Thursday, 24 April 2008

Burma’s Durable Junta

The Irrawaddy News

After nearly two decades in power, Burma’s ruling junta should be showing signs of wear and tear. Indeed, observers are constantly on the lookout for evidence of a split within the ranks of the regime’s top leadership.

Not surprisingly, they often find what they’re looking for. But rarely, if ever, do these internal strains signal the sort of real weakness that could undermine the junta’s hold on power.

Since it seized power in 1988, the current regime has carried out four significant purges, each time emerging, if anything, stronger and more united.

In each case, the motive for removing certain high-ranking figures from their positions was personal rather than political: At no point has there ever been any major disagreement among the top generals about what direction the country should take.

The first change to take place in the regime’s leadership came in April 1992, when the head of the ruling military council, Snr-Gen Saw Maung, was forced to step down, opening the way for the current leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to assume the position of head of state.

Saw Maung wasn’t dismissed because he had shown a willingness to hand over power to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Actually, he refused to recognize the results of the 1990 national elections, which had handed the party an overwhelming victory.

The real problem was Saw Maung’s health. “He was becoming increasingly erratic and his public speeches were incoherent and rambling, covering subjects such as dying tomorrow and sightings of Jesus in Tibet,” wrote journalist Bertil Lintner in his book “Burma in Revolt.” Finally, he had a nervous breakdown and his tenure as Burma’s supreme leader came to an abrupt end.

In 1997, several junta members and senior ministers, including Trade and Commerce Minister Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and Agriculture Minister Lt-Gen Myint Aung were purged. All three had previously been regional commanders notorious for abusing their power in their respective regions of Mandalay Division, Kachin State and Irrawaddy Division. They were removed from their ministerial posts on charges of corruption.

In 2002, Secretary 3 Lt-Gen Win Myint and Minister for Military Affairs Lt-Gen Tin Hla were sacked because “they violated the state policy.” There was no evidence that political rivalry had played any part in their ouster.

The most interesting and controversial purge happened in 2004, when Gen Khin Nyunt was dismissed and arrested on charges of corruption. Khin Nyunt, who for many years was one of the most influential figures within the junta, is currently under house arrest with a suspended prison sentence of 44 years.

Some foreign observers regarded Khin Nyunt as a “moderate” military officer who had shown some willingness to move the country towards a political transition. However, Burmese dissidents dubbed him the “Prince of Evil,” as the person primarily responsible for the arrest and torture of thousands of political prisoners.

The 2004 purge was due to Than Shwe’s suspicion of the military intelligence apparatus, which had been under Khin Nyunt’s control for two decades. Than Shwe ordered the dismantling of the military intelligence services, but Khin Nyunt’s political legacy—the so-called “road map to democracy”—remained in place even after he was neutralized.

Since last September’s monk-led protests, there have been persistent rumors of discontent among field generals who disagreed with the top generals’ orders to shoot monks and other peaceful protestors. However, no evidence of a serious rift within the junta has yet emerged over its handling of the demonstrations.

Instead, the 11 members of the junta and its powerful regional commanders seem to be more unified than ever, especially since the announcement of a constitutional referendum on February 9.

It is, in fact, very difficult to imagine military officials wanting a radical political shift. They know that it is in their own interests to stick together in order to hold on to their privileges. No high-ranking military leader is going to put the good of the country ahead of his family’s well-being.

There may well be a handful of far-sighted military officials who realize that the current situation cannot continue forever. But these individuals are in no position to seriously influence the country’s political direction. The only choice before them is to obey and hopefully work their way up the ranks, where they might be able to do some good. But the odds are strongly against it.

Anything is possible, but there is little point in daydreaming that Burma’s long overdue revolution could come about through a transformation within the junta.

Unfortunately for the Burmese people, the regime’s ability to manage its internal conflicts probably means that it will see no need to respond to external pressures for some time to come.

Slovenian official says EU to extend sanctions against Myanmar

STRASBOURG, France: The European Union will extend its political and economic sanctions against Myanmar and only allow limited EU development aid, an official said Wednesday.

Slovenian State Secretary for European Affairs Janez Lenarcic said EU foreign ministers will adopt the decision to prolong the sanctions by another 12 months during a meeting starting Monday in Luxembourg.

Lenarcic told the European Parliament that the sanctions may be adapted to deal with any political changes in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"We will once again launch an appeal to the Burmese authorities to pave the way for a transition to a civilian government ... release political prisoners and stop persecutions," Lenarcic said.

The EU has imposed a travel ban on Myanmar officials, an arms embargo and a freeze of Myanmar assets. It also has banned imports of timber, gemstones and precious metals from Myanmar in response to the military junta's crackdown on pro-democracy groups.

But the EU has said the bloc's humanitarian aid will continue.

Source: IHT

Myanmar's awful choice


A referendum its people cannot win

IN EMBASSIES abroad, voting has already begun in the referendum on Myanmar’s new constitution, which will be held in-country on May 10th. The ruling junta advertises it as an important step forward on its “roadmap” to democratic, civilian rule. If only.

Rather the referendum is, in the words of Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, a “ritual without real content”.

Or perhaps it is even worse than that: a ritual with content, symbolising and confirming the sheer misery of Myanmar’s plight and threatening to make it permanent. A junta-appointed committee took 15 years to draft the constitution, which offers nothing close to democracy.

It gives the army chief the power to intervene in politics at will. Several cabinet seats would be reserved for army officers, as would 25% of seats in both houses of parliament.

A bizarre clause is apparently tailor-made to bar Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, from elected office. When Myanmar last held elections, she was banned because of her foreign connections: she was married to a foreigner and had spent much of her life abroad.

Her husband has since died, and she has been in Myanmar without interruption—mostly under lock and key. Now, however, those whose “children or their spouses” are foreign are excluded. Miss Suu Kyi’s two sons are British, having been deprived of their Burmese citizenship.

Despite all this, some of the regime’s critics used to think the constitution worth voting for: it is, after all, the only chance of change that is on offer. And it does envisage some sort of political process, with a parliament, which implies debate and even, perhaps, disagreement.

To be blithely optimistic, this process might gather a momentum of its own. It might, for example, expose the undoubted rifts within the junta.

And, by bringing in the “ceasefire groups”—representatives of ethnic insurgencies that are at present quiescent—it would bring a formal end to some of the world’s longest-running armed conflicts.

Now, however, it is hard to find anyone outside the junta itself who favours a “yes” vote. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the junta’s brutal suppression of last autumn’s monk-led protests. A much feared and loathed regime proved itself even more hateful.

Second is the strengthening of provisions in the draft designed to make it hard to change it in future. Amendment will require at least 75% of the votes in parliament—ie, including those of some of the soldiers—and 50% of eligible voters in a subsequent referendum.

So the constitution seems a way of entrenching eternal military domination.

Any hint of a campaign for a “no” vote in Myanmar has been suppressed—those caught scrawling graffiti face long jail sentences; T-shirts bearing the word “Nobody”, which were made in Thailand and which Burmese had taken to wearing in discreet protest, are being removed from shop shelves.

With no independent poll-monitors, even if there is a “no” vote, we might never know. The generals will surely remember the embarrassment of being thrashed in the election they held in 1990.

So the looming vote evokes in some activists not the hope of change, however imperfect, but desperation over its impossibility. In that sense, it is comparable to the role of the Beijing Olympics in Tibet—almost a last chance to make a futile protest heard.

In a rare (if minor) incident of terrorism in Myanmar, two small bombs exploded in the centre of Yangon on Sunday April 20th. The government has blamed a group of exiled dissidents. But the one thing Myanmar is not short of is angry, desperate people.

More Repression In Burma

Protests are growing inside Burma against the military junta’s proposed constitution and its May 10th referendum on that draft constitution. During a recent demonstration in the city of Rangoon, thirty-some protesters wearing “NO” t-shirts were urging voters to reject the constitution in the upcoming referendum. Burmese authorities cracked down on the peaceful rally by arresting six youth activists.

The following day, eleven Muslim community leaders in Rakhine state were arrested, reportedly for peaceful political activities. Moreover, in recent weeks, democracy and human rights activists in Rangoon have been assaulted and beaten with sticks. “These blatant human rights abuses,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in a statement, “contribute to the climate of fear and repression in Burma as the regime prepares to conduct a referendum on its draft constitution.”

In a recent speech, Burma’s top military leader Senior General Than Shwe again promised to bring democracy to Burma, saying a civilian government would be in place after the 2010 elections. But there is much cause for skepticism. The democratic representatives of the Burmese people have made clear that they oppose the unjust way in which the government is trying to impose its draft constitution. The junta continues to arrest individuals campaigning against the constitution and refuses to welcome independent referendum monitors.

The United States renews its call for the Burmese government to release all detainees and political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. According to Amnesty International, seven-hundred people detained during the crackdown in August and September 2007 remain behind bars, while forty have been sentenced to prison terms.

The Burmese regime should also cease its crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and begin a genuine dialogue with democratic and ethnic minority representatives. "Every civilized nation," said President George W. Bush, "has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship." That includes the Burmese people.

Source: Voice of America

Burma's displaced people

By Inge Brees

(From "Forced Migration Review" No. 30: Burma's displaced people)

Forced displacement of Burmese people

This issue of FMR aims to help bring the crisis of forced displacement of Burmese people back into the international spotlight.

With the 'Saffron Revolution' of September 2007, Burma was catapulted into the centre of international attention. It was briefly headline news as people monitored the regime's response and watched for hints of progress towards democracy and the restoration of rights. With little action on either front (and no visible resurgence of violence or protest), interest has since waned.

The September protests, led by Buddhist monks, were sparked by a sudden increase in oil prices which had a serious impact on the already impoverished population. After a few days, the government violently ended what it called the 'disruption of stability'. Governments around the world condemned the crackdown and the UN Secretary-General sent Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari to negotiate with the Burmese rulers. At the same time, however, China and Russia used their right of veto in the UN Security Council to block discussion of matters which they considered to be internal to Burma, no 'threat to international security' – and therefore outside the mandate of the Security Council.

Most reports on Burma explain that the conflict started in 1988 when the Burmese junta cracked down on nationwide demonstrations. But is that really when it all started? How about the moment when the army took power in 1962? Or before that, after independence from the British in 1948, when some of the ethnic minorities were granted autonomy while the plight of others was ignored – who then, predictably, took up arms to fight this inequality? Stating that conflict only started in 1988 ignores the call for (cultural) autonomy by the ethnic minorities that started decades earlier. What is certainly true is that refugee and IDP numbers rose considerably at the end of the 1980s, in the aftermath of the demonstrations of 1988, and with the loss of territory by the ethnic armies and the country's growing economic emergency.

Today, displacement is widespread. In June 2007, the ICRC issued a rare public condemnation of the Burmese military government's actions, saying that they have 'helped to create a climate of constant fear among the population and have forced thousands of people to join the ranks of the internally displaced, or to flee abroad.' Close to half a million people have been displaced internally over the last decade on the eastern border alone. In addition, millions of Burmese have crossed into neighbouring countries. In Thailand there are an estimated two million Burmese trying to make a living. If they are fleeing armed conflict or political persecution, they can receive protection and assistance in refugee camps. Those who fled after November 2005, however, are ineligible for protection, due to the moratorium on refugee registration. They have no choice but to stay outside the camps, where they are considered illegal migrants, subject to arrest and deportation.

There are good reasons why Thailand maintains such a strict demarcation between refugee and migrant status. Those inside the camps not only get protection and assistance but also have access to resettlement programmes – a recognised pull factor. Thailand has had to carry the burden of refugee inflows from neighbouring countries for decades and prefers to keep tight control on its ability to respond according to its own interests. That is why Thailand has still not signed the Geneva Convention and why they call refugees 'temporary displaced persons fleeing fighting', to emphasise that their stay in Thailand will come to an end as soon as conditions in Burma are conducive to return.

The exact number of Burmese refugees in other countries bordering Burma is unknown but Bangladesh, India, China and Malaysia have all had to deal with substantial influxes of Burmese citizens. As Thailand receives the bulk of the refugees and is the base for the vocal Burmese opposition, many of the articles in this issue of FMR focus on the Thai situation and the ethnic Karen. This should not be seen to underplay the plight of Burmese refugees in other countries or IDPs in other areas inside Burma. There is simply less information available on them – a gap that needs to be addressed.

In terms of durable solutions for this refugee population, the current focus is on resettlement. As a form of responsibility sharing, several Western countries have agreed to accept groups of Burmese refugees. This is resulting in largescale movements from the Thai camps to the West, with some additional cases from Bangladesh and India. Several articles in this issue explain how resettlement, while ensuring protection for the refugees concerned, raises issues for community management of the camps and is causing tensions within the refugee population.

Thoughts on other durable solutions, such as repatriation or local integration, are missing, however. Even if repatriation is currently impossible, agencies should at least consider the possibility of unexpected changes in Burma which would lead to massive population movements. Early planning is imperative. At the same time, more thought should be given to the alternative solution of local integration. Although most host countries are against this option, my own research indicates that many Burmese people are already integrating, against the odds, and are an economic asset to their host countries. An open debate on all durable solutions and immediate improvements to the 'closed' camps are urgently needed for the sake of both the Burmese refugees and their host populations.

Given that Burmese people are displaced throughout the region, this humanitarian crisis will require regional solutions. UNHCR could be encouraged to set up a consultative committee involving all refugeereceiving countries to discuss and coordinate a common approach towards Burmese refugees – even if a comprehensive plan of action is currently impossible due to the actions of the Burmese junta. But, as Loescher and Milner state, this is only part of the solution: 'A humanitarian response to the needs of refugees in the region is not a substitute for engaging in the question of resolving the conditions in the country of origin that continue to force refugees to flee.' (1) The efforts of the UN Special Representative to push for dialogue between the different stakeholders in Burma are essential if Burma's large-scale displacement is ever to end. But from his latest visit to the country in March 2008 it is clear that the prospects for genuine dialogue remain gloomy.

In January 2008 the junta suddenly announced that the National Convention had drafted a Constitution, on which the Burmese population has to vote in a national referendum. Elections will be held in 2010. Finally a positive move? Maybe so, but with a lot of caveats. Opposition to or campaigning against the National Convention and the referendum are regarded as treason, and incur a penalty of several years' imprisonment. Additionally, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from taking part in the elections because of her marriage to a British citizen. When Gambari requested that international monitors be allowed to observe the referendum, this was immediately rejected and he was accused of bias in favour of the opposition. The carving out of both humanitarian and political space thus so far remains extremely difficult.

We would like to express our thanks to the numerous academics, UN agencies, NGOs and human rights organisations who have written for this issue – and to the refugees and IDPs themselves who wrote from inside the conflict zones and the refugee camps to make sure their views were heard. (2)

Inge Brees (, guest editor for this issue, is a doctoral fellow at the Conflict Research Group, based at the University of Ghent in Belgium ( She is currently conducting research on livelihoods of both camp and self-settled refugees in Thailand.


(1.) 'Protracted refugee situation in Thailand: towards solutions'. Presentation given to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 1 February 2006.

(2.) For their protection, the names of most refugee contributors have not been given; these articles have instead, at their request, been attributed to their organisation.

Burma v Myanmar

Using the name Burma, rather than the official name Myanmar, is a politically sensitive choice, as the opposition and several Western countries refuse to recognise the name change instigated by the junta. Most Burmese people still use the old name in private conversations, which is why 'Burma' is used here. Contributors to FMR were free to choose which name to use. The term 'Burmese' is used for any person originally coming from Burma, while the term 'Burman' is used for people from the ethnic majority group.

Full_Report (pdf* format - 3.3 Mbytes)
Source: Relief Web

Myanmar's opposition party says political prisoners denied proper medical care

YANGON, Myanmar: Myanmar's military junta is intentionally denying proper medical care to political prisoners, the country's pro-democracy party said Wednesday.

National League for Democracy spokesman Nyan Win said the junta's withholding of medical treatment was a deliberate and malicious act.

Nyan Win made the comment a day after State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States had received reports that pro-democracy activist Min Ko Naing has been denied care for an eye infection that could cause blindness. He said the U.S. was also worried that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest, has not received promised monthly doctor visits.

Suu Kyi underwent major gynecological surgery in September 2003 and suffered a serious stomach ailment in June 2006.

In rare photos taken after her two meetings with U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari last year, the 62-year-old leader of the National League for Democracy appeared tired and gaunt.

Suu Kyi has been in detention for more than 12 of the past 18 years and is not allowed visitors or telephone contact with the outside world. Nyan Win said Suu Kyi has not been seen by her physician since January.

Calls to the junta's public relations officials went unanswered Wednesday.

Nyan Win said Min Ko Naing's eye infection needs urgent medical treatment.

Min Ko Naing, leader of the 88 Generation Students group, and more than a dozen other activists were arrested last August after holding anti-junta rallies. He has been held in Yangon's notorious Insein prison.

In September monks led nationwide demonstrations. At least 31 people were killed when the military crushed the protests, sparking global outrage.

Nyan Win earlier said more than 120 National League for Democracy members have been arrested since the crackdown. Thousands of other protesters were also detained and some were given harsh prison sentences.

Members of the 88 Generation Students were at the forefront of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were given lengthy prison terms and tortured after the military harshly suppressed the protests.

The Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a group of former political prisoners based near the Thai-Myanmar border, says Myanmar authorities have long used denial of medical treatment for political intimidation.

It said a 70-year-old political prisoner, Than Lwin, lost his eyesight earlier this year when authorities were slow to allow him medical treatment while he was imprisoned in the central city of Mandalay.

"When he was sent to an eye specialist, the doctors said it was already about two months late," the group said in a recent statement. "There was nothing they could do to help him."

Source: AP

Burma: Chronicle of a referendum foretold

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

23 April 2008 - Bangkok: A rising star within the ranks of Burma’s military regime is reported to have unveiled a plan to ensure the junta gets its way at the May referendum for a new constitution, according to information revealed to IPS.

Lt. Gen Myint Swe told a meeting of some 600 people, which included senior government officials, that only the last 10 people to vote at each polling station will be entitled to monitor the counting of the ballots at the station, revealed a well-informed source close to the military, who attended the meeting.

Furthermore, the results of the votes counted at the local level will not be revealed as and when the tallies are confirmed, Myint Swe is reported to have added, the source said of the April 9 meeting, which was held in the former capital, Rangoon. The junta’s plan is to reveal the final results in one announcement from the new capital, Naypidaw.

“This is to control the votes and rig the votes if needed,” says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert lecturing at Payap University, in northern Thailand. “This is different from the 1990 elections, when they announced the results by each polling station at the local level, which makes controlling the result difficult.”

At that election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won a thumping majority despite the heavy odds it faced and the strong campaign launched by the junta to promote its own political party.

However the junta refused to recognise the results. It opted, instead, to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution, a process that took a record 15 years and is finally awaiting approval on May 10.

Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-junta organisation, will be the ones sent to vote last at each polling station to ensure access to monitor the vote count, Win Min added in an interview.

Fear of sacking

“There have been widespread worries among the ministers, regional commanders, light infantry division commanders and senior USDA officials that they would be sacked if the referendum is lost in their respective areas.”

Another plan the military has in store is to compel civil servants, university lecturers and school teachers to vote a week ahead of the referendum date in the direct presence of senior military officers, an order that ignores a voter’s right to secrecy.

This is voter intimidation,” says Win Min. “It shows that the authorities are worried that these civil servants are likely to vote ‘no’ if they are free to do so.”

General’s Man Friday

The role of Myint Swe in this effort to swing the plebiscite the junta’s way has broader implications, since he is known as a close confidante of the South-east Asian country’s strongman, Senior General Than Shwe. Some Burmese analysts concur that what Myint Swe says “reflects Than Shwe’s mind.”

In fact, the army officer, in his late 50s, has played pivotal roles in the past to strengthen the military dictator’s grip on power in Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta has renamed it.

In early 2006, in his capacity as the head of the military division in Rangoon and as head of military intelligence, Myint Swe launched a campaign to track down citizens in Burma who were feeding the international media with information. This manhunt in an already oppressed country included targets that ranged from businessmen and civil servants to local journalists.

Myint Swe’s role to ensure an outcome favourable to the junta is no different to that of another confidante of Than Shwe, Maj. Gen. Htay Oo, the secretary-general of the USDA. The latter organisation, which Than Shwe founded in September 1993, has been given the lead role in the forthcoming referendum and the general elections to be held in 2010.

Legion of mafias

And Htay Oo’s role goes beyond ensuring that the USDA, which is officially reported to have 23 million members out of the country’s 54 million population, campaigns for a favourable vote. He is reportedly spearheading a programme of intimidation in the run-up to the plebiscite.

Currently, an old race course in downtown Rangoon, the Kyaik-Ka-San grounds, has been converted to a training centre for USDA toughs to learn such skills as beating, threatening and arresting civilians identified as opponents of the junta, says a Burmese source who has secured pictures of such sessions.

“Htay Oo is very close to Than Shwe and he is part of the junta’s campaign to intimidate voters into saying ‘yes’ at the referendum,” says Zin Linn, spokesman for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese government in exile. “The training at the race course is under Htay Oo’s control. No wonder the people regard them as a mafia.”

“NLD members and pro-democracy activists have already been attacked by these USDA members,” Zin Linn added in an interview.

“There is going to be more force unleashed as the days for the referendum draw closer.’’

The USDA’s notoriety as another arm of Than Shwe’s oppressive regime was on display in September 2007, when it joined the military and riot police in the brutal crackdown of the pro-democracy protests, led by thousands of maroon-robed monks.

In May 2003, the USDA was also implicated in a bloody attack on NLD members, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a political campaign in Depayin. Nearly 70 NDL supporters were killed by the mob of USDA members and other junta supporters.

In fact, the military official who masterminded the Depayin attack – aimed at silencing the universally popular pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, now under house arrest – was Gen. Soe Win, another Than Shwe ally. He was subsequently named “the Butcher of Depayin” by Burmese dissidents for his ruthlessness. But Than Shwe viewed his confidante differently, rewarding him with the role of prime minister following Khin Nyunt’s arrest.

Since it grabbed power in a March 1962 coup, the Burmese military has regularly served up officers prepared to unleash acts of repression as a pledge of loyalty to the dictator in power. Among the earliest in this Burmese military tradition was Brig. Gen. Sein Lwin. As a young commander, he gave soldiers the order to first shoot university students demonstrating and then to blow up the students’ union building at the Rangoon University with students trapped inside.

For such brutal acts in July 1962, Sein Lwin was dubbed “the Butcher of Rangoon” by the Burmese opposition at the time. Yet it hardly came in the way of his rise within the military regime under Gen. Ne Win.

Sein Lwin was rewarded for implementing his master’s policies as Myint Swe is being rewarded today. The latter is reported to be Than Shwe’s second favourite after Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third-most powerful military officer in Burma and the one Than Shwe reportedly favours as his successor.

Source: IPS-OneWorld