Thursday, 4 September 2008

Burmese Media Silent on Thai Turmoil

A Thai demonstrator waves a flag as she and others occupy the Government House.
Anti-government protests in Thailand have captured headlines around the world,
but in neighboring Burma, censors have blocked coverage of the unrest. (Photo: AP)

The Irrawaddy News

As the international media continues to follow the tense situation in Thailand closely, the censors in neighboring Burma have imposed a blackout on coverage of massive anti-government protest in Bangkok, according to journalists in Rangoon.

An editor from a Rangoon-based journal told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the authorities were not allowing reports of the current unrest in Thailand to be published or broadcast by the country’s tightly controlled media.

“We can’t report it in our magazine,” said the editor. “They have censored reports about the protests in both the broadcast and print media.”

Another journalist in Rangoon confirmed that the protests, which are directed against the government of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, have received no media attention inside Burma.

“I haven’t seen any news about the turmoil in Thailand so far,” the journalist said.

The blackout on news about the unrest in Thailand extends to the international news network CNN, which is available through Family Entertainment, a 19-channel satellite television service created by Burma’s Ministry of Information and the privately owned Forever Group in 2005.

“We can only see the headlines about the protest,” said one journalist. “None of [CNN’s] in-depth coverage of the protests is shown.”

According to the journalist, the only source of information on the situation in Thailand is the Norway-based Burmese news organization, the Democratic Voice of Burma, which some people can watch secretly using satellite dishes.

The anti-government protests in Bangkok are led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which occupied the prime minister’s office compound on August 26 and vowed not to budge until Samak steps down.

On Tuesday, Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok after one protester died in a clash between anti-government and pro-government groups that broke out on Tuesday morning.

It was not clear why the Burmese authorities had blocked coverage of the unrest in neighboring Thailand, although it is not unusual for Burma’s censors to screen out sensitive information or images that could incite domestic unrest.

In September 2007, the censors shut down the news networks on the Family Entertainment satellite service to prevent access to international coverage of the ruling regime’s brutal crackdown on monk-led demonstrations. Internet access was also temporarily suspended at the height of the conflict.

Thakin Chan Htun, a veteran politician and former ambassador to China, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the Burmese regime’s decision to prevent the media from reporting on the current situation in Thailand showed that its claims to be moving towards democratic reforms were meaningless.

“If they really want to form a democratic country, they should allow local journals and magazines to independently report news that the people should know,” he said.

Aye Thar Aung, the Rangoon-based secretary of the Arakan League for Democracy, said that the authorities were intent on controlling not only the media, but also the will of people.

“In Thailand, the King, the military and the government all respect the basic principles of democracy,” said Aye Thar Aung. “They are serious about the will of the people. But in Burma, we can’t imagine this. It is like a dream.”

Despite the lack of news coverage of the current unrest in Thailand, many Burmese have taken a strong interest in the situation there, partly because Samak, the target of the Thai protests, has in the past made a number of controversial comments about Burma’s political impasse.

Samak recently described Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a “political tool” of the West, and suggested that international efforts to engage the Burmese junta would be more productive if Suu Kyi were kept off the agenda.

Samak made the remark during a meeting with Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations’ special envoy to Burma, when the two met in Bangkok soon after the Nigerian diplomat ended his latest trip to Burma.

Burmese opposition leaders reacted angrily to the Thai premier’s comments.

And now that Samak’s political future is in question, many Burmese say they hope to see him out of power soon.

“They are happy that protesters are demanding Samak’s resignation. They said it is good that he is facing the current unrest,” said one Rangoon resident, describing the sentiment expressed by many Burmese who are following the situation in Thailand.

Reporter Arrested over Murder Story

The Irrawaddy News

A reporter for a leading Rangoon journal was arrested on Monday after being summoned and rebuked by the authorities last week for reporting on the murder of a couple in Rangoon’s Thingangyun Township.

Police from Kyauktada Township in Rangoon arrested Saw Myint Than, the chief reporter for the Flower News Journal, on Monday night and is now holding him at the local police station, according to sources.

Saw Myint Than was reportedly charged with at least three offences, including violations of Section 17/A of the Electronics Act, which bans contact with organizations deemed to be unlawful, and Article 124/A of the Criminal Code, which forbids expressions of disrespect towards the government.

Last week's Tuesday, Saw Myint Than was summoned by police and threatened with arrest for reporting on the murder. He was also warned that the journal’s publishing license could be revoked.

“His situation is not good,” said a journalist in Rangoon. “It is like the authorities have lost patience and have done this to make an example of him.”

Another journalist said that Saw Myint Than was accused of spreading rumors after reports of his interrogation by the police last week appeared in the Burmese exiled media. Officials reportedly asked him if he was working for The Irrawaddy, which is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

His story about the murder passed through the military regime’s censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and was also published in other journals, including Weekly Eleven and Voice Weekly.

It is common practice in Burma for news of crimes written by independent reporters to be censored. All stories in the print media must pass through the censorship office.

Meanwhile, several journalists in Rangoon confirmed that the Burmese authorities have tightened restrictions on access to government ministries. According to sources, journalists who visit government offices are now required to provide detailed information about who they are working for.

88 Generation Students Go On Trial

The Irrawaddy News

Thirty-five members of the 88 Generation Students group appeared in court on Tuesday. However, the case was adjourned because of the late hour after the activists had delayed proceedings by arguing against being handcuffed and calling for a public trial.

The activists, including Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and Min Zaya, were arrested for participating in the monk-led demonstrations last year and have since been detained in Insein prison in Rangoon.

Aung Tun, the brother of Ko Ko Gyi, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the activists—seven women and 28 men—appeared in Insein prison court at 4:30 in the afternoon the day before, by which time court proceedings had concluded for the day.

“Ko Ko Gyi told me the trial was delayed because the activists had tried to negotiate with the prison authorities not to be handcuffed,” said Aung Tun. “He said that they were political prisoners and, as such, demanded a public trial.

“I am not sure whether they will reappear for trial on Thursday,” Ko Aung added.

However, one of the group’s lawyers, Aung Thein—who said that he has not been allowed to meet his clients—told The Irrawaddy that if they refuse to appear in court on Thursday they would most likely be sentenced to six months in prison and be fined in accordance with Burmese law.

Meanwhile, the US Campaign for Burma released a statement on Tuesday accusing the Burmese military government of hauling dozens of detained pro-democracy activists to court just days after two UN envoys traveled to Burma seeking democratic change and improvements in human rights.

“By forcing Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and the 88 Generation students into a sham trial instead of releasing them, the Burmese [authorities] have refused to cooperate with the UN Security Council,” said Aung Din, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

“If the Security Council wants to have any credibility at all, it must take strong action immediately, such as banning all weapons sales to the military regime,” he added in a press statement.

He said that Burma’s judiciary is widely seen as a kangaroo court system in which judges sentence human rights activists based on orders from the military regime in closed-door trials.

At least 2,092 political prisoners are currently being held in detention across the country, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP.

The imprisoned activists are suffering “prolonged and unlawful detention, no access to proper legal counsel, no free or fair trials,” AAPP said.

Suu Kyi’s Lawyer Denies She Won’t Meet Regime Minister

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) has denied a report in the regime’s official newspaper that the party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is refusing to meet the minister charged with liaising between her and the government.

The government mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, reported on Wednesday that Suu Kyi had declined a scheduled meeting with Labor Minister Aung Kyi on Tuesday. The meeting had been arranged at the request of the United Nations following the latest, unsuccessful mission to Burma by special envoy Ibrahim Gambari at the end of August, the newspaper said.

The New Light of Myanmar reported that Suu Kyi had told her lawyer, Kyi Win, that she didn’t want to meet Aung Kyi. She also declined a visit by her doctor, the newspaper said.

Suu Kyi also declined a meeting with Gambari.

“For the time being, she wants to meet no one, except advocate U Kyi Win,” said The New Light of Myanmar.

Kyi Win said that when he met Suu Kyi on Monday she had said she was prepared to meet Aung Kyi but had added: “However, there are problems to be solved.”

Kyi Win said: “She also said that she felt weak and tired, and asked me to appeal for understanding.” The lawyer said she had lost weight but otherwise appeared to be well.

The NLD says Suu Kyi has told it not to deliver any more food or supplies to her home, but has denied she is on a hunger strike.

Suu Kyi has been allowed to meet Kyi Win three times in the past month. The lawyer said that at their Monday meeting they had discussed an appeal against the regime’s latest detention order. The Nobel laureate has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years, and is now in the sixth year of continuous detention.

Another city has, meanwhile, honored Suu Kyi by making her an honorary citizen.
Dundee in Scotland has given her the “freedom of the city,” a rare honor reserved for outstanding personalities.

Anna Roberts, Director of the Burma Campaign-UK, who will collect the award on Suu Kyi’s behalf, said such prestigious honors “are really important for raising awareness of the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi herself, but also more widely about all of the people in Burma.

"It's a great occasion to be able to raise the profile of Burma and also to let people know inside Burma that the world has not forgotten and that they are campaigning to help bring freedom and democracy to Burma.

"Aung San Suu Kyi herself will probably hear about this award and people inside Burma certainly do take great courage and they feel very supported by acts like this.

"She remains a powerful source of hope and inspiration for the people of Burma and it's important that we never forget and we never stop campaigning for her release and [the release of] all political prisoners in Burma."

Training Eyes on the Junta

The Irrawaddy News

Brad Adams is the Asia Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch. Adams talked to The Irrawaddy about Burma’s constitutional referendum, human rights and the international response to Cyclone Nargis.

Question: What is Human Rights Watch’s assessment
of the State Peace and Development Council’s [SPDC’s] response to Cyclone Nargis?

Answer: The initial response was disgraceful; it is still shocking to me that the military government obstructed the relief effort in the first weeks after the cyclone. How many people suffered or even died due to this obstruction? The SPDC’s reaction was proof—clear proof—as if any more was needed, of the complete disdain the military leadership has for its own people.

There was a huge amount of genuine goodwill in the international community to provide aid and skilled aid workers to help. But this was delayed and delayed and, in large measure, blocked. Even now the movements of many foreign aid workers remain tightly controlled. To think of the aid shipments on US, French and British warships waiting offshore that were rejected is heartbreaking. This was largely due to the SPDC’s paranoia. Even when things got better, as they belatedly did, the military still placed their own selfish and paranoid security interests first.

The 2.4 million people affected in the Irrawaddy delta deserve more. This situation should still be a matter of urgent concern for the international community as many people still haven’t received any help and those who are counted as having received help have not received enough. All of this is the responsibility of the SPDC.

Q: How do you assess the role of the international community and its aid agencies in Burma?

A: As the government has long ago abdicated its responsibility for the welfare of the Burmese people, international donors and agencies have a critical role to play inside Burma and should be supported.

But we must also understand the challenges they face. These agencies are assisting communities devastated by the cyclone, but they are working in a country where they also have to address alarming poverty and dire health and welfare problems because of failed governance. Human Rights Watch has long supported increased humanitarian assistance to Burma, but aid going into Burma must be provided in an accountable, transparent and principled manner. It must reach the people who desperately need it, not the generals and their favored businessmen. Restrictions on aid agencies and workers should be removed and more freedom of movement, monitoring and effective projects provided.

One thing the international community can do is provide more aid across borders to conflict zones where the situation is often most desperate. It would also train more eyes on what is happening in these areas and undermine the SPDC, which doesn’t want the international community to witness systematic human rights violations in these remote areas.

Q: There was a lot of talk during the past three months on invoking the “Responsibility
to Protect” principle, especially by [International Crisis Group President] Gareth Evans
and [French Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner. How applicable do you think it would
be in Burma? And do you think there are crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Burma?

A: There was a lot of talk about R2P [Responsibility to Protect] at the time, which reflected the frustration of many in the international community. France was courageous to raise this. We did not take a position on it, as R2P is based on genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing, and we did not have clear evidence of this.

However, we agreed with the main point of the French, which was that the world could not stand by and watch large numbers of people die or suffer because of the malice of a government. We called for concrete action by the UN Security Council and Burma’s friends, such as China, India and Thailand. What was really frustrating was the international discord over the R2P principles and the idea of international collective action to help people, which served as a diversion by those who didn’t want any action at all, whatever the label. China and other states refused to support stronger diplomatic measures to open up humanitarian space inside Burma, just as they have failed to push the military government more on its atrocious human rights record.

Clearly the actions of the senior Burmese leadership have contributed to violations of international humanitarian law in conflict zones, and these include crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch has documented this for years and we have called for an international commission of inquiry to look into this and make recommendations for action.

Q: Do you see any possibilities to bring Snr-Gen Than Shwe before the International Criminal Court?

A: It’s something that the international community must look at, but it’s complicated both legally and politically. As with the idea of crimes against humanity charges, it is a long process that will take a huge amount of resources. The challenge is to collect the right evidence and understand the process of bringing such charges to the ICC [International Criminal Court].

Q: What are some of the provisions international donors should employ on providing
aid and reconstruction finance to Burma?

A: In our recent letter to aid donors we listed 10 key provisions, which included the urgent need of communities to receive aid; unimpeded humanitarian access for local Burmese and international aid organizations to affected areas; that funding should go through aid organizations and not the Burmese military government; that reconstruction efforts should be closely monitored so that human rights violations such as forced labor, forced evictions and land seizures don’t occur; and that there be no discrimination on aid delivery on religious or ethnic grounds.

We also asked the international community to pressure the SPDC into using some of its gas export revenue to fund reconstruction and ensure that no contracts are awarded to individuals on current international sanctions lists. Given the great concern over the SPDC’s abuse of aid in the past, we proposed an independent monitoring body be created to ensure aid is delivered appropriately and based on real need. We’re waiting for action on that.

Q: What examples of human rights violations tied to the referendum has your organization documented?

A: Well, the [referendum] was a sham, made even more insulting by the fact that it was pushed through during the desperate aftermath of the cyclone.

The biggest clue was the refusal of the SPDC to receive UN technical assistance or permit independent observers. That’s a red flag right there. The most immediate concern was the climate of fear in the country, as many people realized the consequences of openly opposing the referendum, especially as they could have been sent to jail for three years under the absurd referendum law.

The idea of a free and fair vote under military rule is a nonstarter and the regime seemed intent on proving this with their ridiculous turnout and vote counts. There is a raft of repressive laws in Burma that sharply curb freedom of expression, assembly and association. Before the referendum we documented cases of intimidation against people during the registration process, and there were a lot of irregularities over how people were registered and what they knew about the whole process, which wasn’t a lot. There was a lot of intimidation of the media, which was not allowed to report freely and openly on the process. Monks and other members of religious orders were not given the vote—hardly surprising, following the monks’ involvement in last year’s popular protests. Out of this tightly orchestrated farce it’s no wonder that a 92 percent approval was announced by the SPDC.

Q: In what ways does the organization of the referendum breach international
standards for elections?

A: There was no independent election body, no independent courts to adjudicate disputes, no ability to challenge results, no free media– you name it.

By any international standards the referendum failed miserably, but by SPDC standards it all went according to plan.

Q: How do you foresee the junta’s election in 2010 and its aftermath in view of the fact that its constitutional referendum in May wasn’t seen as “free and fair”?

A: There is no reason to believe or even hope that the vote in 2010 will be free and fair. The point of the election is to put a civilian face on a military regime by handpicking the winners. This is likely to be the USDA or a similar group.

There must be a major conceptual shift to empower people, not continue to subordinate them. Releasing political prisoners and permitting basic freedoms, such as political party mobilization, freedom of information, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression—these are all fundamental prerequisites to a democratic process, but these are the elements the SPDC is suppressing.

And they call it “disciplined democracy.” What does that mean? It’s an Orwellian affront to human freedom. So, in short, no, I don’t foresee much hope for the 2010 elections at the moment.

Q: It could be said that the international community has forgotten about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest and has been excluded from this process. What does Human Rights Watch think the role of Daw Suu Kyi in this process should be?

A: The first step should be her unconditional release from house arrest, clear and simple.

The SPDC has worked very hard to construct the idea that Aung San Suu Kyi is irrelevant to modern Burma and that she is in some ways the cause of the political impasse. It is impossible to stomach this argument, even as some foreign observers perpetuate it. How can someone who has consistently called for peaceful dialogue on the political future of the country be blamed for its problems, especially when she has spent most of her time since 1989 in state detention?

If she is irrelevant, then why is she still isolated, vilified and excluded? Maybe it’s because she still has some relevance to the people of Burma, a point the military regime obviously understands—or else why would they still take the cowardly route of isolating her?

As to her role in the future affairs of Burma, that has to be something the Burmese people themselves figure out.

Q: In a previous interview with The Irrawaddy you talked about the rights of Burma’s ethnic minorities. How have they been treated in this process?

A: As appallingly as ever, particularly those hundreds of thousands of people still surviving in remote conflict zones who have been violently excluded from the whole process. While there has been participation by some ethnic ceasefire groups in the National Convention, particularly the Wa and Kachin, many others have been brutally treated, such as the leaders of the Shan political party who were all thrown in jail in 2005. Other groups have distanced themselves from the process, such as the Mon, due to disappointment over the process. Others have tried to participate to ensure their legal status.

Ethnic groups have still not benefited sufficiently from the so-called peace process in the country, and while many have been making headway in local development projects, they need to be more involved in deciding their future and that of the country. Otherwise the resentment against the central government will continue and the possibility of a renewed descent into violence would be real.

Q: How would you assess the diplomatic role of the international community on Burma, particularly the UN secretary-general’s special advisor Ibrahim Gambari?

A: The role of the international community is crucial; it always has been. However, there is a desperate need for more unified action among the main international players. China, India, Russia and Thailand need to stop defending the regime and push for real change and protection of basic rights. The SPDC benefits greatly from their moral, political and financial support, and feeds off international discord.

The role of Professor Gambari could be very important but, as the “Group of Friends” of Burma said at its most recent meeting, his next visit must make “tangible progress.”

Thus far the SPDC has been playing games with Gambari, just as they did with Razali when he held the same role. Gambari has to be supported, but there must be some progress, not more visits with little or nothing to show for it. At this point the regime has given nothing important to Gambari since he took up his post. He must come away from his next visit with something real, including a clear picture of what the SPDC plans next on political reforms, and a list of promises they can keep.

Q: The new UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Thomas Ojea Quintana, has a challenging task. What are some of the areas he should prioritize for Burma’s human rights situation?

A: The question isn’t really what his priorities are—you name the subject and there exists in Burma a serious human rights problem that he can pursue. The question is how the SPDC is going to cooperate with him. We have to remember that they have treated successive envoys with disdain since the early 1990s. They even planted a microphone under a table during a supposedly confidential interview between Paulo Pinheiro and a prisoner at Insein prison in 2003. They need to let Mr Quintana operate freely so that he can meet people and document the situation on the ground. We hope for the best, but expect the worst, even if they are being relatively friendly with him early on in his mandate.

Q: It has been nearly a year since the crackdown on protests in Burma during August-September 2007. How is the human rights situation in the country now?

A: Unfortunately the situation is as bad as it was before the demonstrations began in August. There has been no progress on human rights or democratization at all.

The SPDC have simply ignored the concerns of the Burmese people. Most of the people arrested during the protests, including Min Ko Naing and other members of the 88 Generation Students, and the labor activist Ma Su Su Nway, are still in prison. Of course they and all other political prisoners should be released immediately. The famous comedian Zarganar, who was arrested briefly during the protests last year, was arrested a couple of months ago for organizing aid delivery to cyclone-affected communities, and he was recently sentenced to two years in jail for that.

The monks’ movement is still active, if underground, and the pressure on the monasteries has been maintained, which has undercut the social services they provide to communities. The essential grievances of people—better living standards, access to health services, job opportunities, and some sense of hope—have been ignored by the government.

Q: It seems that the SPDC is impervious to international pressure. How effective does your organization think sanctions could be in this situation?

A: Sanctions can be effective if they are the right ones that target the right individuals and institutions.

Recent targeted financial and other sanctions announced by the US, the EU and Australia have the possibility of being meaningful if there is real political will and constant monitoring to make them effective. Sanctions on Burma should target key military leaders and their business associates who benefit from military rule, and a handful of sectors that strengthen military rule.

Targeted sanctions should be seen as a tool of principled engagement with the SPDC—not an isolationist policy.