Thursday, 17 July 2008

Charges of Forced Labor Emerge in Cyclone-Hit Areas

The Irrawaddy News

Thousands of people in hundreds of villages are being forced to labor for free under a military-led reconstruction effort in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta, according to sources in the area.

Villagers in the hard-hit townships of Laputta, Bogalay, Pyapon and Dedaye say that local people, including children, have been told by Ward Peace and Development Councils and military troops that they must provide labor on a rotating basis.

The work they are expected to do includes serving as porters, cutting bamboo and trees and cleaning up roads and villages. Some have also been put to work on construction sites, the sources said.

The villagers, many of them living in camps for cyclone survivors, said that the duties imposed on them were preventing them from rebuilding their own homes or tending to their fields.

“They [farmers] said that for the past month, they have been forced to work in rotation for the authorities. People who don’t work when it’s their turn have to pay a fine of 1,500 kyat (US $1.26),” said a source in Laputta.

A refugee from the village of Kyar Chaung said that the authorities call on 100 men each day to carry sacks of rice. “Those who do not obey the order are driven out of the refugee camps,” he added.

Another refugee, from the village of Kaing Thaung, said: “The authorities accuse people who don’t want to work for them of being lazy. They say that they are opportunists who are just waiting around to get everything for free.”

There have been a number of reports of people in the camps being beaten and forced to leave. Some say that the authorities are looking for excuses to throw people out of the camps.

Meanwhile, fishermen in the area have been ordered to catch prawns and fish for Burmese troops, said one fisherman in Ywe, a village in Laputta Township.

The Burmese army unit responsible for recovery and reconstruction efforts in the Irrawaddy delta is Light Infantry Division 66, under the command of Brig-Gen Maung Maung Aye. As a commanding officer of Infantry Battalion 70 in Pegu Division and Karen State in the early 2000s, Maung Maung Aye was notorious for pressganging civilians into road construction.

Sources in the camps for cyclone victims say that they have been told not to discuss the use of forced labor with visitors, and to inform the authorities about the presence of any unknown people in the camps.

Burma’s military regime has been strongly condemned by international rights groups for its use of forced labor in building army camps and constructing basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Refusal to work on any of these projects has resulted in documented cases of detention, torture and execution.

In June, the International Labor Organization said it was concerned that the Burmese military regime might use forced labor in reconstructing cyclone-devastated areas.

The Irrawaddy’s correspondent Aung Thet Wine in Laputta also contributed to this report.

The Irrawaddy Delta Redux

The Irrawaddy News

I’ve just returned from Laputta in the Irrawaddy delta, where the situation is appalling and vastly different than government accounts.

I visited Kaing Thaung, Kanyin Kone, Ywe and Pyin Salu villages, where I witnessed a lot of forced labor incidents in the name of "reconstruction."

I was told the soldiers said, "We’re here for your village reconstruction. You must cooperate with us." Some villagers are even beaten during their forced labor conscription.

There are also numerous cases of refugees who remain at Three-Mile, Five-Mile and Yatana Dipa refugee camps being conscripted for forced labor. The authorities say these remaining camps will be closed on August 5.

I haven’t been that impressed with what the UN is doing. I think many UN workers are just here for dollars. Perhaps, they don’t release the real news of conditions here because they fear the government’s reaction. They are on the ground, they know the situation, but I think they turn a blind eye because they don’t want their projects stopped.

The UN workers live in good house, renting for around 1.5 million kyats (US $ 1271) per month. It’s my belief that if they had good hearts, they could reduce these high expenses and give more to the refugees.

Thanks to regular rain fall, the refugees appear to have enough safe water. If they don't get rain water, there could be more outbreaks of infectious diseases. In terms of medical care, there are still a lot of villages that need medical services.

The villagers I talked with complained about the hardships they experience. They hope I can do something for their relief, but I can't do anything except write a report or a news story. I realize that what I write may get to the international communities, but then what?

Refugees told me that when they were ordered to leave Pha Yar Gyi and other temporary camps in Laputta, soldiers from Light Infantry Division (LID) 66 entered the camps with batons and guns and forced the refugees into trucks, like driving a herd of cattle.

The UN staff knows about the forced relocation of the refugees, but they don’t issue any press releases about it.

Refugees have many stories of abuse by Burmese military and civil officials in charge of the camps. They tell stories of drunken camp officials swearing at refugees: “You are lazy people living on rice donations! You are beggars! Go back home."

Some refugee families couldn't bear it and talked back to the authorities. They would beat and drive them from the camp. It is happening in all three camps. Refugees are also told to inform volunteer donors who come to the camps that they don’t need anything. Some savvy donors wait and talk for several minutes and then they understand the real story.

From my talks with Laputta residents, I also question the assessment by the Tripartite Core Group (TCG)—a body formed in cooperation with Asean, the UN and the Burmese junta. The teams collected data in the Irrawaddy delta.

The local authorities I talked with said some young people came around and asked questions about the situation in the surrounding villages. They claimed they were not well informed on the current situation there, but they offered to send them to the villages. The teams, however, seemed to have limited time and left the town with the data they gathered from the administrators in the town.

I also made inquires about the government providing mechanical tillers and paddy seeds to farmers and boats and fishing nets to villagers. Villagers I spoke with said some villages received the assistance, but the tillers were old and the authorities provided only 2 gallons of diesel for plowing an acre. The old machines break down and consume 4 or 5 gallons to plow one acre of land.

They said three out of five of the tillers were in workable condition, and if a farmer wanted to use the machine, they had to bribe the village head with 200,000 kyat ($ 169.5)

The rice seeds the authorities provided are low quality, called Hnan-Kar, also known as Ma-Naw Thu-Kha. Some farmers said they sow them but no sprouts appeared. The farmers feel helpless because they don’t have access to the seeds they used before.

I saw some paddy fields with green sprouts, but much of the land in the disaster area has not been planted.

My impression is that the camp administrators, township officials, their relatives and landlords in Laputta are benefiting post-Nargis. The restaurants in town are crowded most of the time.

I returned from this trip feeling great sympathy and sorrow for the cyclone victims. I wish the relief effort could be more effective. The people are still suffering.

Commentary: Let’s hope the UN gets it right this time

By Bo Kyi

Jul 16, 2008 (DVB)–The basic strategy of the United Nations special envoy so far appears to have been to yield to the regime. How far will aspirations and demands slip in his future dealings with the Burmese military? The envoy's next visit to the country will be a test.

Mr Ibrahim Gambari, UN special envoy to Burma, has been invited to return to Burma in mid-August to continue his mediation efforts. The question is: what will his mission be this time?

Many sources close to the UN told me that the envoy is likely to continue pinning his hopes on the regime's seven-step road map, which the UN once viewed as a potential process for democratization in Burma.

In late 2007, Mr Gambari also said, "[The UN] Secretary-General did not reject the seven-step Road Map and what he would like to suggest were inclusiveness and a time frame."

Many key opposition groups, especially the election-winning National League for Democracy and ethnic political parties, might come to agree with the UN that the junta's seven-step road map could still be a viable option for Burma's transition if it was modified to become inclusive and time-bound.

In August 2001, 92 elected members of parliament from inside Burma called for this change in the road map in their public statement. They demanded that the regime modify the road map. The elected MPs said that if the regime made it inclusive, they would like to cooperate and find a political solution within the road map framework.

On 12 November last year, in the wake of September’s Saffron Revolution, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said that “a return to the status quo that existed before the crisis is not sustainable,” and that he “encourages the government and all relevant parties to redouble their efforts towards achieving national reconciliation, democracy and full respect for human rights”.

The UN made two proposals to the junta, namely that Burma should set up a broad-based constitutional revision commission in order to ensure an inclusive political process and that a poverty alleviation commission should be established. The regime's supreme leader Than Shwe rejected them and finalized the constitution draft. Then the UN suggested that the junta invite international observers to the referendum. That suggestion fell on deaf ears too.

The regime has now declared that they have completed four of the seven steps of the road map. Step one, the National Convention process, took more than 14 years to finish and excluded legitimate political parties such as the NLD, whose leaders are imprisoned.

Instead the military’s handpicked delegations took part in the convention and drew up a draft constitution which simply provides for the continuation and consolidation of military rule. The impunity for members of the State Peace and Development Council and its predecessor the State Law and Order Restoration Council enshrined in the constitution paves the way for further human rights violations against Burma’s people.

In May the junta held a national referendum to approve the draft constitution, despite Ban Ki-moon and the international community’s calls for them to postpone the referendum in order to focus on the massive cyclone relief operation. Moreover, the referendum took place in a climate of harassment, intimidation and fraud to secure the result the junta wanted, much like the run-off presidential election in Zimbabwe. At the time, people in Burma were in mourning because of Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 140,000 and left 2.4 million people suffering. The UN and the international community witnessed the junta’s callous attitude towards its own citizens. The regime shamelessly claimed that their proposed constitution was approved by 92.4 percent of the population.

Now, it is blindingly obvious that the substance of the constitution is undemocratic and, more importantly, that the whole process of implementing the road map has been lacking inclusiveness and transparency.

Special envoy Gambari once encouraged political parties in Burma to participate within the framework of the seven-step road map set out by the junta. All key opposition groups accepted his request and acted accordingly. But the regime has rejected the envoy’s proposals.

So now what?

According to some UN sources I know, the danger now is that the UN is exhausting its persuasive capacity and is shifting towards a yielding approach.

In his press briefing on May 27, Ban Ki-moon said that he "urged them [Than Shwe and the generals] that the seven-point democratization programme should be put into implementation as soon as possible" during his meeting with Than Shwe in Naypyidaw.

The seven-point democratization programme? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Is Ban confusing speed with substance?

Since Than Shwe shot down all the UN’s proposals, the secretary-general must know that this road map is not headed in the right direction.

Now Burmese democracy activists fear that the UN envoy will encourage the NLD party to participate in the 2010 election. Since the unilateral implementation of the road map is unacceptable, the party has already rejected the referendum results and the upcoming election as a sham. Aye Thar Aung, an ethnic leader in Burma, hit the nail on the head when he recently said, "the real necessary step is to develop national reconciliation to bring a true democratic system to our country". He is right. In order to take that necessary step, the UN good offices should not imagine that the “softly, softly” yielding approach will work with the regime.

The message for the UN envoy is simple:

Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon should instruct Gambari to reiterate that the regime must adapt its seven-step road map so that it ensures a peaceful transition to democracy, including the redrafting of the constitution by means of a transparent, participatory process. That process must involve representatives of political parties like the NLD and Burma’s ethnic nationalities. Gambari must also call for the release of all political prisoners.

If the seven-step road map truly represented the way forward for a peaceful transition to democracy, then activists and opposition groups might be prepared to rethink their participation within its framework.

If Gambari cannot persuade the regime to take these essential steps, then the secretary-general must declare that the regime’s roadmap is no longer relevant. He must strongly encourage the UN Security Council to use an enforcement mechanism to bring about progress on democratic transition in Burma. If not, the UN will fail again and Burmese activists may reluctantly conclude that the UN is in fact complicit with the regime.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and currently works as a joint secretary for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

1) According to the NC or Referendum laws or constitutions DASSK is barred as she was married to a foreigner.

2) a) She is not considered since the referendum "obsolete"

3) b) The New Light of Myanmar newspaper says Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy should PREPARE (it does not say contest, prepare to accept perhaps?) for new elections in 2010 instead of clinging to the results of the 1990 vote. (the 2010 elections have already been won and we are still living 2008)

Quote on Reconciliation

"There is no way we can communicate with these people with loving kindness [metta] according to Buddhist teachings.”

“We each have different opinions in our hearts and they cannot be reconciled."
--Masoeyein Monk

Monks continue regime boycott

Jul 16, 2008 (DVB)–Buddhist monks across Burma have said they are continuing their boycott against government officials by refusing to accept donations or passing them on to needy people.

A monk taking part in the boycott from Kaw Thaung, Tenasserim division, said his monastery had not been able to refuse donations outright.

"Our Pattaneikkuzana act against government members is still ongoing – we have been giving away donation items we received from government members to other people,” he said.

“We had to accept these items because they will pressure us if we refuse them."

The monk said some monasteries in Kaw Thaung which had refused donation from government officials had been put under close watch by the military and the monks were also told to inform the authorities when they wanted to travel to other areas.

A monk from one of the lecturing monasteries in Pakokku and another monk from Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay said that they and their fellow monks were also continuing the boycott.

"There is no way we can communicate with these people with loving kindness [metta] according to Buddhist teachings,” the Masoeyein monk said.

“We each have different opinions in our hearts and they cannot be reconciled."

Reporting by Naw Say Phaw

Security Tightened in Sittwe After Fatal Car Accident - (A bit odd??)

Narinjara News

7/16/2008 - Security has been tightened in some places in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, after a student from Sittwe Computer University died in a car accident on Tuesday, said one resident from the city.

He said, "The authority deployed yesterday some additional police forces at the hospital, in Pyidaw Tha Ward, Lawkar Nanda Pagoda, and at Computer University to avoid any unexpected incidents after the student died unnaturally."

Ko Soe Moe Aung, a third-year student at Sittwe Computer University, succumbed to injuries sustained in the accident at 9 am on Tuesday at the general hospital in Sittwe, a day after the accident took place.

A witness said the accident took place at 3 pm on Monday near Lawkar Nanda Pagoda in Sittwe, as the victim was returning home from school on a motorbike along with a friend of his.

A motor vehicle slammed his motorbike from behind as they were crossing the road. Ko Soe Moe Aung and his friend Maung Myo Thein received critical injuries and were immediately sent to the hospital for treatment.

Ko Maung Myo Thein luckily recovered after his hospitalization in Sittwe, but Ko Soe Moe Aung succumbed to his fatal injuries.

The resident said, "After he died, many students and local youths gathered at the hospital to see his body. Authorities suddenly sent the body to his house located in Pyidaw Tha Ward from the hospital with the help of the police force."

The student's funeral ceremony held this afternoon and many students and parents attended the ceremony.

"The authority was anxious about anti-government activity during the funeral, so they have deployed additional police forces in some places nearby his ward to prevent any kind of incidents against the government," the resident said.

Burmese refugee dies of starvation in Lada camp

Kaladan Press

Teknaf, Bangladesh: A Burmese refugee belonging to the unofficial Lada camp died of starvation yesterday (15th). Due to incessant heavy rain over two weeks, refugees have been facing severe food shortage because they have been unable to go out to work to support their families.

The dead refugee was identified as Abdu Salam (45), son of Abdul Zabber, Block C, and Room No.193 of Lada refugee camp. He left behind his wife and two children. He was unable to go out of the camp because of the rains and died of starvation, according to the victim's wife.

The situation in the Lada camp is going from bad to worse. The refugees were transferred to Lada camp from Dum Dum Meah camp recently. Though their living conditions have improved and the sheds are better compared to the Dum Dum Meah camp but they are now facing acute food crisis and other problems relating to local villagers, said a Majee (shed Leader) in the camp.

Some local people set up shops near the refugee camp to sell goods to the refugees, but they did not buy because of the high price compared to other shops which are further from the camp.

When some refugees returned to their camp after buying goods such as ---rice, onion, garlic, salt, cigarettes, edible oil, potatoes and other things from far away shops, local shopkeepers looted the goods from the refugees out of anger because they had not bought from their shops.

The refugees were not provided any ration from NGOs and other organizations. But they got some ration from the Islamic Relief Organization (IRO) when they were transferred to Lada camp. Since then they have received no ration from any quarter. The refugees thus have been trying to eke out a living by working outside the camp.

But because of incessant heavy rains since the first week of this month and the increase in bus fares, the refugees are unable to go out to work. As such they are facing acute scarcity of rations. Now, they have to pay Taka 20 to go to Teknaf from their camp when it was only Taka 10 before, where they earn only Taka 50 per day as a daily laborer, said Olison Majee in the camp.

Currently the Lada camp hosts 1,972 families, and the camp will be extended for 2,000 families in the future. Refugees will be provided ration in the days to come, according to Union Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Md. Altaf Hossain Chowdhury of Teknaf.

Besides, 165 families, who did not get sheds earlier, were provided sheds by the authorities.

The refugees who met Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) officials were told that in the future, refugees must have documents from the concerned authorities, if they want to go out of the camp. Refugees are now afraid of being arrested by the BDR if they go out without a document.

Famine-like situation in Maungdaw

Kaladan Press

Maungdaw, Arakan State: Villagers in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State are starving in a famine like situation over the last three weeks because of incessant heavy rain and a consequent rise in prices of essential commodities, said a schoolteacher on condition of anonymity.

Northern Arakan, especially Maungdaw and Buthidaung Townships, have been witnessing heavy rain. Poor people are not getting jobs and are unable to support their families resulting in some facing acute food shortage.

Besides, the prices of essential commodities have risen because of the incessant heavy rain. Now a kilogram of rice sells at Kyat 550 against Kyat 500 two weeks ago. The price of chili has soared from Kyat 1,500 to Kyat 2,000 a Viss (one Viss = 1.63 kg). A viss of onion is being sold at Kyat 800 while it was kyat 600 two weeks ago, and a Viss of garlic is being sold at Kyat 1,400. It was Kyat 1,250 before.

Forida Begum (30), from Aley Than Kyaw village tract in Maungdaw Township said, "We have five members in our family. My husband is unable to go out for work due to heavy rain, so we have no money and no rice to feed our family. We have been starving for three days."

Another villager Ali Hussain (60), from the same village said, "I think, in every village in Maungdaw Township, some of the families are starving. I know that at least five to eight families have been staring starvation in the face in other villages surrounding our village Aley Than Kyaw."

Moreover, due to heavy rain, most of the shrimp and prawn projects have been destroyed in Aley Than Kyaw village tracts. Seedlings of paddy were also damaged due to the rain and farmers will be unable to grow paddy in time. So farmers are apprehensive of low harvest next year, said a local farmer.

A village elder from the village also said, "We want support for poor villagers who are starving, from the government, NGOs like World Food Program (WFP) and from other NGOs. Their lives need to be saved. WFP, earlier, supported the poor villagers who had been facing food shortage for the last two years.

New commander wants timber smuggling routes identified

Kachin News

In a surprising order, the newly appointed Kachin State Commander of the Burmese ruling junta, Maj-Gen. Soe Win has asked the Forestry Department to make a list of the routes used by timber smugglers and loggers along the Sino-Burma border in Kachin State, Northern Burma, local sources said.

A local timber businessman in Kachin capital Myitkyina Township told KNG today, that all personnel in the office of the Forestry Department have been ordered to document all road names along which timber from Kachin State is illegally transported to the China border. He has also asked for related maps. These roads are only known to timber smugglers.

Following the new Commander's order, Forestry personnel in the township have got cracking with the documentation and mapping activities of roads along which timber is sent to the China border, sources close to the department said.

According to local timber businessmen, it is too early to say whether the routes roads will be totally closed down by the Commander Maj-Gen. Soe Win or he plans to make money from illegal timber exports to China in the name of 'holistic development of Kachin State.'

Salang Ja Naw, a timber businessman in Myitkyina told KNG today, "I think Commander Soe Win plans to earn big money from illegal timber trade because every commander has to fend for himself."

Former principal of Tatmadaw (Army) Combat Forces School (Bahtootat) in Pyi-Oo-Lwin Brig-Gen. Soe Win has been appointed the new Northern Command of Kachin State and arrived in the Northern Command headquarters (Ma-Pa-Kha) in Myitkyina on June 26.

In Myitkyina, he first met the head of Buddhist monks in Wuntu Monastery sponsored by the junta in Myitkyina and then met Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the township, said locals.

After that, he met all Kachin ceasefire groups, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) and Lasang Awng Wa Ceasefire Group as well as government personnel in all departments and schools in the township, locals added.

At the moment, the people at different levels in Kachin State are cautiously watching the leadership of the new Commander Maj-Gen. Soe Win, according to residents of Myitkyina.

Junta invites Gambari in August

Mizzima News

New Delhi – The Burmese military junta has extended an invitation to Ibrahim Gambari, UN Special envoy to Burma, to visit the country in mid-August. The visit has to do with resuming talks with the regime and the opposition, a UN spokesperson said on Tuesday.

UN spokeswoman, Marie Okabe on Tuesday said Burma's military government has sent an invitation to Gambari to visit the country next month.

Gambari was initially supposed to visit Burma in May but the junta postponed it as the country was reeling under the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis, which lashed Burma on May 2 and 3, leaving more than 138,000 dead and missing.

The Nigerian diplomat has visited the Southeast Asian country thrice in the wake of the junta brutally cracking down on peaceful protesters in September 2007.

Gambari's visit is part of the UN's untiring efforts to bring about a dialogue between the military regime and opposition groups represented by detained Burmese democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Gambari, who took over from the former UN special envoy Razali Ismail, has so far been able to facilitate talks between the junta's Liaison Minister and Aung San Suu Kyi. But critics say the talks had not yielded any tangible result.

Despite the UN's efforts, the Burmese military junta did not alter its plan and continued with its seven-step 'Roadmap to Democracy' without the participation of the opposition groups as well as representatives ethnic nationalities.

The UN has urged Burma's military rulers to expand its roadmap plans and make it inclusive to allow participation of the opposition parties and ethnic nationalities.

But turning a deaf ear to the UN and the international community's pressure, the junta in May conducted a referendum on a draft constitution, drafted solely by it and the regime's handpicked delegates.

The junta also announced that it will hold general elections in 2010 and form a multi-party democratic government.

The opposition groups and ethnic leaders have said they disagree with the junta's plan and called on the international community as well as the UN not to recognize the junta's roadmap and reject the referendum.

'Free Daw Suu' campaigners charged with instigating public unrest


Chiang Mai (Mizzima)- Fourteen members of Burma's opposition party – National League for Democracy – who were arrested for protesting on their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday on Wednesday were charged with disturbing public tranquility.

The NLD members, who had been in custody for about a month, were produced on Wednesday in Bahan Township Court in Rangoon, where charges against them were pressed by Bahan Township Station House Officer SIP Khai Win Aung under Criminal Code section 505(b), inducing people to break public tranquility and under section 143, unlawful assembly.

"The prosecutor charged them with unlawful assembly in front of the NLD office and chanting slogans to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and holding aloft placards which amounted to undermining public tranquility," said lawyer Khin Maung Shein, who was present at the court on Wednesday.

May Nweh, wife of one of the accused, Chit Khin, who was present at the court, said "He [Chit Khin] just attended Daw Suu's birthday party without chanting any slogans, I feel very sad. He's old and suffers severe headaches. Moreover we are not allowed to send him food parcels. I have to come again next week and meet him."

Two of the accused - Tin Ohn and Soe Ohn from Shwepyithar Township - are currently being treated in hospital and could not be present at the court hearing today.

On June 19, the NLD youth members marched to the residence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently under house arrest in University Avenue, as a commemoration of her 63rd birthday.

Members of the Junta-backed civil organizations – Swan Arrshin and Union Solidarity and Development Association - arrested them from the street while they were chanting slogans – 'Free Aung Suu Kyi' and 'Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi'.

Khin Maung Shein said, "It is not a crime to demand for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She has actually completed her house arrest term and is due to be freed. Demanding and shouting for her release is not instigating public unrest."

He added that the NLD members will defend charges against them and argue at the court proceedings in accordance with the law. The court has fixed July 25 for the next hearing.

US House vote to bar Burmese gems

New Delhi (Mizzima)- In a renewed pressure, United States' House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday voted unanimously to block Gems and Jewelries from Burma to enter into the US.

The vote, which ban Burmese Rubies from entering the US, is aimed at punishing the Burmese military regime for its failure to help its citizen recover from a Cyclone that swept the country in May and for its brutal crackdown on peaceful monks' protest last year.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman said, the law discussed in the House on Tuesday is aimed to hit the Burmese regime 'where it hurts — in the wallet.'

Berman said blocking the import of Burmese gems into the United States and expanding financial sanctions, will substantially reduce hundreds of millions of dollars of the regime's income, which are used to continue suppressing its own citizens.

The bill, after the House has voted, will be sent back to the Senate, which in 2007 voted to bar Burmese woods and timbers to be imported to the US.

Tuesday's vote to bar gems from Burma is part of the US's economic sanctions against the Burmese military regime.

The US along with the European Union had further tightened economic sanctions against the Burmese regime following the brutal crackdown on Burmese monks' protest in September last year.

Regime’s Right to Represent Burma Challenged

The Irrawaddy News

An umbrella opposition group in exile, the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), has objected to the claims of the ruling military regime to represent the country in the United Nations General Assembly.

Myint Thein, the NCUB’s joint secretary, said it was important for the nations of the world to cooperate and extend their active support to the people of Burma, who live under the repressive military junta.

“We want the UN to stand up for the principles of democracy and human rights and reject the credentials of the State Peace and Development Council’s delegation to the United Nations during the upcoming session of the General Assembly.”

Besides campaigning to challenge the regime’s right to represent Burma in the UN, the group confirmed that it would also push to put Burmese human rights issues on the UN Security Council’s agenda and urge the world body to arraign Burma’s junta before the International Criminal Court for its crimes against humanity.

The NCUB has repeatedly engaged in similar campaigns over the past decade, but with no success.

Myint Thein said that the UN should not provide a seat for the Burmese regime, which is one of the world’s most repressive and secretive governments, because of its human rights abuses and its refusal to honor the results of legitimate elections held in 1990, when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

“We used to only focus our campaign against them [on the basis that] they are not a legal government, but the situation is different now. We want the UN to reject them based on the very recent human rights violations in combination with the junta’s past atrocities,” said Myint Thein.

In a statement released on Monday, the NCUB detailed significant human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime. Among other offenses, the statement described the junta’s ruthless crackdown on peaceful protests by monks and citizens calling for democratic reforms during last year’s “Saffron Revolution.”

The statement also pointed to the regime’s refusal to accept international assistance following Cyclone Nargis as evidence of its failure to provide good governance, and slammed the junta’s decision to go ahead with a discredited constitutional referendum a week after the storm. It also mentioned the illegal extension of Aung San Suu Kyi’s confinement in late May.

Past injustices described in the statement include the killing of protesters during the 1988 national uprising, the regime’s refusal to honor the 1990 elections, its murder of NLD members in the 2003 Depayin massacre, and the ongoing practice of rape, forced labor and killing in ethnic areas.

Nargis Refugees Offered Low-Cost Housing

The Irrawaddy News

Sixteen private companies in Burma will build more than 6,000 low-cost homes for refugees in seven cyclone-hit regions in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon division, according to Flower News, a Rangoon-based weekly.

The paper reported on Monday that 16 construction companies including Asia World, Htoo Trading Company, FMI, MAX and Shwe Thanlwin will build 5,700 low-cost houses for 500,000 to 600,000 kyats (US $420 to $500) each for cyclone refugees in 23 villages in six townships in the Irrawaddy delta and 350 houses in Kungyangon Township in Rangoon Division.

The six townships in the Irrawaddy delta included Laputta, Bogalay, Dedaye and Pyapon, the paper said.

Whether the houses will be provided to refugees free or some form of payment will be required is unclear.

Sources in Bogalay Township said that cyclone victims in Kyae Chaung Gyi village said they were asked by authorities to pay 1.5 million kyat (about US $1,265) for the houses built there.

Sources who work with cyclone refugees said those who want to buy the homes must pay 300,000 kyat (about $253) a year for five years.

“They [authorities] first promised refugees they would receive houses for free,” he said. “But, in fact, refugees have to buy the house. It is impossible for refugees who lost everything in the cyclone disaster to buy a house.”

“No refugees have bought a house so far. Most are staying in temporary shelters they built themselves. It is not suitable. They [the authorities] should aid the victims,” he said.

Houses have already been built in Kyae Chaung Gyi village by Htoo Trading Company, owned by Burmese tycoon Tay Za, a business crony of junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, said the source.

Another source in Bogalay Township reportedly said that 120 houses have been built in Kyae Chaung Gyi village by Tay Za’s company, and the houses will be given to refugees free of charge. Some refugees are already living in about 20 houses in Kyae Chaung Gyi village, said the source, who is close to Htoo Trading Company. .

The state-own daily The New Light of Myanmar reported on June 30 that Htoo Trading Company planned to build more than 116 houses in Kyae Chaung Gyi village in Bogalay Township.