Monday, 14 April 2008

Deadly struggle for migrants in Thailand

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

- The death by suffocation last week of 54 migrant workers from Myanmar, while being transported in an enclosed container truck in southern Thailand, was a tragedy waiting to happen say labor rights activists.

The victims, whose bodies were found when the cramped truck was opened late Wednesday night, were among a group of 122 people from Myanmar who had slipped into Thailand to secure jobs in the resort areas of Phang-nga and Phuket. The dead included 36 women, 17 men and an eight-year-old girl.

Survivors told the Thai media that the only air that circulated in the sealed truck was through an air-conditioning system. But a short distance into the journey, the flow of air dropped and breathing became difficult, they added. Banging on the sides of the truck had failed to draw the driver's attention. The latter fled the scene after he eventually stopped the truck and discovered what had happened to the migrants.

"This is the largest number of deaths of Burmese migrant workers we have recorded in one incident," said Htoo Chit, director of Grassroots Human Rights Education and Development, a Burmese migrant rights group based in Phang-nga. "What happened is very sad, but these kind of terrible deaths of migrant workers happen often in Thailand."

"I am not surprised with this tragedy," he added in a telephone interview from the south. "Similar trucks are used to move migrant workers to places in Phuket and Phang-nga where they are needed. Even open trucks that can take about 20 people comfortably are packed with 50 or 60 people."

The International Labor Organization (ILO) concurs. "This tragic accident reveals a problem that goes much deeper. It was a tragedy waiting to happen," Bill Salter, the ILO's sub-regional director for East Asia, told Inter Press Service. "There are networks involved in the movement of migrant works in some instances. Some cases are outright trafficking."

The tragedy follows the deaths of 22 migrant workers from Myanmar who had drowned in December last year in Ranong, a province north of Phang-nga and close to the Thai-Myanmar border. And the month before, in November, eight Burmese migrant workers were killed in an accident on the road in Petchaburi province, southwest of Bangkok.

The migrants who were being trucked on Wednesday to the two resort provinces along the Andaman coast were following a route that tens of thousands of others from the military-ruled country had taken before them. They are drawn to work in jobs described as "dirty and dangerous" in the fisheries industry, construction sector and in plantations such as rubber and palm oil.

Migrant labor from Myanmar has been the main work force behind the construction of the many hotels that dot the beaches of Phang-nga and Phuket, mainstays of Thailand's vibrant tourist industry. In the fisheries sector, the men are employed on the boats that go out to sea, while the women work in factories to process the catch from the nearby ocean.

"There is a lot of exploitation in the fisheries sector. The Burmese have to work for long hours and with low pay," said Sutphiphong Khongkathon, southern field coordinator for the Migrant Action Program Foundation (MAP Foundation), a non-governmental organization (NGO). "Nearly 80% of the Burmese migrant workers are not registered workers in the fisheries sector. And Thai labor law does not offer any protection for them."

In the recent months, "more and more Burmese are coming for jobs despite the heavy costs", Sutphiphong said in an interview. "They have been given the impression that they can work legally here at some point. That is a wrong impression."

Fueling this exodus is military-ruled Myanmar's steadily declining economies, prompting people from a broad range of sectors to leave. The violence the Myanmar junta has unleashed on the country's ethnic minorities has also driven people across the border to a more prosperous Thailand.

In 2007, reports by Thai labor officials and NGOs estimated that there were close to 2 million migrant workers in Thailand, some 75% of whom were from Myanmar, while the rest came from Cambodia and Laos. But only 500,000 of them registered last year with the Labor Department during an annual process that seeks to give the migrants documents to work and enjoy health benefits.

The sectors across Thailand in which migrant workers are employed - due to a reluctance by Thais to labor in such fields due to low pay - are agriculture, construction, fish processing, domestic workers, the garment sector and in mines. Besides the south, large pockets of migrant workers are found in Mae Sot, along Thailand's north-western border with Myanmar.

And according to a study done by the ILO, the migrants contribute substantially to the Thai economy. "If migrants are as productive as Thai workers in each sector, their total contribution to output should be in the order of US$11 billion, or about 6.2% of Thailand's gross domestic product [GDP]," states the findings in a report released last December, "The Contribution of Migrant Workers to Thailand: Towards Policy Development."

"If they were less productive [say 75% of Thai worker output] their contribution would still be in the order of $8 billion, or 5% percent of GDP," it added. "Migrants contribute anywhere from 7% to 10% of value added in industry, and 4% to 5% of value added in agriculture."

Yet, migrant workers from Myanmar are hardly treated with respect. Even a range of laws introduced by Bangkok to guarantee the rights and welfare of the migrants has not made a dent. "Part of the problem is the way migrant workers are perceived. Large number of the public perceive the migrants in a negative way," said ILO's Salter.

Consequently, it leaves the migrants open to abuse be it at work or when being transported, as happened last Wednesday. "A lot of people are to blame for the abuse, the public, employers and even officials, like the police," said Sutphiphong of MAP Foundation. "There were some employers behind the network that transported the Burmese this week in that closed truck. Even the local police are behind them."

(Inter Press Service)

China's troublesome torch relay highlights oppression

The Orange County Register

April 13, 2008 - Through rerouting and improvisation, they managed to run the Olympic torch through some of San Francisco's streets, if not the streets along the Embarcadero as originally planned. The reason, of course, was the multiplicity of protesters against various aspects of Chinese policy — its recent brutal crackdown in Tibet, its support of the regime in Darfur, its support of the repressive regime in Burma-Myanmar, its gross pollution, and its intolerance of internal dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and free media.

The situation in San Francisco was complicated by the fact that the city's Chinatown has the largest number of ethnic Chinese people in any one city outside of China itself, many of whom are pleased and proud that Beijing is hosting the Olympics this year and eager to support the games and cheer on the torch runners. The potential for clashes, even though all parties had promised to keep their expressions of protest or support non-violent, was daunting enough to worry authorities, especially following on incidents of violence earlier in London and Paris.

There are almost too many ironies to count. The torch, which is supposed to be a symbol of brotherly/sisterly amicable competition and striving for excellence, had to be surrounded by phalanxes of police and other bodyguards in a city and a country supposed to be the freest and most tolerant on earth. To hold what was supposed to be a public celebration, the police chose streets where almost nobody was.

Perhaps it's just as well. The Olympics were never quite the celebration of disinterested idealism they are cracked up to be (even in their ancient Greek manifestation), given their frequent use for politic ends, be it Hitler's Germany in 1936 or the Munich massacre in 1972. Granting the games to the world's largest politically totalitarian power, as if the five rings of the Olympic flag could or might magically induce the country to reform at least some of its more obnoxious practices was an act of incredible naïveté. There's something delicious in seeing foolishness and hubris laid low by a few hundred or even a few thousand demonstrators.

While it is marvelous to see so many protests against Chinese policies — did we mention forcibly clearing poor people, petty criminals and the few vocal dissidents out of Beijing before the games start in August so as to give the appearance of a cleaner, brighter city with no troublemakers? — they are unlikely to have an immediate impact on the Chinese government. On Tibet, for example, the government insists that Tibet is an integral part of China and always has been (except for an unfortunate half-century) and the state school system and state media have indoctrinated the Chinese people in this belief. Consequently, what pressure the government gets from the Chinese people tends to be complaints that the government was too soft.

Nonetheless, the protests are worthy and welcome. The communist bosses in Beijing may only harden their resistance to reform as an immediate response. But there is little doubt they are a bit shocked. The Olympics were supposed to be their coming-out party as a world power, and it is being spoiled. They might never admit it and it could take years, but they will start to think about changing some of their more noxious policies, or their successors will.

The best suggestion we've heard came from a sportswriter who recommended moving this year's summer games to Sidney or Athens, which have recently hosted the Olympics and have the necessary facilities, even if it's logistically unlikely. Short of that we hope President Bush will at least decide not to attend the opening ceremonies, which seems to be the boycott of choice, and even in this way, leave the games to the athletes.

Orphan boy lives in garbage dump

Khin Zaw Lin lives in a Thai garbage dump
with only his adopted mother and
his toy gun to protect him.

Khin Zaw Lin, second kid from right,
survives on discarded food along
with other orphans in the Thai garbage dump.

By Dan Rivers

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind events. Dan Rivers, CNN's Bangkok, Thailand, correspondent, writes about an unforgettable encounter with a boy in Thailand.

(CNN)--He doesn't know how old he is, but he thinks he's 7. His name is Khin Zaw Lin. He's lived in a garbage dump virtually his entire life.

I find Lin walking in a festering landscape of rotting food, plastic bags and junk at the Mae Sot garbage dump in Thailand near the Thai-Myanmar border. His parents are long gone. His home is a makeshift shelter made from salvaged bags, cloth and wood.

Lin is one of about 300 refugees in the dump who survive on other people's trash. Many are children. Some are women with babies.

Their daily routine follows the same pattern: They mill about the dump, waiting for the next truck to arrive, hoping for enough discarded food to get them through the day.

Lin pokes through the rubbish with a machete. He says he collects bottles and plastic for three cents a sack. He shows me his feet, which were filthy and ribbed with cuts.

He tells me through an interpreter that he can't afford shoes. He walks barefoot through the treacherous landscape.

My assistant told me about Lin's home while he was researching another story on the border area in Myanmar, the country once known as Burma. I found it hard to believe at first, but I was curious. I persuaded my camera crew to make the six-hour drive from Bangkok.

When we arrive at the dump, people are afraid of us. We'd been told there are orphans living at the dump, but people are wary. They think we are there to take away the orphans or ask for bribes.

I tell them I want to help, and I am eventually directed to Lin. He greets me with a soft, hoarse voice. But he's all energy and purpose when he resumes plucking bottles from the mountain of trash.

A recycling firm offers the closest thing to steady employment for Lin and his family. It buys what bottles and plastics Lin and others salvage.

Lin gives the money to his adopted mother. She tells me that Lin's biological mother gave him to her in Myanmar when he was a baby because she couldn't cope with the responsibility.

Life under the military junta in Myanmar can be brutal. The country's economy is collapsing, and torture and rape under the country's military regime is commonplace. Lin's new mother decided to flee to Thailand in search of a better life. She found a garbage dump instead.

Still, she says scavenging for food in the dump is actually an improvement on her previous life.

As I listen to Lin's story, a question keeps going through my mind: How can a 7-year-old spend his entire childhood in this squalor? Video Watch as Lin and others root through the dump »

Perhaps it's because Lin is invisible -- he doesn't have a passport or papers. He is part of special group of refugees from Myanmar that don't officially exist.

The United Nations established refugee camps in Thailand for those who flee Myanmar, but the camps are reserved only for victims of political persecution. Refugees fear if they enter a refugee camp, they'll be classified as migrant workers and deported.

As a result, these refugees are trapped in the garbage dump -- not enough money to go elsewhere and no prospects back home.

I thought I had become accustomed to the grinding poverty I had encountered in parts of Asia. I've met my fair share of children who are denied the luxury of hope. But Lin's story angers me. I feel close to losing all objectivity.

Near the end of my meeting with Lin, I ask his adopted mother if she, and Lin, would ever escape the rubbish dump.

Her answer is as hard as the world she and Lin inhabit.


Wave of Burmese refugees calling East Bay home

By Momo Chang
Oakland Tribune

OAKLAND — On a windy afternoon in January, Eh Kaw Heh anxiously stood with his mother, Thweh Wah, at the Terminal 1 waiting area at Oakland International Airport.

They were there to greet Thweh Wah's nephew, Eh Kaw Mu, 19, who is about to start a new life in Oakland after living in refugee camps for years.

Mu is part of a recent wave of Burmese refugees who have arrived in the Bay Area since summer. He is also Karen — an ethnic minority from Southeast Burma that makes up the majority of Burmese refugees.

Burmese are the fastest growing refugee population in the United States. In 2007, the United States accepted about 15,000 Burmese refugees, more than any other refugee group, according to data from the U.S. State Department. Officials expect another 15,000 by the end of the fiscal year, in September.

At least 150 Burmese refugees have resettled in the Bay Area, mostly in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties, according to resettlement agencies. Most of them now call Oakland home — about 120 since last summer, according to the International Rescue Committee, an international organization with which the U.S. government contracts to help refugees resettle.

For more than 60 years, the Karen (pronounced KAH-ren) have been embroiled in conflict with a Burmese military regime in their fight for independence. Many Karen were driven violently from their homes, their villages burned, during the 1980s.

Several hundred thousand Karen have fled across the border to Thailand, where many then lived — for an entire generation — in prison-like refugee camps.

These Karen and other ethnic minorities lived in limbo, unable to return home to Burma — now called Myanmar — and denied citizenship in the Thai refugee camps.

For years, refugee rights groups have pushed for acceptance of more Burmese refugees, in part because of the amount of time they've lived in refugee camps.

One of the reasons Burmese have been barred from entering the U.S. is because of anti-terrorism acts like the Patriot Act. Many Karen and other ethnic minorities from Burma have been a part of or associated with militias that fought against the Burmese military regime, which puts them in the broad category of "terrorist group."

The United States has been accepting more Burmese refugees since 2006, when waivers were granted to some groups previously barred from entry because of the Patriot Act.

Now, halfway across the world, toting their only belongings in single large bags, they arrive to start a new life.

Refugee generation

Eh Kaw Heh, 24, spent nearly 23 years in various Thai refugee camps, fleeing Burma with his family when he was 1.

"We want our own independent state, but Burma would not allow us," Heh said about the Karen's situation.

For more than 20 years, his family stayed in three refugee camps in Thailand. Several times, a Burmese military regime or other militias burned down the camp where his family lived, forcing them to flee yet again to another camp.

Heh, who arrived in June, lives in a modest apartment in Oakland's Eastlake district with his two younger brothers (who were born and raised in refugee camps), his mother, and, now, his mother's nephew.

This same neighborhood just east of Lake Merritt served as a hub for Southeast Asian refugees in the 1980s, after the war in Vietnam. The ethnically mixed neighborhood now also includes many new Burmese refugees.

Heh said when officials in Mae La refugee camp — the largest one in Thailand with about 45,000 people — announced that the United States was accepting refugees, they, like thousands of other Karen families, applied.

"When you live in the camps, if you compare, it's like you live in prison," he said. If refugees leave the camps, they could be caught by Thai police, he said.

There was little work, little education and myriad health problems plagued the overcrowded refugee camps.

In the camps, students can only get up to the equivalent of a 10th-grade education, and a majority of recent refugees do not speak English, though Heh does.

The younger generation, which spent years — many their whole life — in refugee camps, have little or no work experience when they arrive in the United States. Most of the elders were farmers in Burma before they were left the country.

For Heh, his first job was packing clothes in a warehouse in San Francisco.

A better future

Heh's prospects are bright — his main advantage being that he speaks English pretty well, unlike most of the recent Burmese refugees. He would like to get a college degree, something unthinkable in the camps, where many struggle to receive the equivalent of a 10th-grade education.

He found a new job in March, one he said he enjoys. He is learning bookkeeping and office management at an auto parts company in Oakland.

Despite early struggles of resettling — worrying about learning a new language and finding a sustainable job — many of the refugees interviewed say they are happy to be here.

Because of the recent influx of Karen people, Oakland Burmese Mission Baptist Church started offering services once a month in Karen. Some Karen refugees are not fluent in Burmese, the language in which regular services are given.

During one of the services, hundreds of Karen dressed in their traditional colorful, weaved clothing sang Christian songs in Karen and ate a buffet lunch of Burmese food prepared by church members.

While life here is vastly different from that in Burma and the refugee camps, many said they are glad to start a over.

"Life (in the refugee camps) is very hard and there is no hope, no future, at all," Pa Eh Ko, who arrived with his wife and two children, said through a translator. "Here, we have challenges, but we have a future here if we work hard."

Junta includes underage people in voters' list


April 14, 2008 - The Burmese military regime has included thousands of underage people in Northern Burma in the voters' list it has prepared countrywide for the constitutional referendum on May 10, according to its draft figure.

The draft figure has listed a total of 213,000 voters including people less than 18 years in Myitkyina Township the capital of Kachin State. The list has been handed over to Brig-Gen Thein Zaw, Minister of Communication and Post &Telegraph early last month by local members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), USDA sources said.

Among the voters over 97,000 are from among members of the USDA and the junta has included over 33,000 members under 18 years old, according to a vote station member in Myitkyina.

Kachin capital Myitkyina Township has the maximum number of eligible voters in Kachin State and the township has 13 sub-townships in the west parts of the Mali Hka (Irrawaddy River).

The draft voters' list was prepared by local USDA members and 103 polling stations were set up in Myitkyina Township, the local vote commission said.

Of them, the highest number of 38 polling stations is being set up only in Myitkyina downtown and the rest will be in other sub-townships and villages including one polling booth in Myitkyina Prison, the sources added.

All polling stations will be constructed in the same format and polling booths will be divided into three sections such as for 1,000 persons, from 1,000 to 2,000 people and from 2,000 to 3,000, people according to the Vote Commission.

Members of polling stations and the Vote Commission who were appointed by the regime in Myitkyina assume that the regime may convert the current voters' list of Myitkyina Township as pre-votes.

At the moment in Myitkyina Township, special representatives and administrators of the regime's township to village level are busy with meetings on the constitutional referendum, local sources said.

Think Piece - Burma and Tibet

Shan Agency for News


  • strategically located
  • rich natural resources
  • long-standing repressive rule
  • resisting hard power with soft power
  • influx of Han settlers
  • leaders Nobel peace prize winners
  • ethnic Burmans are of Tibetan stock


  • Repression in Tibet is by an occupying power
  • Crackdown in Burma led to international indignation and a new round of sanctions,
    but no call for any penal action, however mild, against China
Autonomy in China:

  • China grants local autonomy to just two areas, Hongkong and Macau. Other autonomous regions, prefectures, counties and townships are autonomous only in names.

Brahma Chellaney
a professor of strategic studies
at Center for Policy Research
in New Delhi, Japan Times,
9 April 2008

Chinese trucks to tow howitzer arrive on border

Chinese made military trucks seen lining up on Monday (April 14, 2008) at the Sino-Burmese border town of Jae Gao before being transported to Burma.

Myo Gyi
Mizzima News
April 11, 2008

Ruili – Over 50 Chinese trucks to tow howitzers, which were transferred to Burma, arrived on the Sino-Burma border town of Ruili on Friday morning, eyewitnesses said.

Local residents in Ruili said they spotted the Chinese made howitzer towing trucks being parked at a car wash.

"The trucks arrived this morning. There are more than 50 trucks. Many are now in car washing service shops," a local resident from Ruili said.

The military trucks are said to have been produced by a Chinese company called 'Dong Feng' (East Wind) and are equipped with three axles (six wheels).

"These are not passenger trucks, they are designed to tow the howitzer and can also be used to transport military supplies such as ammunition and foodstuff," Aung Kyaw Zaw, a military analyst based on the Sino-Burma border said.

Aung Kyaw Zaw added that these trucks are bigger than the previous FAW and Dong Feng trucks and are tougher and sturdier. These are specially designed to tow howitzers. They can tow both 105 mm and 155 mm howitzers.

A local resident on the Chinese border town of Jae Gao, opposite Burma's Muse, said that the trucks were seen parked at the Jae Gao car park.

Since January, China has transferred about 1,000 trucks to Burma through the Jae Gao-Muse route on the Sino-Burma border.

Some of the Chinese made trucks are painted with the colour and emblem of the Burmese police force and were transferred to the Riot Police battalions in different parts of Burma including to Kyatpay (Naypyitaw), Rangoon and Mandalay last month, sources said.

Junta's U- turn and future Sino-Burma Relation

By Myat Soe
Mizzima News

April 14, 2008 - Dishonest Burmese rulers' decision to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the elections shows that its process leading to a democratic transition in the country is not convincing. The purpose of this decision was that the military regime threatened to ban the NLD and its leadership completely. This announcement evidently defied the international community by refusing to pursue democratization and national reconciliation. It appeared to be on the verge of a major U-turn, and it was aimed at undermining the on-going regional and international efforts.

Since the September people's movement in 2007, no political tangible result has been achieved. The regime did not free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners which the international community has been urging for. The house arrest of U Tin Oo, the deputy leader of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was extended. More political prisoners have been locked up. The UN special envoy was not allowed to go back to Burma whenever he needed to follow up on the UNSC resolution. Freedom of press has been prohibited, and citizens have no space to express their views openly and peacefully. In addition, the junta's referendum law released in February 2008 prohibits people from criticizing or campaigning against the referendum process and imposes a penalty of three years in prison. In fact, the regime's lip service to political solutions, buying time, blaming the opposition, and attacking its own citizens will not take the place of substantial reforms and will not resolve the country's problems.

Why does the regime remain deaf to the rest of the world? The reason is the regime had two trump cards in the form of Russia and China at the UNSC. Indeed, China and Russia, as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, can promote or prevent meaningful U.N. action on Burma. Recently, the Burmese military regime agreed to let Russia's Glory International Pte Ltd search for gold and other minerals in the country's northern Kachin State, which borders China. Later, Lt. General Evnevich Valery G from the Russian Defence Ministry followed his visit to Burma. According to reliable sources, the regime is trying to acquire knowledge and nuclear technology from Russia to build nuclear reactors in the country for energy purposes since dealing with North Korea and Iran has been criticized by the neighbours and the international community. Another reason is that the regime is trying to strike a balance with China and find out an alternative source for military supplies. On the other hand, China's interest in Burmese gas and building military bases in Burma's islands are life supports for the ruling regime.

Indeed, Russia and China have ignored many thousands of people in the war zones of Burma who are suffering growing humanitarian crisis for their own self-interests. They never take the burden of the UN for this humanitarian crisis. In doing so, the immoral self-interests will increase threats to Burma's neighbouring countries and the entire region. Currently, more than 4 million people are living in neighbouring countries, and one million people are suffering humanitarian crisis. The recent deaths on 9 April of 54 illegal migrant workers from Burma, who suffocated in the back of a container truck while being smuggled to the Thai resort island of Phuket, highlighted the vulnerability of foreign migrant labourers in Thailand, said UN International Labour Organization (ILO) officials. This tragedy underscored the need to for cooperation to fight against human trafficking, and similar plights in Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, and other neighbours. These are obviously evidence that people are suffering humanitarian crisis under military rule. China and Russia should not prevent meaningful U.N. action on Burma. As a consequence, Russia and China will have to pay a huge political price when building a relationship with Burma's future generation.

Yet, Burma's prominent student activists group, widely known as '8.8.88 generation has called for a worldwide boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in response to China's bankrolling of the military junta that rules Burma with guns and threats. The group also joined a growing chorus of critics urging an Olympic boycott over complaints ranging from China's human rights record to its failure to press Sudan to end the Darfur conflict and to resolve the Tibet issue. Certainly, the china involvement with the oppressive military regime of Burma has largely been questioned at the beginning of the Beijing Olympics. Now, the world leaders including Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, UK PM Gordon Brown, German chancellor Angela Merkel, Canada's PM Stephen Harper, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai had considered not attending Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is considering staying away, and U.S. President George W.Bush has not yet committed to attending the opening ceremony.

Certainly, China wants the Beijing Olympics to show off, and the freedom-loving people of Burma, Tibet, and Sudan are not allowed to do that. The voices of one world and one dream have loudly been heard, and it can not be possible that China can continue help to oppress human rights in Tibet, Burma, Darfur and elsewhere and still be considered untouchable for economic reasons.

Now, Burma's regime is going back to a major U turn again, and it is driving the country down a dangerous road. In fact, Burma's military rulers have announced they will hold a referendum on a draft constitution on May 10 and a general election in 2010. However, the opposition groups including 88 generation and the NLD called on the people of Burma to vote 'No' in the ballot boxes to prevent "the country from falling into the depths as a result of the junta's one-sided road-map. By voting 'No' we are not only against the junta's referendum, we want the junta and world to know that the people of Burma do not recognize every step of its road-map or their rule, a statement released by 88 generation group said. The time of casting "No Votes" for the junta's U-turn is near and let us see how the result will affect the Beijing Olympics in political terms. China should not remain deaf to the people of Burma.

The question is: will China defend its policy for the notorious Burmese junta at the UNSC again? Truth to be told, the more China supports Burma's junta, the higher the future relationship of Sino-Burma will be at risk and will cost China dearly in political terms.

(The writer Myat Soe is a former Central Executive Committee member of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (1988) and currently serves as the Research Director of Justice for Human Rights in Burma. He graduated from Indiana University, and earned his MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.)
Happy Burmese New Year

Glitter Graphics

China must heed cries for change

By John Canzano

April 13, 2008 - T he Chinese government enabled the genocide in Darfur, suppressed religious freedom, persecuted the Falun Gong, cracked down in Tibet, played diplomatic games with Myanmar, muzzled the press, and curtailed basic human rights.


They didn't expect a little protesting?

What we ended up with this week were San Francisco police officers running alongside the Olympic torch relay, protecting the flame (a symbol of peace) in human-shield formation. And right about now I'm thinking what we have here is an opportunity.

I've covered two summer Olympics, and on the final day of competition in Sydney and Athens, each time, I filed a column on the people who participated in those Games.

Those Olympics were about people.

They were about Rulon Gardner and Marion Jones and Michael Johnson and an aboriginal woman named Cathy Freeman, who won gold in the 400 meters for Australia and became the final Olympic torch-bearer there. And they were about Maurice Green and the Dream Team's flop and what Paul Hamm should have done with his gold medal in men's gymnastics.

People ruled those Games.

This summer, protests will.

While I'd hope that the competition in Beijing would be breathtaking and leave us talking about people, I suspect the unrest we're seeing now isn't going to stop until the flame leaves Beijing in late August.

When the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the Olympics seven years ago, it did so after expressing that it wanted to encourage China to live up to the human rights standards written into the Olympic charter.

China mostly nodded, then went about preparing for the Olympics, building venues and improving transportation. There was an air-quality study and a housing study, and they're forcing residents to go on vacation to relieve congestion. Scientists there also plan on shooting chemicals into the sky in the weeks before the opening ceremony, which will make it rain and result in a clearer sky for the world to see. Also, they've set up a hotline for visitors and residents to report examples of poor English translation on street signs and menus around the Olympic city.

Welcome to Beijing, basically.

Now, Beijing, welcome to the rest of the world.

Because there have been protests in London, Paris, Greece and the United States. And the British prime minister and Germany's chancellor announced they intend to skip the opening ceremony. Others, including President Bush, are trying to decide what they need to do.

Meanwhile, state-run television in China is busy cutting away from the protests, acting as if none of it is happening, and it's become obvious to the rest of the world that the 2008 Olympics are secondary to the games going on behind the scenes.

China named the torch route "Journey of Harmony."

It's sponsored by Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lenovo. The journey doesn't feel harmonious when you hear police in London detained 37 protestors, including one ambitious guy who brought a fire extinguisher.

The irony is that the Olympic torch relay was first introduced in 1936. The Germans invented it to help glorify the Third Reich. Now the flame has become a rallying point for protestors who are interested in calling attention to the ugly sores of a communist country that needs to change its social policy.

A large portion of China's $1.3 billion Olympic security budget is going to be spent on activist espionage.

Also, the United States government sent a release to American journalists credentialed to cover the Olympics, warning that the civil rights we enjoy in this country will not necessarily be respected in Beijing. The statement warned that your hotel rooms are subject to entry, and that your conversations, including those on the telephone, are not private.

Maybe you love the long jump or basketball or the gymnastics floor exercise. Maybe you're inspired by watching a display of unity, mutual support and collective identity along with all the athleticism that you get in an Olympics. But I challenge you to not get charged up when you hear that the world, in 2008, is more interested in social change than the hammer throw.

One of the big mysteries so far has been trying to figure out how China, a country that mutes its citizens, is going to react when journalists covering the Olympics are busy rummaging around Beijing, telling the world what they see.

The hope is that the Beijing Games would end up being a progressive experience for China. That the social pressure, combined with the IOC's charter, combined with protests and basic cultural evolution, would cause positive change in China.

That hope is what the Beijing Olympics are already about.

John Canzano: 503-294-5065; To read his blog, go to johncanzano; Catch him on the radio on "The Bald-Faced Truth" from 6-8 p.m. weekdays on KXL (750)

Every trick in the book

By Benedict Rogers
Burma's new constitution will be put to a referendum next month.
A more blatant sham is hard to imagine
April 13, 2008 - Next month, the people of Burma will vote in a referendum on a new constitution - the first opportunity to go to the polls since Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won elections 18 years ago. But in 1990 Burma's military regime was shocked that despite all its efforts to undermine the opposition and intimidate the voters, it still lost the election. This time, the junta is determined to get its way - and is using every trick in the book and more.

A more blatant sham is hard to imagine. When the regime rejected the UN's request for international monitors during the referendum, it abandoned any iota of credibility. What kind of referendum is it where those who campaign against the process can be jailed for at least three years?

Millions of Burmese are disfranchised. Buddhist monks and nuns, who number 500,000, are denied the vote - a price for their courageous demonstrations last September which were brutally crushed. Religious leaders from other faiths are also excluded. More than 500,000 internally-displaced people on the run in the jungles of eastern Burma, as well as the 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas, treated as non-citizens and therefore stateless, are banned from participating. Millions living in conflict zones in the ethnic states, as well as refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries and exiles further afield, will also be excluded.

The junta's game-plan is clearly to rubber-stamp its new constitution which, in turn, will enshrine military rule. The constitution drafting process completely excluded Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and major representatives of the ethnic groups. Most of the members of parliament elected in 1990 are in prison or exile, and Suu Kyi is in her 12th year of house arrest. The National Convention, which drafted the guidelines for the constitution, involved no debate among the handpicked delegates, and none of the proposals made by the few ethnic representatives who did participate were adopted. Law 5/96 imposed prison terms of up to 20 years for discussing the constitution process.

The end product is a constitution which offers no improvement in human rights and democracy - and simply enshrines military rule. The commander-in-chief of the army will appoint 25% of the national legislators. He will also appoint the defence minister, who will report to him. The army chief can seize power at any point if he happens to believe that national security is threatened. There will be no independent judiciary, and the constitution cannot be amended for 10 years.

Political prisoners will be barred from contesting elections, and the president must be a person with military experience who has not married a foreigner. Suu Kyi, therefore, is by definition ruled out.

The junta hopes this charade will lull the international community into a false sense that it is reforming, and so pressure for change will ease. The international community, including Burma's neighbours, must not fall for this. If the regime continues to ignore calls from the UN for dialogue with the democracy movement, tough action should follow. The UN secretary-general himself should take charge of Burma policy. Burma's best friends - China, India, Russia, Thailand and Singapore - should end their policies of appeasement. A universal arms embargo should be imposed. And the UN security council should refer the generals to the International Court for investigation into crimes against humanity.

This is a regime guilty of every possible human rights violation, including a campaign of ethnic cleansing involving the widespread, systematic use of rape as a weapon of war, forced labour, the use of human minesweepers and the destruction of more than 3,200 villages in eastern Burma since 1996. More than 70,000 children have been taken off the streets and forced to join the Burma Army - the highest proportion of child soldiers in the world. More than 1,800 political prisoners are in jail, subjected to horrific torture. It is time to bring this catalogue of horrors - under-reported and overlooked for too long - to an end.

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