Saturday, 16 August 2008

Former child soldier re-arrested for desertion - Maung Htut San Oo

Aug 15, 2008 (DVB)–A former child soldier who escaped from a hard labour camp after being jailed for desertion has been re-arrested while trying to compile a case to submit to the International Labour Organisation, his uncle said.

Maung Htut San Oo’s uncle Ye Tun Zaw claimed his nephew was recruited into Burma’s armed forces at the age of 11 and tried to escape on several occasions.

“Maung Htut San Oo was born on 10 October 1987 and lived with his mother Daw Ni Ni Lwin in Hlaing township's ward 1, his father having passed away when he was very young,” Ye Tun Zaw said.

"In early May 1999, when he was 11, he went swimming at Insein swimming pool and was abducted by a soldier on his way back home – he was later taken to a soldier recruitment center where he was enlisted as a soldier," he went on.

"The soldier first took him to Insein railway station's police station and asked him to choose whether he wanted to go into jail or to go with him," he said.

"Htut San Oo was scared and he decided to go with the soldier who took him to Mingalardon soldier recruitment centre."

Ye Tun Zaw said that at first, Htut San Oo was given menial tasks to do, but shortly after his recruitment he was sent on a military training course.

"For a first few days they only let him work as a servant in military officials' houses – on 24 May, they sent him on a four-month soldier training programme in Pyinmana," Ye Tun Zaw said.

"After the training, he was posted to air defence artillery battalion 13."

Htut San Oo made two attempts to escape from the military, the second of which was successful, but when he turned 16, he reenlisted at South Dagon's soldier recruitment centre after learning that the government hunted down military deserters.

Ye Tun Zaw said officials at the South Dagon recruitment centre changed his date of birth on his registration papers to say that he was 21, the minimum legal age for enlistment being 18.

After reenlisting, Htut San Oo was sent to Hle Gu officer training camp outside Rangoon, and was then signed up for an advanced training program which lasted for two and a half months.

“He came home for a visit when he was given leave but he never went back to the army,” Ye Tun Zaw said.

“About two years later, when he was 18, he was arrested for deserting the army and was sentenced to two years in prison,” he said.

“He was assigned to hard labour on a private rubber plantation. The prisoners were given no holiday or benefits and were beaten when they couldn’t work.”

Ye Tun Zaw said Htut San Oo managed to escape from the work camp when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in early May, and began to assemble documents to report his case to the ILO.

He was arrested at his local ward Peace and Development Council office where he went to get a copy of his householder list.

He is now being detained in Insein prison's ward 4, cell 8, where he is being kept in shackles.

Reporting by Aye Nai

Next guest: Kemal Dervis, head of the UN Development Program

Posted by Daniel Altman in Q & A, General

(Blogs-ITH)-Loyal readers, this week we’re very excited to bring you yet another pre-eminent guest from the world of economic development. Kemal Dervis, administrator of the United Nations Development Program and chair of the United Nations Development Group, will be taking your questions.

Few people have the breadth of experience that Dr. Dervis boasts at both the national and international levels. Formerly a parliamentarian and minister for economic affairs in Turkey, he was also vice president of the World Bank for the Middle East and North Africa, and later the bank’s vice president for poverty reduction and economic management. He has worked with virtually every important international institution that deals with economic issues, from the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund to the Commission on Growth and Development.

In particular, Dr. Dervis would like to answer your questions on these two topics:
1. how to better integrate poverty reduction with the climate change agenda; and
2. the need for greater policy cooperation in the world economy.

Please leave your questions as comments on this blog entry, or send them to me directly at All questions MUST include your real, full name and country of residence, or they will not be used. I’ll collect your questions through Friday, August 1 - thanks in advance!

On Currency Exchange Losses, UN Starts Cover-Up in Myanmar and Beyond

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, August 14 -- Despite an internal UN memo admitted a "serious 20% loss" of aid money in currency exchanges required by Myanmar's government which led to an admission of $10 million in losses, on Thursday the UN cut its losses to $1.5 million, then refused to explain. The UN Development Program has for weeks refused to disclose how much money it has converted in Myanmar, nor in which other of the 160 countries it does business in its loses money in government-required conversions. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, whose director John Holmes initially took the lead in admitting the losses, has similarly declined to provide information about any other countries, despite Holmes' July 28 commitment to do so. As is too frequent in the UN, exposure of a problem has been followed not by reform but by cover-up and stonewalling.

In fact, despite a clear written and video record, the UN now claims that the problem wasn't exposed at all, but rather was "first raised" by John Holmes on July 24. But Inner City Press asked Holmes about the losses on July 9, 10 and 11, just as it had asked UNDP about the losses as far back as June 26. In minutes of a conference call that day, which whistleblowers showed to Inner City Press, a "serious loss of 20%" was admitted to. Inner City Press subsequently quoted from and then published the minutes.

On August 14, after reading out a statement that losses were "only" 4.5%, UN Associate Spokesperson Farhan Haq refused to answer Inner City Press' question about how the 20% loss admitted in the internal memorandum had been changed, without explanation, in this new public figure. "Internal conference calls are internal discussions," Haq said. When Inner City Press asked that someone come to a press conference to answer questions about the new numbers, Haq said he's check "if Holmes is interested in talking," but that Holmes is not available now. Video here, from Minute 12:11.

Inner City Press sent written questions to Holmes' office and to Haq, stating that on the record answers were being sought on deadline:

"of how the 20% loss referred to both in the Teleconference minutes and elsewhere was changed to a 4.5% loss, and by whom. I am told, by a participant in the estimate-reduction exercise, that UNDP took the lead; I would like a confirmation or denial of that. I have asked UNDP the following, and hereby ask OCHA (and spending under OCHA's control), on deadline

how much money has OCHA / the UN converted through Foreign Exchange Certificates in Myanmar in the past one, five and ten years? At what rates? With what losses? If any, how were these disclosed? And, please any and all other countries in which OCHA / the UN has faced currency exchange losses of over 5%, and what you have done and, separately, will do about it? And when will Mr Holmes (and separately Mr. Baker, in light of his July 10 statements) hold press conference(s) at UN HQ on these topics?" I trust you remember that Mr. Holmes said he saw no reason not to make public a list of countries in which OCHA / the UN suffers currency exchange losses. So, please do.

Eight hours later, no answer of any kind had been received. UNDP, as noted, has had the questions before it since June 26, multiply reiterates since then. On August 14, rather than providing the numbers about how much money UNDP has converted in Myanmar, UNDP's Spokesman Stephane Dujarric wrote:

On Myanmar, you received extensive answers on the currency exchange question at the noon briefing. With regards to our programme in Myanmar, UNDP does not have a regular country programme in Myanmar. Since 1993, all assistance from UNDP to Myanmar has been governed by a restrictive mandate from UNDP's Executive Board, which stipulates that assistance must be focused at the grass-roots level, particularly in the areas of primary health care, environment, HIV/AIDS, training and education and food security.

Extensive controls are in place to ensure compliance with the UNDP Executive Board mandate in Myanmar and the Executive Board receives regular reports. Independent assessments have all found that the programme is in full compliance with the Executive Board mandate: i.e., that it is effective in addressing the needs of the poor and vulnerable in rural areas of Myanmar, and that all projects operate independently of the government. The full 2005-2006 assessment, including the budget, is available online on the Executive Board website .

But the questions, asked of Mr. Dujarric and in his absence of UNDP's Christina Lonigro and, in great detail, Stanislav Saling, included how much money was been in UNDP's account at the Myanmar Foreign Exchange Bank, how much was converted and at what loss. Also, Dujarric entirely ignores the wider question posed to him and to UNDP Administrator Kemal Dervis, to disclose "any and all other countries in which UNDP has faced currency exchange losses of over 5%, and what you have done and, separately, will do about it?"

This is a question that, as to OCHA, John Holmes said on July 28 there was no reason he would not answer. But despite repeated reminders, the question has not been answered by him and OCHA, nor UNDP, nor the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to which Ban Ki-moon's Spokesperson passed the buck (DPKO in turn has said it has asked the UN Controllers Office, just as it passes from the UK's Warran Sach to a new Controller from Japan). DPKO has promised an answer, and we'll wait for it and publish it on this site.

Inner City Press has been contacted by other whistleblowers concerned with the UN system's currency losses. But is the only way to get any change to shame UN officials and point out their mis-statements? We'll see.

Watch this site. And this (on South Ossetia), and this --

UN Claims only $1.5 Million Lost in Cyclone Relief Effort

The Irrawaddy News

The United Nations estimated that it has lost only US $1.56 million—not $10 million, as earlier cited—in relief funds for Burmese cyclone survivors due to foreign exchange rules imposed by the country’s military regime.

UN spokesperson Farhan Haq disclosed the figure in a statement released on Thursday. He said that the amount represented 4.5 percent of local expenditure, or 1 percent of total contributions to the relief effort.

He noted that an earlier estimate of $10 million, cited by John Holmes, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, following a visit to Burma in late July, was based on a very rough, preliminary calculation.

The UN spokesperson also said that the new figure was the maximum amount that could have been lost.

Following his visit to Burma in July, Holmes acknowledged that the loss of aid funds through the government’s exchange rate mechanism was “a very serious problem.”

Daniel Baker, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Burma, also said that the discrepancy was a source of double concern.

“We are not getting the full value of dollars donated for emergency relief, and donors are extremely worried and keen to see that this issue is resolved,” said Baker in a joint statement by the UN, Burmese government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Meanwhile, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) announced on Thursday that the Canadian government has contributed an additional $11 million to help victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma on May 2-3, affecting an estimated 2.4 million people.

CIDA also pledged to provide more than $30 million in aid for victims of a massive earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan Province in May.

Conrad Sauve, secretary general of the Canadian Red Cross, which received $2 million of Ottawa’s aid for Burma, said that the money will be used to help affected communities to rebuild houses, schools and clinics, as well as to support community-based health initiatives and provide economic support for those who have lost their livelihoods.

The Canadian government has so far contributed a total of $25 million to the Burmese relief effort. The latest contribution was in response to a pledge to match the value of private donations by Canadians.

“We are very pleased with Canada’s quick response to the cyclone victims in Burma,” said Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma.

Junta Braces for Anniversary of Monk-led Uprising

The Irrawaddy News

The mayor of Rangoon has confirmed that security will be heightened in the former capital in the coming weeks, as Burma approaches another sensitive anniversary, this time marking last year’s monk-led uprising against military rule.

Speaking to local journalists on August 13, Rangoon mayor Brig-Gen Aung Thein Linn said that the number of security forces in Burma’s largest city would be increased in response to reports of a terrorist threat.

The military presence in Rangoon has been noticeably greater since late July, according to local residents, who said that soldiers and riot police in full uniform had been deployed around the city center in advance of the 20th anniversary of the “Four Eights” uprising of August 8, 1988.

“The soldiers and police that have been deployed since the end of July are still in sight,” said one Rangoon resident. “It looks like the tightened security will continue because the anniversary of the monks’ uprising is coming.”

In addition to barricades and security forces wielding batons or assault rifles, residents have reported seeing plainclothes agents near university campuses, monasteries, pagodas and other public areas that have traditionally served as focal points for protests.

“The security around Shwedagon, Kabar Aye and Kyaik Ka San is very tight right now, with soldiers and riot police everywhere,” said another local resident, naming three pagodas that were at the center of last year’s demonstrations, the largest since 1988.

Meanwhile, four Buddhist monasteries in Pakokku, where harsh handling of protesting monks last August fueled much larger demonstrations the following month in Rangoon, are also being closely watched by local military authorities.

According to an abbot at one of these monasteries, monks have continued to refuse alms from military leaders and their families since the army crushed last year’s uprising. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested and at least 31 people killed in the crackdown, according to UN estimates.

In Rangoon, pictures of four alleged terrorists, along with an offer of a 2.5 million kyat reward for information leading to their arrest, have been posted to alert residents of the threat to their security.

However, most observers believed that the scare tactics were little more than a pretext for increasing the military presence in Rangoon ahead of the sensitive anniversary.

“Terrorists are coming, so everyone must be on high alert,” said a skeptical Rangoon-based lawyer, noting that Burma’s military rulers have used such tactics many times in the past since seizing power in 1962.

Kyi Wai and Aung Thet Wine contributed to this story from Rangoon.

May Thet, Myanmar, “I feel like crying when I see my friends going to school”

Photo: Lynn Maung/IRIN
May Thet - one of scores of young people badly affected by Cyclone Nargis – has managed to become the family breadwinner by collecting and selling discarded plastic water bottles distributed by the humanitarian community

MAWLAMYINEKYUN (IRIN), Three months after Cyclone Nargis struck, most of the estimated 2.4 million storm-affected people are still struggling to rebuild their lives. May Thet, a teenage girl, has become the chief family breadwinner, collecting empty water bottles to sell in Mawlamyinekyun, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“My job is to collect the empty plastic water bottles that people dump on the ground and sell them to a bottle-buyer in our town… Sometimes, I make about 3,500 kyat [US$3] per day.

“Now I can afford to send my little sister to school, and at the same time provide enough income so my mother has no serious financial worries… My mother has re-opened her road-side noodles shop, but earns just US$1 per day.

“We can't think of rebuilding our house yet, because money for food and for school is a first priority. My mother always told me she wanted me to go to school, but couldn’t afford the school fees for both my sister and me.

“I feel like crying when I see my friends going to school, but, I have to console myself. It's my destiny. There are a lot of us who can’t go to school because we have to help our parents.

“See that student over there? Just look how pleased he is with the books he has received from his teacher. I envy him a lot, but if I ask my mother to send me to school, it would only put her in deeper debt. I just don’t want to talk about it any more. Earning the family income is much more important right now than going to school.

“My mother said no [to my going to Yangon to look for work as a housemaid], because she was afraid I would be sexually assaulted or trafficked into the sex industry. I'm also afraid of being sold or raped. But my mother told me I cannot go there. I have to listen to my mother's orders."


What Lessons do we get from Georgia in the Burmese Context?

Prof. Kanbawza Win

(Asian Tribune) - Now that the world media is highlighted by the Beijing Olympics and the conflict in Georgia, and as a teacher of the history of Imperialism may I take this opportunity to highlight some of the facts and figures of the Georgia crisis especially to the pro ethno democratic forces and draw lessons as we can no longer afford the trial and error method. A country living under the shadow of the evil Chinese empire must be able to see things clearly and visualise all the trappings for the future of Union of Burma.

Washington is no innocent bystander in this bloody struggle, which provoked a response by Russia that now dominates the news. Long before Aug. 8, Georgia, a country in the Caucasus Mountains south of Russia, attacked a small autonomous region known as South Ossetia. Georgia’s military assaulted the city of Tskhinvali the capital of Ossetia destroying the parliament building, the university and the main hospital.

According to AP interviews with survivors, there was hardly a single building left undamaged. Eduard Kokoity, the South Ossetian leader, estimated that more than 1,400 civilians were killed in the assault (Reuters, Aug. 8). Russian military forces then struck back at Georgia’s military bases, airfields and the main Black Sea port of Poti. Most news coverage in the West, however, is slanted to give the impression that Russia initiated the conflict with Georgia.

Of course Washington does not claim credit for the invasion of South Ossetia ordered by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, especially now that his forces have been routed. But the White House made clear its political support for Saakashvili and had sent Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State. Georgia has been closely allied with the U.S. military in its war in Iraq.

Everybody knows the U.S. and NATO have heavily armed and trained the Georgian military. There are U.S. military “advisers” in Georgia today. A thousand U.S. Marines from the Third Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment just finished three weeks of joint manoeuvres there called “Operation Immediate Response.” In the period leading up to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia, the Pentagon had supplied Georgia with hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery weapons, rocket launchers and dozens of combat helicopters and anti-aircraft missile systems. Hundreds of other weapons systems have poured in from other NATO members and from Israel. (Interfax, Aug. 7) In exchange Georgia had provided the third-largest military force in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But on Aug. 10 the U.S. began ferrying the 2,000 Georgian troops out of Iraq to the war zone in Georgia. Along with the “advisers” and U.S. troops sent for manoeuvres, U.S.-origin mercenaries and privatized military trainers function in Georgia. Tens of thousands of “civil society” operatives, international consultants, policy experts and technical assistants operate in Georgia, Ukraine and other former Soviet Republics.

Now in the Burmese context, Prof. Dr Khin Mg Kyi has said we are but in name, that Burma is an autonomous region of China, the Generals has secretly sell the country long ago to the Chinese in return to support the Junta to maintain in power. Hence if we were to take the covert support from the West, particularly form the US, to make a coup de grace which I have highlighted in my previous article, what will China do is food for thought? The country under the occupation of the Chinese army will be worst that the marauding Burmese Generals. Shall we jump out of the frying pan into the fire? But this does not mean that we have to accept the status quo.

The media’s war reporting on Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia has echoed the kind of misinformation that characterized the reporting on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One must know that Georgia is at the centre of U.S. imperialism’s moves to control the oil-rich Caspian Sea region. Georgia is the energy highway for Europe, with at least two major pipelines passing though it. These pipelines are emerging to rival the Russian oil pipelines that have been Europe’s primary source for natural gas and oil. Until 2005, the only pipeline from the Caspian oil centre of Baku in Azerbaijan was through Russia. In 2005, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline opened. Owned by British Petroleum and Unocal, this pipeline goes through Georgia to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan.

The BP consortium also owns the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, which opened in 2007. Another pipeline, named Western Early, goes through Georgia passing the border of South Ossetia to the Georgia port city of Supsa. Hence s the oil that was once the most valuable resource of the former Soviet Union is now going to market through facilities controlled by U.S. and its allies.

With Iraq’s oil resources conquered, and Iran’s under threat of blockade or bombardment, the U.S. is determined to also control the Caspian oil fields. By removing Russian control over these oil fields, the U.S. would deliver a major blow to the possible emergence of Russia as a capitalist power. For all its flowery words of democracy and freedom, the U.S. ruling class has no intention of freeing Burma or allowing Russia to become an imperialist rival, like Europe and Japan. The U.S. has been working covertly and overtly to break up Russia and the states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, concentrating on the states around the Caspian oil fields. The Caspian Sea has two huge oil fields. One is east of Baku. The other is the Tengiz oilfield, on the Caspian’s northwest shore in Kazakhstan.

In addition there are massive reserves of natural gas throughout the Caspian region. It is the primary supplier of natural gas to Europe. The known reserves of Caspian oil are larger than the oil fields of Nigeria or Libya, putting the Caspian oil fields in the same league as the fields of Iran or Kuwait.

A consortium of 11 major oil corporations set up outposts on the Caspian. Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Pennzoil, Philips Petroleum, Texaco and BP Amoco spent billions of dollars buying up Soviet-era oil interests and drilling rights. But the Caspian Sea is landlocked. The oil must be transported out of the region by pipeline. Whoever controls the pipelines will ultimately control the oil. South Ossetia is but one of the targets.

Within the United Nations Security Council, U.S. and British representatives blocked a Russian-drafted resolution calling on Georgia and South Ossetia to immediately put down their weapons. The U.S. rejected the three-sentence statement that would have required both sides “to renounce the use of force.” It was a clear confirmation of U.S. support for Georgia’s continued “use of force” against the small Ossetian nationality. However, Russia succeeded in repelling Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia. So as of Aug. 13, Georgia and Russia agreed to a “peace plan” brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

This is the true story, at least from my humble perspective. The point which I am driving it is that will the Chinese stand by now that the construction of the oil pipe line from Arakan to Kunming is being implemented? With the current situation in Burma, it will not be so much of a problem to deliver a coup de grace to the Burmese Junta. But after that what? Has the ethnics and the pro democracy group has come to a broad understanding? The ethnics have their own fighting force whereas the pro democracy has the masses. Have they ever made an attempt to thrash out their different perspective for a common good of the country?

The Burmese resistance (including the ethnics) have lacked the most important factor and the joke, that if two Burmese were put into the cell they will form three political parties captures a shameful truth. In other words these numerous resistance group actions are indicating that they would prefer the Burmese military Junta then come to agreement with each other. Every resistance leader knows that once they become a united political force under one umbrella then the Junta will fall and yet they would not lift a finger to help that unity.

Until and unless these two groups have an understanding of each other, I don’t see any bright future for the Union of Burma. We must present to the international community that we are the better alternative than the Junta. If the Maha Bama drives it to the position prior to 1962, surely the ethnic will not join and there is the danger of Balkanization. On the other hand the Chinese will give credence to the Maha Bama headed by the Junta and the Burmese revolution will be driven back for a couple of decades and the people will continue to suffer. I think Burmese democracy starts in our hearts and if we don’t agreed and compromise with each other after more than half a century Burma will set up a record of being a century under the heels of the military. It is far better to reach a sort of understanding an agreement than relying on the imperialistic power or the evil empires or the cutthroat neighbouring countries as the example of Georgia unfold before our eyes.

- Asian Tribune -

THAUNG HTUN: 888 has dark significance in Yangon

Thaung Htun

(ST) - WE could all appreciate the cute symmetry of 08-08-08. But Friday's Olympic opening ceremony was poorly timed. Aug 8, 1988 -- "08-08-88" -- was the date of a brutal crackdown in Myanmar, which killed some 3,000 people, mostly students and monks, and is a deep notch marking Myanmar's descent into hell since the military coup in 1962.
Even as the games chug on, it's worth considering some truly extraordinary numbers.

Let's look first at the economy. Indeed important because it was the devaluation of the kyat that led to the 1988 protests and also because an increase in fuel prices led to the Saffron Revolution demonstrations from September last year.

In most places, economics is important. In Myanmar, it's a matter of life and death. Myanmar has the 10th largest reserves of natural gas in the world. The military government is reported to receive some US$150 million (RM495 million) per month in gas export revenues alone.

These are good numbers, of course. The sort suggesting a thriving, albeit somewhat unbalanced, economy. Yet, these upbeat statistics are mugged by a gang of less than savoury data.
A look at just where that money goes reveals the shadowy truth. Myanmar is, next to Somalia, the world's most corrupt country.

The generals and their cronies may have the world's stickiest fingers.

As the scandals over aid funding in the aftermath of the May cyclone that ravaged the Irrawaddy region tend to confirm, the military generals have no scruples in diverting Myanmar's vast resources' wealth into their own offshore accounts.

These diversions include buying themselves all the latest military toys. Between 1988 and 2006, the generals spent about US$23 million a month directly on military hardware.

Overall, the military spending money on itself accounts for some 40 per cent of total budgetary outlays, among the highest such ratios in the world. Meanwhile, around three per cent of government spending is on education. Ninety per cent of Myanmars live on less than US$1 a day.

Average household incomes are roughly five per cent less than the average cost to feed a family.

Children, as always, suffer most. In Chin state, for example, the rate of underweight children below the age of 5 was 60 per cent. In eastern Myanmar, one in five children dies before the fifth birthday.

Many of these deaths are from malaria, an easily preventable disease. Myanmar has the second-highest child mortality rate in Asia.

Up to 150,000 children die every year, mainly from preventable diseases. If the children make it to a certain age, they are likely to be recruited for the military's deadly games.

There are 70,000 child soldiers in Myanmar, the most of anywhere in the world. Here, the children can spend their formative years fighting the world's longest-running war, in the east of the country.

Should they survive this, they may, as adults, join the hundreds of thousands who flee the country every year to eke out an existence as refugees in neighbouring countries.

In the decade to 2005, the flow of refugees from Myanmar increased 800 per cent. Myanmar is the world's third-biggest source of refugees.

Or, if they chose to stay and their pain at this treatment turns vocal, they may end up among the nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar. Since last year, there has been a 65 per cent increase in political prisoners in the last year.

The sum of all these numbers is more unrest, more demonstrations, and more struggle to achieve Myanmar's democratic destiny.

Nearly 90 per cent of the population voted for democratic change the last time something like a free poll was held in Myanmar, in 1990. That's a number the military cannot deny. It's a number they fear.

But, while the world can get together to organise a massive show like the Olympics, we cannot find consensus in solving problems like those in Myanmar. Even an Olympic medal, it seems, has two sides.

Dr Thaung Htun is the representative for United Nations Affairs with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Myanmar's government-in-exile

New UN envoy upbeat after Insein visit


(Bangkok Post) - Burma's human rights record is again under scrutiny by the international community, almost a year after the junta cracked down on the anti-inflation street protests led by the country's Buddhist monks. The UN's new human rights rapporteur for Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, has finished his first mission to Burma and feels certain that the regime is ready to cooperate with him. On his inaugural trip to Burma, political prisoners were his top priority, Mr Quintana told the Bangkok Post, after his five-day visit ended last weekend.

''The prison conditions of the political prisoners I saw were not so bad,'' he said after visiting only five renowned activists being held in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison, where hundreds are in detention. The country's longest serving political prisoner, journalist and writer Win Tin, had been allowed a hernia operation in the last three months, he added.

This assessment is, of course, in stark contrast to the views of his predecessor, Paul Sergio Pinheiro, who constantly told journalists that although the conditions of political prisoners had improved during his seven-year tenure as special rapporteur on human rights in Burma which ended in April_ the conditions remained appalling and unacceptable.

Even the new envoy himself seems to have understood that conditions were far from adequate. One of the political prisoners, Thurein Aung, complained that he had been denied dental care for more than a year, and after Mr Quintana raised it with the prison authorities, a dentist was allowed to treat him.

The five political prisoners he saw were U Win Tin, Thurein Aung, Kyaw Kyaw, Su Su Nway and the revered monk, U Gambira. The envoy declined to reveal what they talked about on the grounds that these were private conversations and he wanted to protect them. But he conceded that ''the monk was very angry; after all, he was detained for exercising his rights''.

The regime seems keen to appear at least to be making some concessions to the human rights envoy.

''On the day of Quintana's visit to the political prisoners in Insein, they were given increased food rations,'' said Bo Kyi, the head of an organisation that promotes the cause of Burmese political prisoners, based in Thailand. ''But the next day after his visit they went back to their meagre rations.''

Over the last 12 months Burma's human rights record has gone from bad to worse, including the conditions endured by political prisoners.

''If anything, conditions in Insein [jail] have got worse in the past year since September's uprising,'' said Zin Linn, a former political prisoner now in exile in Thailand.

''Since the Red Cross stopped their prison visits, conditions have deteriorated. No proper medical care, no soap to wash with, less food rations and no one to courier letters between them and their families,'' he said.

This was part of the package provided by representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross on their regular visits to the political prisoners. They suspended their prison visits more than two years ago because of government interference.

''The best thing the new envoy can do is to urge the junta to allow the Red Cross to resume their prison visits as soon as possible,'' said Zin Linn.

Although the UN envoy is relatively upbeat about his first visit, he did accept that it was largely ''an introductory mission _ a getting to 'know you' trip'', he said.

''I wanted to get to know the government and for them to see where I was coming from. My main purpose was to see if we could start a dialogue, for that we had to meet face to face.''

Now it is in the generals' hands to see where the process goes. But the omens are not good _ he failed to meet any real high-ranking officials of the government or military.

He met Aung Kyi, who is in charge of relations with the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and has met with her five times in the past year. ''My visit comes at a very important time in Burma as it moves under the new constitution to civilian rule after the elections planned for 2010,'' the envoy said.

''What is important now is the interim period and I told the Burmese government that I planned to draw up a detailed proposal on how human rights issues should be treated and that I expected them to implement it,'' Mr Quintana said.

More pie in the sky, according to the former political prisoner Zin Linn.

''The international community has been telling the junta now for more than 20 years to release political prisoners and stop human rights abuses _ without any appreciable success,'' he added.

There are still more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing in Burma's prisons, according to the British-based human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Although some political prisoners are periodically released, others are then detained, according the Burmese political activist Bo Kyi.

Earlier this week two MPs elected in the 1990 polls _ which Aung San Suu Kyi's party the National League for Democracy (NLD) convincingly won but was never allowed to form a government _ were detained by the authorities.

No reason was given when the NLD MPs, U Nyi Pu and Dr Tin Min Htut, were arrested, according to the party's spokesman, Nyan Win.

They both had signed a petition of parliamentarians opposing the planned elections in 2010, which was sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The UN envoy also did not try to see Aung San Suu Kyi, on the grounds this was a sensitive issue best avoided on his first visit to Burma.

But he did ask the military authorities to allow her to see her lawyer to discuss her detention.

On Friday, the NLD's U Kyi Win was permitted to see her for three hours at her lakeside residence where she is currently under house arrest. NLD sources believe that this was another concession to the envoy.

It now seems clear that Aung San Suu Kyi has had her house arrest extended for another year _ until the end of May 2009. Her detention order was renewed last May, but at the time it was unclear whether it was for six or 12 months. Next May she will have been in detention for six years, which many legal experts in Burma believe is the maximum permitted under regulations that have been used to lock her up. The first time she was placed under house arrest, she was freed in July 1995 for a few days before the end of her sixth year under house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 13 years of the last 19 under house arrest. Mr Quintana said he could not clarify the conditions of her detention, but planned to study her case and the Burmese laws so he could discuss it fully with the Burmese authorities next time he visits the country.

Mr Quintana plans to return to Burma in February 2009, to help prepare for his submission to the UN Human Rights Council next March. The authorities seemed to be willing, he said, ''but let's wait and see''.

Many of his predecessors, particularly Mr Pinheiro, found making follow-up missions virtually impossible. In the meantime Mr Quintana is working on his report to the General Assembly of the UN in November.

The Burmese regime is keen to be seen cooperating with the UN, not just over the international recovery plans for the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Rangoon and the Irrawaddy delta to the west of the former capital in May, leaving massive damage.

The UN envoy for Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is expected to make his sixth visit to the country in the last three years within the next two weeks, to discuss a variety of political issues, including the regime's roadmap to democracy, the 2010 elections and Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest.