Friday, 28 March 2008

Burma's leader urges citizens to 'crush destructive elements'

  • General says he will hand over power after election
  • Regime pledges free vote on draft constitution
Ian MacKinnon

March 28, 2008 - Burma's military leader yesterday urged citizens to join with the armed forces to crush "destructive elements" said to be trying to destabilise the isolated nation. During a rare public appearance, Than Shwe also insisted he would not cling to power at any cost but honour the victors of the general election due in 2010.

In a nationally televised 15-minute speech to mark the annual Armed Forces Day holiday, the reclusive Than Shwe, 75, made several references to May's referendum on the draft constitution that will pave the way for the poll.

Critics have denounced the draft constitution, part of the junta's seven-step "road map to democracy", as a ruse to consolidate the military's power. Opponents of the regime, such as the National League for Democracy, led by the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were excluded from the drafting process, which took 14 years.

However, the information minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, yesterday said the government would try to ensure a "free and fair" vote, though the new constitution was not yet fully published.

Before an audience of diplomats and senior Burmese military, at a venue in the new capital, Naypyidaw, Than Shwe confounded rumours of failing health by standing for an hour in the tropical heat to review 13,000 troops, police and fire brigades. He made no mention of the suppression of the uprising six months ago when at least 31 people died after soldiers opened fire on monks and pro-democracy protesters. But in an oblique allusion that betrayed fear of further unrest, he pressed the armed forces to "join hands with the people to crush internal and external destructive elements sabotaging stability and progress of the state".

He said the military leadership that had ruled Burma for 45 years now had "a sincere aim for developing the country without any cravings for power". He added: "The draft constitution has been completed and the constitutional referendum will be held in May. Handing over of state power can be done after multi-party elections ... in 2010."

The secrecy surrounding May's constitutional referendum, threats of imprisonment for anyone campaigning against it, and the rejection of a UN offer of international monitors and technical help, have fuelled suspicion over the legitimacy of the voting process.

Meanwhile an underground campaign against the plebiscite has been distributing leaflets and flyers. One T-shirt slogan passes itself off as a public health message, shouting "NO" with the word "smoking" printed discreetly beneath.

Gen Kyaw Hsan, briefing local media ahead of Armed Forces Day, insisted the new constitution, which reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, was a good starting point. "Something is better than nothing," he said. "Having a constitution is better than having no constitution. Once we have something, we can improve it gradually step by step."

Source: The Guardian

Right thinking must lead to action on Burma


March 27, 2008 - It was Hannah Arendt who wrote that "Under conditions of tyranny, it is easier to act than to think." While none would accuse Burma's Saffron Revolution of being unthinking, the sense of those words hold true. There is a time when thoughts must give way to action.

Yet, just as this notion holds truth, so too does its reverse. That is to say, without the conditions of tyranny, it is easier to think than to act. This appears to be the position of many around the world, who have the privilege of remaining disengaged while seeing images of violence at a distance.

The historic events that continue unfold in Burma today, evolving from peaceful demonstrations late last year, have been detailed in a new report "Bullets in the Alms Bowl," produced by the Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the country's government in exile.

No one can read this report and not feel their very humanity challenged by the presence of the brutality it documents. No one can say, "We were unaware." No one has an excuse not to act.

In asking for peace and dialogue toward a political settlement of the problems confronting this country, members of Burma's Buddhist community, the Sangha, have spoken for all their country and touched the whole world. They have galvanized world opinion and spoken to the very soul of our global community. All must hear them.

All must hear how the Burmese military government suppressed a peaceful movement centred on monks, a movement that carried no weapons but the firmness of convictions and courage.

The HRDU report documents the murders, the tortures, the late-night abductions, the house detentions, the arrest of family members of accused demonstrators, the list of actions designed to break the population, to discredit their agendas and to hold an ever tenuous grip on power.

There are given names, dates and times. Personal experiences are painstakingly unfolded. The gaps left by the dead, the detained, the damaged and the broken are poignantly identified.

The struggle of the Sangha and the Saffron Revolution is imbued with the deepest, resonant significance. Here is an outbreak of peace in the face of so much violence, an embodiment of hope in the face of hopelessness, a surge of spiritual values at a time of the most crushing assault on the human heart.

The world cannot ignore these cries and still maintain its sense of dignity and trust, nor can we as the world family maintain our hold on truth and freedom if Burma's peoples continue to be so ill-treated and oppressed.

In Burma, as in South Africa near the end of the apartheid era, a moment has arrived. It is a moment when the clock stops ticking, when the air stops moving, where sound is muffled, and where the mind stops spinning. This is a moment of clarity, a moment when the uncertainty of daily life disappears and a clear message overwhelms the senses. A moment when history stands still, awaiting the inevitable truth.

It is our duty, and that of the global community, to ensure that this moment is not lost. This is not a time for empty politics or grandiose schemes designed to divert the attention and reverse the momentum.

There are roles here for the United Nations (especially as another visit by its special envoy comes and goes without result), for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for specific countries such as China, India and the United States — for all interested in promoting the rule of law and human rights for all. The NCGUB has detailed these agendas and will continue to articulate them.

The Free Burma movement is not in victim mode, nor are we devoid of intent. Our goal is clear. But we cannot work alone and we call on the global community to read this report and to ensure that what it documents is consigned to Burma's past, not allowed to be a template for the future.

This is a time to realize our hopes and enact our dreams, for an oppressed Burma rests on all our shoulders, challenging and burdening the world. This is the time for a free Burma to be reborn, on the foundation of peace and forgiveness laid by its Sangha.

It is indeed Burma's moment. But it is also one for all peoples.

Dr. Thaung Htun is the representative for United Nations affairs with the Burma UN Service Office, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Myanmar promises "free and fair" referendum

By Aung Hla Tun
Editing by Ed Cropley and Sanjeev Miglani

NAYPYIDAW (Reuters) - Myanmar's military junta has promised that May's referendum on a new constitution will be free and fair and that the charter, heavily criticised by the West, will be open to incremental improvement. (JEG's: when? 2hrs before referendum???)

"The government will try to make the forthcoming referendum free and fair and I'd like to call on journalists to help make it a success," Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told local reporters summoned to the new capital for Thursday's "Army Day".

Foreign journalists have normally been invited to the former Burma for the March 27 ceremonials but were barred from this year's event, the first since last year's anti-regime protests led by maroon-robed Buddhist monks.

Noting the gradual evolution of the U.S. constitution, Kyaw Hsan, a brigadier general, said there would be scope to improve the charter, which gives the army a quarter of the seats in parliament and the right to stage a coup whenever it wants.

"Something is better than nothing. Having a constitution is better than having no constitution. Once we have something, we can improve it gradually step by step," he said late on Wednesday.

On Thursday, more than 13,000 members of the police, fire brigade and Tatmadaw, as the army is known, took part in a parade at a specially designed ground in Naypyidaw, a dusty, nondescript town that became the capital in 2005.

Making a rare public appearance, junta supremo Than Shwe, who is frequently rumoured to be at death's door, inspected the ranks of soldiers from the back of an open-top Mercedes limousine before delivering a 15-minute speech.

The 75-year-old Senior General, as he is officially titled, stressed that the army would be ready to hand over power after multi-party elections slated for 2010 under the junta's seven-step "roadmap to democracy".

"Our Tatmadaw is making relentless and dedicated efforts during its tenure of shouldering state responsibility with the sincere aim of developing the country without any craving for power," he said. (JEG's: he used big words, I wonder if he understood their meaning)

The date of May's referendum has not yet been announced, although the generals have rebuffed a United Nations offer of international monitors and technical assistance in running the plebiscite.

The rejection intensified fears of a repeat of 1990, when the generals chose to ignore the results of an election in which the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won more than 80 percent of the seats.

Western governments and many of Myanmar's 53 million people dismiss the roadmap as a blueprint for the army legitimising the grip on the power it has held since a 1962 coup.

Some underground democracy groups are campaigning for a "no" vote in the referendum, although some staunch junta opponents admit they are torn by the argument that it is better to have a bad constitution than no constitution at all.

Gambari misled UNSC: 88 generation students

By Mungpi
Mizzima News
March 26, 2008

New Delhi – A Burmese pro-democracy activist group, calling on the people to prepare for the worst in 'confronting' the junta, today said the UN special envoy to Burma has deviated from his primary objective.

The 88 generation students, in a joint statement released today with the All Burma Monks' Alliance (ABMA), accused UN special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari, whose mission it is to facilitate political reform through dialogue between the junta and opposition groups, of siding with the junta's unilateral approach aimed at legitimizing its continued rule.

The group said Gambari misled the UN Security Council during his recent briefing in New York. Despite hoping that Gambari would urge the Security Council to strengthen the Secretary-General's mandate, 88 generation and the ABMA instead argue he showed signs of support for the junta's plans.

"From the perspective of the people of Burma, he altered his mission from pressuring and persuading the military junta in Burma to create a credible process of constitution writing and engage in a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," the statement read.

"Instead, it now appears he is supporting the one-sided acts of the military junta and suggesting that democracy forces surrender," added the student activists.

While acknowledging that his latest trip to Burma yielded no tangible results, Gambari, on March 18, told the Security Council that his last visit should be assessed within the broader context of efforts over the past two years.

"Two years ago, there had been no dialogue with the authorities and, only six months ago, there had been no mechanism for promoting dialogue between the Government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," Gambari had said, implying that his mission has produced a few results.

Soe Tun, one of the few members of 88 generation group who is still able to operate while hiding to avoid arrest, said, "What we want Gambari to do is to clearly see the situation in Burma and honestly admit that the junta cannot be engaged with this limited mandate and call for the UNSC to strengthen the Secretary-General's mandate."

Soe Tun, who spoke to Mizzima from his hiding place, said that with the UN's impotency concerning the ruling junta, the people of Burma are left on their own in confronting the military regime.

"But we will not give up, we will continue with our struggle until we gain democracy," said Soe Tun, adding that the group has called on the people to cast a 'No' vote in May's upcoming referendum.

Vote 'No'

In resisting the perpetuation of military rule in Burma, 88 generation and the ABMA have concluded it is the best to vote 'No' against the junta's draft constitution, which the junta expects to be approved in a referendum in May.

With the junta already announcing a penalty of at least three years detention for those who criticize or disturb the referendum process, 88 generation said the safest way for the people to demonstrate their true desire is to vote 'No'.

"We are urging the people to express their dissent against the junta utilizing the safest means possible," Soe Tun remarked, adding that by casting a 'No' vote the authorities cannot charge the people with a legal offense, whereas if the people abstain they may be construed as boycotting the poll which may in turn draw the ire of authorities and cause trouble for the people.

He went on to say that the group has initiated a campaign to raise awareness of the referendum and related issues among the population by clandestinely distributing VCDs of speeches and T-shirts that oppose the junta's scheme.

Meanwhile, a few groups of activists who are clandestinely operating inside Burma said they are taking an extreme measure in opposing the junta, urging people to totally boycott the junta's seven-step roadmap, including the referendum.

Soe Tun commented, "We welcome such moves, though we are not campaigning for that. We welcome any movement that opposes this dreadful military dictatorship."

He added that with the ruling junta desperately wanting the people to vote in favor of the constitution, the junta could be aggressive in their campaign, possibly leading to violence and bloodshed.

"We are prepared to confront the worst. We are working for truth and justice, and we will prevail," the students said.

"With or without the help of the UN Security Council, we are ready to determine our own future. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently told us to 'hope for the best, prepare for the worst'."

Anti-government Campaigns Continue in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

March 26, 2008 - Burmese activists are distributing posters and VCDs of satirical comedy directed against the military government and its constitutional referendum in May, according to activist sources.

About 50 VCDs of a-nyient performances and 50 VCDs of Thangyat, two forms of traditional Burmese folk art, could be found in Mingalardon Market in Mingalardon Township in Rangoon and other areas on Tuesday, a source in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

The traditional a-nyient performance is a recording of a show in Japan by the well-known comedy troupe Say Yaung Sone & Thee Lay Thee.

Members of the comedy troupe say Burmese citizens should vote “No” in the constitutional referendum in May. The exact date has not been announced.

The performance criticizes the military government for its violent suppression of the peaceful demonstrations in September 2007 in which the UN said at least 31 protesters were killed.

The VCDs of traditional Thangyat—a form of satirical comedy combining poetry, dance and music, could be found in markets and public areas in downtown Rangoon on Tuesday, said a resident.

The Thangyat VCDs were produced by Burmese dissidents in India who fled from Burma after the 1988 uprising in which an estimated 3, 000 protesters were killed.

Meanwhile, activists in Myitkyina and Waingmaw in Kachin State in northern Burma launched an anti-government poster campaign on Tuesday also directed against the national referendum on the draft constitution, said a local activist.

Ma Brang, a Kachin activist, said, “In opposing the draft constitution, we want to urge all people in Burma to vote ‘No’ in the referendum because the new constitution is very important for all citizens in Burma.”

The draft constitution is one-sided and will not guarantee the rights of civilians and ethnic citizens, said Ma Brang.

About 500 posters saying “Vote No” were posted in downtown areas in Myitkyina such as markets, the railway station, and university and high school compounds. About 100 posters were distributed in Waingmaw, said Ma Brang.

The campaign was organized by the All Kachin Students and Youth Union.

Activist Groups Accuse UN of Letting Burmese People Down

The Irrawaddy News

March 26, 2008 - The All Burma Monks’ Alliance and the 88 Generation Students group issued a joint statement on Wednesday accusing the UN and its special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, of letting the Burmese people down in their struggle for democracy.

The statement, coming six months after the September crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, declared: “With or without the help of the UN Security Council, we are ready to determine our own future. We are prepared to confront the worst.”

The two groups accused Gambari of “supporting the one-sided acts of the military junta and suggesting that democracy forces surrender.”

Their joint statement also complained that the plight of the Burmese people had actually worsened since Ban Ki-moon took over as UN Secretary General. The suppression of dissidents hadn’t ceased, the statement said—on the contrary, the arrests of pro-democracy activists had recently increased.

The two groups also condemned the governments of China, Russia and South Africa, accusing them of protecting the Burmese regime in UN votes. They called for greater pressure on the junta from EU countries.

They also reiterated calls for people to vote “No” in the upcoming referendum on a new constitution. “We all are determined to vote ‘no’ on the junta’s sham constitution in the upcoming referendum,” they said. “Our ‘No’ vote is not only to the sham constitution, but also to the junta.”

Pyinya Jota, a leader of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, urged Burmese monks to campaign for a free and fair constitutional referendum.

In a telephone interview with The Irrawaddy from his hiding place in Rangoon, Soe Htun, a member of the 88 Generation Students group, said, “It is very hard for us to operate in [this] rigid situation. We even have to disguise ourselves when we go out. We have to be very careful. We could be arrested at any time.”

Soe Htun said that authorities were employing informers to gather information about pro-democracy activists. Some informers were posing as taxi drivers, he said.

About 18 dissidents, including members of an underground activist group, the Generation Wave, were arrested earlier this month and are still being held.

Soe Htun said the Burmese people should hold no hope for concessions from the military regime. “The military regime doesn’t want to have political dialogue, so we have to prepare for the worst,” he said. “We have to rely on ourselves. We have to fight bravely for a system that we want.”

Meanwhile, a boycott of state examinations by many monks, which started on March 24, is continuing, with only about 300 monks in Rangoon and some 60 in Sittwe reportedly turning up to sit the tests. Monks are also boycotting the exams in Mandalay and in Pakokku, central Burma, where last September’s demonstrations began.

Thousands of monks are remaining in their monasteries rather than attend the examinations, according to sources.

Regime Restricts More NGO Activities

The Irrawaddy News

March 26, 2008 - Burma’s military regime has imposed further restrictions on international non-government organizations (NGOs) working in Burma, voicing concerns over their activities at grassroots levels in the run-up to the constitutional referendum in May.

According to one NGO source, earlier this month the authorities called a meeting with international organizations working in Burma and ordered every group to cease all activities at grassroots level in health education and counseling for HIV/AIDS patients, especially in rural areas.

Among the organizations that have been warned by authorities are Save the Children Fund, Population Services International (PSI), Marie Stopes International (MSI), Care International in Myanmar (Care-Myanmar) and World Vision.

According to an international NGO worker who asked not to be named for security reasons, NGOs can only carry out their projects if they allow staff from the official health department to oversee their activities.

“They [the authorities] allowed us to open our office, but now all the activities have to stop,” he said. “They also asked us to report every single thing we do in the field. It is very difficult to implement our project because we can only work when there is government staff with us.”

During the meeting between Burma’s Ministry of Health and UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari on March 9, the minister of health, Dr Kyaw Myint, reportedly informed Gambari that the government was aware that some international NGOs were providing financial support to Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who, in turn, was distributing it at a grassroots level.

The NLD’s youth group, led by HIV/AIDS activist Phu Phu Thin, is known to provide health care, counseling and HIV/AIDS education in Rangoon.

In mid-January, Dr San Shwe Win, the deputy director general of the Public Health Department, called a meeting with international NGOs in Burma’s new capital, Naypyidaw. During the meeting, he informed the NGO heads that they had to report on all their activities and that they could only continue their work if they receive permission from the Public Health Department. Reportedly, the military authorities also strongly warned NGOs against fact-finding missions or research projects in the country.

There are more than 34 organizations that deal with HIV/AIDS issues in Burma. All of these health groups are registered with Burma’s Ministry of Health.

Just recently, a clinic known as the Drop-in Centre, which works on HIV/AIDS issues and provides counseling to patients, was ordered by authorities to halt their activities, according to a Burmese doctor close to international organizations in Rangoon.

Mandalay Health Department issued a letter earlier this month ordering the Drop-in Center to stop all their programs with grassroots people without giving any reason.

Burma: A new way forward

March 26, 2008 - Economic difficulties drove the dramatic September 2007 protests in Burma. In their aftermath, the international community is beginning to respond to the humanitarian needs of ordinary Burmese. The U.S. is a critical exception. While most analysts, including Refugees International, believe only a change in political leadership can address the structural causes of poverty in Burma, few forecast an end to the country's political stalemate. The international community must do more to address the humanitarian needs of Burma's 55 million people in the absence of political progress.

Burma is widely believed to be one of the poorest countries in the world. The UN Development Program estimates that GDP per capita in Burma is the 13th lowest in the world. The average Burmese family spends 75% of that meager income on securing adequate food supplies. Less than 50% of children complete primary school and according to UNICEF under-5 child mortality averages 104 per 1,000 children, the second-highest rate outside Africa, after Afghanistan. Burma also has the highest HIV rates in Southeast Asia, and malaria, a treatable and preventable disease, is still the leading cause of mortality and morbidity.

Western donor governments, until recently, have opted to impose broad-based sanctions, including limiting humanitarian and development assistance to minimal levels, to pressure the government into reforms. While the government has shown indifference to the West and its policies, the impact on Burma's population is undeniable. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Burma receives less overseas development assistance, a mere $2.88 per person, than any of the poorest 50 countries. The average assistance in this tier of countries is more than $58 per person. Other countries with similarly repressive governments routinely receive much larger assistance packages: Sudan ($55/person); Zimbabwe ($21/person); Laos ($63/person).

In the past year, there has been an important shift by European donors to address this anomaly and to increase humanitarian assistance to the country. Increased humanitarian aid has been matched by a tightening of sanctions targeted specifically at the economic activities of government officials and their cronies. This carrot and stick approach recognizes that broad-based sanctions often hurt average Burmese more than the ruling regime, but validates the legitimacy of sanctions as a tool to pressure rogue regimes. A lack of political progress cannot justify the prolonged suffering of ordinary Burmese, who are in large part innocent victims of the prolonged political stalemate.

To this end, the European Commission is allocating €26.6 million ($42 million) in assistance to Burma for 2008, and plans to increase that amount to €40 million ($63 million) by 2010. These funds are tightly restricted to humanitarian assistance and very limited development work. Financial, technical, and material assistance to Burmese government institutions is also strictly prohibited. The United Kingdom provides £9 million ($18 million) in humanitarian assistance in 2008, with plans to double that amount in three years. Also, in an effort to combat infectious disease, European donors, along with Australia, have funded the Three Diseases Fund, which combats malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, at $104 million over five years.

Though these investments are welcome steps in the right direction, at its height in 2011, the total of Europe's investment in Burma, if treated as all new money, will only raise Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) per capita by $2.16/person. Greater international commitment, including U.S. funding, will be needed to adequately address the basic needs of the Burmese people.

U.S. policy makers in Washington maintain restrictions on humanitarian assistance to Burma, with minor exceptions for HIV and avian flu programs, in the belief that any aid provided to Rangoon-based agencies will inevitably prop up the government. U.S. officials most familiar with the country, those in Rangoon and in regional offices in Thailand, however, support greater humanitarian assistance inside Burma. Despite this view, Administration and Congressional staff who drive the U.S. sanctions policy have been reluctant to visit Burma, making it difficult for legitimate humanitarian actors to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work.

UN and international NGOs working in Burma go to pains to ensure that their work does not benefit the regime. The World Food Program can detail its use of independent firms in its purchasing, transport, and delivery of food, and is transparent with donors about all contracts it holds to allay any concerns. Population Services International and Save the Children insist on similar transparency, and both agree that it is possible to work without compromising these principles. One NGO worker told RI that 'the working conditions are terrible, but they are not prohibitive. Our operations in Darfur face more government restrictions and interference, and no one is talking about pulling out of Darfur.'

Local staff and cooperation with local NGOs and community-based organizations underpin the operations of international agencies. Despite reports to the contrary, local staff of international agencies reported travelling without restrictions throughout the country. At the village level, rice banks, buffalo banks, health promoters, church groups, temple associations, and other informal, often unregistered entities have emerged as effective, independent partners for international organizations. Support for international work often translates directly into strengthening Burmese civil society.

International NGOs working in Burma believe that the current environment, while difficult, will still allow for an incremental and progressive expansion of operations. Considerable capacity and an interest in expansion in the health and education sectors provide the greatest opportunities. There is also a need to expand the geographic scope of work, and many NGOs mention Northern Rakhine state as a top priority. In most cases, operational agencies as well as donors believe that a lack of funding, and not government restrictions, is the main limitation to expanding operations.

International funding to address Burma's humanitarian problems supports agencies working inside the country and Thailand-based organizations working with refugees and providing cross-border assistance to conflict-affected areas in Burma that are inaccessible to organizations inside. Several major donors, notably the European Commission and the U.S., have approached the Burma situation as zero sum, meaning that any increase in funding on one side of the border threatens a decrease on the other. Britain's Department for International Development sets a positive example by increasing its overall funding for Burma, retaining the flexibility to allocate increases wherever the need is greatest.

Both Thai-based and Burma-based humanitarian operations are legitimate responses to the situation inside Burma, and both access needy populations that their counterparts cannot. Both deserve international support. The policies of some international donors must stop pitting one group of actors against the other in search of scarce funding resources. Donors should base their giving on need and the capacity to respond, not on where an organization is based. The aid organizations themselves need to make greater efforts to collaborate and exchange information quietly to ensure a more holistic approach to Burma's problems.

International donors are recognizing the tremendous need inside Burma and the obligation to end the humanitarian restrictions that constitute an additional punishment for the Burmese people. The U.S. is the glaring exception to this trend. The U.S. must re-think its Burma strategy and look at the European model of sanctions and assistance if it is to meet its goal of supporting the people of Burma.

Policy Recommendations:

- The U.S. government re-evaluate its policies for Burma, and join the U.K. and Europe in increasing support for independent humanitarian work inside the country with targeted sanctions on the Burmese leadership. Additional U.S. funding to programs inside Burma should not affect commitments to organizations based in Thailand.

- U.S. Congressional staff and Administration officials travel to Burma to directly assess the situation, including the ability of the UN and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance inside the country.

- All organizations providing assistance inside Burma better document the breadth and depth of their operations to the greatest extent possible and better coordinate activities with collegial organizations.

- Organizations inside Burma and working cross-border from Thailand work with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to increase information sharing and coordination of operations. As the only donor working on both sides of the border, the British Department for International Development should also play a leading role in encouraging coordination and dialogue.

Contact: Joel Charny.
Relief Web

Holding the line: Burma’s junta subdues its people – and the world

By Amy Kazmin and Richard McGregor

March 26, 2008 - After violently suppressing anti-government marches last year, Burma’s ruling generals are hunt­ing a new enemy in the dilapidated city of Rangoon, zeroing in on street vendors who sell pirated DVDs. The object of the junta’s wrath is the latest Rambo film, in which the Vietnam veteran played by Sylvester Stallone battles Burmese soldiers to rescue missionaries held for assisting persecuted ethnic minorities.

Besides confiscating every copy it can find, the junta has compelled privately owned Burmese news journals to print articles ridiculing Rambo for being “so fat, with sagging breasts” and looking “like a lunatic” during fights.

Aside from the Hollywood action picture, though, not much is rattling Burma’s generals these days. Six months ago, their crackdown on the Buddhist monk-led “saffron revolt” provoked international revulsion and a clamour to push the regime to change. Today, the storm of criticism has largely passed. The junta, as firmly in power as ever, has rebuffed the pressure, making clear it intends to proceed with its own plans for Burma’s future, with or without western or United Nations approval.

After a brief moment of apparent unity, western and Asian governments are again divided on how to approach the Burmese generals. Although nearly all governments recognise the need for change in the impoverished state, they have profound differences on the reforms most necessary – and how best to foster them. “There is a philosophical difference between Asia and the west,” says Thant Myint-U, a historian and grandson of the late U Thant, the UN’s 1960s secretary-general. “The west believes in a push for democracy. But Asian governments believe in slow, gradual change in which economic change leads to an opening of political and social space.”

Asian perspectives on dealing with the generals – especially the views in neighbouring China, India and Thailand – are also coloured by regional interest in Burma’s resources, particularly its natural gas. Thailand already relies on Burmese gas to generate about 20 per cent of its electricity; Bangkok’s state oil company is negotiating another gas deal and the country is eyeing hydropower projects in Burma. For its part, Beijing is discussing deals to construct two pipelines across Burma. One would transport Middle Eastern oil from near Burma’s Andaman Sea port of Sittwe to Yunnan province, reducing Chinese reliance on crude shipments through the Straits of Malacca, while a second pipeline would supply China with Burmese natural gas.

“China’s interests are mercantilist, not political or strategic,” says Zhu Feng, a scholar at the School of International Studies at Peking University. “We need someone to press Myanmar [Burma] on the need for change [but] we cannot play that role – its not China’s style.”

After last year’s crackdown, which killed at least 31, western countries led the condemnation. But even Burma’s traditional friends in the Association of South East Asian Nations expressed dismay at the bloodshed. China, long exasperated at the junta’s failure to develop the national economy, also – at least by its own reticent standards – admonished its neighbour.

The UN Security Council subsequently called for the junta to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy advocate who is under house arrest in Rangoon, to free her and an estimated 1,800 other political prisoners and to address the “political, economic, humanitarian and human rights issues that are the concerns of its people”. Beijing, the regime’s closest ally, pushed the generals to allow Ibrahim Gambari, the UN’s special envoy, to visit Burma to foster discussions on political change.

But the world has since been divided by the generals’ surprise declaration of a May referendum on a controversial new constitution, which the generals say will lay the foundation for a “discipline-flourishing democracy” suitable for Burma’s multi-ethnic society. Burmese exiles and opposition groups, as well as many western governments, have denounced the charter – which would in all likelihood prevent Ms Suu Kyi and other dissidents from entering politics – as an attempt merely to legalise military rule. Yet some south-east Asian governments have praised the referendum and the promise of elections in 2010 as welcome steps towards reform. Wang Guangya, China’s ambassador to the UN, also called it “real progress”, though he conceded “improvements” could be made.

As Beijing prepares to host the Olympics, its worries about an eruption of fresh protests in Burma – which would highlight China’s close ties to the regime – have also eased, amid the surface calm in Burma and Beijing’s own trouble in Tibet. But the opening of the Beijing Olympics on August 8 coincides with the 20th anniversary of the start of Burma’s previous big uprising, during which soldiers killed thousands of unarmed protesters. “Beijing’s primary concern was that there be no repeat of [last] September in Burma before the Olympics and especially no demonstrations in Rangoon marking the 1988 uprising,” says a UN official who monitors Burma. “Now that they see these generals can keep things under control in the short term, there is less interest in pushing for change. They see they can keep a lid on things.”

The US and UK remain focused on pushing for substantive political dialogue bet­ween the generals and Ms Suu Kyi, but appear to have few tools to put pressure on the junta. While anti-regime activists press for more punitive economic sanctions, Asian governments’ unwavering rejection of such measures would be likely to render further western sanctions ineffective, al­though Asian capitals offer few alternative ideas of how to foster change. “They throw up their hands in exasperation and say ‘what can we do?’, which is just what the military wants,” says one western diplomat based in Rangoon. In any case, China in­sists sanctions do not work. “If there are heavy sanctions, then the junta will not reform,” says Zhai Kun, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

China appears to hope the new charter will lay a sufficient foundation to facilitate change along the lines of its own economy or that of Vietnam, which allow for fast development while tight political controls are maintained. “If we were to intervene we should have a goal, but what is China’s goal?” asks Zhang Yunling of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The western countries’ goal is very clear. It is democracy. But for China it is stability.”

Aware of these divisions, Burma’s generals appear confident of their ability to ward off external pressure. “The unprecedented level of concern by the international community has run into the sand,” says an academic who monitors Burma. “By demonstrating the limited options available to the international community, it may have encouraged the view among some Burmese generals that they can’t be touched.”

Indeed, since the protests the generals have made no concessions that might mollify western critics, despite offers of dramatically increased aid if the generals undertake a credible reform process. The generals have also rejected nearly all requests made since September by the UN Security Council as well as by Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general, and Mr Gambari.

With Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest, as she has been for 12 of the past 18 years, the junta hunts, locks up and prosecutes dissidents. Talks between her and the generals have gone nowhere after Than Shwe, head of the junta, demanded that she first denounce sanctions. The UN’s resident representative in Rangoon was expelled in November for stating the seemingly obvious – that deepening poverty underlay the September protests.

Since announcing their constitutional referendum, the generals have also spurned UN offers of technical advice and international election monitors. Blaming sanctions for the people’s hardships, the generals rebuffed a UN idea to set up a commission to study Burma’s economy and recommend policies to alleviate poverty. After a trip to Burma this month, his third since September, Mr Gambari expressed frustration that his visit had not yielded “any immediate tangible outcome”.

All along, the US and the UK have been appealing to China to use its leverage over the generals to urge change. Gordon Brown, British prime minister, pressed the case with Wen Jiabao, his Chinese counterpart, and President Hu Jintao during a recent visit. But little has emerged.

Mr Zhai says the west overstates Beijing’s influence on the highly nationalistic generals. Even on the economy, he says, China’s advice to them falls on deaf ears. China has even said that it – like the rest of the world – was caught by surprise by the generals’ 2005 move to a new capital city called Naypyidaw.

China, which shares a long border with Burma, has reason to worry about the junta’s poor governance. Its companies are highly active in Burma, mainly in natural resource exploitation. Beijing also wants the regime to step up border policing and do more to fight drug trafficking. In recent years, large numbers of Chinese migrants, mainly petty traders, have also drifted into Burma – displacing Burmese, especially in urban centres. This influx, coupled with perceptions that Beijing is propping up the junta, has fuelled resentment, raising the prospect of violence against the arrivals if frustrations boil over.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Burma – and they know the generals can’t protect them,” says one western diplomat. As another puts it: “The Chinese know this place is still an accident waiting to happen.” Mr Zhai, too, recognises that “there are some sentiments against China among the common people”. But like other Chinese scholars, he says China’s importance to Burma is such that Beijing could forge strong ties with whomever is in power.

With the UN process at a standstill, the generals’ political makeover may force the west to rethink its approach. “The referendum and elections will create a new political reality,” says the UN official. Mr Thant, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and himself formerly with the UN, argues that the constitution, whatever its shortcomings, could provide opportunities to re-engage with Burma. It would “create a much more complex decision-making structure – and that is the first step away from dictatorship”, he says. “If that is coupled with economic reform and the economy growing, you have the beginnings of a different political system.”

Yet Burma’s new constitution may simply mean the perpetuation of military rule in fresh garb – a matter of concern to both the west and China. “The Chinese genuinely do not think the government here is capable of delivering the kind of Burma they want to see,” says a western diplomat in Rangoon. “The question for them, and all of us, is how do we get from where we are now to the better-run but still pretty authoritarian state that is likely to follow?” Answers so far are thin on the ground.

Source: Financial Times

Commander-in-Chief: Myanmar military to hand over power after election in 2010

By Amber Yao

NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar, March 27 (Xinhua) -- Commender-in-Chief of the Myanmar Defense Services Senior-General Than Shwe said Thursday that the military would be able to hand over power to a civilian government after general election in 2010 in accordance with a new state constitution if emerged in a national referendum slated for May this year.

Than Shwe, who is also Chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, made the remarks while addressing an over-13,000-strong military parade in the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw in the morning to mark the country's 63rd anniversary Armed Forces Day.

Than Shwe said the country is marching on a seven-step roadmap to democracy correctly and timely, and good infrastructure of the state has been built as much as possible.

He urged the people to cooperate hand-in-hand with the government and the armed forces to undertake the historic task successfully, while also calling for crushing internal and external destructive elements attempting to disintegrate the union.

He pointed out that today's state stability is the best and people are generally leading a peaceful life.

He elaborated some major achievements gained throughout the tenure of the military government since the take-over of power in 1988.

Displacement and disease: The Shan exodus and infectious disease implications for Thailand


Decades of neglect and abuses by the Burmese government have decimated the health of the peoples of Burma, particularly along her eastern frontiers, overwhelmingly populated by ethnic minorities such as the Shan.

Vast areas of traditional Shan homelands have been systematically depopulated by the Burmese military regime as part of its counter-insurgency policy, which also employs widespread abuses of civilians by Burmese soldiers, including rape, torture, and extrajudicial executions. These abuses, coupled with Burmese government economic mismanagement which has further entrenched already pervasive poverty in rural Burma, have spawned a humanitarian catastrophe, forcing hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan villagers to flee their homes for Thailand. In Thailand, they are denied refugee status and its legal protections, living at constant risk for arrest and deportation. Classified as "economic migrants," many are forced to work in exploitative conditions, including in the Thai sex industry, and Shan migrants often lack access to basic health services in Thailand. Available health data on Shan migrants in Thailand already indicates that this population bears a disproportionately high burden of infectious diseases, particularly HIV, tuberculosis, lymphatic filariasis, and some vaccine-preventable illnesses, undermining progress made by Thailand s public health system in controlling such entities. The ongoing failure to address the root political causes of migration and poor health in eastern Burma, coupled with the many barriers to accessing health programs in Thailand by undocumented migrants, particularly the Shan, virtually guarantees Thailand s inability to sustainably control many infectious disease entities, especially along her borders with Burma.

Click to Read Full Report - pdf

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Self immolator's health critical

Nem Davies
Mizzima News
March 25, 2008

New Delhi - According to a police source, the health of the man who set himself ablaze on Friday apparently due to economic hardship is critical.

"His situation is really bad. It is not good," said the police source.

The man, identified as Thaw Zin Naing (a.k.a. Aung Gyi), age 26, of Bassein in the Irrawaddy Division, set himself ablaze on Friday at Rangoon's famous Buddhist shrine of Shwedagon.

He was immediately rushed to the hospital by security guards, who then tightened security at the Pagoda, which was often used as a gathering place by dissidents during last September's Saffron Revolution.

A policeman said the parents of Thaw Zin Naing, who reportedly has burns over 75 percent of his body, have arrived in Rangoon to be with their son.

It is still unclear to which hospital Thaw Zin Naing is admitted. However eyewitnesses said a plainclothes security official was seen guarding the Rangoon General Hospital's burnt-patient ward and restricting access to the ward.

Shan rebels sound warning bell for all ceasefire armed groups

Mizzima News
March 25, 2008

New Delhi - One of Burma's ethnic armed rebel groups, the Shan State Army (South), today urged all ceasefire ethnic armed groups to jointly oppose the junta's ensuing referendum saying it is the last chance for the groups.

The SSA-S, one of the few ethnic armed rebel groups that has not signed a ceasefire agreement with the ruling junta, on Tuesday said the ceasefire groups have limited time until the junta finishes its planned referendum and elections

Major Sai Lao Seng, spokesperson of the SSA-S, said, "There are only two options for the ethnic ceasefire armed groups before the end of elections in 2010. That is to absolutely surrender or to revolt once again and seek a political solution."

According to the Burmese military junta, there are at least 17 ceasefire ethnic armed groups including one of Burma's longest surviving insurgent groups the Kachin Independence Army and the powerful United Wa State Army.

The SSA-S's call on Tuesday came as a warning to all ceasefire groups, as observers have predicted that the junta is planning to disarm the ceasefire groups after the referendum and elections.

In an earlier interview, Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst based on the Sino-Burmese border told Mizzima that the junta has consistently put pressure on the ceasefire groups and there are indications that it is determined to disarm them.

"The junta's plan is obvious, they will try to disarm the ceasefire groups," he added.

He said, the junta has indicated to the ceasefire armed groups that they will have to surrender their arms and transform into political parties and will be allowed to contest the general election.

"So, there are only two choices for the ceasefire groups -- to abandon their armed struggle or to restart armed rebellion," Aung Kyaw Zaw said.

While a few critics feel that restarting an armed rebellion would weaken the groups and it would be easier for the junta to eliminate them, Aung Kyaw Zaw said, he does not believe the same.

"It is only the determination of the group that matters. Of course there are several disadvantages in terms of strategy after a long period of ceasefire, but they can still show their dissent," added Aung Kyaw Zaw.

The SSA-S, which claims to have nearly 5,000 soldiers in their camps, expressed their expectation that the ceasefire groups would choose the second option which is to restart a revolutionary war until political negotiation is reached.

"The referendum will not represent all the people of Burma including ethnic groups like us. But it will only serve them [junta] because the constitution is drafted they want it to be," Major Lau Seng said.

He added that the SSA-S is firm in its determination to achieve two main objectives – to end military rule in Burma and to establish federalism – and urges other brethren armed rebel groups to join in the revolution.

In response to the SSA-S's statement, the Karen National Union, Burma's longest surviving insurgent group, said, they support the SSA-S's call and urge the ceasefire groups to rethink their policy.

David Thaw, Foreign Affairs in-charge of the KNU said, "The junta does not understand any other language, so we need to speak to them in the language they best understand that is to wage an armed struggle."

"If the ethnic ceasefire groups remain silent at this time, they will loose their footing, so they should be re-examine the new constitution of the junta and make the right decision."

The Kachin Independence Army, however, declined to comment on the SSA-S's call. Other ceasefire groups including the UWSA and New Mon State Party could not be reached for comment.

DVB English News

Man under armed guard after setting fire to himself

Mar 25, 2008 (DVB)–Ko Thaw Zin Naing, who set himself on fire as a protest, has been transferred to Rangoon general hospital’s burns unit and is being watched by armed guards, an unidentified hospital official said. - more

Monks boycott state-run exams

Mar 25, 2008 (DVB)–The number of Burmese monks entering the government-run Pahtamapyan exam this year is significantly lower than in previous years, monks said. - more

Insein prison inmates join metta chanting campaign

Mar 25. 2008 (DVB)–A metta chanting campaign initiated by All-Burmese Monks Alliance leader U Gambira at Insein prison has been spreading to other prison wards, the monk’s sister said. - more

Three arrested for criticising fire brigade

Mar 24, 2008 (DVB)–Two civilians and a monk were arrested in Rangoon on Friday for criticising the performance of the fire brigade during a blaze in Lanmadaw township, bystanders said. - more

Man sets fire to himself to protest economic hardship

Mar 24, 2008 (DVB)–A solo demonstrator was hospitalised after setting fire to himself at Rangoon’s historic Shwe Dagon pagoda in a protest against economic hardship, witnesses said. - more

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Draft Constitution of Burma's Military Rulers

By Ahmedur Rahman Farooq

March 13, 2008 (Asian Tribune)
- Once upon a time, a lion, a leopard and a jackal entered into an alliance to go on the hunt together. They went out around the forests and hunted a deer, a goat and a hen. At the end of the day, they sat together to share the preys. The lion asked the leopard to distribute the preys into three shares with fair justice.

The leopard said, it would be justifiable to put the deer for the lion, the goat for himself and the hen for the jackal. But before, he could finish his verdict, the lion jumped upon the leopard with a big roar and torn his body into pieces. The jackal was standing near by trembling in fear. Then the lion asked the jackal to distribute and then the jackal said, it would be the best if you take the hen for your breakfast, the goat for your lunch and the deer for your dinner. Then the lion said to the jackal with a smile, "You are really wise. Where did you learn such a nice distribution with fair justice". The jackal retorted, "I have learned it from your paws reddened with the bloods of the leopard".

Such is the case in the pro-military constitution which has been drafted by a military appointed forum and now which is set for approval during the May plebiscite to be followed by elections in 2010. The only difference is that the jackal was deprived of his share and here those who have drafted the constitution enjoy all types of modern amenities and gracious life styles, taking part in keeping the military machinery of repression alive decades after decades. The ruling generals provide them unlimited opportunity to let them pass their life in celestial delight while these people pave all the ways for the army to perpetuate their gun control, pushing the common people to destitution and widespread poverty accompanied by the destruction of the entire political system and the administration of justice.

However, on February 19, 2008, Burma's military government announced that work had been completed on writing the draft of the proposed new constitution. The state radio and television said the 54-member Constitution Drafting Commission finished the draft after working on it for more than two months. Burma’s Chief Justice and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Commission, Aung Toe, announced the charter's completion on state radio and television news broadcasts. Aung Toe said the draft was drawn up with the objective of ensuring a leading role in politics for the military. The guidelines for a new constitution were adopted by a stage-managed farcical National Convention last year after 14 years of on-and-off meetings, where the military hand-picked delegates have attended.

In fact, the draft constitution contains all the provisions to glorify the militarism in the governance in the guise of so-called "disciplined democracy". It is a blue-print for the army to legitimize its grip on power for indefinite period and where the head of the army will be the most powerful person in the country, with the ability to appoint key cabinet figures and suspend the constitution in the event of an emergency that he defines. It also bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from running in election whose party NLD won more than 80 percent of the vote in the general elections in 1990, a total of 392 out of the 485 seats contested in the 492-member assembly. And most importantly, the military rulers did not allow any input from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or her party NLD as well as other democratic and ethnic groups while drafting the state constitution.

Burma has been in a political deadlock since the military refused to recognize the election results of 1990 and in order to facilitate a national reconciliation on the democratic reforms, the UN Chief has appointed Ibrahim Gambari as an special envoy to Burma, after the military rulers violently quashed peaceful protests last September 2007 which was led by the revered monks. But during the recent visit of the UN envoy to Burma, it became further clear that the military rulers will not accept any role of the United Nations in determining the course of the country’s political transition to what the ruling generals call "seven-point road map to democracy".

Ibrahim Gambari, the Nigerian diplomat, who has recently completed his third visit to Burma, proposed a more inclusive process of political change in the country and offered to send monitors to ensure that the outcome of the junta’s planned referendum on the draft constitution is accepted as legitimate. The junta said "no" to both suggestions.

Gambari met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi twice during his five-day trip, but was denied a meeting with the junta’s supreme leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Instead, he met with the members of the regime’s “Spokes Authoritative Team,” consisting of Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Culture Minister Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint.

During the meeting with the UN Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, junta's Information Minister Kyaw Hsan gave a clear message that the junta does not appreciate international interference in its affairs. He accused the UN of being biased against the regime. The state-run mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, published the full text of Kyaw Hsan’s indignant reaction to Gambari’s role in releasing a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi following his last visit. “Sadly, you went beyond your mandate,” said the information minister in his carefully worded reproach. “Some even believe that you prepared the statement in advance and released it after coordinating with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.” he added.

Kyaw Hsan went on to accuse the UN envoy of trying to “frame a pattern desired by western countries.” He also turned down a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that the regime amend the draft constitution to "ensure inclusiveness". In a letter dated February 19, 2008 to Burma's military supremo Senior General Than Shwe, the UN secretary general called for an amendment to the current draft constitution that would drop a clause excluding all Burmese nationals married to foreigners from running for election - paving the way for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the planned 2010 polls. He urged the UN envoy to support the junta's "seven step" road map and stop pursuing alternatives suggested by western democracies. "We shall not accept any attempt to hinder or reverse the process of the seven-step Road Map. However, we will heartily welcome the positive suggestions of the UN to help implement the seven-step Road Map," Kyaw Hsan said. Asked by Gambari to consider releasing political prisoners—estimated by the UN and human rights groups to total more than 1,100—Kyaw Hsan said Burma has no political prisoners and that Suu Kyi was detained because she tried to disrupt the country's stability.

Similar arrogant remarks came from Thaung Nyunt, a member of the commission responsible for holding the referendum when Gambari met with him after meeting with Kyaw Hsan's team and offered UN technical assistance and help with facilitating observers at the planned referendum. Rejecting the offer of Gambari for international monitoring of the forthcoming referendum in May, Thaung Nyung said, "Holding the referendum on the constitution is within the country's sovereignty and for internal affairs in the past, we have never had observers from outside." He also said, "We have enough experience, but we take note of your offer."

Nevertheless, the junta's rejections of Gambari's suggestions caused a death blow to the mission of the UN envoy. It gave clear message that the ruling generals will do everything in their own way and they are not at all interested in listening to what the international community says. The junta’s snub of Gambari made it further clear that the door for national reconciliation is no more open and that there can be no more development in the mission and mandate of the UN envoy.

However, the announcement of referendum of the military rulers is, in fact, a declaration of war against the people of Burma. It will further aggravate the country's political, economic and social crisis. Now, it is time for all the democratic forces of Burma to take pragmatic actions to foil the referendum bid of the military rulers on this pro-military draft constitution and to turn it into a flashpoint for unprecedented anti-government protests both at home and abroad.#

Ahmedur Rahman Farooq, Chairman, Rohingya Human Rights Council (RHRC).

China vows to smash Tibetan protests

March 23, 2008 (SMH)- China today turned its back on appeals for dialogue with the Dalai Lama, vowing to smash anti-China forces in Tibet, where it said the death toll from recent unrest had risen to 19.

A day after Beijing launched a manhunt for monks and others it blamed for violence in Tibet, an editorial in the People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, said opposition to Chinese rule in the Himalayan region must be wiped out.

"China must resolutely crush the conspiracy of sabotage and smash 'Tibet independence forces'," the newspaper said in the editorial, rejecting calls from US, European and Asian leaders for talks.

The commentary accused the Dalai Lama of masterminding protests in Tibet in the hope of undermining the August 8-24 Beijing Olympics and gaining Tibet independence from Beijing.

It said that "1.3 billion Chinese people, including the Tibetan people, would allow no person or force to undermine the stability of the region".

The commentary rebuffed growing international calls for dialogue to end the crackdown on protests that began last week to mark the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Beijing's rule.

But Tibet's government-in-exile today said talks between China and the Dalai Lama were crucial.

"Talks are more necessary than ever before," Thubten Samphel, spokesman for the administration, told AFP. "China has always pursued this hard line and very forceful military solutions to the problems in Tibet, and these have never worked," he said.

Earlier today, China said 18 "innocent" civilians and one police officer were killed in rioting in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, raising its official death toll from 13.

Tibet's government-in-exile in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala has put the toll from a week of unrest across the Himalayan region and neighbouring provinces at 99.

Yesterday, leaders in Japan and Poland joined the United States and other countries in an international appeal for restraint and dialogue.

They were joined today by 30 prominent Chinese writers and intellectuals who signed a letter to their government urging talks with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

They also called on China to open Tibet up to foreign media and to allow a team of independent UN investigators to carry out a full investigation of "the evidence, the course of the incident (and) the number of casualties".

The signatories, who included Liu Xiaobo, Teng Biao and Wang Qisheng, also said China should show evidence it says it possesses that proves the Dalai Lama was behind the uprising.

US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi has also demanded that China come clean on repression in Tibet.

"The situation in Tibet is a challenge to the conscience of the world," said Pelosi, who was greeted in Dharamshala by thousands of flag-waving Tibetan exiles as she arrived for talks yesterday with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

"What is happening, the world needs to know," she said.

However, China has responded to the protests with a massive clampdown on the affected areas, and yesterday released a most-wanted list of 19 people caught on film taking part in the Lhasa riots, amid warnings by activist groups of harsh reprisals.

Outside China, street demonstrations against the crackdown in Tibet continued today in Tokyo, where 600 people took to the streets.

In London, hundreds of demonstrators paused outside the Chinese embassy to sing Tibetan songs and chant "Chinese out" and "Long live the Dalai Lama".

The protests come less than five months before the Beijing Olympics, which is becoming a magnet for more protests over Tibet and other issues.

On Monday, the symbolic start to events leading up to the Games is scheduled to take place in Greece when the Olympic flame is lit.

The Olympic flame is to be lit in the presence of International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, whose organisation has been criticised for its silence on the Tibet crackdown.

Greek police told AFP that "stringent security" would be applied to deter anti-China protests during the ceremony.

After a tour of Greece, the flame will travel to Beijing for an official send-off ceremony on March 31 for the torch relay on its journey across five continents.

It then returns to China in May for the start of a domestic leg that includes three days in Tibet in mid-June after a scheduled stop at the summit of Mount Everest.

Pro-Tibet groups have said they are planning protests along the international route of the relay and in China.

Beijing insists such protests run counter to the Olympic Charter, which opposes using the Games for political propaganda.


Olympics a political turning point

By Wei Jingsheng

March 22, 2008 (Herald-Sun)
- AS what the Dalai Lama has called cultural genocide goes on in Tibet, it is wholly unacceptable that Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, refuses - completely at odds with the spirit of the Olympics - to take a stand against the Beijing Government's crackdown on Tibetan protesters.

Far more than Steven Spielberg, who quit his advisory role for the Olympic celebration because of the Chinese Government's unwillingness to pressure the Sudanese Government on genocide in Darfur, the IOC has a special obligation to act.

Since promised improvements in China's human rights were a quid pro quo for granting the games to Beijing, how can it proceed as if nothing happened when blood is flowing in the streets of Lhasa?

If they don't move to put pressure on Beijing consistent with their obligations, they risk this Olympics being remembered like the 1936 games in Berlin.

Already, the spirit of the Olympics in Beijing has become associated with the word genocide by two of the world's top spiritual and cultural leaders.

Indeed, if the IOC and the rest of the world community does not pressure Beijing to stop the crackdown and improve human rights now, a boycott of the games will be seen as widely justified.

The Tibetans have long chafed under the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party.

In 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India, the protest of the Tibetans was harshly suppressed in a massacre that lasted more than a year.

Beginning then, more than a million Tibetans have reportedly lost their lives because of the Chinese Government's policies.

In 1989, it was the current Chinese Party leader, Hu Jintao, then in his capacity as a provincial leader, who suppressed yet another revolt in Lhasa by bringing in the military to kill people in the streets.

And, of course, the whole world knows what happened in Tiananmen Square that same year.

Clearly, without human rights and the rule of law, neither Tibetans nor the majority Han Chinese are safe from persecution at the whim of the Communist authorities.

The old lies and propaganda don't work any more.

In the past, many Han Chinese didn't know about the sufferings of the Tibetans.

Now thanks to travel, tourism, mobile phones and the internet, the majority Han understand that the Tibetan struggle against tyranny is the same as theirs.

Of course, as part of their peaceful face, the Chinese authorities have expressed their willingness to resolve the Tibetan issue through negotiation.

But, just as with the case of Darfur, there is no sincerity behind this willingness unless international pressure is brought to bear.

If there has been any lesson in all my years as an activist for democracy and human rights in China, it is that only international pressure coupled with internal pressure will yield solid results.

The reason for Jacques Rogge's unwillingness to pressure Beijing at this moment is so tragic it is that these Olympics are the turning point in modern Chinese history.

Having invited the world to polite tea by hosting the Olympics, the Communist Party rulers have turned their palace of power into a global glass house.

They can't any longer show the smiling face of a peaceful rise to the world and the stern face of brutal suppression at home.

The Olympics will force China to show its true face.
Only international pressure, by the IOC and others,
will make sure it is the face we want to see.

Wei Jingsheng, one of China's most prominent dissidents since 1978, lives in exile in Washington

Saturday, 22 March 2008

World Must Give Serious Attention to Tibet

The Irrawaddy News

March 19, 2008 - Last year, the world watched in horror as images of a brutal crackdown on street demonstrations in Burma flowed out of the secretive country over the Internet. Now the international community is witnessing new unrest in the region, this time in Tibet.

The current situation in Tibet is, if anything, even more desperate than it was in Burma last September, when monks mounted the greatest challenge to military rule in nearly twenty years. Already, at least 13 people have been killed in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, according to the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua. The Tibetan government in exile, based in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, estimates the death toll is closer to 100.

The protests began in Lhasa last week, and by Friday the demonstrations had turned violent. Resistance to Chinese rule has escalated to a scale not seen in Tibet in nearly two decades, and has spread to the neighboring provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. Dramatic footage of Tibetan protesters rampaging on horseback and hoisting their national flag has also emerged, much to the consternation of Beijing.

The trouble started on March 10, on the annual commemoration of a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. The Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, fled to India to escape a harsh crackdown on the rebellion. Although Beijing says that Tibet has always been a part of China, Tibetans argue that the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries. They also accuse China’s communist rulers of trying to crush Tibetan culture by encouraging ethnic Han, who make up the majority of China’s population, to migrate to the region.

Beijing has made no secret of how much it despises the Dalai Lama, who it accuses of seeking to destroy China’s territorial integrity. In an editorial in the Tibet Daily, Tibet’s Communist Party leader Zhang Qingli said, “We are currently in an intensely bloody and fiery struggle with the Dalai Lama clique, a life or death struggle with the enemy.”

For Tibetan dissidents, the stakes are even higher. With China deploying massive security forces to quash the uprising and sealing off hotbed areas from foreign media, activists, supporters and rights groups have warned that hundreds of Tibetans believed arrested may be at risk of torture.

However, the international community, including the United Nations, has been slow to wade into the dispute over Tibet, despite calls from the Dalai Lama for a UN-led international inquiry.

Many countries appear reluctant to stand firmly on the side of human rights and democracy when dealing with China. Even governments which expressed outrage at the crackdown on Burma are reluctant to take the same tack with China, which is emerging as an economic powerhouse and important trading partner to countries around the world.

It is a shame that powerful countries have put their own economic self-interest ahead of the fundamental rights of a people to self-determination. The Tibetan people deserve greater respect, both from China and from the international community.

The world must help to end the violence in Tibet by pushing China to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan people, instead of treating the region like a colony whose native inhabitants are entirely at the mercy of their distant rulers.

If China does not change its approach to Tibet, the world must let it know where its sympathies lay. Simply playing host to the Olympics is no guarantee that China’s place among the community of nations is secure, as long as it refuses to recognize the aspirations of others.

Junta Increases Security at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon

The Irrawaddy News

March 21, 2008 - Security forces, including policemen, fire fighters and members of the civilian militia Swan-Ah-Shin, were increased in the area around Shwedagon Pagoda on Friday, which marks Taboung, or Full Moon Day, one Buddhism’s most sacred days.

Full Moon Day is celebrated each year with people flocking to the pagoda to pay homage, worship or to donate funds for the pagoda’s upkeep.

A local resident told The Irrawaddy that hundreds of policemen and soldiers with weapons have been positioned around the Damayones religious hall, where people gather for Buddhist rites. Military trucks are parked in the Damayones compound near the pagoda.

“Police, soldiers, fire fighters and Swan-Ah-Shin have been stationed at every stairway of the Shwedagon pagoda. The soldiers have red cloths wrapped around their neck,” she said. “Non-uniform military intelligence agents and police are going around the pagoda and clearly watching people whom they suspect.”

A monk told The Irrawaddy that the non-uniform military agents and police were watching monks who come to the pagoda.

“Security forces closed all entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda and bales of rusted barbed wire are heaped on the street,” the monk said.

“The troops are taking over the pagodas,” said a woman resident. “It is as if they are guarding them like internment camps.”

Security forces were seen checking people’s ID cards and observing their prayers, according to residents.

Shwedagon Pagoda has frequently been a center of political activity since the Colonial Era when university students gathered there to plan strikes against the British. The September 2007 monk-led uprising started at the pagoda.

An Irrawaddy correspondent in Rangoon contributed to this report.

China Steps Up Manhunt for Protesters in Tibet

The Irrawaddy News

March 21, 2008 - The Chinese government stepped up its manhunt Friday for protesters in last week's anti-Chinese riots in Tibet's capital, as thousands of troops converged on foot, in trucks and helicopters in Tibetan areas of western China.

The violence in Lhasa—a stunning show of defiance against 57 years of Chinese rule—has sparked sympathy demonstrations in neighboring provinces, prompting Beijing to blanket a huge area with troops and warn tourists and foreign journalists to stay away.

China's Communist leadership, embarrassed by the chaos and international criticism of its response, has blamed the unrest on Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his supporters and vigorously defended its reputation as a suitable host for the Beijing Olympics.

On Friday, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, met with the Dalai Lama in India. Photos of 21 men wanted in connection with the Lhasa riots were also posted on major Chinese Internet portals.

A resident in Qinghai province, meanwhile, said about 300 troops were in the town of Zeku after monks protested Thursday outside the county government office. The woman, who did not want to give her name in case authorities harassed her, said she did not dare leave her home and could not provide details of the demonstration.
"Many ethnic Chinese dare not to go out. Only Tibetans do," she said.

Telephones at Zeku's government and public security bureau rang unanswered.
In the largely Tibetan town of Zhongdian, in the far north of Yunnan province, some 30 armed police with batons marched in the main square as residents went about their daily life. Overnight, another two dozen trucks of riot police had arrived, adding to a presence of about 400 troops.

Patrols had also been set up in other nearby towns, including the tourist attraction of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

In Xiahe, a city in Gansu province where there were two days of protests last week, the 50-room Xilin Hotel was "completely occupied by police with guns and batons," said a man who answered the telephone. He did not want to give his name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"There may be hundreds in our county right now. No tourists are allowed here and we do not feel safe going outside," the man said. He said things had calmed down but vehicles had been patrolling the streets asking Tibetans who had participated in last week's demonstrations to turn themselves in.

Residents in Ganzi county in Sichuan province said they saw troops, trucks and helicopters on patrol.

The massive mobilization of riot police was helping authorities reassert control after the broadest, most sustained protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule in decades. Demonstrations had flared across Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces in support of protests that were started in Lhasa.

Led by Buddhist monks, protests began peacefully early last week but erupted into rioting on March 14, drawing a harsh response from Chinese authorities.

Estimates of the number of dead and injured have varied and are hard to confirm because China keeps a tight control over information. Tibetan exile groups say 99 people were killed—80 in Lhasa and 19 in Gansu—while Beijing maintains that 16 died and more than 300 were injured in Lhasa.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Thursday that police shot and wounded four rioters "in self-defense" during violent protests on Sunday in Aba County in Sichuan. It was the first time the government has acknowledged shooting any protesters.

Xinhua said the protesters torched houses, burned down Aba's police station, destroyed vehicles, "lunged policemen with knives, and wrestled to seize police weapons."

Authorities were forced to open fire into the crowd when the rioters did not respond to warning shots, Xinhua said.

The injured fled and police were trying to find them, it said.

China's response to the riots has drawn worldwide attention to its human rights record, threatening to overshadow Beijing's attempts to project an image of unity and prosperity in the lead-up to the August 8-24 Olympics.

Pelosi, one of the fiercest congressional critics of China, called on the international community to denounce Beijing's handling of the anti-government protests in Tibet.

"If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out against China's oppression in China and Tibet, we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world," Pelosi said before a crowd of thousands of cheering Tibetans in Dharmsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.

Pelosi, heading a congressional delegation, was greeted warmly by the Dalai Lama, who draped a gold scarf around her neck.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi blamed the Lhasa riots on the Dalai Lama's supporters. "They attempted to exert pressure on the Chinese government, disturb the 2008 Beijing Olympics and sabotage China's social stability and harmony," Xinhua quoted Yang as saying.

In Lhasa on Friday, residents said police were still patrolling the streets and people were free to go where they wanted as long as they had identity cards.

An employee of the local Coca-Cola distributor said the business was still closed. "Nobody dares to go out," said the man, who didn't give his name for fear of retribution.
A woman who answered the telephone at the Religious Affairs Bureau said the Sera and Drepung monasteries, whose monks launched the initial protests, were still closed. The Jokhang temple, Tibet's most sacred shrine and the heart of Lhasa's old city, was also shuttered, she said.

The photos of the 21 men posted on the Internet appeared to have been taken from videos and security cameras.

The images included a man with a mustache who has been shown on news programs slashing at another man with a foot-long blade. Another suspect wielded what appeared to be a long sword.

Two had already been arrested and one turned himself in, Xinhua said. Authorities were offering rewards and guaranteed the anonymity of tipsters for the rest. The Lhasa Public Security Bureau declined to comment on the photos.

Referendum Sub-commissions Formed by Local Authorities

The Irrawaddy News

March 20, 2008 - Burma’s military government has organized township sub-commissions to prepare for the referendum on the constitution in May, staffed mainly with officials from the townships’ ruling councils and regime supporters, USDA sources say.

The junta did not include executive members of its mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), on the local sub-commissions.

USDA sources told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that local authorities formed sub-commissions recently made up of the head of each Township Peace and Development Council and Village Peace and Development Council. Officials of township administrations will serve as secretaries of sub-commissions across the country.

Sources said USDA executive members from townships were told by authorities they would not be named to the sub-commissions, but regular USDA members would be appointed instead.

Officials from immigration offices and other government services would also be included on the sub-commissions, a source close to the USDA said.

Authorities have still not released any detailed information about the May referendum voting process to sub-commission members, said the source.

The regime’s main referendum commission is chaired by Aung Toe, the chief of justice and head of the constitution drafting committee.

According to a news report in the state-run Myanma Alin on Thursday, a central secretary of the USDA, Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, who is also the information minister, met with members of the USDA from Mingalar Thaung Nyunt Township in Rangoon.

The election commission and sub-commissions appointed during the 1990 nationwide election included local residents and ordinary citizens. Local observers say the current sub-commissions do not represent a cross-section of the public.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, briefed the UN Security Council on March 18 on his latest trip to Burma. He expressed disappointment in the outcome but vowed to keep the crisis on the Security Council’s agenda.

“Whereas each of my previous visits produced some results that could be built upon, it is a source of disappointment that this latest visit did not yield any immediate tangible outcome,” Gambari told the 15-member council.

The UN’s proposals for Burma included an inclusive national reconciliation process with UN involvement; genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi; and measures to address political, human rights, economic and humanitarian issues. The ruling junta snubbed the UN proposals during Gambari’s visit.

The US Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters, “We are disappointed by the lack of any concrete achievement.” Gambari’s visited to the Southeast Asian country from March 6 to 10.

ILO Urged to Take Action on Forced Labor Issues in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

March 21, 2008 - Labor rights activists and members of the main opposition party in Burma have urged the International Labour Organization (ILO) to take effective action on complaints about forced labor issues which they allege are widely carried out by the military government.

Myat Hla, a senior member of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Pegu Division said that as the ILO has made an agreement with the military regime in respect of the forced labor issue in Burma, they should take the matter seriously and help stop the problem spreading throughout the country.

“The military regime usually says that it does not practice forced labor, but in reality local authorities always force people to work building military camps, constructing roads and in many other ways,” he said.

Myat Hla urged the ILO not to believe everything the regime said. “The military government tells the ILO about how they will not arrest or disturb people who file complaints, but there are so many examples of the military breaking their promise by persecuting and arresting people,” he said.

According to a labor activist who refused to be named, the ILO should conduct mass education to expand public awareness and let people know that the local military authorities do not have the right to force them to “volunteer” their labor. He added that the ILO should also teach people that they have the right to make complaints in cases of forced labor.

The ILO organized a 12-day meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, which finished yesterday, followed by wide-ranging discussions on basic labor rights in Burma and other countries.

After the meeting, the ILO governing body called on the Burmese authorities at the highest level to make public statements reconfirming the prohibition of any form of forced labor and their ongoing commitment to the enforcement of that policy.

The ILO’s Executive Director Kari Tapiola visited Burma from February 25 to 28 and concluded in his report that the Burmese regime must take effective measures to restrain the persecution of the complainants and their representatives who provide information about forced labor.

The ILO governing body also confirmed their call for the immediate release of Burmese labor activists.

According to ILO reports, the military regime is currently detaining six labor activists who have been sentenced to between 20 and 28 years imprisonment after they had tried to organize celebrations and a seminar on labor issues for International Labour Day on May 1, 2007.

The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has stated that the six persons referred to in the complaint were punished for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association and freedom of expression. The committee has urged the military government to take the necessary measures for the release of the six activists: Thurein Aung, Wai Lin, Nyi Nyi Zaw, Kyaw Kyaw, Kyaw Win and Myo Min.

According to labor activist sources, more than 30 people who used to work on forced labor issues were arrested and are now under detention.

The ILO governing body called on the Burmese government to strengthen its cooperation with the ILO, and in particular with its liaison officer in Rangoon, to ensure the effective operation of the agreement and the implementation of its obligations under Convention No 29, prohibiting the use of forced labor, as well as the recruitment of minors into the military.

The ILO recently extending by one year the “Supplementary Understanding” agreement between themselves and the military regime, which aims to eliminate forced labor in Burma.

Burmese Balk at Immutable Constitution

The Irrawaddy News

March 21, 2008 - As Burma prepares for a referendum on the ruling junta’s draft constitution, many Burmese are expressing growing uneasiness over the prospect of a dead-end charter that appears to be carved in stone. Although the regime has yet to disclose the full contents of the constitution, many have already decided to reject it on the grounds that it will be virtually impossible to change once it comes into force.

Under Section 12 of the draft charter, any amendment would require the support of more than three-quarters of members of parliament. However, with 25 percent of seats going to military appointees, the chance of changes being introduced against the wishes of Burma’s powerful generals is effectively nil.

Two weeks ago, when United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari was in the country to press for a more inclusive political process, he was told by the head of the junta’s Spokes Authoritative Team, Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, that the constitution would not remain unchanged forever.

“The democratic rights of the countries where democracy has flourished are different from the democratic rights when they started to practice democracy,” the Information Minister said in a lecture to the visiting envoy on March 7. “It took time for these countries to make their democratic rights mature to the present level. We also will change and develop gradually.”

When the junta announced in early February that it would hold a referendum on the constitution in May, some cautiously welcomed the move as opening a door to future democratic changes. Now, however, many say that there is little room left for such optimism.

“Some people thought that the constitution could be modified in the future. But now that I’ve looked at some of the basic principles of the constitution, I can see that this thinking is totally wrong,” said a businessman in Rangoon, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If we cannot change the constitution, how can we accept it?”

Despite growing doubts about the constitution, however, he also ruled out any likelihood that the outcome of the referendum would reflect the will of the people.

“Under military rule, we cannot openly say what we really want because we are afraid. So a genuine referendum and election is impossible in this country.”

Win Min, a Burmese political analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand also said that it would be meaningless to endorse the constitution without guarantees that it can be altered to meet the needs of the country.

“If we cannot modify the constitution, democratization in Burma cannot grow,” he said, noting that the regime had been careful to block any prospect of unwanted changes.

He also rejected as na├»ve the argument—made by some exiled dissidents and opposition politicians inside Burma—that the new constitution might pave the way to improvements in the country’s political situation.

While some say that the opposition should be flexible in its approach to the referendum, other observers note that the real problem lies in the inflexibility of the constitution itself.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, a Burmese journalist working for an international news agency in Rangoon described the junta’s constitution as “too rigid” to withstand Burma’s political challenges.

“Making a constitution is like building a house—the foundation is the most important part. Over time, the structure on top of this foundation will need to be changed, but this won’t be possible if the foundation is not strong,” he said.

He added that constitutional amendments should be possible with 50 percent approval in parliament. Without this, he said “there is no room to maneuver.”

“If we cannot change the constitution, Burma is on a river of no return.”