Thursday, 27 March 2008

Myanmar promises "free and fair" referendum

By Aung Hla Tun
Editing by Ed Cropley and Sanjeev Miglani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gambari misled UNSC: 88 generation students

By Mungpi
Mizzima News
March 26, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vote 'No'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-government Campaigns Continue in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activist Groups Accuse UN of Letting Burmese People Down

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regime Restricts More NGO Activities

The Irrawaddy News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burma: A new way forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy Recommendations:

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

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

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

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

Contact: Joel Charny.
Relief Web

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

By Amy Kazmin and Richard McGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Financial Times

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

By Amber Yao

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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