Saturday, 15 March 2008

Junta-back militia group employs locals without wages

KNG News

March 14, 2008 - Local people are being used in road construction work without wages by a Kachin militia group, the Rebellion Resistance Force (RRF) backed by Burma's ruling junta in Kachin State in Northern Burma, local sources said.

Although, hundreds of local people were employed with the promise of reasonable wages in a new horse-road construction project between the military bases of the militia group in Hkawnglang Hpu and near Gi Gi Pass on the Sino-Burma border, most workers were not paid, a resident told KNG today.

The Hkawnglang Hpu is one of the junta's under implementation development projects in Kachin State and the junta's high ranking officials often visit the area every year.

According to a resident near the Hkawnglang Hpu, the road construction is a joint project of the RRF and it was started late last year. They had asked local workers to work on the promise of payment of Kyat 800,000 (est. US $ 727) per mile or Kyat 100,000 (est. US $ 91) per one-eighth of a mile as construction wages.

United front to combat junta's referendum?

Mungpi
Mizzima News


March 14, 2008, New Delhi - Burma's prominent student activists group, widely known as '8.8.88 generation', Friday called on the people of Burma to vote 'NO' in the junta's upcoming constitutional referendum.

88 generation, in a statement released today, called on the people of Burma to vote 'NO' at the ballot boxes to prevent "the country from falling into the depths as a result of the junta's one-sided road-map."

"Let us transform the junta's sham national referendum into a 'National Show of the Peoples' Desire'," the statement urged.

This is the first official statement made by 88 generation on the upcoming referendum, for which the junta's referendum law declares criticizing the referendum process as a criminal offence.

Tun Myint Aung, an 88 generation student who is on the run from arrest, told Mizzima from his hideout that it is crucial for the people of Burma not to miss the opportunity to vote against the junta's plans.

"By voting 'No' we are not only against the junta's referendum, we want the junta to know that the people of Burma do not recognize every step of its road-map or their rule," Tun Myint Aung elaborated.

Burma's military rulers have announced they will hold a referendum on a draft constitution in May and a general election in 2010, for the first time setting a timetable on its 'seven-step road-map to democracy, which was announced in 2003.

However, critics say the junta's road-map lacks credibility as it excludes opposition parties as well as representatives of ethnic nationalities. Further, critics have slammed the junta's referendum plans saying they lack transparency without an independent group to monitor the process.

According to the junta's draft constitution, the military will automatically be given 25 % of parliamentary seats, and will be granted veto power to call for emergency rule anytime it deems necessary.

88 generation said the constitution will only allow the military dictatorship to perpetuate in Burma.

The group believes the only way for the people of Burma to deny military rule is to vote against the draft constitution.

"We do not want anybody to be in danger of their lives, so we are calling for the people to cast a 'No' vote, for which the junta cannot take action," Tun Myint Aung said.

February's referendum law states that anybody disturbing the constitutional poll is subject to three-year prison sentence.

"The authorities have no right to arrest you for voting 'AGAINST' this constitution," voices 88 generation.

Opposing views

Meanwhile, the 88 generation students (Union of Myanmar), a contemporary student group led by Aye Lwin, urged the people to vote in favor of the junta's constitution saying, "It is a chance to make democracy become real in our country."

The 88 generation students (Union of Myanmar), in a statement released on Thursday, said the referendum is a chance for the people of Burma to build democracy in the country.

Their argument, said Ye Tun, a member the group, is that no constitution is perfect and all have flaws. However, this is the first step in which the people of Burma, by endorsing the draft constitution, could begin the process of democratization.

"If the people of Burma boycott or give a 'NO' vote, then it will give the military another chance to delay the process of reform. Therefore, we are urging the people to utilize this opportunity to express that the people of Burma are ready for democracy," Ye Tun told Mizzima.

88 generation students (Union of Myanmar), the only student group that is allowed to operate freely by the junta, is accused by Burmese activists of being junta-led and used by the authorities to counter Min Ko Naing's 88 generation group.

The 88 generation students (Union of Myanmar) said they see this as the only way to build democracy and would continue a widespread campaign to gain support for the upcoming referendum.

While the two 88 generation students groups occupy different points of view on the junta's constitution, there exist additional perspectives as well.

Burma Campaign UK, a lobby group, have called for the boycott of the junta's road-map and urge the people not to vote in the referendum, saying it will give legitimacy to the generals that have plagued the country with over 40 years of unbroken rule.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nay Win Maung, a Burmese intellectual and Publisher of the Rangoon-based The Voice and CEO of Living Color Magazine, has cobbled together yet another solution to Burma's political stalemate.

Nay Win Maung, in an exclusive interview with Mizzima, said Burma's opposition party - National League for Democracy - should first endorse the junta's road-map and participate actively in the process alongside the junta, in a bid to build a better relationship with the junta.

He believes detained Burmese pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party should prove they are not seeking political power by contesting only half of the total parliamentary seats.

"If it were me, I would just want to serve in the rebuilding of the country in any way I can. But I would tell the government that they have to release all political prisoners to build unity toward a prosperous and happy country. She should decide to stand resolutely as a strong opposition figure," said Nay Win Maung, referring to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mystifying options

While the junta has made clear indications that it is determined to go ahead with its planned roadmap and is making the necessary preparations for a referendum, which they have declared to hold in May, opposition groups as well as the international community have varied in their responses.

Finding the best response seems to be a hard task and a big risk in trying to end decades of military rule in Burma, Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst based in Thailand commented.

"There is no guarantee in any way that the people's response will be recognized by the junta. They [junta] have all the power and could always manipulate the results of the referendum as has been earlier done," Aung Naing Oo went on to remark.

The junta has declared that the upcoming referendum is to approve the draft constitution it has drawn, which indicates that they will get what they want, Aung Naing Oo continued, citing the junta's declaration on the referendum.

Aung Naing Oo did however say, "The people can show their resentment collectively by uniting on a common strategy. It could be of total boycott, or a vote of "No", but what's important is to be unified in their stance."

"The junta will go on with whatever their plan is, but if the people are united in their stand it is possible to achieve a certain goal," added Aung Naing Oo.

The Best Response

While there seems to be no best response to the junta's plan to legitimize its rule, 88 generation maintains it is best to vote against the junta's constitution, as by abstaining or by approving the junta will have excuses to derail a process of reforms.

"If all people vote 'No' then we believe the junta cannot just go ahead with their plan," Tun Myint Aung stressed.

He added that while the current game is being played on the junta's court, it is necessary for the people to win this game and change the court.

"Let us be responsible for what we, each and every one of us, need to do. Our united action will frighten the generals. They will come to realize that we are not puppets which they can crush as they wish. This will be a way for us to be free from all the crises we face," appeals 88 generation.

Don’t Blame Gambari!

By NEHGINPAO KIPGEN
The Irrawaddy News
www.irrawaddy.org



Ibrahim Gambari, a seasoned Nigerian diplomat who has been tasked with coordinating the United Nations’ efforts to end the political impasse in Burma, wrapped up his latest visit to the country on March 10. The outcome of his mission, which ended without any improvement in the situation, was about as good as could be expected.

In the absence of a mandate from the UN Security Council, there was little chance that the special envoy could achieve anything concrete. When the Security Council refused to pass a resolution on Burma on January 12, it effectively ensured that Gambari’s efforts would become an exercise in futility.

Prior to his visit to Burma, the UN special envoy headed to neighboring countries to build some sort of consensus. As anticipated by many, including Burmese opposition groups and members of the United Nations, nothing has come of Gambari’s travels around the region.

Gambari was reportedly encouraged when the countries he visited paid lip service to the need for real improvement in Burma. But in the end, all he received were words without concrete commitments. China remains as determined as ever to expand its influence in the country for its own purposes, while India is still primarily concerned with countering Beijing’s growing clout.

The game being played by China and India is not about national security or ideology; they are not interested in spreading communism or democracy. The driving force behind the Burma policies of the two countries is economic interest.

Despite the shortcomings of UN efforts to date, however, we should acknowledge, with reservations, the good offices of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his efforts to bring about some resolution of Burma’s longstanding conflicts. Although substantive results have yet to be borne, the first meeting of the 14-nation “Group of Friends of the Secretary-General on Myanmar” was convened on December 19, 2007.

There are two possible ways to end Burma’s current situation: through international intervention or by a popular uprising (supported by disgruntled military personnel). Although it may be na├»ve to even consider it, the swiftest way to bring change would be by military intervention, either by the United States or by the United Nations.

So far, the regime has easily withstood pressure from the international community, which has yet to make a truly concerted effort to address the situation in Burma. Change from within the country is also unlikely to emerge without the support of elements within the military that has run the country since 1962.

Meanwhile, the regime continues to push a constitution that is deeply flawed and clearly undemocratic. Under the military-drafted constitution, 25% seats will be reserved for the military, which will also reserve the right to declare “emergency rule” at will.

Gambari has become more of a negotiator than a mediator. A suggestion he put forward during his latest visit—allowing independent observers to monitor and provide technical assistance during the May referendum on the constitution—was rejected outright by the regime. This indicates that the military is not prepared to accept the role of the United Nations.

The generals in Burma may one day regret that they did not listen to Gambari when they had a chance. If the regime had accepted his proposal, it would have muted criticism of the referendum and given greater legitimacy to the entire road map process.

On the other hand, international acceptance of the regime’s political process would lead to the marginalization of opposition groups. The result of the 1990 general elections would be officially nullified, and the military’s draft constitution would be accepted as legitimate.

But if a free and fair countrywide referendum were held in Burma today, it would in no uncertain terms reject the constitution. If the regime does succeed in forcing its constitution on an unwilling public, it will only mean that the country will be destined to repeat its unhappy history.

Gambari gave it his best shot, but he was never given any bullets. Even if the UN secretary-general himself personally visited Burma, as many observers have said he should, it would not likely make a significant difference. The Burmese military has guns and resources, but Gambari and Ban Ki-moon only have rhetoric and no enforcement power from the UN Security Council to back it up.

Don’t blame Gambari for not achieving much. Blame China and Russia for exercising their veto powers to block a resolution on Burma!

Nehginpao Kipgen is the general secretary of the US-based Kuki International Forum and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He is also the editor of Kuki International Forum.

Crackdown Fallout Hits Burma Tourism Hard

By ED CROPLEY /REUTERS WRITER / PAGAN
The Irrawaddy News
www.irrawaddy.org


It may be awash with cultural splendors, topped off by the 1,000-year-old temples of Pagan, but a reviled military government has ensured Burma has never been flooded with foreign tourists.

Six months after September's bloody crackdown on monk-led protests, that trickle of visitors—350,000 in 2006 compared to 13 million in neighboring Thailand—has all but dried up.

The former Burma's rigidly controlled domestic newspapers admit tourism almost halved in the three months after the crackdown, in which the United Nations says at least 31 people were killed.

But in Pagan, a mystical plain studded with more than 4,000 temples and stupas on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River, hotel and restaurant operators say occupancy rates and takings are just 20-30 percent of the same time last year.

Given that the unrest, and the shocking images of soldiers attacking monks and unarmed demonstrators, fell on the eve of the "cool season"—the traditional peak time for tourism—the decline is threatening many with ruin.

"There are so few visitors at the moment," said tour guide Aung Myint with a shake of the head. "Many people are wondering how they will support their families during the low season. Now is when we're meant to be making all our money."

Although it only took a few days for the junta to crush the biggest democracy protests in 19 years, pictures, including the shooting of a Japanese journalist, reinforced the image of the former British colony as an unstable, hostile place.

Besides a growing number of Russian tour groups, the only visitors who appear to have shrugged off scruples or the perception of risk are German.

"I don't know why but most of the tourists now are Germans," said Aung Thein Myint, owner of a swish open-air restaurant on the banks of the Irrawaddy, where takings in October and November were down by 80 percent.

"They seem to think that until they start shooting Germans, it's still safe to visit," he said.

BLAME IT ON THE MEDIA


In typically uncompromising tone, the junta—the latest face of 46 years of unbroken military rule—blames the decline on the foreign media and dissidents who smuggled out pictures and reports of atrocities on the Internet.

"Some foreigners attempted to tarnish the image of Burma by posting in the Web sites the photos of the protest walks," Deputy Tourism Minister Aye Myint Kyu, a brigadier-general, wrote in state-run papers in January under a widely known pseudonym.

However, in one sense he is right: coverage of the crisis put the oft-forgotten southeast Asian nation firmly in the world spotlight and bolstered the cries of many anti-government organizations telling potential visitors to stay away.

Under the slogan "The cost of a holiday could be someone's life", groups such as the Burma Campaign UK argue that every tourist dollar props up a regime that uses forced labor, child soldiers and systematic rape of ethnic minority women—allegations the junta denies.

Boycott campaigners also say that the jobs of people working in tourism are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of the wider effort to overthrow the generals.

"The tourism industry in Burma is tiny. The vast majority of people will never see a tourist in their life," said Anna Roberts of the Burma Campaign UK.

SHOULD I STAY, SHOULD I GO?


Even though the call for a boycott came from detained Nobel peace laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, it is not without its critics.

In particular, detractors argue it is an empty gesture since the cash gleaned directly and indirectly from tourism is a tiny fraction of that from gems and natural gas, which made the generals more than $2 billion in sales to Thailand alone in 2007.

They also say it pushes them further into the isolation on which they appear to thrive.

"The boycott is totally pointless," said Ton Schoonderwoerd, an independent Dutch tourist watching the sun rise above Pagan's temples, the product of 230 years of building by Buddhist kings that came to an abrupt end with a Mongol invasion in 1287.

"It may seem good to politicians in the US and Europe, but out here it just means that people struggle even more to make ends meet," he said.

Rather than coming down on either side of what is a passionate debate, backpacker bible Lonely Planet chooses simply to outline the pros and cons of visiting, and urges those who do to avoid government-run hotels and airlines.


NLD Calls for Constitution to be Made Public

By WAI MOE
The Irrawaddy News
www.irrawaddy.org


March 14, 2008 - Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), released a statement on Friday criticizing the junta’s tactic of announcing a referendum on a draft Constitution while withholding details from the public, according to an NLD official.

Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the NLD, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the statement, known as “3/03/08,” was released to criticize the junta for scheduling a referendum for May while the draft Constitution is unavailable to the public.

“The statement also says that the junta has issued two referendum laws as mandates for holding the referendum. But we have not seen any technical law that specifically outlines the referendum,” said Nyan Win. “Therefore, the NLD calls on the junta to follow the steps in statement 3/03/08.”

He added that citizens must be able to read the draft of the Constitution in advance of the referendum—then people would know more about the Constitution and could decide which way to vote.

The NLD released its “special statement” during a visit to Burma by the new Thai Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej and Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, who met junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe and Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein.

Before leaving for Burma, the Thai foreign minister told reporters that Thailand opposes Western sanctions on neighboring Burma and is ready to help the military-run country hold a referendum on a new Constitution in May.

"Thailand disagrees with sanctions," he said. "If Myanmar [Burma] wants assistance from Thailand, we are ready to offer help as a friendly country."

Commenting on Samak’s one-day visit to Burma, Nyan Win said that Thailand should not only focus on trade, because foreign relations not only depend on trade.

Dissidents Fear Security Reinforcements

By SAW YAN NAING
The Irrawaddy News
www.irrawaddy.org


March 14, 2008 - Burmese activists face increased prospects of arrest since the Burmese authorities beefed up security around Rangoon this week, according to dissident sources in the former capital.

On March 12, nine members of activist group Generation Wave were arrested by the authorities and are currently being detained in Rangoon’s Bahan police station, according to a source close to the group.

Rangoon authorities also raided the house of one of the group’s leaders, Kyaw Kyaw, said the source, adding that since March 6 about 18 members of this group have been arrested.

An anonymous police officer at Bahan Police Station told The Irrawaddy on Friday that an “unidentified security organization” arrested the nine members of Generation Wave.

However, activist sources said that Military Affairs Security personnel arrested the nine dissidents.

Generation Wave is made up of students and young activists, and was founded in late 2007 in the wake of the military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

Meanwhile, sources said that Burmese soldiers and army trucks were patrolling the downtown area of Rangoon while riot police and plain clothes security guards were deployed at major junctions and busy areas, such as Yuzana, Tamwe and Sule Pagoda, as well as around schools and markets in the former capital.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy on Friday, Soe Htun, a member of the 88 Generation Students group who is currently in hiding, said that he and his colleagues are now very careful about safety following the security reinforcements.

He said, “Since the Burmese authorities tightened security, we are now very worried about our safety. We don’t know why they did this, but it could be a way to threaten people.”

A well-informed source in Rangoon said that the authorities have beefed up security forces for fear of a repeat of the protests led by monks in September last year.

Meanwhile, a statement released on Friday by the 88 Generation Students group urged civilians not to support the national referendum and vote “No” to the regime-written draft Constitution.

Soe Htun said, “We are urging civilians to be brave and vote “No” in the referendum by rejecting the one-sided Constitution because the referendum can’t guarantee safety and peace for civilians.”

The Burmese military regime officially announced on February 9 that a national referendum would be held in May and multi-party elections in 2010.

Soe Htun also said that the referendum won’t be free and fair due to the lack of participation by opposition groups, members of 1990-elected parliament and ethnic leaders.

Recently, the junta also rejected a proposal by UN Special Envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari that an international observer’s team would assure the referendum process is free and fair.

Meanwhile, authorities ordered the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) to form a sub-commission of six members to oversee the referendum, said USDA sources.

The junta recently ordered local authorities in Rangoon to persuade residents to support the national referendum in May, according to informed sources.

Local authorities in Rangoon, such as the Township Peace and Development Council and the Ward Peace and Development Council, were officially asked earlier this week by the chairman of Rangoon Division Peace and Development Council, Brig-Gen Hla Htay Win, and Home Minister Maung Oo to lobby local residents to vote “Yes” at the national referendum, said the sources.

Singapore: Myanmar Should Better Engage UN Envoy Gambari

Source: AFP - Nasdaq

March 14, 2008, SINGAPORE (AFP)--U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari remains the best prospect for political reform in military-ruled Myanmar, current ASEAN chair Singapore said Friday.

A spokesman for Singapore's foreign ministry said it was "very unfortunate" that Myanmar's military rulers did not engage Gambari "more substantively" during the envoy's recent trip but cautioned against quickly labeling the mission a failure.

"Professor Gambari's mission is a very difficult one. The Myanmar issue is complex and demands immense patience and sustained effort," the spokesman said in a statement.

Gambari, a seasoned Nigerian diplomat, ended a five-day mission to Myanmar on March 10.

He met democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice but got no tangible concessions from the regime to include the Nobel peace prize winner in its plans to hold a referendum in May.

The referendum is meant to pave the way for multiparty elections in 2010.

Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from participating in the vote under a newly drafted constitution because she had been married to a foreigner.

Gambari was not allowed to meet senior junta leaders and was also publicly rebuked by the information minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, for being biased in favor of the detained pro-democracy leader.

While Gambari was allowed to meet a wide range of people, including several Myanmar ministers, "much needs to be done to ensure an inclusive political process," the Singapore foreign ministry spokesman said.

"We urge the Myanmar authorities to reconsider their position. Whatever the difficulties, Professor Gambari remains the best prospect for moving the political process forward."

It was Gambari's third visit to Myanmar since security forces waged a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks in September, when the United Nations estimates at least 31 people were killed.

Singapore currently holds the revolving chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that groups Myanmar along with Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Myanmar fails to make progress on democracy, says UN rapporteur

Source: Monsters & Critics

March 14, 2008 - Geneva - The military Junta in Myanmar had failed to make any real concessions to democracy, the UN special rapporteur said Friday suggesting efforts were more make-believe than real.

Paulo Pinheiro told reporters in Geneva: 'If you believe in gnomes, in trolls and in elves then you can believe in this process of democracy.'

The Myanmar authorities have moved to silence international criticism following September's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and announced a series of measures they claim will transform the country to a democracy.

'They don't give any concessions. For Latin Americans, eastern and southern Europeans and Asian democracies we can not give a certificate of democratic transition because this is not happening,' said Pinheiro.

He was speaking after presenting his final report on Myanmar to the Human Rights Council the previous day. He is due to hand the brief to a successor.

He said the Myanmar Government had paid no heed to the UN Security Council or resolutions by the Human Rights Council. He said he saw no evidence that anyone responsible for September's killings or excessive use of force had been brought to book.

'I am afraid 'accountability' does not translate in the Myanmar language,' he said.

The referendum, scheduled for an undisclosed date in May, is at the forefront of the Junta's democratization efforts but has already provoked protest at home.

Pinheiro said a referendum could not be democratic if it excluded political parties and opposition figures.

He praised China for the 'positive role' it had played in the region in trying to find a solution.

Pinheiro had been accused of a lack of 'objectivity' and 'impartiality' by Myanmar after presenting his report to the Council Thursday.

Myanmar said the visit by the UN Secretary-General's special adviser and meeting with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi pointed to the regime's commitment to democratic reform.

What Bush can win while at the Olympics in China

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

When he attends the Olympics this summer in Beijing, President Bush will have two scorecards: One to follow athletes and one to check on China's global actions. Mr. Bush plans to ask Chinese leaders about their hand in three trouble spots: Darfur, Burma, and Iran. Of the three, Iran is the most critical.

That's because China has become the largest trading partner with Iran during the past year (not counting the United Arab Emirates, which serve as transit traders for Iran). And China is putting more than $2 billion into Iran's oil fields. All this Chinese trade and investment gives an unsettling boost to the Islamic Republic in its drive to build a capability for nuclear weapons and to dominate the Middle East. It also helps Iran in supporting terrorist groups, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

China's mercantile rush into Iran isn't because it is more competitive but because Europe and many countries have been pulling back their economic ties with Iran to be in line with a growing global consensus on squeezing Iran with sanctions.

To its credit, China has tried in a minimal way to be a global stakeholder in the United Nations effort to end Iran's nuclear threat. In the past two years, it has voted in favor of Security Council measures that have imposed limited but increasingly stricter sanctions on Iran, such as the latest one March 3 that bars civilian goods that could have a military use.

But these measures mainly serve as a strong signal of world censure to Iran and are weak in pinching Iran's oil-rich economy and forcing an end to the regime's efforts to make weapons-grade uranium.

Sanctions with more bite are coming from outside of the UN, with the United States trying to enlist Europe, Russia, and Arab states to cut off financing, trade, and oil investments. Even many US states are ensuring that their pension plans aren't invested in Iran.

And although he's a lame duck and knows a Democrat may succeed him, Bush enjoys bipartisan support in Congress for his global leadership in isolating Iran. For the next president, Iran's nuclear program and its terrorist support will remain a top foreign-policy concern. The US has time to line up more sanction supporters. Iran can't produce enough weapons-grade uranium until at least 2010.

Having China draw down economic ties with Iran might further help moderates within Tehran's fractured leadership to gain some sway over Iran's intransigent policy. China itself has felt pressure from global activists for its support of Sudan and that regime's heavy hand in Darfur. Steven Spielberg's decision to withdraw as an artistic adviser to the Olympics may have helped push China to nudge Sudan to change it actions in Darfur.

The US and other big powers offered to talk with Iran on a range of issues and to help it build nuclear power plants (with safeguards) – if Iran simply suspends its enrichment. Iran's clerical leaders have refused that offer several times, perhaps because of internal power struggles and worries about popular unrest over an increasingly troubled economy.

Bush can bring home a gold medal from Beijing if he persuades China now to fully join the sanctions bandwagon.

Myanmar rejects UN criticism

Source: Aljazeera - Reuters

Protests continue worldwide but pressure, including from Myanmar's neighbours, has eased.

March 14, 2008 - Myanmar's military government has rejected a United Nations report highlighting the continued arrest and detention of political activists, journalists and human rights campaigners in the country.

The UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, delivered the report to the UN human rights council this week saying the government had "accelerated" rather than stopped unlawful arrests.

Pinheiro's report said initial indications by Myanmar's military government of a willingness to address human rights abuses had "disappeared".

He added that more than 700 people arrested during last September's anti-government demonstrations, including a number of monks, were reportedly still in prison.

But Pinheiro's report was rejected by Myanmar's ambassador to the UN, saying the military government allows freedom of expression and assembly.

U Wunna Maung Lwin said the allegations in the report were unobjective and dictate to the Myanmar government on matters falling within its domestic jurisdiction.

"There are no political prisoners in Myanmar. The individuals who are serving prison terms are those breaking the established laws of Myanmar," U Wunna Maung Lwin said.

He added that Myanmar security forces had restored peace and stability in the wake of last year's protests.

Unveiling his findings, Pinheiro said he believed there to be about 1,850 political prisoners behind bars in Myanmar jails as of January.

Pinheiro said initial signs of any willingness to address abuses had "disappeared" [EPA]. He said restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly continue to be reported in Myanmar.

He spoke of allegations of arrests and harassment of individuals accused of communicating information to the foreign organisations and media.

Pinheiro was particularly concerned about accounts of political activists, human rights defenders and journalists being searched and detained for reasons including possession of copies of his reports to the UN.

International pressure mounted on Myanmar after its violent crackdown on protesters last year, including from its Asean neighbours.

But calls for political reforms to include the opposition have largely fallen on deaf years and the voices urging change have grown noticeably quieter.

Thai PM visit

On Friday, the new Thai prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, made a "courtesy" visit to the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw for talks with the country's top leader, Senior General Than Shwe.

Wichianchote Sukchotrat, a Thai government spokesman, said Samak's visit was "purely to introduce himself".

"The Thai government will not raise the issue of Myanmar's political development because it's a sensitive issue and Myanmar's government is never willing to talk," he said.

Another senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Thailand - one of the biggest investors and trading partners in Myanmar - would congratulate the ruling generals on their plan to hold a constitutional referendum in May.

The military says the referendum will clear the way for multi-party elections in 2010 as part of its "road map to democracy" but local and international observers have criticised the plan as a thinly veiled attempt to hold on to power.

The rules of the plan block Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, from running in any elections.

Samak does plan to discuss the flight of political dissidents into the kingdom as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants living there, the Thai official added.

However, the Thai leader is apparently carrying a message from the US to the generals.

Christopher Hill, the top American official on East Asian affairs, held talks with Samak last month and asked him to deliver an undisclosed message from Washington.