Sunday, 3 August 2008

Villagers forced to work as army porters

Aug 1, 2008 (DVB)–Government troops in Shwe Kyin township, Bago division, have been extorting money from locals in Don Zayit village and forcing them to work as porters for frontline army camps.

A local villager said troops from the State Peace and Development Council Light Infantry Battalion 589, who are based on a hill near Don Zayit village, set up a checkpoint beside a creek and demanded a fee from all passing boats and passengers.

"They have been asking for money, wood and bamboo from everyone who wants to go past the checkpoint," the villager said.

"They have also been abducting local villagers who have gone into the jungle to cut bamboo and making them work as porters to deliver rations to their frontline camp in nearby Win Phyu Taung," he said.

"They said we could choose not to go into the woods and cut bamboo if we don't want to work as porters."

The villager said the military often beat up porters if they failed to do their work satisfactorily.

"The villagers don't mind paying money or giving bamboo to them but they are afraid of being forced to work as porters for the military and now everyone has stopped going into the woods," he said.

The villager said locals had not reported the matter to senior authorities because they were afraid of repercussions from the troops.

Reporting by Naw Say Phaw

8888 spirit - Editorial

Mizzima News
02 August 2008

The popular 1988 uprising will be 20 years old this August. The Burmese people have not yet enjoyed the benefits of democracy though they marched through a hail of bullets armed with their resolute will to achieve democracy.

The departed souls of those who were killed on the streets while they were protesting peacefully are still drifting nowhere. Some forgetful people pretend to be saviours and are saying, "This is not good, do as I say".

Anyway the '8888 uprising' was not in vain. It highlighted the injustices existing and showed the real way out and ensured the end of 'evil'. We cannot blame anybody for not achieving victory even after 20 years. It is of great pride and glory to see the flame of the 8888 spirit still burning brightly.

The strong vitality of this spirit, under repeated attempts to extinguish it with loaded guns and bayonets is the victory of 'good'. The perpetrators wished this spirit to die but they failed.

The people were fed up and began despising the one-party dictatorial rule under the banner of the then 'Burma Socialist Programme Party' (BSPP) after suffering for a long time. The people followed the leadership of daring students and youths and expressed their will and desire until the uprising reached its climax on 8th August 1988. The ruling party BSPP finally collapsed despite its monopolistic power and backing by the junta. It is not a spontaneous development, achieved only after a lot of sacrifices by the students and people.

After that, free and fair general elections were held in May 1990 for the first time in modern Burmese history. The Burmese people got the chance of exposure to the outside world to some extent from a totally isolated situation where they were blindfolded and gagged. The current developments are the fruits of the 8888 uprising. Human history would not have developed to this stage if everyone thought, "Nothing will be achieved even if I do it", the indifferent thinking.

There are many challenges ahead. But we should not forget there will always be opportunities to cope with all these challenges by seeing the exemplary role of the 8888 uprising.

Myanmar aid scheme sows new fears among cyclone survivors

BOGALAY, Myanmar (Khaleej-AFP)- Myanmar's military regime is giving desperately needed aid to cyclone survivors on credit, requiring them to pay back to the government any assistance offered, officials said.

The secretive military last week officially allowed local journalists to visit the disaster zone for the first time since Cyclone Nargis slammed into the country on May 2.

During the tour, local officials laid out their system for delivering aid to farmers in the hardest-hit parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, where entire villages were washed away by the storm that left more than 138,000 people dead or missing.

The officials insisted that government aid had allowed for farmers to plant their fields and for fishermen to return to their boats -- but insisted that the cyclone victims would have to reimburse the regime for the aid received.

"If everything is free of charge, its value is very low. If something must be paid back, then they try their best to do it. This is the system," one senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. (JEG's: the junta is charging the victims for our generosity and profiting from it - dandy...)

"The government will distribute everything for them through a payback system. Otherwise, controlling the aid will be very difficult," he said.

About 2.4 million people are struggling to piece together their lives after the storm, according to UN estimates.

Farmers have no choice but to accept the loans, but say they don't know how they will ever repay them.

"We have received power tillers and diesel on credit from the government. Even then, we still need more help to get bank loans so that we will have cash to hire field hands," said Kyi Win, 57, a farm owner in Sat San village outside Bogalay.

But local officials insisted that farmers were ready to start surviving on their own.

"The World Food Programme is delivering rice for villagers. Even if they stop delivering rice, villagers can feed themselves with their own income," said Zaw Myo Nyunt, a local official in Sat San.

The official assessment differs markedly with opinions expressed away from the military's ears, as well as with assessments by UN officials, who have warned that many farmers were not able to plant their crops this year.

Over the last two weeks, many farmers in the delta told AFP that as much as one-third of the region's cropland could lie idle -- simply because so many farmers died that no one is left to tend the fields.

Others who have received aid and tried to plant their fields say that as much as half the donated rice plants did not sprout, while draught cattle brought in from mountainous parts of Myanmar have not adapted to the delta's marshy lowlands.

"If the UN cannot deliver rice and stops their assistance to us, we will be in trouble. We have no income now as our employers are finding it difficult to start their farming," said Moe Wah, a 24-year-old farm worker.

"I have no job now and am relying on rice aid from the WFP. All of us need jobs urgently to resume our lives. We lost everything in the cyclone," she said.

It's not just the farmers questioning Myanmar's official aid system.

Construction companies have donated (???) more than 100 new wooden homes in Sat San and the nearby village of Kyaine Chaung Gyi, but the people living there have been given no deed to the property nor any indication of how long they will be allowed to use the homes. (JEG's: pure show only... what's in it for the junta)

Quote on Trust and Friendship

"In prison, you know who your real friends are;
you learn the meaning of 'friend.'

We shared everything we had:
our food and all our knowledge."
--Former Burmese political dissident

Burma's Prisons a Caldron of Protest Fury

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2008

RANGOON -- The promise of Burma's future begins in its prisons.

Inside, dissidents detained by the military junta tapped out messages on water pipes and listened to them echo from one cell to the next. They spelled words by knocking on walls, each series of sounds a letter of the alphabet. Sometimes they bribed guards with cigarettes to pass along coded messages in necklaces made of pebbles and strings of plastic bags.

Former Burmese political detainees say they found countless ways to communicate, defying their isolation and a system that was designed to break their will. For many, life behind the walls instead became a rite of passage toward political maturity.

"Prison happens to be the longest-running political seminar in Burma," said a scholar and political activist who spent 15 years behind bars for writings that were deemed subversive to the junta. "You could say things there that you couldn't outside, and we observed anniversaries that we couldn't in normal life."

Human rights groups say more than 1,800 political detainees languish long-term in about 20 prisons and labor camps in Burma, also called Myanmar. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese rights group based in Thailand, has documented "endemic" torture in them. Countless more people have disappeared altogether or been locked up for shorter stints.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had been monitoring conditions in centers across the country for six years. But in late 2005, the junta cut off its observers' access. The group's last attempt to engage the junta, on June 15, has yet to receive a positive response, said Christian Brunner, ICRC's Asia region head.

In the Red Cross's absence, indignities to political and criminal detainees remain manifold, according to recently released prisoners, outside observers and a prison lawyer.

They are beaten with bamboo canes. Their flesh is torn by iron rods that are rolled up and down their shins. They are forced to crawl over broken glass or sharpened gravel; deprived of sleep or water; shackled in painful positions; trapped in cells too small for them to stand upright; and surrounded by barking dogs. Others spend years in solitary confinement.

Some have died under the strain, and some have slipped into insanity.

Yet dissidents have often emerged unbroken, hardier or more pragmatic in their beliefs and more resolute that change will come from their actions. Time behind bars can be a vindication of their struggles, they said. Once through, they feel they have nothing else to fear -- and often return straight to activism.

For some, an ordinary life is forever elusive. "I want to live out of water, but I can't get on the shore," said a member of a new clandestine opposition group, the 88 Generation Students, explaining why its founders felt compelled to turn again to politics within weeks of their release after nearly two decades in and out of prison.

Now in their 40s, most of the group's founders were first rounded up as hotheaded university students who helped steer a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Bound for professions in medicine, engineering or law, many never graduated. The prisons became their university.

"In '88, our generation didn't know anything about politics," said a Rangoon teacher jailed for five years in the aftermath of the uprising. He was 21 when he was arrested. "We cared [only] about brutal repression. We saw it with our own eyes and heard it with our own ears."

Under a tarpaulin canopy at an empty tea shop one recent afternoon, he lighted his second cigarette in minutes and paused to watch the smoke mingle with a monsoon downpour.

In prison, he said, "you know who your real friends are; you learn the meaning of 'friend.' We shared everything we had: our food and all our knowledge."

He and two prison mates tore apart an old English primer, the only book that one of them had managed to have smuggled inside. They took turns reading and hiding the pieces, burying them in the soil outside their cells. From the pages he learned to speak English.

In their cells or in snatched moments in the prison yards, they could encounter a spectrum of dissidents whom they might never otherwise have met -- or had a chance to clash with. "I remember in my first months in Insein Prison, some young political prisoners came to ask me to do something for them, because the communists were waiting to 'dye them pink,' " the scholar said.

It was in jail that a Rangoon University student, now 29, said he met elected members from the opposition National League for Democracy, ethnic leaders and members of countless dissident groups. "I saw the future of Burma in the prisons," he said.

He heard them fiercely arguing and saw them give up visions they had once held, he said. The divides were revelatory. Democracy in the country would come, he concluded, only with "a proper understanding of each other. To do that, we need to improve the education. . . . We need better spirituality, better tolerance and better compassion."

To counter the hopelessness, many detainees said they relied on meditation. For others, the only cure was a chance to fight again beyond prison walls.

"You can't even see the sky. No stars. No moon. No sun, " said Win Naing, 71, who was once part of the political party of U Nu, the prime minister deposed in a 1962 military coup. For years, Win Naing has led an unspecified number of national politicians in a loose, unofficial opposition group, because, he said, a democracy requires multiple parties.

But his detention last year risked all that. "I thought I wouldn't be released for 20 or 30 years. I was almost totally hopeless," he said. "If I get released, I thought, I shouldn't get involved in politics."

After 35 days of detention in Insein, Rangoon's most notorious prison, his release came as a total surprise. And within two months, with his health largely back to normal, he had taken up his activities again.

"In Burma there is a saying: You can't stop yourself from getting up and dancing when you hear the music," he said. "When I heard the music of politics, when many came to see me . . . things changed. I changed. I thought, what the heck."

Outside the walls, behind this former capital's surface scars of broken windowpanes and mildewed buildings choked with vegetation, the wounds of the detention system reach deep into Burmese society.

One recent evening, a university lecturer sat on the concrete floor of her living room, clutching a pillow to her stomach as if to draw solace from it. She talked of being racked by "mental torture," a mix of depression and anxiety from years spent anguishing over her imprisoned husband, an opposition politician.

And a teacher said he went for weeks with no news from a close colleague who was to fly out of the country on a prestigious foreign fellowship. It turned out that for having spontaneously joined thousands in street protests last September, he was hunted down by intelligence agents who caught him two months later. The colleague later turned up at Insein. Word from his mother was that he could no longer walk.

It is a system in which a lawyer fights a largely futile battle against bureaucracy, shuttling daily back and forth from a special tribunal at the prison to defend the rights of political detainees before a judge who generally will send them to prison regardless, often on a technicality.

In his Rangoon office, he rifled through a dusty tome that dated to the British colonial era to explain the terms under which 16 prominent dissidents, including the 88 leaders, have been held without trial since their arrest last August, he said.

Asked whether he had ever secured the release of a political detainee, he thought a moment, set down his cup of tea and related the lone incident of his 27-year career: accusations against a politician client turned out to be so outlandish that a 10-year sentence was revoked.

For being caught one night with an anti-government pamphlet, the once starry-eyed Rangoon University student served seven years. He was lucky, he said. For being caught with two pamphlets, friends netted double the sentence. He described enduring beatings, hours in shackles and weeks in solitary confinement. When he was transferred to another prison far upcountry, his mother never knew where he was.

Worst of all, he said, was his hunger for ideas. To feed his mind, he said, he sometimes used a piece of broken pottery to scrawl on the cold concrete, struggling to recall parts of beloved stories by British novelist Somerset Maugham.

Or he would bribe a criminal to bring him a prison-made cheroot, a cone-shaped cigarette. Then he'd slowly unpeel its leafy layers to reveal a thumb-size square of gluey state newspaper, and with it a snippet of information from the world outside his cell.

Now he smuggles reading material -- often about democracy -- to friends still inside.

Sometimes he returns from a prison visit with a poem. A poet he befriended recently wrote about the insanity of living within its walls:
The white color of the moonlight,
Sticking like a sword inside that very wall,
Will make the demand
For the rest of your life to be numb to thoughts,
For your sorrows to swell,
For your philosophy to be always aching.