Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Thaksin and the Generals

The Irrawaddy News

Why the fate of Thailand’s fugitive ex-premier has captured attention in Naypyidaw?

BURMA’s generals must be following with more than passing interest the drama of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s flight into exile.

It lies beyond the wildest imagination to believe they could ever join their erstwhile business crony in seeking refuge in the West. Nevertheless, in a world where the cat’s cradle of international treaties and alliances of convenience is constantly changing, the number of countries where they are assured of a welcome is possibly shrinking.

Thaksin and his family reportedly took months to work out where they could count on refuge if Thai law finally caught up with them. It’s perhaps no surprise that they chose England, where they have two expensive homes and large investments—and where Thaksin owns, at least for the present, a major football club, Manchester City.

But did China ever come into consideration? And if it did, why was exile there ruled out? Thaksin, after all, has distant Chinese ancestors, and he and his family obviously feel well at home there. These are questions and considerations that could occupy the generals’ attention if ever events in Burma caused them to seek exile abroad.

The likelihood of the generals ever being forced into exile lies at present in the “pigs might fly” realm of fantasy, of course—particularly as international governments appear to be gearing up to accept the results of the 2010 general election, which will enshrine for the foreseeable future the leading role of the military in governing Burma.

The nearer Burma gets to the critical 2010 date, the smaller becomes the political opposition’s chance to forestall the election. Any amendment of the constitution is now out of reach, and the doctored result of the referendum that endorsed the document has now been chiseled in stone—not only in Burma, but also in the wider world. Even the media of the free world repeats without comment the official fiction that the referendum was approved by more than 90 percent of the population.

In these circumstances, Burma’s military leaders can surely relax and feel secure from the threat of ever having to flee. Or can they?

Consider the case of Thaksin Shinawatra. Who in their right mind only three years ago, when Thaksin won a landslide election victory and consolidated an apparently invincible power base, would have predicted that his image would slide off the society pages and onto a “Wanted” poster displayed at Thailand’s border entry points?

This is the man who graduated with a PhD in “criminal justice” at a US university, enabling him with impunity to place the title “Dr” before his name in honors-conscious Britain.

The nature of his studies in the US gave him the background for a career in Thailand’s police department, which also provided him with the chance to lay the basis of his business fortune when he secured a contract to supply the department with computer software.

Five years later, he established a software marketing company, which spawned various lucrative ventures but also a spider’s web of shady dealings that finally enmeshed Thaksin and his family.

By now, he was eyeing a career in politics and after joining the government of the time he was appointed foreign minister in 1994 and deputy prime minister the following year. In 1998, he founded his own party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), leading it to a crushing victory in a general election in January 2001.

Suspicions that business interests were conflicting with Thaksin’s public duties surfaced early on in his administration, however, and he narrowly survived charges of failing to fully disclose his assets during his time as deputy prime minister.

Thaksin’s rapid rise on parallel paths to the pinnacle of political power and to the status of Thailand’s wealthiest individual fuelled growing concern and opposition, particularly among the country’s influential middle-class intellectuals and the old conservative, royalist guard.

A snap election called by Thaksin in April 2006 returned him and his TRT party to power with a massive mandate but failed to stem the demonstrations, and in September 2006 he was overthrown by a military coup while abroad.

He returned to Thailand in February 2008, following the December 2007 election that brought current prime minister and Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej to power.

As legal investigations of Thaksin’s business dealings intensified and after his wife was sentenced to three years imprisonment for withholding tax on share dealings, the couple fled last month to Beijing and then Britain.

If Thaksin is extradited by Britain or returns home voluntarily, he faces a raft of corruption and malfeasance charges, including one involving approval by his government of a loan to Burma to buy telecommunications technology from a Shinawatra family-owned enterprise—another reason why the Thaksin drama commands great interest in Naypyidaw.

Will Soe Tha Get It Right this Time?

The Irrawaddy News
Intelligence - Sep'08

Stung by charges that millions of dollars are being creamed off cyclone aid in a sophisticated currency scam, the Burmese regime has come up with a proposal it hopes will allay the accusations.

The military government’s minister for national planning and economic development, Soe Tha, suggests that aid agencies could bypass dubious currency exchange regulations by paying dollars directly into the bank accounts of Burmese vendors from whom they purchase goods and services.

At present, aid agencies have to exchange their dollars for foreign exchange certificates at a rate below the real value of the US currency. The discrepancy results in the disappearance of large amounts of dollars, and some donor countries are demanding to know where the money goes.

However, Soe Tha’s proposal hasn’t been received with much enthusiasm by the aid agencies.

Soe Tha is the man who exaggerated the cost of the damage wrought by Cyclone Nargis, telling the donor conference in Rangoon in May that US $11 billion would be required to rebuild the devastated areas and their economies. The Asean-Burma-UN group that surveyed the damage put the cost at $4 billion, however.

In another misleading statement, Soe Tha said the rice output in Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions made up only 2.3 percent of the nation’s total production. Experts agree that the two regions, in fact, produce more than 50 percent of the country’s rice.

Soe Tha was appointed minister for national planning and economic development in 1999, after the dismissal of Brig-Gen David Abel. His area of expertise before this appointment was in the postal service and telecommunications—where observers say he should have gained greater skills in economic planning and reliable prognosis.

Behind the Scenes at the Bush Meeting

The Irrawaddy News
Intelligence Sep'08

US President George W Bush met with Thailand-based Burmese exiles in August, in a strong show of American support for Burma’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement.

The meeting was the first of its kind between a US head of state and members of the Burmese diaspora in Thailand. Earlier suggestions that it might take place in Chiang Mai, home to many Burmese exiles, were soon dropped in favor of an informal lunch gathering at the US ambassador’s residence in Bangkok, to allay Thai concerns about roiling relations with its neighbor.

Although Bush did not signal any change in the US policy of isolating Burma’s military rulers, those who attended the gathering noted the presence of a Burmese aid worker involved in Cyclone Nargis relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta. Some members of the exiled dissident community suggested that the last-minute invitation to this individual was intended to represent the pro-engagement camp. However, inside sources said that the aid worker was a professional who maintained her distance from the regime.

While Bush played host to his Burmese guests, his wife, Laura, visited the Mae Tao clinic in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot and the Mae La refugee camp, home to some 45,000 refugees. Despite Thai concerns about the safety of the US delegation in an area notorious for cross-border raids by groups allied to the Burmese army, the visit was completed without a hitch.

The exiles who met the Bushes were pleasantly surprised by their level of interest in Burmese issues. US officials later said that both had learned a great deal from their encounters with the Thai-based exiles. The president came away from his meeting with a sense that the problems facing Burma were “complex,” said a Washington-based official.

Thai Buddhists Help Needy Burmese Children


Needy children in Burma will benefit from an initiative launched by the Phuttika Network, a coalition of “socially engaged’’ Buddhists in Thailand.

Every year, at Buddhist Lent, the Phuttika Network chooses a worthy cause to support. This year it launched a “Fund for Education of Poor Children in Burma,” at a charity event in late August at Bangkok’s Wat Thong Nopphakhun.

The Phuttika Network noted that more than 1,400 monasteries across Burma play a crucial role in providing education and shelter for destitute young people and orphans.

They receive very little support from the Burmese government, particularly after the monk-led September 2007 demonstrations. Financial support from the Burmese public has also dropped sharply because of the dire economic situation in Burma.

The monk who heads Phuttika Network, Phra Paisan Visalo, said support for the network’s initiative would be pivotal in easing the plight of needy young people in Burma.

“True compassion transcends any race, language, or geographical boundaries,” he said. “For above it all, every human is related as brother and sister. A heart full of compassion will be so big that ‘they’ become part of ‘us,’ or even better, there will be neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’.”

Donors are invited to contribute to the network’s fund.
Further information can be obtained by calling
(66) 02-883-0592,
(66) 02-886-9881 or
(66) 08-6300-5458.

Spare the Child

Street kids in Rangoon are often employed as laborers. (Photo: Aung Thet Wine/The Irrawaddy)
By AUNG THET WINE - The Irrawaddy News - V16-9
Burma’s military government pays lip service to the rights of children,
but still allows child labor and recruits underage soldiers

RANGOON — ABOUT 6:30 p.m., a sudden, heavy rain poured down on the Thirimingala vegetable market, sending crowds of shoppers, traders and laborers running for cover.

A group of children in ragged clothes paid no attention to the drenching rain. They continued picking through wilted and soiled vegetables and fruit that had been dumped in piles of garbage behind the market.

Bits of vegetables and fruit that appeared edible were quickly stuffed into their bags. Next to the children, a few adult men and women also sifted through putrid piles of foodstuff.

The children, about 30 in total, outnumbered the adults. They were part of a small army of child laborers in Rangoon who struggle for survival, forsaking school for odd jobs, begging and scavenging.

“I come from Hlaing Tharyar,” said Ywun Ei San, a 10-year-old girl who was collecting discarded foodstuff to sell to market vendors in her hometown on the outskirts of Rangoon.

“Usually, the trucks and vegetable wholesalers throw away their damaged vegetables around 4 a.m., and at about 6:30 in the evening. We collect the good pieces. We can earn a thousand kyat a day (US $0.85).

Ywun Ei San has survived by collecting garbage for more than a year. Usually, a child, if asked what they would most like to have, says something about toys, games or candy. However, Ywun Ei San, in a resigned voice, said she wanted “vegetables that I can sell.”

Nobody knows the number of child laborers in Burma, but they number perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, working in markets, teashops, restaurants, small industry and on construction sites. Some children also end up as domestic servants, while others are exploited in the sex trade.

At 4 o’clock one morning, eight children in their teens had already started their jobs at the Win teashop in Mayangone Township on the Rangoon-Insein road. With sleep still in their eyes, some washed cups and plates, while others prepared a fire to boil water, cooked snacks and arranged tables and stools.

“We get up at 3:30 in the morning. The shop opens at 5:30. About 6:30, the customers start coming in and we start serving them. The shop owner feeds us at 8,” said Maung Thaw Kaung, a skinny 12-year-old boy. His bones pressed against his skin, and his hands were rough and worn.

“We have to serve the customers all day until the shop closes at 10:30 at night,” he said. “We have to clean and get the things in order after the shop closes, and then we go to bed about midnight. I have worked here for more than three years now, and I earn 8,000 kyat ($7) a month. Phoe Lone and Wae Htoo [two child co-workers] have just started their work here. Each of them earns 4,500 kyat ($3.70) a month. The shop feeds us two meals a day. We put these stools together with a blanket, and they are our beds.”

Burmese labor laws officially allow 8-hour working days for adults, but the children at Win teashop put in more than 17 hours a day.

“When I started running this shop, I hired five adult waiters and two children for menial jobs,” said the teashop’s owner. “Later, I learned the adults were not good at the work. Children don’t complain as much, and they do whatever I ask them to do, so I gave all the work to children.”

Many employers say the same thing about child workers, and they have little to fear because of the loose enforcement of child labor laws by authorities.

An elected representative of the National League for Democracy (NLD) said child workers were among the “silent voices” of Burma. “Nowadays, we can see child workers everywhere, from maid services to big construction sites, and it is rare to see work sites in Burma with no children. That shows our country’s future is in trouble,” he said.

An officer with an NGO that works to protect children’s rights said, “Burma signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991, but the government performance in this regard is inadequate and unsatisfactory.”

“Children here don’t enjoy the rights which were accepted in the CRC,” he said. “We have laws, but it is very difficult to implement them.”

According to the CRC, every child is entitled to a standard of living with adequate physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. This essentially means all children should have basic shelter, nutritious food, clean water, basic health care, the right to an education, the right to be protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and neglect and the right to express their views freely in accordance with age and maturity.

The Burmese military government, however, fails in guaranteeing such protection and is itself a major violator through its conscription and use of child soldiers in the Burmese military. Residents in Kyeemyindaing Township in Rangoon have reported that military recruiters approach street children in the areas of Central San Pya fish market and the Thirimingala market.

A resident living near the central fish market of Kyeemyindaing Township said, “There are many street children hanging around Thirimingala market. Some children have parents, but they are so poor, they can’t raise their children, and they put them on the streets. Other children are orphans. They survive by odd jobs, living on the street. Many of these street children are rounded up and forced to serve in the military.”

Similar reports are common throughout Burma even as the military government has consistently claimed to support child labor laws and denied allegations of forced child recruitment in the military.

A lawyer from Mayangone Township in Rangoon who has studied the child labor issue said, “Burma has promulgated the ‘1993 National Child Labor Law’ and the ‘2001 Rules Related to Child Labor Laws,’ but actually, these laws are only on paper and are not enforced.”

Stories of child laborers, child soldiers and abandoned street children almost never appear in the state-run media or privately owned press. When such accounts are written by journalists or concerned activists, the junta’s censorship board red flags the stories and they are discarded, said a senior journalist in Rangoon.

“I see many examples of child laborers and child soldiers while going around the city,” he said. “The censorship board is sensitive about that kind of news.”

The NLD representative is left to wonder why the military government refuses to fulfill its responsibility to protect children from neglect and exploitation.

“To stop the use of child laborers and child soldiers, we need to overhaul the whole administration system,” he said. “Until we have a system where the law is respected and actually enforced, we will continue to see more child laborers, child soldiers and child abuse,” he said.

Gambira to Snub Military Court

The Irrawaddy News

Ashin Gambira, the detained leader of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA), will not appear for trial on Thursday if the Burmese military authorities do not accede to his request to be tried under Buddhist law, his lawyers and relatives in Rangoon told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

“Ashin Gambira has stated that he refuses to wear handcuffs,” Aung Thein, one of his lawyers, said. “In accordance with Buddhist law he should also be allowed to wear his monk’s robes when he appears for trial.”

However, his requests were denied by Insein prison court on Monday, his lawyer said.

Aung Thein told The Irrawaddy that Ashin Gambira had been charged with nine separate criminal offenses by the military court. The alleged offences include: State Offence Act 505 A and B, Immigration Act 13/1, Illegal Organization Act 17/1, Electronic Act 303 A and Organization Act 6.

Ashin Gambira was one of the monks who spearheaded last year’s pro-democracy uprising. After security forces brutally suppressed peaceful demonstrations on September 26-27, the head monk was arrested and subsequently disrobed by the authorities without consultating the Sangha, the institution of the Buddhist monkhood.

“We appealed to the military court to try Ashin Gambira before a Buddhist system of justice,” Aung Thein said. “The authorities have no right to disrobe him or to charge him with criminal offenses.”

Ashin Gambira’s legal adviser added that the army has its own code of military discipline, as does the national police. In turn, the law of the Sangha should be equally recognized, he added.

“The state’s senior monks should be permitted to hear the case against Ashin Gambira, because he is a monk,” Aung Thein said. “There is no law in Burma forbidding persons to chant the Metta Sutta [the Buddha’s words on loving kindness].”

The ABMA led thousands of monks and civilian protesters in street demonstrations last year. The military authorities’ bloody crackdown left at least 10 persons dead, although human rights groups claim up to 31 protesters may have been killed while thousands of monks and civilians were arrested and detained.

The Thailand-based Burmese Lawyers’ Council released a statement on Tuesday calling for the Burmese military government to immediately cease bringing Buddhist monks before a military court.

Meanwhile, the state-run Burmese State Sangha Nayaka Committee has begun eliciting signatures from monks at Zayawaddy monastery in Rangoon as guarantees that they will refrain from involvement in political affairs, according to a monk close to the monastery.

The monk said that 70 monks are studying at Zayawaddy monastery and that most monks had already signed the pledge.

The UN’s Dangerous Detour

The Irrawaddy News

By allowing the junta to hijack its mandate,
the United Nations risks destroying Burma’s only hope for real progress: dialogue

You know that the United Nations’ efforts to broker reconciliation talks in Burma are failing miserably when all the visiting UN envoy wants to talk about is the ruling junta’s “road map” to a sham democracy.

Ibrahim Gambari’s latest trip to Burma was more than a disappointment: it was a disgrace. In the course of his nearly weeklong visit, the UN envoy held two brief consultations with members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and spent the rest of his time speaking with handpicked advocates of a political process that deliberately excludes anyone who questions the military’s right to rule.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi declined to meet with Gambari lest she further legitimize his failed mission, which is still being carried out under a mandate that he has evidently abandoned.

The objectives of Gambari’s mission are clear: to secure the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and to initiate a dialogue between leaders of the regime and the democratic opposition. He has failed on both accounts, and has now taken it upon himself to sell critics of the regime on the idea that an election slated for 2010 could be the way forward.

The 2010 election is the fourth step in the regime’s seven-step “road map” to a “disciplined democracy.” In his discussions with senior members of the NLD, Gambari said that the UN would do its utmost to ensure that polling is conducted in a “free and fair” manner.

It is difficult, however, to have much faith in the UN’s ability to guarantee anything in Burma. After all, it had no influence whatsoever on the regime’s decision to foist a phony referendum on a country still reeling from the effects of Cyclone Nargis in early May. Indeed, it virtually had to beg to be allowed to assist victims of the deadly storm.

Strangely, the UN’s crucial role in the ongoing relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta appears to have given it no political leverage inside Burma. On the contrary, the world body seems to be going out of its way to avoid displeasing the ruling generals.

Perhaps this reflects a new humanitarian focus, one that obscures the political quagmire underlying the country’s seemingly endless suffering. Or maybe it is something more cynical—an attempt to take the path of least resistance, even if it means sidelining Suu Kyi and her party.

Either way, the UN is taking a dangerous gamble on the goodwill of the Burmese junta. And even if the regime honors any promises that it may have made—which is extremely unlikely, given its record—it is ludicrous to buy into its vision of a future where the military is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a true democracy, particularly when its starting point is the eradication of the democratic opposition.

The UN must realize that the “road map” is nothing more than an attempt to return Burma to the days before the NLD’s historic electoral victory in 1990. Unless it gets back on track and starts pushing seriously for genuine dialogue between the generals and Burma’s legitimate leaders, the UN will be justifiably accused of sacrificing the country’s interests to save face.

The United Nations and the rest of the international community must never make the mistake of believing that Suu Kyi or the principles she represents are irrelevant. Until genuine reconciliation is reached, Burma will remain a victim of the generals’ whims—and every apparent step forward will be followed by seven steps back.

This article appeared in the September issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

Suu Kyi Continues Legal Battle

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s detained democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, met with her lawyer yesterday to discuss a legal challenge to the ruling junta’s decision to extend her house arrest earlier this year.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy on Monday that Suu Kyi’s meeting with her lawyer—the third since early August—concerned a lawsuit that she is mounting against her continuing detention, which was extended in May. She has been under house arrest since May 2003.

Nyan Win said that time constraints made it impossible for Suu Kyi and her lawyer to finish their business.

“Her discussions with her lawyer couldn’t conclude because the meeting was limited to just 30 minutes,” he said, adding that it was not clear when the authorities would allow Suu Kyi and her lawyer to meet again to discuss her case.

Political observers in Rangoon noted that this was the first time that Suu Kyi had attempted to use the courts to challenge the junta’s right to keep her under house arrest. Some also said that she was in touch with members of her party and the authorities to discuss the case.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic source suggested that Suu Kyi could be released before the end of this year. However, other sources said that Suu Kyi would also demand the release of all political prisoners if the junta decides to free her.

Suu Kyi’s meeting with her lawyer came amid rumors that she had begun a hunger strike.

Her lawyer, Kyi Win, said that Suu Kyi made no mention of a hunger strike, and in response to questions about her condition, quoted her as saying: “I am well, but I have lost some weight. I am a little tired and I need to rest.”

This was not the first time that Suu Kyi was rumored to be on a hunger strike. There were reports in September 2003 that she was refusing food. Those rumors proved to be inaccurate.

Observers suggested that the current rumors were also unlikely to be true, since the junta wouldn’t allow her to meet with her lawyer if she were staging a hunger strike.

Suu Kyi’s colleague, veteran journalist Ohn Kyaing, said that she takes meditation and other Buddhist practices seriously, and may be losing weight because she is abstaining from eating dinner for religious reasons during the three-month Buddhist Lent.

Thakin Chun Tun, a veteran politician in Rangoon, said Suu Kyi needed to be healthy so she could engage in a genuine dialogue with the regime to break the ongoing crises in the country.

“Burma’s crises can only be resolved through a genuine dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Than Shwe, head of the ruling junta,” he said. “I hope she will take care of her health.”

The veteran politician said that while hunger strikes were an effective non-violent tactic during the country’s colonial period, they are less likely to succeed today.

“The current political environment is totally different from the colonial period,” he said.
“Burma is now ruled by the military—human life has less value now than under British rule.”

Burma: More than 39 activists arrested, and 21 imprisoned during August 2008

Bangkok, 03 September, ( The politically motivated arrests and imprisonments have dramatically increased in Burma.

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) has pointed out that this alarming increase in the arrests and incarceration has been recorded during the first six months of 2008, despite the Special Advisor of the Secretary- General of the United Nations, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Burma to the United Nations, were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to visit Burma in order to try to help improve the Burmese political and human rights situation.

The report further reveals that the military regime of Burma arrested at least 39 activists in August 2008, and 21 activists were imprisoned.

The detainees are members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Human Rights Defenders and Protestors (HRDP) and Student Unions. Some of them were arrested, not because of current activities, but because of their activities in August and September 2007.

Ko Tate Naing, the secretary of the AAPP, said that even though UN high level representatives visited Burma to try to solve the problems of human rights violations, the regime continues to arrest and imprison democracy activists with impunity. This means that the regime is not cooperating with the United Nations or the International Community. Due to these facts we need to reconsider the process of UN involvement in Burma.

During 2008, at least 286 activists have been arrested so far, how many more will it take for the United Nations organization and member states to understand that the rule of law does not exist in Burma and that the people they recognize, refer to and negotiate with as the government of Burma are nothing more than an illegal and brutal dictatorship?

- Asian Tribune -