Saturday, 22 March 2008

World Must Give Serious Attention to Tibet

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junta Increases Security at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Irrawaddy correspondent in Rangoon contributed to this report.

China Steps Up Manhunt for Protesters in Tibet

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Referendum Sub-commissions Formed by Local Authorities

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ILO Urged to Take Action on Forced Labor Issues in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burmese Balk at Immutable Constitution

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immigration officials mobilize locals to support new constitution

By Myo Gyi
Mizzima News

March 21, 2008 - Officials of the Burmese Immigration Department in Shan State are reportedly mobilizing local people to support the ensuing referendum on a new constitution.

Immigration officials, who are providing national registration cards to local people in Nam Khan, Man Hero and Pan Hseng Townships in Muse district of Shan State, and are exhorting and organizing the people to vote 'Yes' in referendum, local residents said.

The Township Immigration officers Myint Maung and his subordinate Nyan Linn were leading the team in persuading the local people in Nam Khan Township, a local resident said.

The officials registered people and provided national ID cards to those who could prove their identity and produce valid original household registration certificates, the local resident added.

"This officer said that we must cast 'YES' vote when they issued the IDs to us," he said.

The local added that the registrations were done on a paper, which has the heading 'National Referendum Manpower Registration'. The ID cards are of two types - green for males and red for females.

Similarly in Man Hero town, the Deputy Township Immigration Officer Thaung Chit on March 12 told locals that they must support the new constitution in the referendum as his department is giving the IDs free of charge.

In Pan Hseng, a meeting was held at the Township Peace and Development Council Office on March 15 and the local residents were shown how to vote in the forthcoming constitutional referendum.

During the meeting, the Township Immigration Officer Kyaw Thet Han threatened the Ward and Village PDC members saying the people in the area must vote 'YES' in the referendum, and failing which will result in punishment of three years in prison and a fine of Kyat 100,000 (USD 80).

"He explained how to cast the vote in the referendum on a blackboard. He said that the IDs of voters must be kept at the polling station and they would issue the ballot papers after that. There will be only one ballot box, he said. Illiterate persons will be held by their hands from the door of the polling booth and then shown how to cast their votes," a source close to the Ward and Village PDC office said.

The Chairmen of Ward and Village PDC will be responsible for bringing all eligible voters to the polling stations and the Chairmen will be punished with three years in prison if voters avoid casting votes on the day, the source further said.

Another local from Pan Hseng said that the officials haven't yet threatened the villagers.

"The Ward and Village level PDC members haven't yet threatened us with imprisonment. But early this month, the township PDC Chairman personally organized us to cast 'YES' vote in the coming referendum. He said that a new nation will be built and we need to support it. In this new nation, the President may be Shan or Palaung. We heard something like that," he said.

At the same time, the leader of Pan Hse village militia in Nam Khan township, Pan Hse Kyaw Myint is organizing the local villagers to cast 'YES' vote in the national constitutional referendum otherwise the whole village would be wiped out from this place by the military junta, he has threatened.

Junta justifies plans for continued rule

By Mungpi
Mizzima News

March 21, 2008 - New Delhi – In a gesture to justify its forthcoming constitutional plans, Burma's military junta on Friday took pains to explain part of the contents of its draft constitution, which will be put forward for approval in May.

The Burmese military junta, which has plagued the country with over 40 years of disastrous rule, today said its plan to take 25 percent of seats in legislative bodies is aimed at balancing power between ruling and opposition political parties.

The explanation, written in the form of an article in the state-run media – New Light of Myanmar – said the participation of the military, known as the Tatmadaw, is immensely important in maintaining stability and in guaranteeing the progress of the country.

The article, written under the pseudonym Si Thu Aung, argues that the earlier electoral experiences of Burma clearly show that the ruling party neglects the peoples' voices and opposition views, which leaves the constitution as valuable as "a paper sheet."

Further, party politics forced groups to seek the support of independent representatives-elect and small parties in order to win more votes, prioritizing gaining political power over the national interest, the article said.

"Twenty-five per cent of seats in the legislative bodies are designated for Tatmadaw member representatives to be able to address such cases," the article reasoned.

The article, run in the junta's official mouth-piece, is the first official clarification on the contents of the junta's draft constitution.

While the full contents of the junta's draft constitution remain undisclosed, according to the '104 basic principles' drafted by the junta for the constitution, besides 25 percent of seats in legislative bodies, the military is vested with veto power to declare a state of emergency virtually anytime it wants without parliamentary oversight.

The principles also guarantee the military a place in the executive branch as the President will be elected only after the military's approval. The President is to be invested with enormous power and will work independently from the legislature and be granted immunity from prosecution.

With such points embedded in the constitution, critics say the junta prefers to keep the actual content of the constitution undisclosed and proceed to seek approval from the people via unscrupulous means.

Legal perspective

While the Burmese military junta claims that the draft constitution is drawn up under the guidance of legal experts and proclaims its legality, Aung Htoo, a lawyer from the Burma Lawyers Council, an exile-run organization, said the junta's constitution sets a new record for all the flawed constitutions that Burma has witnessed.

"In all democratic constitutions, there has never been a practice of giving parliamentary seats to the military to balance power," Aung Htoo said.

Aung Htoo, who has studied the junta's '104 basic principles', said the junta's claim of taking 25 percent of seats in legislative bodies means having unelected reserve seats in both the upper and lower houses.

Aung Htoo went on to comment that there has only been a practice of appointing Members of Parliament in the upper house, whereas the lower house has always been for elected representatives of the people.

"This justification for power balancing with the military is an odd idea and has never been practiced anywhere," Aung Htoo remarked.

He added that it is a clear indication that the junta does not want to give up their rule but merely intends to establish a puppet civilian government which they can showcase to both the internal and international community.

Aung Htoo said that per the junta's draft constitution the Tatmadaw will lead the cabinet, which in turn will actually deal with governing the country.

According to the draft constitution, a nominee for president of the country must have a military background. In other words, the President cannot be elected from among the civilian population, Aung Htoo continued.

Another feature of the junta's constitution, which is highlighted in the basic principles, is that any constitutional amendment requires 75 percent approval, a clause mainly intended to safeguard the constitution from amendment.

Aung Htoo believes that, "For a constitution so rigid, it needs an equivalent percentage of votes to approve it."

But the junta has not set any minimum percentage of votes to approve the constitution and does not draw any lines on how it will be approved.

Referendum process

Since the junta first announced its planned seven-step roadmap to democracy in 1993, there has been a wide-range criticism over the flaws of the process. However, over 14 years, the junta has managed to move on with its plan and has arrived at a crucial stage of the process.

The ruling junta, in early February, announced that it will hold a constitutional referendum in May followed by a general election in 2010.

While the junta prepares the groundwork for the forthcoming referendum by providing registration services and identity cards, even to ethnic ceasefire groups – whom the junta sees as forces supporting its constitution – critics maintain the process lacks transparency.

Critics say it is still unclear how the junta plans to tally the results of the polling with no declaration given as to the minimum percentage of votes required to approve the constitution or concerning the handling of abstentions.

Aung Htoo believes that with the junta so secretive of the referendum process, it is likely that the junta will use a simple majority to approve the constitution.

"In a simple majority, the junta will not count the abstain votes. For example, out of 100 voters if 30 abstain with 34 votes 'No' and 36 votes 'Yes', it will be counted as 'Yes', despite the 64 votes that do not support the referendum," Aung Htoo explained.

Yet even in the face of the junta's dubious plans, opposition leaders and groups both inside and outside Burma seem to be drifting in different directions in their responses to the upcoming poll.

While a few activist groups call on the people to participate in the referendum and vote 'No', several others urge a boycott through abstention.

While the rift among exile Burmese activists is mainly ideological, for the vast majority of people inside Burma it is mainly a lack of information on the constitution and a sense of lost hope with respect to opposition groups coming up with any concrete solution.

Despite the junta's claim that it widely circulated the contents of the constitution in the New Light of Myanmar in 2007, today's article is the first that debates and justifies the junta's stand.

Possible wrong choice

The junta claims that at least 24 million people, nearly half of Burma's population, are members of its puppet organization, Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). And sources say members of USDA are being provided various means of assistance to support the junta's constitutional plans.

Moreover, junta officials are reportedly visiting places along the frontier, particularly in Shan and Kachin States, and meeting members of ceasefire groups and providing identity cards making them eligible to vote.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst based on the China-Burma border earlier told Mizzima that many ceasefire groups are ready to cast their votes in the upcoming referendum.

Aung Htoo concluded that "if the junta's expectations are to be understood, then the opposition cannot afford to lose their votes by boycotting the poll, rather it is necessary to vote 'No'."

Splits emerge in Burma's army over country's roadmap

By Larry Jagan
Mizzima News

March 21, 2008 - There is a growing rift within Burma's military government over the country's political future and road-map to democracy. A battle is now beginning to emerge between those who are currently in control of most of Burma's assets and those who see themselves as the country's true guardians. Several key members of the ruling junta are secretly being investigated for corruption.

The junta is no longer cohesive and united, as two major camps have clearly emerged. On one side there are the ministers and members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) who have major business interests and are associated with Than Shwe's brainchild, the mass community-based Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

On the other side are the top ranking generals, led by second in command Maung Aye, who want a professional army and see its main role as protector of the people. They have become increasingly dismayed at corruption within the government and understand that it is undermining the army's future role in the country.

As the war between these two groups escalates, Senior General Than Shwe's rapidly deteriorating health has effectively left the country without a real leader. The result is total inertia in government administration and a growing fear that one of the contesting factions may launch a "soft coup" in the near future, according to Burmese military sources.

But the "real" Army, as these officers view themselves, is going to have to act quickly if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with. The planned referendum for May and the election in two years time will radically change the country's political landscape. The USDA, which is organising both the referendum and the elections, will significantly increase its power and control over the country's new emerging political process.

Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of the USDA and the likely curtailment of the army's authority after the referendum in May. "It will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute power," said a Burmese government official.

At the center of this emerging battle for supremacy is the growing division within the Army between those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS) like Than Shwe, and those who went to the Defence Services Academy (DSA) like Maung Aye.

Many Cabinet ministers associated with the USDA are from the OTS, as are several hardliners within the ruling SPDC, though some no longer have operational commands. These leaders are known to have the ear of Than Shwe and have convinced him to take an uncompromising stand against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

These key ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein (who is also head of the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission), Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo (who is also a key leader of the USDA), are notorious hardliners and amongst the most corrupt members of the government.

They have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks. "These fellows are out of control and racking up the money from bribery and fraud – not even Maung Aye, who despises excessive corruption, can touch them," a Burmese military source told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

They have been in government now for over eight years and are entrenched in their lifestyles and practises. Everyone seems powerless to stop them at present, according to Burmese government sources. "They are known as 'the Nazis' within the top ranks of the army," according to a Burmese businessman with close links to the military hierarchy. "They have the money and they have their own militia," he added.

Many in the army now fear that this group – with some senior officers in the SPDC, current or former heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) – are planning a grab for power using the USDA as a front. "They are the real enemies of the people," said the Burmese businessman.

But there are now growing numbers within the army that are viewing these developments with increasing concern. There is mounting resentment and frustration amongst the junior officers in the Ministry of Defence in the new capital of Naypyitaw (Nay Pyi Taw).

Many of the junior officers are divisional commanders, aged between 47 and 55. These are the army's "young Turks," who are alarmed at the way in which the USDA is growing in influence at the expense of the army.

"They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues, hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government and they are worried that this tarnishes the image of the army," said a source in Naypyitaw.

"It's time to get rid of the OTS bastards," an officer recently told a visiting businessman. But so far there are no signs of a palace coup. Many officers may feel aggrieved, but there is no open discussion as yet about doing anything in practise. "The climate of fear that pervades the whole country is also prevalent in the military," a Thai military intelligence officer told Mizzima.

"There is no doubt that many in the army are extremely unhappy with they way things are going, and are concerned about what will happen to them after the referendum and the elections," he said. "But they are army officers, and will continue to obey their orders unquestioningly," he said.

Yet there are now signs that the top few generals under Than Shwe may be beginning to form an informal alliance against the USDA leadership – and possibly Than Shwe himself. These are the deputy chief of the military, Maung Aye, Chief of Staff Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein and Secretary One of the SPDC, Tin Aung Myint Oo.

So far there is little to suggest that they are planning a purge of their opponents in the same way that former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and his intelligence apparatus were crushed four years ago. "Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing amongst the junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers," said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University.

But a pre-emptive strike against some of the key people in the USDA is definitely underway. Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein and the BSOs, Maung Bo and Ye Myint, are being secretly investigated by the Bureau of Special Investigations over bribery, kickbacks and illegal smuggling, a source inside the regime told Mizzima.

Maung Maung Thein and Maung Bo are under intense scrutiny for allegations of smuggling. At least 90 percent of the fish caught in Burmese waters are smuggled out through Thailand, especially Ranong, according to informed industry sources. Burma is estimated to be losing more than $500 million as a result.

For more than six months now the Myanmar Investment Commission, also controlled by Maung Maung Thein, has refused to grant import and export licenses to those in the construction industry to anyone not part of the USDA, according to Burmese businessmen. Licences granted for construction projects are crucial for the economy. For example, licenses are obtained to import cars and trucks theoretically needed for a construction project but instead sold for a massive profit.

Several other ministers and members of the SPDC and their families are also under investigation, according to government sources. Maung Maung Thein's infamous son, Ko Pauk (Myint Thein) had his timber business dissolved a few weeks ago for malpractice. Maung Bo's son's business, the Hurricane Bar, is also under investigation concerning drugs.

There are many other businesses and businessmen affiliated with USDA members being investigated, including the Managing Director of Asia Light, Soe Myint.

This has not happened in the past and indicates the concern the top military commanders have about corruption and what it is doing to the army's reputation. "It's an effort to distinguish between the government or USDA and the army," a senior military man told Mizzima.

Most of this is still behind closed doors. There is still no open confrontation between the two camps. In part that is because the SPDC quarterly meeting has been continuously postponed by Than Shwe for fear that it may open up a war between himself and his top subordinates.

One of the main reasons the ruling council has not met for more than nine months is that Than Shwe is trying to avoid the meeting as he knows Maung Aye will demand the resignations of at least four of the BSOs – including Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The last meeting reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused to accept Than Shwe's recommendation that Maung Bo be promoted to a full general, according to Burmese military sources.

At least two of them have since been removed from their commands – Khin Maung Than and Maung Bo being replaced by Khin Saw and Tha Aye (both graduates of the DSA) and Myint Hlaing is soon expected to replace Tin Aye. However, although they no longer have operational command for their regions they remain on the SPDC, imposed by Than Shwe.

If these three BSA commanders and DSA officers also replaced their predecessors on the SPDC it would radically change the composition of the council. Four years ago, with the support of his OTS men, Than Shwe's authority was unchallenged – but with these new promotions Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann would effectively control the SPDC.

As a result of the constant postponement of the SPDC quarterly meeting all promotions within the army have ground to a halt. "The top generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting] for months, since before the August and September protests. So during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions," said Win Min.

"The impact of this will certainly add to the growing frustration amongst some of the commanders who should have already been promoted," he said.

Time is now running out for the top generals under Than Shwe if they are to take control.

They know that after the referendum in May their position will become increasingly less significant, as Ministers and selected military generals move into the USDA and take up civilian roles in the future. At the same time they fear that widespread corruption will also destroy the country and its political stability.

"The real Army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country in the future," a military man told Mizzima. "The new generation of officers represent the real hope for the country." They would be open to a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, he insisted, as they see themselves as the real guardians of the country.

In the meantime, Than Shwe's health is rapidly deteriorating and he is fast losing his memory. He is increasingly withdrawn and reclusive. His position is now becoming progressively more perilous, despite his carefully planned schemes, according to many specialists on Burma's military.

"It is not worth risking a crisis when nature may solve it for us legally and peacefully," Maung Aye recently told some of his close confidantes. But with the referendum only weeks away the army may yet have to move against the corrupt USDA lobby before it's too late.