Friday, 18 July 2008

Commentary: Is Burma ready for a new election?

By Htet Aung Kyaw

Jul 18, 2008 (DVB)–Although the National League for Democracy and main ethnic parties didn't recognise the results of the constitutional referendum in May, the ruling junta is now gearing up to drag the opposition into a new election.

So is there any chance of a compromise before the 2010 election?

Many activists, including leading members of the NLD, were upset when the state media urged them to prepare for the forthcoming elections instead of clinging to the 1990 election results.

In fact, this is not first time in the last 18 years that the junta's propaganda machine has told them to forget the 1990 result. But it is the first direct challenge to the NLD since the junta adopted its new constitution last month.

"This has been forced through at gunpoint" said Thein Nyunt, constitutional affairs spokesperson for the NLD. "We don't recognize their announcement and so we won’t prepare for a new election."

He claimed the NLD would pursue all avenues to challenge the SPDC on the fairness and legitimacy of the constitutional referendum.

However, the situation on the ground is not the same as it was in 1990. "We are preparing to form a political party for the 2010 election. This is an opportunity for us," says Za Khun Ting Ring, chairman of the New Democratic Army-Kachin, a ceasefire group based on the China-Burma border.

"If we oppose the seven-step road map, there is no way to move ahead. So we must follow it to bring about a civilian government," the 62-year-old former rebel leader told this correspondent in a telephone interview.

The NDA-K and dozens of former rebel armies who signed ceasefire agreements with the junta in the 1990s attended the government-backed National Convention in 2004 to draw up the guidelines for the constitution which the junta adopted last month.

Apart from the opposition and ethnic groups, the notorious pro-junta Union Solidarity Development Association is systematically preparing for the election. "Their latest move was to select two candidates to stand as MPs in each township who are well-educated, rich and respected in their communities," said Htay Aung, author of a book on the USDA called "Whiteshirts" which compares the organisation to Hitler's Nazi "Brownshirts".

Founded in 1993 and the darling of general Than Shwe, the USDA civilian wing is now 27 million strong in a country of 55 million people. The USDA has played key roles in attacking Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade in 2003, organising the mass rallies in support of the National Convention in 2006 and forcing people to vote “Yes" in the constitutional referendum in May.

Major Aung Lin Htut, a key member of former prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt's spy network, said that most of the USDA’s leading members were opportunists who were trying to win the favour of general Than Shwe. "But they not yet getting any support from army chief general Maung Aye and front line troops." the former spy says.

Another challenge for the USDA and Than Shwe will be to gain support from former rebel armies, he pointed out. "Many know well how general Than Shwe broke his promise on the 1990 election result but very few know how he ignored his promises to ceasefire groups," major Aung Lin Htut said.

This view is shared by the New Mon State Party, one of 17 former ethnic rebel groups. "We walked out of the National Convention when they rejected our proposals. That was broken promise which they agreed in 1995 ceasefire agreement" said Nai Aung Ma-nge, a spokesperson for the Thai-Burma border-based Mon rebel group.

"So we do not accept the referendum, constitution or election. The SPDC should seriously consider how to guarantee the futures of 100,000 strong troops from former rebel groups before the election," the outspoken rebel leader said.

In this scenario, can there be any opportunity left to reconsider the SPDC-led seven-step road map before the 2010 election?

Yes, if the UN-led international community works seriously for Burma this time.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders well knew how badly the SPDC had dealt with the aid operation to support millions of survivors after Cyclone Nargis struck on 2-3 May leaving 135,000 people dead and missing.

But Ban did not say a word about politics when he meet Than Shwe in Naypyidaw and focused only on humanitarian mission. However, Than Shwe didn't listen to the UN chief’s warnings but went ahead with all his political plans; the constitutional referendum in May, the adoption of the constitution in June and now the preparations for an election.

As Than Shwe's seven-step road map draws near completion, the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, was invited to visit Naypyidaw in mid-August. Although there was no tangible outcome from his last visit in March, the door is still open for dialogue. Aung Kyi who was appointed minister for relations with Aung San Suu Kyi after last September's Saffron Revolution is still in post but has been left twiddling his thumbs at the moment.

Former UN special envoy to Burma Razali Ismail supports keeping the way clear for dialogue but warns that the Burmese themselves must do more. "The ability to talk to the regime must be maintained in all aspects, including the political," he told this correspondent in a telephone conversation.

"I don't think the people of Myanmar should lose hope in the UN. The UN is doing the best it can," he went on. "When I was working there, I was doing the best I could, but finally it is up to the government and the people of Myanmar to make all the necessary changes."

Htet Aung Kyaw is a journalist for the Oslo-Based Democratic Voice of Burma.

Delivering Aid While Countering Corruption

By Yeni
The Irrawaddy News

The United Nations’ top humanitarian relief official, John Holmes, will visit Burma soon to assess the progress of humanitarian relief work in cyclone-affected areas of the country.

Holmes will also attend a meeting in Singapore on Monday to take part in the release of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) Report by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Burmese regime and the United Nations, with technical support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

It is widely believed the PONJA report will prompt an outpouring of donations for the UN's revised fundraising appeal for US $480 million over the next year for emergency relief and reconstruction following the Cyclone Nargis disaster.

Meanwhile, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, asked to evaluate Asean's achievement in supporting the relief effort, gave a C grade to the groupings’ role.

"We feared the worst initially, but it turned out not to be an F grading," The Straits Times quoted Yeo as saying. "Certainly not an A or B, but I would say on the whole, with Asean's assistance and Asean taking the lead in bringing humanitarian assistance into Burma, we could give ourselves a C grade."

Burma’s xenophobic government initially blocked the free-flow of international aid and aid workers to devastated areas. Later, the Burmese generals turned the natural disaster into a diplomatic playground, allowing representatives of the tri-partite core group limited access to the hardest-hit areas, even as Burma's infamous bureaucratic red tape slowed everything down.

One outcome has been that the growing gap between the value of the US dollar and Burmese foreign exchange certificates (FECs) has turned the relief effort into a major cash cow for the junta. Usually, US dollars are technically equal in value to a FEC. But business sources in Burma say the price of FECs started to fall in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, as the junta decided to allow major international aid donations and Burmese living overseas to transfer large amounts of cash into Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) accounts to support the relief effort.

Holmes, who is in contact with junta leaders, said: “My impression from what I heard is that there is not a significant problem. There may be moments when the difference between the dollar and FEC is significant, but by and large it is not.”

Many critics of the relief effort believe the UN and Asean should be more pro-active in addressing the risks of corruption. Corruption controls should not be seen as a factor that could slow down aid delivery or, in some cases, stop projects. Some people fear the UN and regional groups are strengthening the junta by taking an overly cautious, speak-softly approach.

Meanwhile, more than one million people, nearly half the cyclone survivors, have still not received any aid services, and the refugees at government-run temporary refugee camps will be forced to return to their flattened villages at the end of this month.

Many refugees are pawns in the hands of the junta. Too many refugees, including children, in the hard-hit townships of Laputta, Bogalay, Pyapon and Dedaye have endured inhumane conscription by Ward Peace and Development Councils and military troops to provide forced labor.

Burma's ruling generals must be smiling, pleased at how they have successfully handled the international community. It’s no surprise that the junta has invited Ibrahim Gambari, the special UN envoy on Burma, to visit the country in mid-August. The generals remain on top of their game, firmly entrenched as they move toward a national election in 2010 that’s designed to give them political control.

Meanwhile, the country’s leading pro-democracy figure, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest and opposition groups suffer intimidation and the threat of arrests.

Japan Monitoring Aid Distribution to Burma

The Irrawaddy News

Japanese aid to Burma for the reconstruction phase in the cyclone affected areas of the Irrawaddy Delta will be determined based on an assessment of how effectively emergency aid has been delivered, a top Japanese official at the United Nations said on Thursday.

Japanese officials are waiting for next week's relief assessment report to be delivered in Singapore by the tri-partite group made up of the UN, Asean and Burma before deciding on its next aid installment.

When asked if Japan would continue financial aid to Burma during the reconstruction phase, Ambassador Takahiro Shinyo, the deputy permanent representative of Japan to the United Nations, told journalists, "It depends."

The UN has issued a revised fundraising appeal for an additional $300 million, to be used on emergency relief and the reconstruction phase which could last for a year or more. Cyclone Nargis swept through Burma on May 2-3.

"After the humanitarian phase is over, somebody must declare that we are entering into the reconstruction phase,” he said. “Then the relevance of the aid would be discussed—whether or not to help in reconstruction," Takahiro said.

Asked for clarification, Takahiro told The Irrawaddy that it does not mean imposing any conditions on Burma in lieu of any financial aid it would provide.

"This [imposing conditions for aid] is not our culture," he said, but he indicated that financial assistance to Burma beyond the post-humanitarian phase would depend on conditions in the Irrawaddy delta, how the money would be implement and also the progress made towards the political reform process.

The Japanese ambassador said there must be an aid monitoring process even during humanitarian relief work phase.

"We are very much keen to see if the aid is distributed rightly or not, and that it has been distributed to the people,” he said. “So the checking mechanism is very necessary."

Japan is also dispatching its own missions to Burma to see that its aid is properly distributed and reaches those for whom it is intended.

"When we extend financial assistance to international organizations, we are always asking for monitoring and assessment because we would like to assure our Parliament [that the money is being used properly]," he said.

"There have been some cases when the implementation of Japanese aid has been questioned in the Parliament so we are very keen on this," he said.

Takahiro said relief work cannot continue indefinitely. Based on previous international experience, he said it normally last from six months to one year.

"If it is longer than one year, it is no longer an emergency phase. So we can confine the time element and of course the project," he said.

Japan, previously one of the Burma’s largest donors, has not made any new funding commitments in the last few years, Takahiro said.

He said Japan has dispatched a mission to Burma to investigate how to salvage sunken ships as a result of the cyclone. There are a large number of sunken ships in the Bay of Burma, whose removal, he said, is essential to the reconstruction phase.

Three Laputta Refugee Camps to Close

The Irrawaddy News

LAPUTTA, Burma — Burmese authorities will close three remaining refugee camps in Laputta, one of the areas hardest-hit by Cyclone Nargis, on August 5, forcing about 6,000 remaining refugees to return to their villages, according to sources in the township.

Refugees who oppose relocation will face forced eviction, refugee sources said. The three refugee camps held as many as 50,000 refugees in recent months.

Sources said authorities have pressured refugees at the three remaining camps in Laputta Township since June 20 to go back to their villages...

"We are summoned every evening by a camp official and told to go back to our villages. He said our tents will be dragged down after August 5 and all our belongings will be set on fire. He advised we should leave as early as we can and should not blame them if it happens," said a female villager from Mi-Kyaung Ai living in Yadanar Dipa camp.

The refugees said they told the camp officer, Win Thant, that they were scared to return to their cyclone devastated villages and asked to stay at the camps for a few more months, but were turned down.

Laputta Township administration chairman Myint Oo told refugees sheltering at Three-Mile and Five-Mile camps to leave.

"After August 5, we will not receive our ration rice and the refugees may not receive other food items. They said they will continue to take care of us, if we agree to go back to our villages," said a 40-year-old man from Sa-Lu Seik village who is living at Five-Mile camp.

Before leaving the camp, refugees must sign a consent paper showing they voluntarily returned to their villages.

"If we return to our village, we are provided about 3 pyi of rice (pyi is a Burmese measurement close to 0.25 Liters), chili, onion, a sheet of tarpaulin, six packs of instant noodles and a zinc pot. Then the authorities send us to our villages by boat," said a female refugee at Three-Mile camp.

Many refugees are in desperate fear of returning to their former homes.

“I don't want to go back to that place, and I dare not live there anymore,” said a 35-year-old refugee from Kaing Thaung village, who lost his wife, two children and relatives during the cyclone.

“I would see my dead wife and kids in my mind every day, if I go back there,” he said. “I am not going back.”

According to sources, some refugees who have refused to return home are conscripted for forced labor, occasionally beaten over random, petty accusations or expelled from the camps.

"If we don't do forced labor, we could be driven out from the camp,” said a villager from Mi-Kyaung Ai who lives at Yatanar Dipa camp. “If a couple quarrel or speak loudly, the husband might be called in and beaten and then forced to leave the camp."

"When other refugees were relocated from the township to camps outside of Laputta, soldiers blocked all the exits and pushed people into trucks,” said a housewife living at Five-Mile camp.
“They were forced out in chaos. I am afraid of what will happen on August 5.”

Many refugees said they planned to build make-shift huts near the Laputta-Myaung Mya road and continue to live in the area, sources said.

"I will build a hut by the highway. I am not sure whether we will be allowed or not. If not, I must find a place close to the town," said a villager from Po Laung who lives at Five-Mile camp.

According to refugees, UN agencies and international NGO workers are aware of the plan to close the camps.

ASEAN officials say Myanmar should release political detainees

SINGAPORE (Channelasia): Myanmar should release all political detainees, senior Southeast Asian officials say in a recommendation to their foreign ministers.

"The SOM (senior officials' meeting)... called on the release of all political detainees," a senior Southeast Asian official said.

If endorsed, the recommendation will be included in a joint statement to be issued after a two-day meeting of the ministers that starts Sunday, the official said.

The proposed paragraphs on Myanmar also call on the military government "to take bolder steps in what they're doing to move along the roadmap to democracy," the official said.

However, it could still be amended by the ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The 10-member ASEAN has been widely criticised for its policy of "constructive engagement" regarding Myanmar, which is under EU and US sanctions over its human rights record.

Myanmar's detainees include democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been held under house arrest for most of the past 18 years. - AFP/ms

Junta officials, two teak traders killed over unequal division of loot

Is anybody keeping the tally? :)))
By Hseng Khio Fah
Shan Herald Agency for News

Two junta officials and two Chinese teak traders from Taunggyi were killed by each other in Kholam, Namzang township, after quarreling over the division of the proceeds from teak trading, according to SHAN sources.

The shooting took place on13 July, at 18:00, between Deputy Commander, Major Aung Thiha and Capt Aye San Win from Infantry Battalion#66, based in Kholam and two Chinese teak traders U Soe, 54, and Zaw Htoo, 50, at U Soe’s house. They died instantly, said a source.

U Soe and Zaw Htoo were from Taunggyi and bought a house in Kholam during the trading of teak, according to a source.

“Before U Soe and Zaw Htoo were to have their dinner, the officials went to ask for their shares and quarreled with them,” a villager told to SHAN. “One of U Soe’s followers started to shoot at the officials and the officials shot back.”

There was no one providing security for the officers and the officers themselves were wearing plain clothes, according to another source.

There had been no other casualty.

Before the event took place, local authorities in Kholam had banned teak trading from the Keng Tawng forest, Mongnai township, Langkhur district, according to sources.

Breaking news of the shooting was reported by SHAN on 14 July. However, SHAN then had reported that the 4 men had been killed by others.

For more details contact, 0801260064

Two Shrimp Factories Close Down in Arakan

Narinjara News

7/17/2008 - Two shrimp product factories owned by relatives of the Burmese military government in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, closed down recently after the US government imposed further sanctions on Burma, said one worker who had been employed there.

He said, "The factories are Shwe Tharawan and Shwe Yamon, both shrimp product factories, located beside the Satro Kya Creek in Sittwe. Local Arakanese people called the factories Ah Ai Khan."

"Ah Ai Kan" translated literally into English means, "frozen-keeping room".

The two factories were owned by relatives of the Burmese military government, and the Shwe Tharawan factory was reportedly owned by the son of General Shwe Mann, the third most powerful man in Burma.

The factories were closed down after a Singapore company stopped buying shrimp from the factory for importing.

The worker said, "I heard that the Singapore Company faced a problem transferring money from Singapore to Burma after the US-government imposed sanctions on Burma. The company reportedly stopped the business due to a problem with the banking system."

A source from Sittwe said, the Shwe Tharawan factory has been transferred by General Shwe Mann's son to a government fishery department in Sittwe since the factory was closed down.

The worker said that 200 employees for the two factories were left jobless after the closures, but the owners of the factories had already paid three months' advance salary to the workers. #

Low expectations for Gambari visit

Jul 17, 2008 (DVB)–Opposition figures and a political analyst have expressed doubts over whether the planned visit of United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to Burma in mid-August will bring about any positive outcomes.

U Nyan Win, spokesperson for the National League for Democracy, said the party did not have high expectations for the envoy’s visit.

"The only thing this shows is that Mr Gambari's role, as a negotiator for national reconciliation in Burma on behalf of the UN Security Council and General Assembly, still exists," Nyan Win said.

"Whether or not this will be a successful mission doesn't depend on the UN's efforts alone,” he said.

“But we can still hope for the success if everyone starts participating – Mr Gambari, the UN and everyone who has a concern.”

U Chan Htun, a veteran politican and former Burmese ambassador to China, said the government had approved the trip in order to push its own agenda on issues such as the constitution and 2010 elections, and to press Gambari to encourage opposition groups to participate in the elections. (Jeg:s to participate under their conditions staying background whilst the junta remains front of the house forever.. :) )

"They invited Mr Gambari because they have confidence that they can get something they want,” he said.

“Our government doesn’t do anything without being sure of the outcome; they know only what they want and they do not care about anyone else."

Burma analyst Aung Naing Oo said he had little hope for the efforts by Gambari and the UN.

"[Gambari] would just keep going to Burma until the end of his term or until the Burmese government stops allowing him into the country," Aung Naing Oo said.

“If he doesn’t want to go, a new person will be appointed to continue this work. So he'll just have to go there regardless what outcome is going to result.”

Aung Naing Oo said no noticeable successes had come out of the special envoy’s previous trips.

"A very common question from both inside and outside Burma is what he is going to do seeing as the government's road map for democracy is going forward," he said.

"In Mr Razali Ismail's era, people used to have some hope from his trips to Burma because there was always something to hope for,” he went on.

“But with Mr Gambari, a lot of people are starting to think he is only being used by the Burmese regime for their own ends."

Razali Ismail, the former UN special envoy to Burma, said that it was important to keep channels of communication with the junta open.

“The ability to talk to the regime must be maintained in all aspects, including the political,” he said.

“I don’t think the people of Myanmar should lose hope in the UN. The UN is doing the best it can,” he went on.

“When I was working there, I was doing the best I could, but finally it is up to the government and the people of Myanmar to make all the necessary changes.”

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

Asean engagement of Myanmar not successful: US

WASHINGTON (ST)- A US official says the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations recognises that a strategy of engagement to encourage more democracy in military-led Myanmar has not been successful.

US Ambassador to Asean Scot Marciel added on Thursday that he was not being critical; other efforts to force change in Myanmar also have foundered. He says the United States welcomes Asean members who have been working to encourage Myanmar to open up.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to Singapore next week for the Asean Regional Forum. Myanmar is likely to be a topic of discussion.

Mr Marciel is praising Asean for its forceful, 'unprecedented' statement of criticism of Myanmar's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters last year. -- AP

Burmese opposition ready to escalate pro-democracy fight

'If we have guns we will shoot back'

Clancy Chassay reports from inside Burma on plans for a new uprising against the military regime, and hears some monks calling for more western intervention and an an armed insurrection - Watch
video here

Members of Burma's battered and disparate opposition are growing disillusioned with the old methods of the pro-democracy movement and are seeking ways to escalate their armed struggle with the help of covert western support.

"There is a very real debate among us about how to begin a more sustained armed struggle," an organiser of last September's failed uprising told the Guardian. "We are ready for that kind of action, if we can get the supplies and training that we need."

Speaking from exile in Thailand, Soe Aung, the chief spokesman for the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella group representing nearly all facets of Burma's disparate opposition, said he was witnessing a significant shift in the public attitude across Burma.

"After the September uprising and then the terrible cyclone response, the anger is surging. Some are considering violent means … the Burmese people are not that kind of people, there has been a real change."

Soe Aung spoke openly of how covert Western support, primarily from the US state department-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its subsidiary the International Republican Institute (IRI), had been fundamental to the success of the uprising.

"The US is certainly doing the most for the opposition. There has been real success in training and forming an underground movement through religious organisations and monastic organisations. These provide the best cover inside Burma. The monks can spread their training very effectively."

The NED describes itself as a private organisation but was created by, and remains accountable to, the US Congress. Set up under the Reagan administration in 1983, it has since played a leading role in influencing civil society and electoral processes in countries around the world unfriendly to US interests.

According to Brian Joseph, the man in charge of the group's Burma project, the NED gave $3m (£1.5m) to Burma in 2007. "We would send more, but there is a limit to what you can do in Burma," said Joseph.

Opposition activists both inside and outside Burma largely describe the improvements in political awareness and spread of information as a result of NED-funded projects, but also attribute them to the introduction of the internet to Burma in 2003.

"We could see in September how the advances were utilised. It wasn't just the monks but a massive increase of awareness among Burmese of all types. This was thanks largely due to media organs, the Democratic Voice of Burma, satellite TV, and, of course, the internet," said Soe Aung.

· Read Clancy Chassay's full report from Burma tomorrow

Myanmar: Burmese junta profiting from aid funds?

New Delhi (Relief Web)- Even as cyclone victims reel under the devastating impact of Nargis, the military rulers are lining their pockets from the aid funds donated by the international community including the UN. The money is being made by way of a twisted currency exchange mechanism – dollar to local Burmese kyat, a source in the Burmese military establishment said.

Following the killer Cyclone Nargis lashing Burma on May 2 and 3, several international non-governmental organizations as well as UN aid agencies rushed in to help cyclone victims.

The source, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, said the ruling junta is making a huge killing from these donations by keeping a margin in the conversion rates – from foreign currency to Burmese Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC).

According to the source, the government-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank is the principle bank that is used by aid agencies for transferring funds. And when aid agencies withdraw their money from the MFTB, it is given in the form of Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC), which is treated as equivalent to the US dollar.

While the information cannot be independently verified, the source said the difference in exchange rates between the dollar and FEC is the margin that the government makes.

A businessman in Rangoon, who is into exchanging foreign currency in the black market said, currently a US $ is worth 1,175 Kyat while the FEC is valued at 850 Kyat. While the rates continue to fluctuate depending on the market, the US Dollar and FEC have never been treated equally in the market.

"The rate between the FEC and Dollar is only equal in the government exchange rates but here in Burma things are done only in the black market," the businessman told Mizzima.

The source, who is also close to the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, said, while the bank retains the in coming foreign exchange, it also profits from the marginal difference in the conversion.

The UN World Food Programme, one of the largest UN agencies currently involved in helping cyclone victims in Burma, however, declined to comment on it.

But Paul Risley, the WFP spokesperson in Bangkok admitted that it uses the MFBT to transfer funds to Burma.

UN Humanitarian Chief, John Holmes, who is scheduled to visit Burma next week, on Wednesday, told reporters at a news conference in New York that he would look into the issue of aid money going into the coffers of the ruling junta through a twisted currency exchange mechanism.

But reports quoted him as saying, "My impression from what I heard is that there is not a significant problem. There may be moments when the difference between the dollar and FEC is significant, but by and large it is not."

The source, however, said the Burmese military generals have made millions of Kyat from the exchange margin.

"For every dollar, if the junta is profiting about two to three hundred Kyats, you can imagine how much they will have pocketed since aid agencies made their way into Burma," the source said.

Burma's military junta has asked for US $ 11 billion in aid for emergency relief as well as for reconstruction work to be done in cyclone hit areas of Irrawaddy and Rangoon division.

The regime, in an article carried in its mouthpiece newspaper early this month, even challenged the international community particularly the US, UK, French, and Japan for failing to come up with more donations to help cyclone victims in Burma while spending huge amounts of money on wars.

The UN, last week, launched a fresh appeal urging governments to donate US$ 300 million more to keep humanitarian efforts in Burma going.