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

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?

Friday, 3 October 2008

Burma's economy: Does sanctions hinder development?

by Mungpi
02 October 2008

New Delhi (Mizzima)- Poverty and the slow-pace of economic development in Burma, which was once known as the 'Rice Bowl' of Southeast Asia, is not the result of the current economic sanctions imposed by western nations but because of the ruling junta's mismanagement and inept economic decision making, said an economic expert.

Sean Turnell, Associate Professor and member of the Burma Economic Watch, at the Economics Department of Macquarie University in Sydney said he disagrees with the Burmese Foreign Minister's statement that sanctions have hindered economic development in Burma.

Nyan Win, in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, called for an end to what he described as 'immoral sanctions' against his country, saying sanctions hamper economic development and harm the people.

Nyan Win, in his speech, said sanctions are "unwarranted," and "They are not only unfair but immoral. They are counter-productive and deprive countries of their right to development."

But Sean, a long time observer of Burmese economy, said Burma's economy is hardest hit by the junta's mismanagement and its self-imposed isolation.

"Burma's poverty is not a result of sanctions, but 45 years of extraordinarily inept economic decision making by Burma's military regimes," Sean said in an email to Mizzima.

He added that the regime has self-imposed sanctions by creating an economic environment that makes international investment, in true productive industry, utterly impossible.

The United States and the European Union have recently stepped up sanctions against Burma's military government for its suppression of pro-democracy groups and its refusal to improve the situation of human rights including the release of political prisoners.

However, the Burmese Foreign Minister, in his speech said, for Burma to be able to implement economic development, it needs "unfettered access" to markets, modern technology and investment, which according to him has been deprived to Burma due to the imposition of sanctions.

"The sooner the unjust sanctions are revoked and the barriers removed, the sooner will the country be in a position to become the rice bowl of the region and a reliable source of energy," he added.

Economic development without sanctions?

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst based in Thailand, said while lifting economic sanctions cannot improve Burma's economy over-night, it will, however, allow space for development in the long-run.

According to him, Burma, which has been isolated for nearly half a century and suffered nearly two decades of economic sanctions, a 'command economy' is prevailing, whereby the ruling generals dictate the economy and provide opportunities only to their cronies.

He said, therefore, lifting sanctions and allowing free flow of direct foreign investments, in the long run, would help open up new space for development as well as create new political space.

He added that economic sanctions, which the opposition group led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have called for and was imposed by the US and EU, does not encourage political reconciliation in Burma.

The Burmese junta is annoyed with the west because of the sanctions but are even more so on the opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for urging the west to impose sanctions, he said.

"[T]here has been a sore relationship between the junta and the opposition. So, international sanctions are an obstacle to reconciliation," Aung Naing Oo said.

However, he said, unless the junta drops its 'Command Economy', cronyism, and corruption, lifting sanctions will not help in developing the economy.

But Nyo Ohn Myint, the foreign affairs in-charge of the National League for Democracy – Liberated Area (NLD-LA), said sanctions have its causes and effects, but the deteriorating economic situation in Burma is mainly caused by the junta's corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Nyo Ohn Myint, who closely monitors Burmese economy, said western sanctions does not put on hold the possibility of foreign investment, which mostly are from neighbouring countries including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But he said, Burma failed to attract foreign investors due to the lack of political stability, and transparency, which investors see as an unhealthy atmosphere for business deals.

"Despite the sanctions, we see that Burma's bilateral trade with neighbouring countries like India and China are increasing," Nyo Ohn Myint said.

Even with sanctions imposed by US and EU, there are several companies still operating in Burma, Nyo Ohn Myint said, but he added that the junta's failure to demonstrate stability and mismanagement of the economy has slowed down Burma's economic development.

According to Sean, sanctions by any means are "not a full solution" they are, however, useful in an array of strategies.

"Often overlooked is that sanctions can be an avenue, through their progressive lifting, for sponsoring genuine reforms," he added.

Despite the sanctions Burma has several opportunities to implement economic development, Sean said, adding that Burma can still "bring about wholesale reform - especially in the areas of property rights and rational decision-making."

But under the current circumstance corporates and companies are "hardly going to invest in a place where expropriation is a real possibility, where poverty is such that a viable market is barely achievable, and where corruption imposes such high a 'tax' on genuine activity," Sean said.

Focusing on Migrant Life

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy Magazine

PHOTOGRAPHERS John Hulme and Timothy Syrota have spent four years documenting the lives of Burmese migrants living in the border regions of Thailand, and The Irrawaddy has published much of their work, either as photo essays or to illustrate reports on migrant issues. Hulme and Syrota have put together a selection of their work for their first exhibition, which can be seen at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok from October 3 until November 3.

Where Would Burma Be without Suu Kyi?

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

Recent events have raised concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s health—and questions about how the pro-democracy movement would cope without her

LET’S imagine a situation: Burma without Aung San Suu Kyi. Undoubtedly, the ruling generals would see this as a dream come true. But for the majority of Burmese, it would come as a great disappointment to lose the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement.

Aung San Suu Kyi at her Inya Lake home in 1996 - (Photo: Nic Dunlop/Panos)

Suu Kyi may be a prisoner, but she still has immense power. She strikes fear into the hearts of heavily armed men, while giving moral strength to the powerless. She is the hope of the people of Burma, who have struggled to survive under the boot of their military rulers for the past 46 years.

Her recent refusal to receive food deliveries raised serious concerns about her health and worries about the country’s future without her.

According to her lawyer and her doctor—the only two people who were able to meet her during her month-long ordeal, which began in mid-August—Suu Kyi’s protest against her continued unlawful detention had left her thin and malnourished.

It was the first time in two decades that Suu Kyi had subjected herself to a hunger strike. Soon after beginning her first period of house arrest in 1989, she refused food and demanded to be placed in prison alongside her colleagues. After several weeks, she won guarantees that her fellow pro-democracy activists would not be tortured, and ended her protest. Her weight had dropped from 48 kg (106 lbs) to just 40 kg (90 lbs), and she suffered hair loss, impaired vision and a weakened immune system.

At the time, Suu Kyi was still in her early forties. Now she is in her sixties, and the impact on her health has presumably been much greater, even if she merely restricted her intake of food to the barest requirements for survival.

What would happen if Suu Kyi died or became so unhealthy that she couldn’t continue her role as the political leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement? It is something we need to ask in light of the fact that she has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest, without regular access to proper medical treatment and under immense psychological pressure.

Most people would prefer not to think of Burma’s future without Suu Kyi. Her absence from politics would probably be a death blow to the already weakened democracy struggle, because she has no obvious successor as leader of the movement.

On the other hand, the ruling generals would probably see Suu Kyi’s demise as an end to an era of trouble. After all, she is even now regarded as a threat to their hold on power.

From the generals’ viewpoint, there are many reasons to believe that the future without Suu Kyi would be very bright indeed. For one thing, they would not have to fear a repeat of the non-violent confrontation that she initiated in early 1989, when she called on people to resist unlawful decrees imposed by the junta. The movement continued for months, until July 19, when the regime used an overwhelming show of force to stop a planned Martyrs’ Day march. The next day, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time.

Another reason the generals would be happy to see the back of Suu Kyi is that it would probably mean no more electoral upsets like the one the world witnessed in 1990. Despite the regime’s efforts to ensure a victory for the pro-junta party, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy inflicted a stunning defeat, winning more than 80 percent of seats in parliament. It was Suu Kyi who urged her party to contest the election, despite the fact that she was still under house arrest at the time and not permitted to participate herself. Even within the confines of her home, she showed the generals that she could make life difficult for them.

It was also Suu Kyi who called for a boycott of the National Convention in 1995. She made this decision a few months after being released from six years of house arrest because she deemed the convention convened to draft a new constitution as undemocratic. The generals have never forgiven her for continuing to resist their plans even after they were good enough to give her back her freedom.

In 1998, Suu Kyi once again proved to be a thorn in the side of the generals. That was the year she spearheaded the creation of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, a body that directly challenged the junta’s right to rule.

The generals wasted no time in arresting members of the newly formed group.

Since then, Suu Kyi has enjoyed a few brief interludes of relative freedom. Each time, she demonstrated that her immense appeal was in no way diminished by her long absence from the public eye. She campaigned around the country, drawing crowds of thousands eager to hear her speak. Her engaging and courageous speeches inspired hope in the hearts of countless ordinary Burmese—and intense anger among the country’s military rulers, who watched her every move and did everything they could to keep her away from her adoring audiences.

All of these episodes have only served to convince the generals that they need to keep her on a tight rein if they want to carry through their agenda. Last year, they finally succeeded in completing their constitution, which they will use to usher in a new era of military-dominated “democracy” that excludes a democratic opposition. It is doubtful that they would have been able to achieve this long-pursued goal if they hadn’t kept Suu Kyi confined within the walls of her residential compound for the past five years.

Suu Kyi’s reputation as a troublemaker within the military government’s ruling circles has earned her a further—illegal—extension of her current period of house arrest. Although she should have been released in May under Section 10 (b) of the State Protection Act, which only allows for a maximum sentence of five years, she is still in detention.

The regime is now preparing for the next stage in its transition to quasi-civilian rule—the 2010 election, which is intended to undo the damage of the 1990 vote. But in order to reverse the tide of history, the generals know that Suu Kyi must remain detained and silenced.

If Suu Kyi’s health were to fail prior to the election, it would probably deliver the regime the victory that has eluded it for the past two decades. Her death would not spell the end of the democracy movement, but it would leave it greatly weakened.

Although Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades almost completely cut off from the outside world, she is still Burma’s single greatest hope for democratic change. She is also a leader who is widely trusted by people of every ethnicity in Burma, and one who is respected by the international community, which will have a major role to play in helping to restore the country’s economy.

She has the rare ability to speak to the generals in a straightforward, unflinching manner. Indeed, her power derives almost entirely from what she calls “plain honesty in politics.” Her courage, dedication and steadfast adherence to the truth have empowered her to speak for the people of Burma in a way that no one else can at this point in the country’s history.

After 46 years under military rule, Burma is very lucky to have someone who can still command such immense power through the sheer force of her convictions. Without her, life would go on, but the country would be impoverished in a way that makes even its current circumstances seem tolerable by comparison.

The Spring before Khin Nyunt’s Fall

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

For a while, the Burmese junta looked like it might be ready to meet the West halfway. The ouster of the regime’s spy chief ended all that

IN early 2000, Maj Aung Lynn Htut began his new assignment as the deputy chief of the Burmese embassy in Washington, DC, with a mission to improve ties with the incoming administration of President George W Bush.

It was not his first time in the US capital. In 1987, the graduate of the elite Defense Services Academy spent three months in Washington receiving training from the CIA.

Then Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt waves to the media while heading to a summit in Pagan in 2003. (Photo: AFP)

When he returned to the US in 2000, Aung Lynn Htut served as an officer in the counterintelligence department of the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence (OCMI). His boss was Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, secretary 1 of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and head of the junta’s powerful intelligence apparatus.

Khin Nyunt was also the architect of a series of ceasefire agreements with domestic insurgent groups that had strengthened the regime’s hold on power over the course of the preceding decade.

By the time Bush took office, Khin Nyunt appeared to believe that a détente with the junta’s staunchest international critic was also possible, according to Aung Lynn Htut.

“We waited until Bush came to power and then we started lobbying in DC,” said the former major.

In an extensive interview with The Irrawaddy, Aung Lynn Htut provided an inside look at this pivotal time in recent Burmese history, when the ruling regime seemed to be ready to turn a new page in its relations with the West.

As he revealed, however, it was also a period of intensifying rivalries within the junta.

Before Khin Nyunt could begin his experiment in reshaping ties with the US and other Western countries, he had to get a green light from the SPDC’s top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

As the strongman who called all the shots, Than Shwe was an inveterate hardliner who did not always take kindly to Khin Nyunt’s conciliatory overtures. But the intelligence chief’s success in sidelining former insurgents had allowed the regime to focus on its war of attrition against democratic forces; so, in a nod to Khin Nyunt’s proven ability to neutralize opponents through guile, Than Shwe gave him the go-ahead to work his magic on Washington.

Aung Lynn Htut’s assignment to Washington was one of the first tentative steps towards ending the regime’s isolation from governments it had long regarded as hostile.

Another part of the charm offensive was the launch of a colorful English-language newspaper, The Myanmar Times, which would present a more sophisticated image of the regime than the stodgy, Stalinistic fare offered by the state-run press.

As a further step, the regime hired DCI Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm, in 2002. The firm was paid US $348,000 to represent the junta, which had been strongly condemned by the US State Department for its human rights record. US Justice Department lobbying records show that DCI worked to “begin a dialogue of political reconciliation” with the regime.

The firm led a PR campaign to burnish the junta’s image, drafting releases praising Burma’s efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing claims that the regime had used rape as a weapon in its military campaigns against ethnic insurgents.

By this time, the regime was becoming genuinely concerned that Bush’s policy on Burma was getting tougher. “We thought we had to counter it,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

He and his senior officers gathered information about who they could approach to ask for help. Khin Nyunt’s office started to reach out to Burma scholars who were sympathetic to the regime and who disagreed with the US government’s sanctions policy. Disgruntled prominent dissidents were also approached in a bid to persuade them to switch sides.

The regime also invited senior UN officials to come to Burma.

Joseph Verner Reed, the UN undersecretary and special adviser to former UN chief Kofi Annan and now to Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Rangoon to attend an event marking United Nations Day in 2002.

The high-ranking UN official was known to be close to some senior officers of the Burmese regime. Interestingly, he was listed on the board of the U Thant Institute in New York. U Thant, a Burmese, was the UN secretary-general from 1961 to 1971.

In a speech to commemorate the founding of the UN, Khin Nyunt said that Burma had always considered the world body to be of fundamental importance for the preservation of international peace and security and for the promotion of the economic and social development of mankind.

Former intelligence officer Maj Aung Lynn Htut (Photo)

“I wish to express our sincere appreciation and thanks to the United Nations and to the Honorable Under Secretary General Mr Joseph Verner Reed in particular for making this possible,” Khin Nyunt said in his speech, praising his special guest for attending.

But why did Khin Nyunt approach Reed in the first place?

“We gathered information that he didn’t like Aung San Suu Kyi,” Aung Lynn Htut, who acted as a liaison officer between Reed’s office and Khin Nyunt’s, said with a laugh.

In Washington, Burmese intelligence officers knew that it wouldn’t be so easy to find a sympathetic ear. They were up against US-based campaign groups and exiled Burmese activists who had considerable influence in forming US policy on Burma. They realized that it would not be easy to convince State Department officials, let alone Congress and the White House, that the regime was not as reprehensible as it had been portrayed.

Reports of forced labor, child soldiers and systematic rape committed by Burmese troops were thorny issues, and Khin Nyunt and his senior officers who handled foreign affairs realized that it would be an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, Khin Nyunt’s intelligence unit managed to reach a few US State Department officials with its message, including Matthew Daley, then head of the Southeast Asia Department. Daley once said that the US sanctions policy on Burma had failed and was not moving the country in the right direction.

Then, in May 2002, the regime took a bold step by releasing Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was allowed to go on political organizing trips to the countryside. In return, she agreed to inspect the regime’s development projects.

That same month, despite a visa ban and active US sanctions, senior intelligence officer Maj-Gen Kyaw Thein was given a visa to enter the US to brief some senior government officials on the Burmese regime’s efforts to eradicate illicit opium production.

Meanwhile, as Suu Kyi began to travel around the countryside meeting her supporters, intelligence officers were engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition leader. Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, deputy head of OCMI, his deputy, Brig-Gen Than Htun, and Minister of Home Affairs Col Tin Hlaing were involved in the talks with Suu Kyi.

News of this “secret dialogue” was leaked to then UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail by Foreign Minister Win Aung, a loyal follower of Khin Nyunt. Razali, who played no part in facilitating this dialogue, released this information to the world, which welcomed the first signs of political progress to come out of the country in many years.

The “kinder and gentler” image of the junta was further enhanced by The Myanmar Times, which faithfully propagated the regime’s agenda. The newspaper gave extensive coverage to the regime’s fight against HIV/AIDS and its increased cooperation with the UN, and even highlighted a visit to Burma by the family of U Thant as evidence of a changing political climate.

As all of these developments were unfolding, Khin Nyunt gave briefings to Than Shwe to attempt to persuade the junta’s supreme commander to open up more space for international agencies such as the International Labor Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In his efforts to convince Than Shwe of the need for greater openness, Khin Nyunt often turned to the senior leader’s deputy, Kyaw Win, for help.

Kyaw Win was a specialist in psychological warfare who had served under Than Shwe since he was a junior officer in the army. It was known that he could freely enter Than Shwe’s office at any time. He often came late at night, offering tea or a massage, to talk about the need to allow more international agencies to operate in Burma and to tackle sensitive issues such as forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers.

But it wasn’t easy. Than Shwe was stubborn and completely indifferent to the opinions of his foreign critics, said Aung Lynn Htut, who had met the top general on a number of occasions.

“He was a bulldog,” recalled the former major. “He didn’t really care about international pressure.”

On the child soldier issue, for instance, Than Shwe completely dismissed criticism, telling his subordinates, “Don’t worry. In two or three years, these kids will be adults.”

“He didn’t understand that this was a serious issue which we had to deal with at the UN,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe reviews a guard of honor on Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw in March 2008. (Photo: AFP)

People who have worked with Than Shwe said that he is slow to make up his mind and rarely gives clear yes or no answers to questions, forcing officers to carefully decode his vague replies.

But if Than Shwe often seemed indecisive, he also had very definite ideas about what really mattered as far as world opinion was concerned. To his mind, the regime had no reason to worry about international pressure as long as Burma could maintain good relations with China, India and Russia.

What about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)? Aung Lynn Htut said that the senior general didn’t even take the regional grouping into consideration.

Even Thailand—the largest source of foreign investment in the Burmese economy—was powerless to influence the regime. Indeed, Than Shwe always insisted that Thailand’s dependence on Burmese gas and border trade gave the junta significant sway over Thai politicians.

But Than Shwe was not as complacent about other potential challenges to his hold on power. While the intelligence camp was making real headway with its overseas PR offensive, hardliners close to Than Shwe were growing increasingly wary of the influence of two people at home—Suu Kyi and Khin Nyunt.

Suu Kyi was considered the greater immediate threat. Her travels around the country had attracted huge crowds of supporters. The hardliners decided to strike back with a vicious attack on the pro-democracy leader’s entourage as they traveled near Depayin in May 2003. Suu Kyi was arrested and detained soon after the massacre, which claimed the lives of dozens of her followers.

According to Aung Lynn Htut, the intelligence unit, which had been tailing Suu Kyi’s motorcade around the country, had no forewarning of the attack.

“We knew they were planning something, but we didn’t know the real plan,” he said.

Suddenly, all of the regime’s PR gains were erased. The Bush administration stepped up its pressure on the junta and imposed tough new sanctions.

But Than Shwe wasn’t finished. Next he turned his attention to Khin Nyunt.

The senior leader was not alone in his mistrust of the intelligence chief. Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the army chief, also saw a need to contain Khin Nyunt.

Than Shwe didn’t confront Khin Nyunt directly, but made some surprise moves at the Defense Ministry to undermine his influence. Most importantly, he brought in a few new faces: Gen Shwe Mann, Gen Soe Win, Gen Myint Swe and Gen Ye Myint.

Shwe Mann was being groomed to take over the commander in chief position and Soe Win was to take charge of the intelligence department. Khin Nyunt suddenly felt the heat. He was now accused of underestimating the potential threat of “the enemy”—Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the first time since 2001, when Than Shwe placed Khin Nyunt’s mentor, former dictator Ne Win, under house arrest after his daughter and grandson were accused of plotting a coup, Khin Nyunt found himself precariously close to becoming yesterday’s man.

Than Shwe’s next move was to name Khin Nyunt prime minister. According to former military intelligence officers, both Than Shwe and Maung Aye then urged Khin Nyunt to hand over control of the OCMI to either Myint Swe or Ye Myint. Khin Nyunt refused.

News of the SPDC’s internal conflict began to leak to the foreign press through senior military intelligence officers. Foreign Minister Win Aung hinted to his Asean counterparts that there was a bitter power struggle among the top leadership.

According to Aung Lynn Htut, strong business and personal rivalries added to the political tensions. Khin Nyunt’s wife and her circle of friends used to refer to Than Shwe’s wife, Kyaing Kyaing, and her closest friends as the “uneducated wives club,” he said.

Corruption was another key issue. Cases were being built targeting the spy chief. Several of his subordinates were arrested in northern Burma on corruption charges. Khin Nyunt’s name was also implicated when the authorities seized a fishing boat in Mergui with 500 kg of heroin on board.

After returning from a trip to Singapore in September 2003, Khin Nyunt had a heated argument with Than Shwe at the Defense Ministry and offered to resign. But Than Shwe told him he had a new assignment to offer him.

In October, Khin Nyunt called a secret meeting with his top intelligence officers and ordered them to provide documents as evidence of corruption against Than Shwe and top army leaders. Shwe Mann heard about the meeting and immediately informed Than Shwe.

On his way back from a trip to Mandalay, Khin Nyunt was arrested and charged with corruption and insubordination.

The regional commanders and army officers who believed that Khin Nyunt was building a state within a state hailed the purge. In fact, Than Shwe succeeded not only in consolidating his power base but also in gaining even more support within the armed forces.

“The army all hated us [the intelligence unit] because we had information about them, and even I, as a major, could reprimand a regional commander,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

The mission to win hearts and minds was over. Asean, China and Khin Nyunt’s allies in the West and the UN were disappointed to see the “moderate force” arrested and locked up.

Than Shwe did not want to release Suu Kyi, although secret negotiations between her and the regime were resumed just before the government revived its National Convention in December 2004. Suu Kyi, in a spirit of compromise, even sent a letter to Than Shwe to show that she bore no grudges over the Depayin ambush.

During these meetings, Suu Kyi and her party leaders agreed to return to the convention if the regime released her.

Aung Lynn Htut, who was still in Washington at this time, received daily phone calls from Rangoon. He was told that it was almost 95 percent certain that the NLD was going back to the convention. At the last minute, however, the deal fell through. Than Shwe did not keep his promise to free the iconic pro-democracy leader.

Ironically, it was Khin Nyunt who had announced, in August 2003, that the National Convention would be resumed as part of a seven-step “road map” to “disciplined democracy.” Now, however, he and his family were under house arrest, and most of his closest subordinates—with the notable exceptions of Kyaw Win and Kyaw Thein—were serving long prison sentences.

Four years after the removal of Khin Nyunt and his entire secret police department, many in the armed forces still believe that he had a plan to stage a coup against Than Shwe and wanted to become commander in chief of the armed forces.

For Aung Lynn Htut, his former boss’s downfall spelled the end of his career in military intelligence. In March 2005, he sought asylum in the US.

Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of Than Shwe. Through overseas Burmese radio stations, he has called on the junta leader to step down and urged soldiers to remove him from power.

Aung Lynn Htut said he believed that many senior intelligence officers who are now in prison felt the same way.

Referring to the pro-democracy movement, he said, “We wanted to see the revolution succeed.”