Tuesday, December 4, 2007

UN Envoy meets top general as regime blames foreigners for violence

UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has met Myanmar junta supremo Than Shwe today, to try to persuade him to end a crackdown on the biggest democracy protests in 20 years.

UN Envoy Meets Top Generals 4Dec2007

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Burma's Mission Holds Closed Door Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament at UN

By Lalit K. Jha / United Nations
The Irrawaddy News

The Burmese mission at the United Nations convened a closed door meeting on the issue of nuclear disarmament on Monday.

The meeting, chaired by the Burmese Ambassador to European Union, Wunna Maung Lwin, was convened to discuss with member nations the resolution on nuclear disarmament tabled by the government of Myanmar in the UN General Assembly.

The resolution that calls for total elimination of nuclear weapons has been brought before the General Assembly by the Burmese mission every year since 1994. Last year the resolution was passed by 115 votes to 48, while 18 countries abstained from voting.

It is understood that at the meeting—which lasted for little over half an hour although it was scheduled for an hour—certain amendments were proposed by some member nations.

A Canadian diplomat at the closed door meeting told The Irrawaddy they would vote in favor of the resolution only after the government of Myanmar accepts suggestions with regard to Canada’s view on nuclear disarmament.

The Burmese resolution on nuclear disarmament was first introduced and passed by the General Assembly in 1994. Since then it has been passed every year with minor amendments.

The resolution urges states with nuclear weapons to immediately halt qualitative improvement, development, production and stockpiling of the nuclear warheads and their delivery systems. It also urges those nations to agree to an internationally and legally binding instrument on a joint undertaking not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

It also urges the nuclear weapon-owning states to commence plurilateral negotiations among themselves to deeply reduce nuclear weapons.

Calling on all nuclear countries to carry out further reductions of non-nuclear weapons, the resolution calls for immediate negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament on a non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effective verifiably treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, on the basis of the report of the Special Co-coordinator.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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Thursday, October 4, 2007

Trade and Security Trump Democracy in Burma – Part II

Human-rights advocates protest outside all the wrong places

By Salil Tripathi
YaleGlobal, 4 October 2007

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Trade and Security Trump Democracy in Burma – Part I

Neighboring countries have leverage, but trade and strategic factors dictate they remain silent about repression

By Bertil Lintner
YaleGlobal, 3 October 2007

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Karma Power - What Makes a Monk Mad


(NYT)AS they marched through the streets of Myanmar’s cities last week leading the biggest anti-government protests in two decades, some barefoot monks held their begging bowls before them. But instead of asking for their daily donations of food, they held the bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.

It was a shocking image in the devoutly Buddhist nation. The monks were refusing to receive alms from the military rulers and their families — effectively excommunicating them from the religion that is at the core of Burmese culture.

That gesture is a key to understanding the power of the rebellion that shook Myanmar last week.

The country — the former Burma — has roughly as many monks as soldiers. The military rules by force, but the monks retain ultimate moral authority. The lowliest soldier depends on them for spiritual approval, and even the highest generals have felt a need to honor the clerical establishment. They claim to rule in its name.

Begging is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the ordinary Buddhist and the monk. “The people are feeding the monks and the monks are helping the people make merit,” said Josef Silverstein, an expert on Myanmar at Rutgers University. “When you refuse to accept, you have broken the bond that has tied them for centuries together.”

Instead, the monks drew on a different and more fundamental bond with Myanmar’s population, leading huge demonstrations after the government tried to repress protests that began a month ago over a rise in fuel prices.

By last week, the country’s two largest and most established institutions were confronting each other, the monkhood and the military, both about 400,000 strong, both made up of young men, mostly from the poorer classes, who could well be brothers. Rejected by both its spiritual and popular bases, the junta that has ruled for 19 years had little to fall back on but force.

It unleashed its troops to shoot, beat, arrest and humiliate the men in brick-red robes, definitively alienating itself from the clergy whose support gives it legitimacy. Soldiers surrounded monasteries, preventing monks from leading further demonstrations — or from making their morning rounds to collect the alms that feed them.

In Myanmar and other Buddhist nations, many join the monkhood as a lifelong vocation, but many other young men become monks for shorter periods, ranging from a few months to a few years. These young monks remain closer to the lives and concerns of the people whose alms they receive.

Burmese monks have taken part in protests in the past, against British colonial rule and against a half-century of rule by military dictatorship. The most notable recent occasion was in 1990.

Their militant resistance to the British produced the most prominent political martyr of Burmese Buddhism, U Wisara, who died in prison in 1929 after a 166-day hunger strike.

His statue stands near the tall, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s holiest shrine, which was a rallying point for the recent demonstrations and the scene of the first violence against the monks last week.

That attack came as a shock to people who said the military would not turn violently against the monks, and it had the predictable effect of arousing the fury of a devout population.

But monks have not always been in the political front lines. It was students, for example, who led the mass demonstrations of 1988 that brought the current junta to power in a military massacre.

The monks’ power comes instead from their role in bestowing legitimacy on the rulers.

“Legitimacy in Burma is not about regime performance, it’s not about human rights like the West,” said Ingrid Jordt, a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and an expert on Burmese Buddhism. “It is something that comes from the potency and karma bestowed by the monks. That’s why the sangha is so important to the government,” she said, referring to the Buddhist hierarchy and the spiritual status that its monks can convey. “They are actually the source of power.”

The junta has gone to great lengths to identify itself with Buddhism. Like their predecessors through the centuries, the generals have been busy building temples, supporting monasteries and carrying out religiously symbolic acts. In 1999, they regilded the spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which now glitters with 53 tons of gold and 4,341 diamonds on the crowning orb.

The gilding of the spire was a high-risk ploy for an unpopular regime, an act permitted only to kings and legitimate rulers. When the two-ton, seven-tier finial was added and the spire was complete, the nation held its breath, waiting for the earth to send a signal of disapproval through lightning or thunder or floods, Ms. Jordt said. But nature remained indifferent.

“Aung pyi!” the generals shouted. “We won!”

But their grip on power has never been secure. They have ruled through a security service that keeps order through intimidation. They have arrested thousands of political prisoners and have held the pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.

In that context, the huge street demonstrations were an act of courage and catharsis.

They started tentatively on Aug. 19 after a fuel price increase raised the costs of transportation and basic goods. Veterans of the student demonstrations of 1988 staged small protests, but most were quickly arrested or driven into hiding. The unrest was fading when security officers beat monks and fired shots into the air during a confrontation in the city of Pakokku on Sept. 5.

That became a spark that grew into a broad-based challenge to the government, culminating last week in the breach between those who hold moral authority and those who have the guns.

“This was not an accidental uprising,” said Zin Linn, a former editor and political prisoner who is now information minister for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile opposition group based in Washington. The transition in leadership in the protests — from militant former students to activist monks — was well planned, he said, through secret meetings among young men sharing similar grievances and aspirations for their country. For the most part, it was not the elders who backed the protests. Over the years, the junta has worked to co-opt the Buddhist hierarchy, placing chosen men in key positions just as they have done in every other institution, angering and alienating the younger monks.

After the military clampdown on the monasteries last week, the streets of Yangon were mostly empty of monks. But their gesture of rejection of the junta, and the junta’s violent response, had changed the dynamics of Burmese society in ways that had only begun to play out.

The junta’s action “shows how desperate they are,” Ms. Jordt said. “It shows that they are willing to do anything at this point in terms of violence. Once you’ve thrown your lot in against the monks, I think it will be impossible for the regime to go back to normal daily legitimacy.”

September 30, 2007

READ MORE---> Karma Power - What Makes a Monk Mad...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monks’ Protest Is Challenging Burmese Junta


BANGKOK (NYT), Monday, Sept. 24 — The largest street protests in two decades against Myanmar’s military rulers gained momentum Sunday as thousands of onlookers cheered huge columns of Buddhist monks and shouted support for the detained pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Buddhist monks, escorted on each side by hand-holding supporters,
protesting Sunday in the wet streets of Yangon, Myanmar.
--Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Winding for a sixth day through rainy streets, the protest swelled to 10,000 monks in the main city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, according to witnesses and other accounts relayed from the closed country, including some clandestinely shot videos.

It came one day after a group of several hundred monks paid respects to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate of her home, the first time she has been seen in public in more than four years.

The link between the clergy and the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, the beginnings of large-scale public participation in the marches and a call by some monks for a wider protest raised the stakes for the government.

So far, it has mostly allowed the monks free rein in the streets, apparently fearing a public backlash if it cracks down on them in this Buddhist nation.

Monks were reported to be parading through a number of cities on Sunday, notably the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, where an estimated 10,000 people, including 4,000 monks, had marched Saturday.

A crowd of 10,000 protested in Mandalay on Saturday. --The New York Times

Myanmar’s military government has sealed off the country to foreign journalists but information about the protests has been increasingly flowing out through wire service reports, exile groups in Thailand with contacts inside Myanmar, and through the photographs, videos and audio files, carried rapidly by technologies, including the Internet, that the government has failed to squelch.

The state-controlled press has carried no reports about the monks’ demonstrations.

Since the military crushed a peaceful nationwide uprising in 1988, killing an estimated 3,000 civilians, the country, formerly known as Burma, has sunk further into poverty and repression and become a symbol for the outside world of the harsh military subjugation of a people.

Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been locked inside her home for 12 of the last 18 years, and the government has arrested thousands of political prisoners.

The United States and Europe have led a tightening economic boycott that has been undermined by trade and assistance from Myanmar’s neighbors, mainly China but also India and some Southeast Asian nations. The United States has diplomatic relations with Myanmar but no ambassador. President Bush, his wife, Laura, and a roster of Hollywood celebrities have spoken out recently about Myanmar, and the abuses of human and political rights by the military junta are expected to take a high profile at the United Nations session starting this week.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asked about Myanmar as she arrived at the United Nations on Sunday, told reporters that the Bush administration was closely monitoring how the government deals with the protests.

“The Burmese people deserve better,” she said. “They deserve a life to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does. And the brutality of this regime is well known, and so we will be speaking about that and I think the president will be speaking about it with many of his colleagues.”

The public display of discontent in Myanmar mirrors that of the previous uprising — anger over a brutal and incompetent military government that has turned one of Southeast Asia’s best endowed and most sophisticated nations into one of its most repressed and destitute.

Surreptitiously shot photographs and videos recorded on Sunday showed thousands of civilians marching quickly through the streets side by side with the monks, emboldened by the continuing demonstrations into a rare show of defiance.

Some pictures showed people joining hands in a protective cordon as they walked beside the monks in their dark red robes. Others showed Buddhist nuns with shaved heads marching through the streets as onlookers applauded.

In audio recordings people shouted “Do-aye” — “It is our task” — a slogan of determination that was also heard on the streets in 1988.

The photographs and videos themselves represented acts of courage in a closed and repressive country that has tried to quash the spread of information.

But modern communications technology has brought the protests into the world’s eye in a way that was not possible in 1988.

Both the government and protesters have so far sought to avoid the kind of confrontation that led to widespread bloodshed in the 1988 uprising, which was led mostly by students.

“The monks are the highest moral authority in the Burmese culture,” said Soe Aung, a spokesman for a coalition of exile groups based in Thailand. “If something happens to the monks, the situation will spread much faster than what happened to the students in 1988.”

This gingerly approach by authorities — and the challenges it poses — were demonstrated on Saturday when guards removed barriers to allow about 500 monks to walk down the tree shaded street where Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi lives.

She met them at the iron gate outside her home and witnesses told wire services that she was in tears as she greeted the monks, who chanted prayers as they faced the security officers with riot shields who sealed off her home.

On Sunday, witness accounts relayed by exile groups reported that members of the public shouted their support for her and that some of the protesting monks also shouted, “Release Suu Kyi!”

Uniformed police officers and soldiers have stayed in the background throughout a month of building protests. But witnesses said plainclothes police officers trailed the marchers and some, armed with shotguns, were posted along the route.

The Associated Press reported that police officers turned back a small group of monks who tried to march for a second day to the home of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although she has been sealed off from the public and has been allowed almost no visitors, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, remains a martyr and rallying symbol for the population.

“She has been out of contact with virtually everyone, but her symbolic importance cannot be underestimated,” said Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Human Rights Commission. “Symbolically, her reintroduction into the political life of the country at such a dire moment is of enormous importance.”

The daughter of an assassinated independence hero, Aung San, she came to prominence when she became a leader in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988.

Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in 1990, although the junta, fearing her charismatic appeal, had already placed her under house arrest.

The military government annulled the election results and held on to power. But it miscalculated the public mood again in 2002 when it released her from house arrest and allowed her to tour the country, visiting party offices.

She drew increasingly large and enthusiastic crowds until a band of government-backed thugs attacked a convoy in which she was traveling, killing several people. The government seized her again and placed under even stricter house arrest, cutting off her telephone and deepening her isolation.

The latest protests began Aug. 19 in response to sharp, unannounced fuel price increases of up to 500 percent, immediately raising the prices of goods and transportation.

They were led at first by former student protesters and other activists, but most of the leaders had been arrested or were in hiding when the monks began their protests last Tuesday.

The monks were apparently motivated at first by an attack on a small demonstration at which security officers fired shots into the air and beat a number of monks.

Since then, the monks’ protests have spread from city to city and have become more overtly political.

On Saturday, an organization of clergy called the All Burma Monks Alliance, called for a widening of the protests in a statement that said, “In order to banish the common enemy evil regime from Burmese soil forever, united masses of people need to join hands with the united clergy forces.”

It went on, “We pronounce the evil military despotism, which is impoverishing and pauperizing our people of all walks, including the clergy, as the common enemy of all our citizens.”

September 24, 2007

READ MORE---> Monks’ Protest Is Challenging Burmese Junta...

Monday, September 3, 2007

Burma’s Democracy Challenge Flickers Out

Written by Aung Zaw
Asian Sentinel

Monday, 03 September 2007

Protests against high fuel prices are met with overwhelming force and leave few options for change.

The arrests of key activists and violence against protesters in Rangoon and other Burmese cities over the past two weeks have left the fragile opposition movement increasingly isolated, bereft of effective international support and faced with the quandary of who will lead it and what direction it will take.

Although it was the first significant protest in more than a decade, driven by a five-fold increase in the fuel price and increases in other commodities, it is largely over. Activists arrested and jailed include prominent former student leaders such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. Four prominent women activists, including labor rights activists Su Su Nway and HIV-Aids activist Phyu Phyu Thin, remain in hiding as authorities conduct house-to-house searches across Rangoon and Pegu, north of the former capital.

The crackdown coincides with the junta’s completion of the first stage of a new constitution – with six “stages” to go. The largely meaningless process began 14 years ago, in 1993, after the military refused to give up power to the National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won free and fair elections in 1990. The constitutional procedure has been roundly denounced by the international community as well as Burmese at home and abroad as a sham. There is no indication of when a drafting committee might be appointed to write the new constitution.

The latest episode of protest and subsequent repression began two weeks ago with peaceful marches shortly after Min Ko Naing and prominent activists returned from a religious ceremony at the home of the late veteran politician Col Kyi Maung, marking the third anniversary of his death. The “return home” march was spontaneous and caught the attention of curious onlookers, including security officials. After the march, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi spoke to the Washington-based radio station Radio Free Asia.

According to the many Burmese who listened to the interview, the two spoke out strongly, but made no call to topple the regime. At one point in the interview, Ko Ko Gyi pointed out that the army was enjoying double rights at the military-sponsored National Convention, due to be completed this week.

White-shirted marchers

The thin-skinned junta bridled at the criticism. A series of articles in The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s mouthpiece, contained warnings of a possible showdown and “punishment.” Reports also surfaced that the regime had been training thugs and criminals who had been released from prisons.

The generals appear to have thought it was time to contain Min Ko Naing and other activists because they were the only ones whose boldness and defiance gained international recognition. If the regime intended to force through its constitutional “road map,” including a national referendum, Min Ko Naing and his group were a thorn in the their side.

The Sham Process

In June, the military government reopened the national convention for what it claims will be its final session, at which the drafting of guidelines for a new constitution were to be completed. Many delegates were handpicked and freedom of discussion was severely limited. The generals, intent on remaining in control, are determined to push on with the process despite boycotts by the NLD and ethnic groups. Analysts see the final session as a farce intended to confirm guidelines for a new constitution while leaving people in the dark about what happens next.

A study of the regime’s “seven-point road map,” introduced in 2004, shows that any expectations of democracy are unrealistic. The just-concluded final session is only the first step. Steps two and three are only vaguely defined, with step two described as an “implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system.” No one knows what that means or how long will it take.

Stage three envisages the “drafting of a new constitution in accordance with basic principles and detailed basic principles laid down by the National Convention.” That implies that it may take many more years before a new constitution emerges. Then a national referendum is to be held, followed by elections. It’s clear that the regime is buying the time it needs to install a handpicked government. Democracy has no place in this plan.

Knowing that, Min Ko Naing and other activists were preparing to take to the streets. However, the generals, who always consider security a priority, appear to have believed that after democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest in 2003, they had to contain Min Ko Naing.

Repeat of the 1988 uprising?

The recent peaceful protests coincided with the sudden fuel price increase and with smoldering resentment over the collapse of the country’s educational system. Businessmen in Rangoon say the regime is considering privatizing fuel distribution, along with the sale of government-owned retail outlets to a private company. The increased fuel prices appear to be a move to make the chosen company initially profitable. But there was no public announcement, again highlighting the country’s economic woes and the incompetence of the ruling generals.

Analysts warned that the military rulers have made the same kind of blunder as occurred in 1987, when then-absolute ruler Ne Win’s government suddenly announced the demonetization of bank notes. That action and Ne Win’s speech in August 1987, in which he proposed “economic reform” and admitted “mistakes” in the past, only provided ammunition to the outraged public and dissidents who were fed up with the socialist regime. A year later, Ne Win was pushed aside by the current crop of uniformed strong men.

The regime anticipated the social and political unrest, putting its hired thugs and security officials on alert to attack and arrest activists. Until recently, soldiers and riot police have not been seen in public – only hardcore members of the regime’s mass association known as the Union Solidarity Development Association and Swan-Ar-Shin or “Masters of Force,” together with security officials, who are maintaining “order” by encouraging mob rule.

The current campaign of violence was foreshadowed in the New Light of Myanmar, which repeatedly warned Min Ko Naing and other activists that they faced “evil consequences.” The warnings included ominous hints that death could await them.

The junta’s gangs have followed and intimidated demonstrators, often beating them and hurling them into waiting trucks. Women are also being beaten, prompting onlookers to angrily intervene and risk arrest themselves. In Rangoon, large crowds often made clear their disapproval: “They were upset and angry,” said a Rangoon journalist who reported on the violent dispersal of one group of protesters.

These tactics to break up street demonstrations and opposition gatherings were developed as early as 1996 and 1997. The first victims were Tin Oo, the head of the NLD, and Suu Kyi. Again in May 2003, Suu Kyi and her convoy were attacked by junta-backed mobs in central Burma. The attack was used to justify Suu Kyi’s detention. It received international condemnation after an unknown number of people were murdered.

The recent crackdown has received worldwide attention, although to little avail. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, UN human rights investigator on Burma, last week in Geneva said that he received allegations that some detainees have been "severely beaten and tortured." US First Lady Laura Bush phoned UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to urge action against the crackdown. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for the UN Security Council and European Union to discuss the crisis in Burma. But the regime continues to ignore world opinion and arrests and intimidation continue.

Certainly the generals feel they can afford to ignore their critics. Beyond criticism and editorials across the world, there appears little that could deter them. Although Burma is the subject of long-running sanctions, China and India in particular are rushing to get at the country’s considerable natural resources, including gas, timber and other assets. China, which lends political support to the regime, teamed with Russia last year to shoot down a US initiative to bring the Burma issue to the United Nations Security Council.

In the face of that, the participants in rare demonstrations are indeed courageous. But for anybody who has ever visited the country and talked to its people, it is clear that they speak for the vast majority of Burmese. It is rare to find a country in which the residents hold their leaders in such utter contempt.

It is likely, however, that there is little they can do about it.

Aung Zaw is the editor of the Irrawaddy magazine based in Thailand.

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