, sat and watched, perhaps out of concern that armed rebellion would jeopardize their lucrative mining or other concessions. As a result, the regime was able to focus its military might on the unarmed protesters and monks.

Incentives and self-interest affect not only limited ceasefires and peace groups, but also some ethnic armies that continue to put forces in the field against the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw. According to a senior Thai military officer, the SPDC is able to continue to benefit from the vulnerable Yadana-Yetagun gas pipelines because the Mon insurgents in the area are receiving payoffs from both the regime and the Thai authorities. Construction of a third foreign exchange earning pipeline in the same area is reportedly slated for this dry season.

A valuable experience
The Einstein Institute's website comments that while the non-violent struggles in Myanmar, China and Tibet "have not brought an end to the ruling dictatorships or occupations, they have exposed the brutal nature of those repressive regimes to the world community and have provided the populations with valuable experience with this form of struggle".

How 20 years of mostly ineffectual resistance can be summed up as a "valuable experience" is a mystery. One wonders to what valuable experience those sitting comfortably in their ideological ivory towers refer: languishing in a Myanmar prison, being knocked senseless by a police truncheon, having family members disappear, torture, death? How much longer before the Burmese people realize the opposition's strategy of non-violence is ineffective against those who have the means and determination to kill to maintain control and decide to pursue a different, more assertive course?

Opposition optimists say that the regime was weakened by last year's crackdown, arguing that the violence police and soldiers perpetrated against Buddhist monks irked the populace and many military officers, the majority of them Buddhist. Further, they cite perennial rumors of infighting among the generals and lower ranks that could lead to fractures in the leadership and eventually a democracy-promoting mutiny.

However, earlier leadership struggles in which top generals fell from grace - including Tun Kyi, Saw Maung, Ne Win and Khin Nyunt - only brought changes in military personalities, not a transformation of the military-dominated system. Indeed, the system is highly resilient and endures with a new crop of military officers entering the top ranks of the Tatmadaw each year. Although many of the officers are not enthusiastic that monks were beaten, most believe that the majority of the protesters were recent novices who had donned monk's robes expressly to carry out illegal political demonstrations.

The optimists also claim that the regime's inadequate response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 80,000 people and adversely affected the livelihoods of over 2 million, also weakened the SPDC. As evidence, they mention that many military personnel and government workers had relatives in the worst-hit Ayeyawady Division and were upset at the delayed response. The actual intensity of disenchantment caused by the slow reaction to the killer storm, of course, is hard to quantify without public opinion polls.

However, the fact that Burmese people are used to being self-sufficient and not in the habit of relying on the government for anything likely means the fallout from such a callous official response was less severe than it would have been in other countries. Whatever disenchantment the government's limp response to Nargis and the September 2007 crackdown may have sown, to date it has not been exploited to cause the Tatmadaw to split or the military government to fall.

From another perspective, it could just as easily be argued that Cyclone Nargis made the regime stronger by opening up a new tap of foreign aid. Millions of dollars of humanitarian aid poured into the economy as foreign nations rallied to assist the storm's survivors. The regime's multi-tiered foreign exchange system allowed them to extract an estimated 20% to 25% from all foreign exchange certificates converted into the local kyat currency.

The diversion of United Nations (UN) funds alone resulted in at least US$1.5 million (some estimates are as high as $10 million) of humanitarian aid being delivered straight into the regime's coffers. The tilted exchange system also affected non-UN aid agencies for an undetermined amount of donations. Hard currency intended to relieve the suffering of cyclone survivors instead directly benefited the regime.

Nargis also brought a recent call from the International Crisis Group (ICG) to repeal sanctions and provide more aid than beyond what is necessary to recover from Nargis to develop the impoverished country. While few share the ICG's sentiment, which in the past was criticized by the Open Society Institute for its unscholarly approach with respect to Myanmar, its call would allow the regime to reap even more foreign money to consolidate its position.

Nargis brought not only financial benefit, but also is believed to have increased the regime's confidence. Certainly, the regime's confidence soared when French and US warships withdrew from waters off Myanmar's coast in the aftermath of the killer storm. While the vessels were sent to deliver humanitarian aid, antagonistic rhetoric about the humanitarian "right to protect" Myanmar's citizens by Western diplomats preceded the vessels' arrivals, raising the regime's suspicions about their mission.

Rather than appear to submit to Western threats, and fearful of a possible uprising by opposition activists should foreign forces land on Myanmar soil, the regime barred the aid from being delivered by other than their own naval personnel. Eventually the vessels withdrew without a shot being fired and much of the aid went undelivered. The regime's ability to diplomatically ward off the perceived threat posed by French and American warships is believed to have boosted the regime's confidence in its ability to stand up to neo-colonialist adversaries.

Confidence in the regime's decision-making, often portrayed as daft or worse in the international media, has recently reportedly grown among the rank and file. In particular, the decision to move the political capital to Naypyitaw from Yangon is - after the cyclone which hit the old capital - viewed in a favorable new light. Prior to Nargis, the abrupt move in late 2005 was widely criticized for its exorbitant expense and ridiculed for its reliance on astrology. It is now looked at by many Burmese as cosmic confirmation of the wisdom and even prescience of the senior leadership - or at least that of their astrologers.

More important is the regime's growing confidence in the reliability of government forces to deploy as instruments of control. The ability to successfully extinguish the pro-democracy protests in September 2007, without notable dissension within the ranks of the police and military, left the Tatmadaw stronger and the regime more self-assured. According to several foreign diplomats based in Yangon, the regime is now reportedly more confident in the loyalty of its forces and its ability to control unrest.

On the other hand, the position of the political opposition is decidedly weaker. More opposition members are in prison than before, while countless others have fled the country due to very real concerns for their personal security. An untold number have perished. Despite the overwhelming support of the populace, the opposition was unable to capitalize on social discontent in 2007, when the junta removed fuel price subsidies and fuel costs shot up 500% overnight. Nor have they been able to leverage the chaos and suffering brought on by the junta's inept handling of the cyclone disaster this year into a renewed call for political change.

Instead of maintaining offensive pressure and preparing adequate defensive measures to protect their supporters, they have blindly clung to the gospel of non-violence in the hope that international pressure would eventually lead to democratic change. As many Saffron Revolution demonstrators can attest, hope is a weak defensive shield against a police baton, a charging truck, or the ammunition of soldiers trained to kill.

Asymmetric violence
While pursuing a moral high ground of non-violence, the opposition has ceded the battlefield to its military enemy. Unlike themselves, the ruling SPDC junta is more than willing to use violence to achieve its goals. One means at the regime's disposal are Swan-ar-Shin thugs, whose actions undoubtedly are directed by elements of the military regime, most likely the Sa Ya Pha , or military intelligence. Swan-ar-Shin often intimidate and cower the populace with the threat of violence and physical assault and many were captured on film beating unarmed demonstrators after they had been arrested.

The regime's asymmetric use of violence breeds fear in the populace, forcefully enabling the regime to squash even the faintest hint of opposition to its rule. Viewed through that lens, the Swan-ar-Shin has been an unqualified success for the regime and instrumental in its staying power. Their ability to use violence with impunity and intimidate those holding dissenting political views has muzzled open expression of support for political change.

As the Einstein Institute's Sharp points out in his writings, it is the fear of violent sanctions, rather than the violence itself, that creates the climate of fear which causes the populace to yield. In the absence of a functioning legal system, the opposition would be wise to pursue extra-legal action against the regime's violent henchmen. For instance, makeshift justice squads of the people could be formed to mete out street punishment to the Swan-ar-Shin members known to be guilty of the most heinous abuses.

These Swan-ar-Shin agents are well known to their neighbors and a few instances of vigilante justice would no doubt cause others to consider the consequences of their unjust actions and embolden those who oppose them. While opposition-led vigilante squads may not totally remove the climate of fear, at least fear would be more equally distributed to both sides of the political aisle.

In February, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported on a rare example of focused direct action against the junta's henchmen. According to the report, a regime-linked United Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) member from Hlaing Tharyar township with a local reputation for abuse was found beheaded. The circumstances of his death caused other USDA members to fear a similar fate and their harassment of people noticeably reduced, according to the report. Were this fear of retribution more widespread, the regime would have fewer resources to strangle dissent and added incentive to negotiate with the opposition.

Instead, the exiled opposition blindly adheres to non-violence and is now mounting a major effort to petition the UN to revoke Myanmar's diplomatic credentials. There is nothing original in petitioning the UN: a similar initiative met with no success in 1996 and there is no reason to think the current initiative has any better chance of succeeding. Numerous other countries in the UN General Assembly are also far from being democracies and they would be reluctant to support such punitive measures out of fear that some day a similar procedure might be launched against them.

China and Russia certainly are no proponents of democracy and without their support inside the UN Security Council the latest effort will also fail. Even were the effort successfully staged and Myanmar lost its seat at the UN, the domestic impact on the regime would be marginal. While the UN initiative helps maintain global awareness, the opposition's international efforts might be better deployed in targeting the regime's primary enabler, Singapore, which is particularly vulnerable because of its global commercial interests, including the recent stakes it took in big Western banks.

Singapore has successfully deflected criticism for its role by pointing the finger at China or other neighboring countries as principal supporters of the regime. But it is Singaporean support that is the regime's lifeblood. Many of the regime's leaders and their family members are known to have Singaporean bank accounts. The regime's tyrants frequently travel to Singapore for state-of the-art medical treatment and receive cordial official welcomes. Burmese democracy activists in Singapore, on the other hand, risk arrest or revocation of their visas should they protest their regular arrivals.

Singapore also allows numerous Myanmar businesses with direct links to the regime to incorporate in Singapore. Singapore's willingness to sacrifice ethics for money gives the Myanmar regime a cloak of international legitimacy to do business and enables it in many cases to circumvent financial sanctions imposed by Western countries. One example of Myanmar's Singaporean commercial fronts is Silver Wave Energy, reported in the media as a Singaporean company that brokered oil and gas deals between the regime and Indian and Russian companies. However, research into the firm indicates its phone numbers and offices are in Yangon at the Trader's Hotel.

Meanwhile, the expatriate opposition leadership continues to be led by the same inept strategists that espouse non-violence as the sole implement to effect political change in Myanmar. Nearly two decades have passed without a democratic election and the opposition's leadership has grown stale, devoid of new ideas and lacking a coherent strategy. Indeed, they continue down the path of failed tactics that has degraded the opposition into its present sad, ineffectual state.

Perhaps the opposition finds itself in this position because it relies so heavily on Western financial aid, which is explicitly tied to non-violent action. Accepting such financial aid should not preclude coordinating a unified offense that complements non-violent action, nor should it divert resources from potentially successful operations targeting the regime and its enablers with violent and non-violent methods to those historically proven to be without merit.

Expatriate opposition leaders are known to travel in business class on democracy grants and other donations recycling old ideas that simply don't work in Myanmar's military-run context. They are neither up for re-election, nor beholden to an electorate - apart from their Western government patrons. Many, it seems through conversations, expect to retain their exile status and cushy positions for life. They suffer no adverse consequences for their failed policies, although those actually inside Myanmar often bear a heavy burden for their bravado.

Opposition leaders inside the country, including Suu Kyi, have likewise failed on numerous fronts. They failed to capitalize on the regime's temporary weaknesses in 2004 when it disbanded its military intelligence network amid an intra-junta power struggle. They failed to coordinate offensive actions of the various ethnic armies to support the broader movement for political change. Meanwhile, the opposition as a whole continues to fail to adequately target Singapore, China and other key international enablers of the regime. In sum, they have failed to seize the initiative. And they still fail to realize that they will fail again if they use the same tactics under the same conditions.

Brothers in arms
Perhaps the opposition's biggest failure has been its lack of a concerted effort to split the armed forces. This should be their most critical strategic objective if they are ever to liberate their country from the SPDC's oppressive rule. Although the Tatmadaw itself generally follows collective responsibility and duty, outsiders placing collective guilt upon all members of the army serves to unite the armed forces rather than divide them.

As an example, an opposition supporter authored a list entitled "Enemies of the Revolution" that anonymously circulated on the Internet. The list, while notable for its implicit threat of violence, was unfocused and included the director of medical services for the military. Presumably, he was placed on the list for the crime of wearing a uniform. However, the simplistic, carte blanche approach of painting the entire Myanmar military as evil is self-defeating and undermines the strategy needed to weaken the strongest pillar of the regime.

Unfortunately, this has been the general approach used by the opposition as well as many Western diplomats. The opposition needs at least some military officers to support them in order to fracture the regime's main power base. Despite this, rarely will an opposition leader talk of any positive accomplishments of the armed forces. Rather the military is universally equated with the regime rather than being seen for what it is: an implement of national power, as necessary for the opposition should it assume control as it is for the current regime.

Opposition leaders would be well advised to cultivate junior military officers by openly recognizing the national importance of the military and outlining how military service and the abysmal conditions soldiers currently endure would be better under a more democratic government. Last year's crackdown clearly demonstrates the opposition has failed to undermine government forces' reliability to impose violent sanctions on behalf of the regime.

The opposition has had two decades to infiltrate the military with those who would willingly carry the banner of democracy to leapfrog their own promotions. It has had 20 years to tempt military officers to abandon the carrot of self-interest that supporting the military government holds for them. The opposition should have sought to reassure the army and police that they would have a key role in any new government and that a system of compensation and benefits will be maintained and in places improved. It has made little headway in that direction and there is scant evidence to suggest they even really endeavored to do so. Had they swayed even a faction of military or police officials that political change offered a better future for them and their families, last September's "Saffron" revolution could have had a decidedly different finale.

The failures of the past two decades may in large part be attributed to the movement binding itself too tightly to Suu Kyi's personality cult and the philosophy of non-violence. Her reported intolerance of any type of violent dissent and willingness to dismiss members who seek alternate solutions to problems may be why the NLD and other opposition groups have failed to groom a new generation of leadership. In any case, the "Saffron" revolution may have succeeded where Suu Kyi has failed. A number of her supporters now recognize that non-violent dissent alone will not change the status quo and her increasing marginalization from years of house arrest may yet serve as impetus for more confrontational tactics.

Violence alone, of course, is not a solution. But tougher tactics coupled with constructive engagement or inducements for the regime to change its behavior would mark a welcome departure from the current dogmatic adherence to non-violence. The opposition now suffers from 20 years of pushing for change without a logical and realistic strategy.

To be sure, its leadership has suffered immensely from arrests and crackdowns. But unless the opposition soon infuses a dose of realism into its strategic mix and uses all available tactics at its disposal, including efforts to undermine support within the military for the SPDC leadership, its efforts are unlikely to result in democratic political change. Meanwhile, the next generation of emboldened soldiers will come of age and take up positions of power in defense of the oppressive status quo.

Norman Robespierre, a pseudonym, is a political scientist and freelance journalist specializing in Southeast Asian affairs. He may be reached at normanrobespierre@gmail.com.

23 Oct'08

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Burmese opposition demonstrate against visiting Burmese General

Dhaka, Bangladesh (Kaladan): Around 30 people belonging to the Burmese opposition in exile staged a demonstration in front of Eidga gate near the National Press Club and high court against the visiting Vice-Senior General Maung Aye, the Vice-Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar today morning.

The demonstration lasted only 30 minutes as the Bangladesh police intervened. There was palpable tension between the police and demonstrators for a while as the police seized posters from the protesters, said Naing Naing, who participated in the demonstration.

"We distributed leaflets written in English and Bengali to the local people on the streets near the press club, high court and Eidga gate before we started the demonstration, he added.

Vice-senior general Maung Aye arrived in Bangladesh today on a three-day official visit, at the invitation of the chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed.

The Burmese general led a 55 member delegation including the Burma Foreign Minister, Nyan Win and some leading businessmen to discuss a host of outstanding issues between the two nations.

Maung Aye is scheduled to meet the chief of Bangladesh's interim administration, Fakhruddin Ahmed, to discuss bilateral issues today afternoon, said the official.

"We have a number of projects lined up with Burma. I'm positive the visit will boost our cooperation in all these areas," Foreign Adviser Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury told the media yesterday.

"Our discussions would focus on construction of a road, which would hopefully link Bangladesh to China, leasing land for agriculture and completion of the all-important maritime boundary talks. Repatriation of Rohingya refugees may come up in the discussion," said the foreign adviser.

"At the meeting, Burmese authorities would be asked to expedite the repatriation process which remains stalled since 2005," said a home ministry official.

The visit is taking place after Bangladesh and Burma signed an agreement in Dhaka in July 2007 to construct a 25-kilometre direct road link between the two neighbouring countries at a cost of $ 20million. The road will link Gundhum in Cox's Bazaar to Bawlibazaar (Kyein Chang) in Burma. It will also connect China's Kunming under a tri-nation road connectivity which will give further access to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore and to the Asian Highway.

According to his itinerary, Maung Aye, the Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the defense services and Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army will call on the President, Iajuddin Ahmed, at Bangabhaban on October 8.

The next day, the Myanmar general will begin his day by paying tribute to the war of independence martyrs at the National Martyrs' Memorial at Savar. He will then hold a meeting with the Chief of Army Staff, General Moeen U Ahmed, in the army headquarters and visit the Military Institute of Science and Technology in Mirpur.

On October 9, Maung Aye, the second highest-ranking member of the Burmese military regime, will go to Rangamati and stay there until his departure for Rangoon from Chittagong in the afternoon. General Moeen U Ahmed will see the Burmese leader off at Chittagong Shah Amanat International Airport.

Maung Aye was scheduled to visit Bangladesh in 2007, but it was cancelled because of unrest in Burma after the monks staged nationwide demonstrations against the regime.

After 2002, this will be the third official visit between the two countries. Burma SPDC chairman senior general Than Shwe visited Dhaka in December 2002 and in 2003, then Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia went to Rangoon.

See photos at: Kaladan Press

U Gambira Ill; Misses Court Date

The Irrawaddy News

Ashin Gambira, the detained leader of the All Burmese Monk’s Alliance (ABMA), did not appear for trial on Monday because of illness, his lawyer said on Tuesday.

The lawyer, Khin Maung Shein, told The Irrawaddy that Ashin Gambira is reportedly sick and receiving medical treatment in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison hospital.

“We do not know what kind of illnesses he is suffering, but he looked frail during his previous trail and he suffered from nausea,” Khin Maung Shein said.

Ashin Gambira is one of the monks who organized the 2007 pro-democracy uprising. After security forces brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations on September 26-27, he was arrested and subsequently disrobed by authorities without consultation with the Sangha institution.

Ashin Gambira has been charged with nine separate criminal offenses by the military court. The charges include: State Offence Act 505 A and B, Immigration Act 13/1, Illegal Organization Act 17/1, Electronic Act 303 A and Organization Act 6, generally having to do with threatening the stability of the state.

The ABMA led thousands of monks and civilian protesters in street demonstrations last year in Rangoon and other cities. The military authorities’ bloody crackdown officially left at least 10 people dead, although human rights groups say up to 31 protesters may have been killed while thousands of monks and civilians were arrested and detained.

Meanwhile, relatives of student activists from the 88 Generation Students’ Group who were arrested for their involvement in last year’s protests have asked prison authorities to notify them when a detained family member is scheduled to stand trial.

In late August, the 88 Generation Students’ Group asked military authorities to allow family members to enter the courtroom and to allow a defendant to appear in court without handcuffs and in the presence of witnesses during a court hearing, in accordance with international laws.

Military authorities reportedly agreed to allow family members to enter the courtroom, but the agreement broke down on Friday when some family members were denied access to a courtroom.

“We were ordered by prison authorities on Friday not to come to the court anymore,” said Win Maung, the father of Pyone Cho, a student leader of the 88 Generation Students’ Group. “We are disappointed about this, and we have verbally appealed to the prison authorities to allow us to see our children and friends in prison.”

“We plan to summit an appeal letter if they do not take our informal request seriously,” he said.

NLD Seeking to Negotiate ‘Democratic Reforms’

The Irrawaddy News

The National League for Democracy (NLD) is seeking to negotiate “democratic reform” with the Burmese generals if they will establish a constitution review committee, a NLD spokesperson said on Tuesday.

“If we get those chances, we will hold bilateral negotiations and go on based on our agreement,” said Nyan Win, an NLD spokesperson. “Our idea is for ‘democratic reform.’ We willingly want to negotiate with them [authorities].”

Other NLD members said that if the military government is willing to review the constitution, the opposition NLD party may be willing to take part in the national elections in 2010.

The junta held a referendum in May on the constitution, which was drafted by its hand-picked delegates. After the referendum, it announced that more than 92 percent of the voters approved the constitution. Critics and opposition groups inside and outside the country called the constitution and referendum a sham.

The constitution guarantees the military continues to dominate the country’s political future by assigning its own representatives seats in the people’s parliament without contesting in elections.

On September 22, the NLD released a statement calling for a review of the constitutional process, calling the draft constitution “one-sided” and lacking the participation of the 1990-elected members of parliament.

Nyan Win did not discuss any details it might propose regarding the constitution. The Burmese authorities have not responded to the request

Some observers said they were pessimistic the junta would review its own constitution.

Cin Sian Thang, the chairman of the Zomi National Congress, said he didn’t think the generals would agree to a review because they are in the middle of their “seven-step road map” to democracy.

“Even if we [ethnic leaders and NLD leaders] didn’t agree with the junta’s road map, they [Burmese authorities] are likely to continue. If they finish their process, the situation in Burma will only worsen,” he said.

The UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari earlier this year also asked the junta to review the constitution but Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan told the envoy in March, “It is impossible to review or rewrite the constitution which was drawn with the participation of delegates from all walks of life.”

Thakin Chan Htun, a veteran Burmese politician in Rangoon, said the general election should be free and fair and the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi should be allowed to participate.

To be a free and fair election, he said, the junta should first release all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi.

All Burmese citizens should be allowed to vote in the multi-party election and the international community, including UN representatives, foreign observers and journalists, should be allowed to freely report on the general election, said Thakin Chan Htun.

The state constitution is step three of the regime’s seven-step “road map.” The fifth-step is the 2010 general election.

On September 25, after releasing a statement calling for a review of the constitution, the NLD was warned by the head of Burma’s police, Brig-Gen Khin Yi, to withdraw the statement. The authorities said it might motivate citizens to undertake activities critical of the military government and undermine the security of the state.

The NLD, the main opposition party in Burma, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 1990. However, the current Burmese government, led by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, ignored the election results and refused to transfer power to Suu Kyi’s NLD.

Burma's IT Generation Combats Regime Repression

The Irrawaddy News

A truck carrying a squad of police pulls up in front of a Rangoon's Internet café. The police burst into the café and shout to the customers sitting at the computer terminals: "Hands off!" Then they tour the terminals and check every screen, asking users to describe what they are looking at.

If anyone is found using G-talk, the police inquire further—"Who are you chatting with?" "Where do they live?" Customers who come up with wrong or suspicious answers can be arrested.

This scenario is a common one in Rangoon's Internet cafes nowadays—in this era where tech-savvy young Burmese chat away on G-talk, check out the social-networking sites Facebook, Hi5 and Friendster, surf exiled Burmese websites and blogs and even share information about how to slip past regime censors by using proxy servers.

Since the September 2007 uprising, the Internet has shaped the way they think, relax and communicate in their isolated, military-ruled country. The Internet has created a virtual community and a new arena for freedom of expression.

"The uprising in Burma is ultimately an example of a protest where digitally network technologies played a critical role," researcher Mridul Chowdhury reported in his paper "The Role of the Internet in Burma’s Saffron Revolution," a case study for the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Equipped with cell phones and digital cameras, and with access to the Internet, determined young Burmese are communicating with each other and the outside world as never before.

During last year’s monk-led demonstrations, known as the Saffron Revolution, Internet users also became publishers of text, audio, and video files illustrating what was happening inside the country. Suddenly, Burma was attracting the full attention of such international media as the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. Condemnation of the regime’s repression of the protests followed from many governments.

Burma’s IT generation had a chance to flex its muscles before the generals pulled the plug on the Internet at the height of their crackdown on the September protests.

The junta has prevented Burmese citizens from using services like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail and to block Web sites and blogs set up by exiled Burmese critics of the regime. But Internet cafes responded by installing foreign-hosted proxy servers to circumvent the government restrictions.

Risking arrest, imprisonment and torture, young Burmese—notably journalists and bloggers—have continued to play a crucial role in informing the outside world of the true situation in Burma.

They are more likely than ever to see the Internet as a means of achieving freedom of expression with the advent of information technology. In their blogs and chat rooms, they have been demonstrating the active role they play in sharing information and debating important issues in politics and other areas of domestic concern.

This is the reason why, one year after the Saffron Revolution, Internet cafes are becoming subject to severe surveillance by the police. Cafe owners are forced to take screenshots of user activity every five minutes and deliver these images to the authorities on a regular basis.

The owner of one Internet cafe in downtown Rangoon said the local authorities and police intelligence officers had issued orders to provide ID information about customers.

According to Internet cafe owners and users in Rangoon, Internet speeds have slowed down considerably since mid-September, making it impossible to upload large files such as photos or videos.

Meanwhile, the Web sites of the exile-run, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and New Delhi-based Mizzima News were hit in July by DDoS attacks, shutting them down for several days.

Another DDoS attacks were again in September launched against The Irrawaddy, DVB and the Bangkok-based New Era Journal. The Web site of Mizzima News was hacked on October 1 with a cross-site scripting, making it inaccessible.

According to Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist Brian McCartan, two community forums Mystery Zillion and Planet Myanmar—Web sites providing information and instruction on how to circumvent the regime's control—were also disabled and shut down by similar attacks in August.

This kind of action by the regime, however, may indicate that the Internet has had an influence not only on ordinary users but also on the government’s overall response to the street demonstrations, the experts argue.

"While any number of deaths is unacceptable, it is also possible that the government actually exercised restraint in the use of force against civilian protesters because of the Internet and international media attention," Chowdhury wrote.

He pointed out that at least 3,000 demonstrators were killed in the nationwide uprising in 1988, while the official death toll in the crackdown on the 2007 demonstrations was far lower—31.

"It is plausible that the military felt it was under greater scrutiny because of the Internet, and that it was therefore more restrained in its use of force," Chowdhury said.

Credential Challenge to Continue, Say Exiled MPs

The Irrawaddy News

The Members of Parliament Union (Burma), an exiled group of elected MPs who are heading the campaign to challenge the credentials of the Burmese military junta at the United Nations, have said that they are not deterred by the initial negative response from the UN, and that they would "intensify" their drive to have the junta denied recognition by the world body.

In addition, the “credential challenge campaign” of the Members of Parliament Union (Burma) has hired the services of two eminent US law firms, which will aid and advise it on the legal path to be followed, said Vice-president San San.

In his original letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on September 8, San San challenged the credentials of the military junta to represent the people of Burma at the UN.

Asserting that the Members of Parliament Union (Burma) are the legitimate, democratically elected leaders of Burma, San San said they had appointed Thein Oo as their representative to the UN and as such he should be considered Burma's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

The office of the secretary-general responded to the letter about a fortnight later, which was interpreted by many that the request had been rejected by Ban.

However, a copy of a letter signed by a senior UN official on behalf of the UN secretary-general indicates that Ban's office has raised technical points regarding legal requirements.

"The secretary-general's role is limited to a technical role in reviewing the formal criteria for credentials set forth in the Rules of Procedure,” said the senior official.

The procedure for the execution, submission and examination of credentials of representatives is set out in rules 27 through 29 of the Rules of Procedures of the General Assembly.

Rule 27 provides inter alia that "the credentials of representatives and the names of members of a delegation shall be submitted to the Secretary-General,” while Rule 28 provides that a committee “shall examine the credentials of representatives.”

"As such, the Secretary-General has decided not to take any action on your letter as it does not comply with the formal legal requirement set out in rule 27," the letter said.

"The Secretary-General, however, has taken note of the contents of your letter which together with its attachments, will remain on file with the Office of Legal Affairs, available for perusal by any member of the Credentials Committee at their request," the UN official said.

Members of Parliament Union (Burma) Secretary Ko Ko Lay said members of the campaign committee are not at all disappointed with the response from the UN.

He said that his team was now aided by a battery of eminent attorneys who were looking into how they can fulfill the legal requirements set out in rule 27.

"Credential challenge is only the first step in a new initiative to use all available international legal and political mechanisms to challenge the legitimacy of the regime and bring to light the multitude of abuses the regime commits against Burmese people," he said.

Encouraged by the support the Credential Challenge Campaign has been receiving from the international community, especially from Western nations, Ko Ko Lay said he was hopeful that they could achieve their goal within a few years.

At the same time, he conceded that none of Burma’s neighbors have been willing to support the committee on the issue.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The pro-junta militia: how can they do it?

By Gemma Dursley

Oct 6, 2008 (DVB)–One of the more distinctive aspects of recent repression in Burma has been the involvement of apparently non-state agents – ‘patriotic citizens’ in the words of the SPDC.

Forming the shadowy, unofficial group known as Swan Arr Shin, these people were active during last September’s crushing of the Saffron Revolution and continue to put in uninvited appearances at events on Burma’s political calendar. They often make ‘citizens’ arrests’ on activists, have been implicated in numerous violent assaults, and engage in routine neighbourhood and activist surveillance.

This is worrying. If political change is certain because, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says, “all the military have are guns”, then it is disconcerting to think that the military might also have hearts and minds of some ordinary people. Soldiers follow orders of whoever is in government, but the ‘masters of force’ are tools of this administration only, and they stand and fall with it.

Many are drawn from the 23 million strong Union Solidarity and Development Association. The techniques the junta has used to build membership are well known: membership is mandatory for teachers and civil servants (and their families), it brings particular benefits such as educational opportunities, and human rights violations fall disproportionately on non-USDA members.

A large number of USDA members have also been tricked into joining. But it is hard to believe people can be fooled into beating monks or peaceful activists, or organising such violence. Many, perhaps most, of the USDA membership is indifferent to the SPDC’s ambition to crush the pro-democracy movement. But some actively engage in it. Why?

Selective incentives

Unsurprisingly, money is a significant factor. Many SAS are mobilised as and when needed by ward and township USDA or SPDC officials, and are paid a daily allowance for their work. To this they are usually quite indifferent. There is also a ‘hardcore’ SAS who have received training in riot control and surveillance techniques and who, according to Human Rights Watch, receive a small monthly salary and food allowance in addition to any daily ‘work’ they might do.

Many individuals within the core of the SAS group are already on the margins of society – ex-convicts, alcoholics, persons of ill-repute – and, with such low community standing, find no benefits to investing in being a ‘good person’. There is little for them to lose by participating in violence.

Organising violence demands more intelligence and strategic acumen. Individuals possessing this are unlikely to be interested in small cash sums and might be slightly more ‘respectable’ than hardcore SAS. Consequently, they probably look more to the long-term. Not by chance they find this within the USDA, which provides them with many lucrative corruption opportunities, as reported by DVB for many years. Their position within the USDA, and all the violent responsibilities that comes with it, becomes their career.

Team spirit

It is not completely correct, however, to see the average violence worker in Burma as a sociopath out solely for himself (they are mostly men). It is in the militia member’s interest to work for the good of the group: the more effectively the group works, the bigger or more secure are the individual benefits. Consequently, there is a ‘norm of contribution’ within the group.

Usually, such a collective norm gives rise to a free rider problem. People do nothing, as they can – hopefully – enjoy a common good without expending any effort. However, because the core of the pro-junta militia is a relatively tight-knit, closed structure, each person’s decision affects the other. Everybody has an interest in seeing the group norm enforced so group members ‘do their bit’, and encourage and support each other. The rational thing to do, in this instance, is not to free ride – it is to contribute and uphold the group norm.

This is one reason why those SAS mobilised for the day, simply to make up the numbers, are disinterested, unenthusiastic and quite often ashamed. Among the hardcore of SAS and USDA members, however, there is a real interest in collective action. They police one another’s contribution and encourage each other to go beyond the call of duty.

The response of the Sangha to pro-junta militia activity has been an overturning of the alms bowl, while much of the public shun militia members in daily life. However, this means that active members of SAS and USDA become even more independent of the wider community, strengthening the militia structure as recruits rely on themselves.

Compare this to the communities the SAS terrorise. Within relatively open social structures – indeed, they are far more open now than in the past – individuals opposing political violence cannot depend on the support of others. Here, it is rational to free ride.

A collective identity

Organisations are powerful shapers of individual behaviour. With their own conventions, procedures and rituals they are more than just a collection of individuals. Certain behaviour within the organisation is appropriate, whilst other behaviour is frowned upon. The pro-junta militia is an organisation with expectations and obligations like any other, and its core members usually act according to their given role.

Not only do people come to willingly perform their duties but also, even if they have joined for their own selfish needs, come to feel that group objectives are important to them. It is natural for people to perceive events like their associates perceive them, and this blurring of the military and the public means that recruits are increasingly likely to identify the pro-democracy movement as an enemy.

Consequently, the Orwellian propaganda which seems so absurd to the average citizen can easily strike a chord with the active militia member, helping to keep the group unified. This is exacerbated by the lack of free media to challenge such points of view and, again, the group’s ostracism by the wider public. Combined with their unique material benefits, this exclusion only serves to increase the arrogance of the militia.

It is not enough to say that people participate in militia activity for cash. Only by appreciating the range of techniques that the SPDC have used to assemble and maintain their militia can activists find a strategy to defeat it.
This is the second in a serious of articles by Gemma Dursley for DVB on Burma’s collective action problem.

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Burma’s collective action problem

Burma’s collective action problem

By Gemma Dursley

Sep 22, 2008 (DVB)–In order to understand the problem of collective action in Burma, imagine the following scenario: citizens in a town of around 100,000 wish to convert a patch of waste ground into a public park.

Costing about $500,000, it’s too much for any individual to pay, but a bright spark comes up with a solution: everyone should contribute a little money, say $5 each, and eventually the total will be reached.

I quite like parks, enjoy a picnic now and then and consider contributing. However, I know that my $5 will make almost no difference to the park’s provision. I also understand that if everybody else contributes, the park will be provided whether I contribute or not. And if no others contribute, my $5 will again make no difference – the park will remain a dream.

If, like most people, I prefer having more money rather than less, then it would therefore be irrational for me to give $5 and rational to hold on to it. In the meantime I’ll just hope everybody else contributes, and enjoy the park and my picnics on the back of their efforts.

Of course, if everyone thinks as rationally as I do, there will be no park. This problem is analogous to that which faces the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Like the park, democracy and human rights are public goods, things everybody can enjoy. This inclusiveness is inspiring, but it is also problematic – if I haven’t contributed to the struggle, I can still benefit from democracy and human rights.

And, like the $5 contribution towards $500,000, my individual participation in pro-democracy activity is almost meaningless. Working for democracy will surely cost me time and the other things I could have done instead of going out onto the streets, but with almost 2100 political prisoners languishing in Burmese prisons, I stand to lose a lot more than just this – the potential costs of rebellion are very high indeed.

It is therefore rational for me, and you, to wait for others to contribute and to ‘free ride’ on their efforts. The net result? Nothing changes. No park, no democracy.

Political scientists call this ‘the problem of collective action’ and it is one which all social movements face. Some succeed in mobilising people to work for a public good and even succeed in attaining their ultimate objective. Most, however, fail.

Grievances and zealots

Whilst this problem seems obvious and fundamental, it is often forgotten. With most Burmese people living in the shadow of extreme poverty and systematic human rights abuses, seasoned Burma-watchers are often surprised at how much the people can endure. What will it take to see people rise up and refuse to be bullied into poverty?

A similar idea is prevalent in much Marxist thought: when the grievances of a group of people are intense enough, revolution is only a moment away. As Bob Dylan sang, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. Yet, alone, this is obviously false. Grievances and frustration towards states is commonplace throughout the world, yet large-scale protests are rare events, revolutions rarer still.

Thinking in terms of the collective action problem helps us understand this. If we lump people together in a group – ‘disadvantaged Burmese’, say – we can see that the group would be far better off if it rebelled. But it is individual persons who join groups and rebel, and unless the benefits of participation outweigh the costs, they are unlikely to contribute. Even impoverished, abused individuals have something to lose, leading a careful observer to wonder there was more to last year’s protests than just economic conditions.

Undoubtedly, there are individuals within the opposition, many now imprisoned, brave enough to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the costs of collective action. Across the world, movements have their own Daw Suu Kyi and their entrepreneurial zealots on the ground, but alone or as a small group these brave – and uncommon – people are almost powerless. Indeed, their primary task is to overcome the problem of collective action, mobilising ordinary citizens and persuading them to join up.

Pro-junta militia and collective action

In fact, it is not only movements which face a collective action problem but also states, elites, and their agents.
Although there are many within the SPDC, Union Solidarity and Development Association and the business community in Burma who benefit materially from the crushing of the pro-democracy movement, it is rational for these individuals not to spend time and forgo income participating in repression activities, but instead to free ride on the contributions of others who do this. How, then, has the SPDC managed to convince people to join in its programme of tyranny?

Particularly pertinent for the pro-democracy movement are the combined repressive activities of the Swan Arr Shin and USDA – the pro-junta militia. Talking about them as a group, however, makes us forget that they are a collection of rational individuals. How has the junta managed to mobilise thousands to take part in USDA and Swan Arr Shin operations? At many events, activists are outnumbered by these people and other state agents. How can this situation be reversed? How, in other words, has the SPDC solved its collective action problem, while the opposition has failed to solve theirs?

With so much emotion surrounding the courage and spirit of the pro-democracy movement and the rightness of the cause, it isn’t easy to start thinking in such dispassionate terms as ‘rationality’ and ‘individual costs and benefits’. However, it is because the SPDC has done exactly this that it has managed to solve its collective action problem; this is something the opposition must face if it is to be victorious.

Unless the pro-democracy movement examines ways to overcome the irrationality of participation in pro-democracy activities and faces the fact that it can, at present, be rational for people to join pro-militia groups, it will not be able to combat the forces of violence ranged against it.

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The pro-junta militia: how can they do it?