Friday, 18 April 2008

Myanmar monks pray for democracy

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) - Monks who helped lead last year's protests against Myanmar's junta urged the country to mark the traditional New Year on Thursday with prayers for democracy.

The All Burma Monks Alliance, a coalition of activist monks in Myanmar, denounced the country's military leaders for having "mistreated and abused the religion and Buddhist monks" during its crackdown on peaceful protests.

In a statement, the alliance called on the devoutly Buddhist country to pray "for the success of the democratic movement and to pray that those who committed sins against the religion ... face retribution."

The alliance was instrumental in organizing last September's pro-democracy protests. Most of its leaders were arrested or are in hiding. The statement with the group's seal was sent by e-mail from the same address it has used in the past.

Calls for democratic reforms in Myanmar intensified after the junta quashed the protests. The United Nations estimates at least 31 people were killed and thousands more detained during the crackdown.

Cracks in constitution divide Myanmar

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Asia Times

BANGKOK - Myanmar's military regime is under fire for the language in a new constitution to be approved at a national referendum on May 10. The full text of the charter was made public only a month ahead of the plebiscite.

Articles that have aroused anger deal with attempts by the junta to legitimize its role as the supreme political authority in the troubled country. Such clauses make the constitution's promise of a new democratic landscape meaningless, say critics.

Article No 445 tops the list of concerns for the Burma Lawyers' Council (BLC) and groups like the US-based Global Justice Center (GJC). "No legal action shall be taken against those (either individuals or groups who are members of SLORC and SPDC) who officially carried out their duties according to their responsibilities," states this article.

Tha SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) are the official names the governing arm of the regime has been known by since military leaders staged a power-grabbing coup in 1988. The regime that it overthrew was itself military-based and had come to power following a 1962 coup.

"That clause is to provide immunity to the junta for all the human rights violations it has committed since 1988," says Aung Htoo, general secretary of the BLC. "The new constitution will be meaningless if the perpetrators of violence can enjoy immunity after it is approved. What is the difference for the people, who are the victims? Nothing."

It also undermines the hope of Myanmar transforming from a dictatorship to a democracy, he explained in an interview. "A constitution for a post-conflict society has to give justice and genuine national reconciliation a priority. That is what happened in South Africa. But the new constitution offers little to move Burma [Myanmar] away from its current conflicts."

On Monday, the BLC and GJC issued a statement denouncing the military regime for trying to evade "criminal prosecution" through the constitution. "There is ample evidence that the military regime has committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and potentially even genocide through forced relocations, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and extermination," they said.

Leaders of the Myanmar's ethnic communities are perturbed that the junta's much-vaunted promise to create regional assemblies through the constitution amounts to essentially toothless legislative bodies. The new charter is set to create 14 assemblies in areas that are home to the major ethnic groups, marking the first offer of political space to the non-Burmese minorities since the country gained independence from the British in 1948.

"The regional assemblies will be under the junta, which has the power to appoint a fourth of the members and the chief minister for the region," says David Taw, joint general secretary of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), an umbrella body for the seven major ethnic groups. "Most of the people would like to choose their own chief minister through a ballot."

The space for economic activity to meet the needs of the ethnic communities is also restrained, Taw added in an interview. "The local people will not be able to pursue their economic activity freely. It is a setback to our hope of achieving a federal system of government."

The unresolved question of genuine political representation for Myanmar's ethnic communities has dogged the country since independence, resulting in bloody separatist conflicts that have lasted over six decades. "The attempt to adopt a constitution to lengthen the military dictatorship will [create] more problems," the ENC declared in a recent statement. "It will also lengthen the 60-year-long civil war caused by breaching the self-determination rights of the ethnic nationalities."

The current constitution has been 15 years in the making. Some say the delay was created by the junta to stall the country's democratic parties, led by detained Aung San Suu Kyi, in claiming a stake in running the country. The junta refused to recognize the outcome of a parliamentary election in 1990, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. Instead, the military created a national convention soon after to draft a new constitution.

The current charter is Myanmar's third, following the 1947 document, which was drafted by the country's resistance fighters ahead of independence from British colonialism, and the 1974 document, which was shaped by the military dictator at the time, General Ne Win.

The second constitution, which established a one-party state to promote a socialist agenda, was torn up in 1988 by the current military regime. Consequently, the SLORC and SPDC governed without constitutional authority and were seen as lacking political legitimacy by a domestic and a growing international constituency.

The only advance the new constitution has made over the 1974 document is its promise to create a multi-party democracy. But the prospect of such inclusive features has been undermined by the junta's move to limit the drafting of the charter to military-appointed delegates and its harsh restrictions on public discussion of the document.

"The military has made sure that any amendments to the constitution introduced by political parties in the future will be harder to be approved," says Aung Naing Oo, an independent Myanmar political analyst living in exile in Thailand. "The conflict in the country will go on without the prospect of change and improvement."

The likelihood of the constitution adding to the political fires already burning in Myanmar arises from the deep divisions that plague the country. "Burma is a different country today than it was in 1974. When the constitution was passed then, we were not so divided," Aung Naing Oo added. "Now it is different, and now the entire world is also watching."

The junta, for its part, appears confident that it has drafted the best constitution for Myanmar. "Approving the constitution is the responsibility of all citizens in the country. All who support our national interests must vote in favor," declared the page-one headline of a state-run newspaper on the week the referendum campaign was officially launched.

European Parliament Calls for Pressure on Junta

The Irrawaddy News

The European Parliament says the Burmese referendum on May 10 is a move to give the military power and keep opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of politics, according to its press release on April 16.

The statement also noted that “pressure within Burma is certain to mount” as the date of the referendum draws nearer.

A Dutch member of the European Parliament, Thijs Berman, who chaired the parliament’s hearing on Burma on April 2, said the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) should launch an inquiry into human rights abuses in Burma and said he hoped the UNSC would start bringing human rights violations in Burma before the International Criminal Court.

He suggested the European Parliament adopt a resolution on Burma at its next meeting. He also called for economic pressure to be applied to international companies who undertake business with the Burmese regime.

While the official Burmese media are calling on voters to approve the constitution on May 10, dissident groups, such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Students group, are urging the Burmese public to vote against the constitution.

A Portuguese member of the European Parliament, Jose Ribeiro e Castro, called on the European Union (EU) to give more support to Suu Kyi—a former winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize. He also urged the EU to have a coherent strategy in relations with China and India in order to coordinate an international response to the regime.

Glenys Kinnock of the British Labour Party said any development assistance to Burma should be linked to political progress—part of a wider call by many parliament members for “smarter sanctions.”

The EU’s special envoy to Burma, Piero Fassino, told European Parliament members at the hearing that the junta had refused a UN plan that would lead to democracy and that the plan stressed the importance of dialogue and recognition.

The issue of Burma has also been discussed at a conference of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats-Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe, which is being held from April 15 to April 17 in the Belgian capital, Brussels. Fassino is one of the speakers at the conference.

Win Min, a Burmese political analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said that after the September uprising in Burma, the EU’s stand on Burma had been stronger and that the EU is the second most influential institution after the United States in terms of pressuring the Burmese junta.

“EU pressure is an important factor because it has two permanent members of the UNSC, as well as good economic and political ties with China,” he said. “However, the EU’s decision is dependent upon a caucus decision among its 27 member states,” Win Min noted.

Meanwhile, Burmese authorities in Sittwe, northwestern Burma, arrested 23 democracy activists during the Burmese New Year festival as they marched peacefully wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “No,” which have become increasingly popular as a sign of protest against the junta’s constitution.

The junta’s planned referendum on a new constitution will be reduced to “a mere ritual” unless international observers are allowed to monitor the vote, said the outgoing UN human rights investigator on Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, on Monday.

“How can you believe in this referendum?” Pinheiro added. “How can you have a referendum without any of the basic freedoms?”

Exile, Canadian-Style

The Irrawaddy News

Myo Min pointed to the on-board computer in his police patrol car. “This is how we track down the bad guys,” he boasted, clearly relishing his newfound role as a high-tech crime fighter.

But this is Canada, and bureaucracy soon stood in the way of his desire to show off. He couldn’t let me into the vehicle, he said, without getting permission from his supervisor at least 48 hours in advance. I did, however, notice that he was playing a song by Burmese rock star Zaw Win Htut in the car’s cassette player.

It was a brutally cold night, and Myo Min was on duty patrolling the streets of Ottawa, doing his bit to keep the Canadian capital safe from drug traffickers and drunk drivers and free of domestic violence and illegal weapons.

Stopping by the apartment where I was staying with a friend, he adjusted his bulletproof vest and started telling me about his journey from the jungles of the Thai-Burmese border to Canada. Every few minutes, our conversation was interrupted by radio communication from his walkie-talkie.

Twenty years ago, Myo Min was one of thousands of young Burmese who left their country to resist a regime that had just seized power in a bloody coup. He joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a student army formed in the jungles of eastern Burma, but after several years, he grew disillusioned with the armed struggle and factional infighting within the students’ army. He left for resettlement in Canada in 1997.

In 2003, he joined the police force in Ottawa. These days, he doesn’t talk much about bringing down the regime in Burma. But like many former activists living abroad, he still dreams of returning to his homeland someday.

According to Kevin McLeod, an active member of Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) and self-described “unemployed student,” many Burmese asylum seekers in Canada are struggling to keep their heads above water in their new country.

“They have emotional stress and frustration and suffer from depression,” he said of some of his many Burmese friends and acquaintances.

He noted that Burmese who migrated to Canada in the 1960s were better educated and more financially secure than those who migrated after fleeing political persecution in 1988. Most of these later immigrants came with nothing and have had to rebuild their lives from scratch, making integration much more difficult for them.

McLeod is perhaps uniquely sympathetic to the difficulties faced by Burmese living in Canada. His Burmese friends jokingly call him a “Canadian refugee,” because like many former student activists from Burma, he hasn’t completed his university studies and is often broke. But he is an avid student of Burmese affairs, reading many books on the country and spending countless hours talking with Burmese friends, on whose couches he often finds himself spending the night.

In some cases, the failure to adapt to life in Canada has ended in tragedy. Several years ago, a young activist named Aung Ko jumped off Niagara Falls. Close friends said that he suffered from depression and may have had a drug-abuse problem. Later, another young Burmese activist hung himself in his room in Toronto.

But all is not doom and gloom for Burmese living in Canada. Tin Maung Htoo, the current executive director of CFOB, said that Canada offers great opportunities to Burmese.

As former members of Burma’s clandestine high-school student union, Tin Maung Htoo and his close friend and fellow CFOB member Toe Kyi have followed a familiar trajectory from student activism inside Burma to eventual third-country resettlement.

But in their case, they managed to avoid imprisonment in Burma—a common fate among activists—only to end up spending three years in the Special Detention Center in Bangkok for attempting to protest against the Salween dam project in 1993.

The Thai authorities refused to release Tin Maung Htoo and Toe Kyi onto Thai soil, so the two friends finally agreed to go to Canada. They were taken directly from the detention center to the airport.

Tin Maung Htoo, who studied at the University of Western ontario, said that he especially appreciates the educational opportunities in Canada, both for himself and his children. He also thinks he is lucky because he has been able to continue his involvement in the Burmese pro-democracy movement. These days, he said, he can go to Parliament to meet politicians and senior foreign ministry officials to discuss Burma and Canadian foreign policy. Several years ago, he said, this would have been impossible. “Doors were closed and we were blocked.” But under Tin Maung Htoo, CFOB has become an effective lobby group.

But Tin Maung Htoo’s friend, Toe Kyi, was more skeptical about how well Canadians and Burmese really understand each other. He recounted how the pastor at the church where he stayed when he first arrived in Canada attempted to convert him to Christianity. When it came time for the baptism, the pastor asked Toe Kyi if he could forgive his enemies, including the military leaders in Burma. He shook his head to indicate that he would never forgive the generals who had ruined his country, and the ceremony came to an abrupt end. He added, with a touch of chagrin, that he saw many other Burmese activists convert to Christianity in Thailand or Canada just to ensure their survival.

Today, Toe Kyi and his Burmese wife and child enjoy their life in Canada, where his political interests have expanded over the years. In their living room, Toe Kyi and his wife are watching CBC news coverage of the US presidential election campaign—they are both big fans of Hillary Clinton. He is also a supporter of the Dalai Lama, who held formal talks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a visit to Ottawa last November.

When US President George W. Bush made an official visit to Canada in 2004, Toe Kyi joined protests against the immensely unpopular American leader. He said that he and fellow protestors braved baton-wielding police and tear gas to show their opposition to US foreign policy. I joked that the experience probably made him nostalgic for his days as an activist during the 1988 uprising against military rule in Burma.

Toe Kyi, who now works for CompuCorps Mentoring in Ottawa, a non-profit organization that donates hundreds of used computers to African countries, hasn’t forgotten about his country and his people. He recently arranged a donation of over 100 computers for refugees recently arrived from the Thai-Burmese border. He said that he wants to set up a voluntary service inside Burma to do community development work.

The best thing about Canada, he said, is its respect for the rule of law and democratic values. Despite this, however, he only reluctantly became a Canadian citizen after several years of living in the country.

Many Burmese are deeply ambivalent about life in Canada, noted Kevin McLeod from CFOB, who attributed this to their strong attachment to the Burmese pro-democracy struggle. “They are very devoted,” he said.

Though Burmese enjoy life in a democratic country, they haven’t learned to be united and democratic, according to another Canadian observer married to a former student activist. After years of working on the Thai-Burmese border, she returned to live in Vancouver, where she said that many of the Burmese she met seemed like lost souls.

Not all Burmese are completely directionless, however. In fact, most have simply moved on, finding jobs and trying to get ahead in life. Some have even joined the Canadian Armed Forces. Zaw Latt, a former member of the Burmese high school student union, is now a Canadian soldier assigned to Afghanistan. His friends joke that he really wishes he had been sent to Naypyidaw to fight.

Many activists want Canada to do more on Burma. CFOB is asking Canada to support Burma groups along the Thai-Burmese border and take a tougher stance toward the regime. Many Burmese activists think Canada’s recent comprehensive sanctions on the junta were a good start, but others say that Canada has yet to show much commitment to Burmese issues.

The Canadian government recently held a one-day Burma conference in Quebec City, with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari as a keynote speaker. At the gathering, some NGOs and activists expressed concern that Ottawa seems more interested in supporting the UN’s fruitless missions and providing humanitarian assistance inside Burma than in addressing Burma’s political impasse more directly.

Most Burmese in Canada would like to see Ottawa send a stronger message to the regime in Naypyidaw.

Even Burmese who have been hurt by the sanctions that are now in place say that they support punitive measures against the junta.

Zaw Win Aung, a former ABSDF member and owner of the Golden Burma grocery store in Toronto, and Aung Tin, another grocery store owner and member of the National League for Democracy, said that the sanctions made it harder for them to import goods such as betel nuts from Burma. But, said Zaw Win Aung with a smile, “It is good” that Canada has taken action against the regime.

As I spoke with Zaw Win Aung, some newly arrived Karen refugees walked into his store to buy some betel nut. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold. Suddenly, a BMW 318 with the words “Free Burma” painted on it and with photographs of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and monks in the rear windows pulled over in front of the shop. A window rolled down and a familiar face smiled and said hello to his friends and the new arrivals. He was Si Thu, a former ABSDF member who arrived in Canada in the early 1990s.

For a moment, the Karen family from the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand looked at the car and its owner with admiration, recognizing both familiar images from their homeland and a symbol of success in their new country. But after a few moments, they returned to their own reality—far from the struggle in Burma, and equally distant from any sense of belonging in Canada—and walked back to their small apartment.

Burmese Embassy in Singapore Prepares for Absentee Referendum Voting

The Irrawaddy News

April 17, 2008 - The Burmese Embassy in Singapore has sent a letter to Burmese citizens urging them to vote absentee in the constitutional referendum from April 25 to 29, while an anonymous telephone message is urging people to vote “No.”

“We the Burmese people can vote “No” at the Myanmar [Burma] embassy…. Please pass this message to all your friends and take this exercise seriously for our freedom,” says the telephone message, which is being widely distributed in the Burmese community.

The embassy letter sent to Burmese citizens was dated April 10, urging them to bring their Burmese passport or citizen documents as identification. An estimated 50,000 Burmese citizens live in Singapore.

“The letter was signed by Kyaw Swe Tint, the Burmese counselor,” said a Burmese man from Tuas South on the outskirts of Singapore, who received a letter on Thursday.

He said the letter was sent by air mail to Burmese citizens who paid their income tax at the embassy.

Ko Hla, an information technology engineer in Singapore, said Burmese citizens are likely to vote “No” on the referendum or to not vote.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who will give a ‘Yes’ vote,” Ko Hla told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

“As a Burmese citizen, the constitutional referendum is important for me to vote,” said Myo Htet a construction engineer in Singapore. “Even the people inside Burma will vote ‘No.’ Why can’t I vote ‘No’ too?”

A worker at a Singapore shipping yard said he will not go to the embassy to vote.
“I get no leave from my boss, so I can’t,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Burmese Embassy in the United States of America is collecting names of people eligible to vote based on an income tax list.

Millions of migrants live outside of Burma, but the Burmese regime has not yet announced whether they all will be allowed to vote in the referendum. More than one million Burmese migrants live in Thailand.