Friday, October 9, 2009

Burma constitution ‘provides impunity’ for abuses

Oct 9, 2009 (DVB)–Burma’s redrafted 2008 constitution provides impunity for human rights abuses and should not be the bedrock for elections next year, a damning report has claimed.

Many of the provisions of the constitution suggest that “instead of being a true catalyst for lasting change, it further entrenches the military within the government and the associated culture of impunity,” the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) said.

Its report, Impunity Prolonged: Burma and its Constitution, says that within the constitution, the regime has granted itself impunity for sexual violence, forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Burma, it says, is “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity.”

Khin Omar, coordinator of the Thailand-based Burma Partnership, said the constitution will “force military rule on Burma forever”.

“[It is] the most problematic element as to whether we move further toward being a failed state or whether we move towards national reconciliation,” she said.

The report says that “officers and troops systematically use rape and other forms of sexual abuse as a strategy of war.”

It then cites a clause within the constitution stating that: “No proceeding shall be instituted against the said Councils (the military) or any member thereof or any member of the Government, in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties.”

Burma expert Robert H Taylor told DVB however that “No one has proven that [rape] is public policy,” adding that “we don’t know how the military deals with instances of rape”.

He cited anonymous sources that claim the government has action against people accused of assault and rape, but added that the constitution “has its problems, but which doesn’t?”

In a sign that the regime responds to international pressure, the report cited an agreement between the junta and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to address forced labour and child soldiers.

The 2008 constitution was ratified in the weeks following cyclone Nargis last May, in which 140,000 people were killed and millions of acres of land destroyed. Despite the cyclone, the government claimed a 99 percent turnout, with 92.4 percent voting in favour.

A report released last year by Hong Kong-based constitutional expert, Professor Yash Ghai, said that “the cynicism with which the regime held the referendum and manipulated the results was on a par with the cynicism and coercion by which the draft was prepared”.

The ICTJ have called on the international community to withhold support for elections in Burma next year. Khin Omar echoed the calls, and said that a constitutional review must take place before the elections do.

Reporting by Joseph Allchin
Burma Newscasts - Burma constitution ‘provides impunity’ for abuses

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Junta said to be supplying chemical mortars to army

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - In what seems to be a sinister design, the Burmese military junta, while reinforcing its troops in Shan state for a massive offensive against ethnic ceasefire groups, is supplying its army with mortars laced with chemical ingredients, sources said.

According to the Thailand-based ethnic Kachin News Group (KNG), the junta’s troops since last month have been stockpiling a strange type of mortar shell, marked with red, yellow and green colours.

“We have our source in the army. Our source tells us that the army is bringing in these mortars, which are made of chemicals. But they have been strictly told not to use it without orders from higher ups,” said Naw Din, Editor of the KNG, quoting a military source.

Naw Din said, the mortars, according to an insider, were imported from North Korea and have a deadly chemical impact, once fired.

“When the mortars are fired, it contaminates the air and causes people to faint, results in bleeding of the nose, causes breathing difficulties and blurs the eye sight,” Naw Din said.

He added the army source told him that at least two military trucks carrying these mortars were sent to the Burmese Army’s No.1 Nyaung Pin military base on the mountain top near Mongkoe in Northeast Shan State, in early September.

While the supply and possible use of chemical mortars by the junta’s troops cannot be independently verified, sources on the Sino-Burma border said Burmese troops are being heavily reinforced.

Following the Kokang incident in late August, the Burmese junta has been directing its army to borders of the territory of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the strongest armed faction among the ceasefire groups, and Mongla areas, where the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) is based.

Sein Kyi, Assistant Editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), said the junta while increasingly pressurizing the ethnic ceasefire groups to accept its proposal of transforming to the ‘Border Guard Force’ through negotiations and meetings, is also increasing its military presence in northern and eastern Shan state.

“In recent weeks, the Burmese military commanders have proposed meeting lower ranking officials of the UWSA, in order to split the group. But UWSA officials rejected the plan saying they should contact their headquarters,” Sein Kyi said.

In the meantime, Sein Kyi said, the junta is also reinforcing its bases with more troops, and stockpiling supplies, in what looks like a preparation for a massive offensive.

“I don’t have any updates on the possibilities of stockpiling chemical mortars, but earlier about a year or two ago, I had been told by our sources inside the military that they have chemical mortars made in North Korea,” Sein Kyi added.

While he said he did not know of the recent supplies of chemical mortars, he did not rule out the possibility.

“It would be very deadly if these mortars are used. It would impact not only soldiers but all the people, villagers and civilians alike,” he added.

With the Burmese military junta setting the deadline for ethnic ceasefire groups to respond to their proposal of transforming into Border Guard Force to October, sources said, fighting is likely to break out soon.

But with about a 20,000 armed force, the UWSA is unlikely to submit to the junta and a clash between the two could end in a bloodbath.

“The junta will attack the UWSA and other groups sooner or later, but we don’t know how and whether they will launch a direct military campaign or not. They might also rely on other tactics as they did in the Kokang incident,” Sein Kyi said.

But sources said, the junta is likely to look for Chinese signals and it would largely depend on China whether the junta would launch a direct military campaign because the Wa are largely seen as being backed by the Chinese.

Burma Newscasts - Junta said to be supplying chemical mortars to army

Friday, 09 October 2009 21:48

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Monday, October 5, 2009

Article in private journal attacks Burma Campaigners

by Salai Pi Pi

New Delhi (Mizzima) – An article published in the Rangoon-based “The Voice” journal on Monday made an unveiled attack on campaign groups such as the Burma Campaign UK, for misusing the name of Burma in lobbying western nations to impose sanctions on the Southeast Asian nation.

The article authored by “Aung Htut” a pen name on Monday said, the writer is extremely happy to see the US’s new policy of engagement with the Burmese regime, but fears that the US might revert to its old policy as these so-called activists are continuing to lobby to isolate Burma.

“It is not western governments but those individual foreigners who tried to formulate their own strategy in systematically isolating Burma,” the article said, “Most of misunderstandings (over Burma) came from them.”

The article also said these campaigners including members of the Burma Campaign UK and Institute of Democracy for Asia in the past had lobbied western countries for sanctions against Burma. As result Burma was isolated for several years.

Groups like the Burma Campaign UK have a limited number of Burmese people in the organisation, yet they have been effectively lobbying as representatives of the Burmese, the article said.

“The writer wonders how groups like the Burma Campaign UK have the right to represent the Burmese people. But what is certain is that they have misused the name of Burma and its people,” added the article.

But Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK denied campaigning for the isolation of Burma but stressed that the BCUK is supporting sanctions against members of the Burmese junta and their business cronies, who are benefiting from the sufferings endured by the Burmese people.

He, however, viewed the attack as a natural reaction because of the nature of work that the BCUK has been committed to doing and the influence it has on government’s policies in telling the truth about human rights violations committed by the military junta.

“They attack us because we have been effective in raising awareness about what they are doing and getting the international community to increase pressure,” Farmaner said.

He said, the BCUK is not only committed to push for sanctions against the military regime, but is also pushing for a United Nations Security Council referral of Than Shwe and members of the military junta in the International Criminal Court for their crimes against humanity.

“Probably they attacked us as we are telling the truth about what is happening in Burma. We exposed human rights abuse, what is going on in jails with political prisoners in Burma and what is happening in ethnic areas where the Burmese Army is raping women and children,” Farmaner added.

The article in the Weekly also said, since the campaigners are mostly foreigners, the writer does not expect them to understand the Burmese peoples’ feelings and sufferings and will not sympathize with the life and condition of the country.

The writer said “as a strong advocate of engagement, it is encouraging to see key stakeholders are now showing signs of their willingness for engagement. If this could have been understood earlier, we could have seen good results. But it is only regrettable that much time had been wasted.”

But Farmaner said sanctions have been useful as a tool in reminding the Burmese generals that they are accountable for their actions and a reminder of the need to implement meaningful political reforms.

“We always support a combination of sanctions and engagement. So, the US policy is exactly what we have been campaigning for,” said Farmaner adding that the BCUK will continue campaigning for effective sanctions against the Burmese military regime.

Burma, under military rule since 1962, is contending with financial and economic sanctions by the United States, European Union and Australia for their human rights abuses and failure to implement democratic reforms.

But the US, after concluding its policy review on Burma last week, announced that it is changing track and will use a combination of sanctions as well as engagement.

The new policy comes at a time the Burmese regime, is particularly seen as keen to develop a new relation with the US, in the run up to their planned elections in 2010, which is a part of the junta’s seven-step roadmap to democracy.

While articles in privately owned journals are mostly written by authors unrelated to the Burmese regime, the journal, as per the junta’s law, has to go through the censorship board, which conducts a thorough check of the contents.

Occasionally, Burma’s military junta forces private journals to publish articles and commentaries written in favour of the junta, which the editors of the journals cannot refuse to publish as the consequences could cost their license to run the publication.

Burma Newscasts - Article in private journal attacks Burma Campaigners
Monday, 05 October 2009 22:33

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Ostensible verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi

by Tint Swe

Mizzima News - If a ruling of a court is called a verdict, it has to be called a legal judgment and the judgment has to be made by a judge. So far it seems ostensibly fine with the verdict announced on October 2 in Rangoon. However a judge is not a judge and the law is not law at all in military ruled Burma. A judge has to read out the pre-written decision from higher authorities. The law is what comes out of the mouth of military officers.

When Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal was rejected, no one was surprised. But the legal team of Daw Suu was disappointed because the legal argument read out by the divisional judge was contrary to the true sense of law. The court accepted the argument of non-existence of the 1974 constitution but referred to the 1975 provision which is based on that nullified 1974 constitution. The township level court’s decision of last month was said to be partly wrong according to the divisional court. But the divisional judge said it was partially right. So the legal system in Burma is partial and prejudiced.

The entire month before the news regarding Burma showed of different tones by allowing Americans to visit and meet two top leaders – one none-other-then the Senior General himself and one the icon of pro-democracy struggle Aung San Suu Kyi. The professional staff of the Congressmen met NLD representatives. The foreign minister was also allowed to visit from New York to Washington, DC and a minister met senior US officials from the State department. All followed by the release of an American intruder who was obviously guilty.

The guilt-ridden foreigner was freed and innocent citizen of the country were unjustly punished. The punishment for an innocent person is an additional example of the regime showing tolerance to foreigners while it is total fanaticism for the people of its own country. It was not in accordance with the law but purely a political decision.

Since General Ne Win who governed Burma for 26 years and gave birth of dictatorial rule by the Burmese Army was portrayed as a xenophobic. Now this regime becomes obsessive to foreigners and clinically it is termed as a bipolar disorder.

The substance or lesson from this episode is that underestimation of the true nature of the regime should not be repeated by the international community.

The rejection of appeal came about a couple of days after Aung San Suu Kyi wrote an important letter to the Senior General, the sole decision maker Than Shwe. Her letter was a request cum proposal on how to deal with western sanctions. The sanctions are what the junta desperately wanted to be lifted. In 2007, the General hinted that he could engage in dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi if she dropped calling for sanctions and abandoning confrontation. As a matter of fact Aung San Suu Kyi has been calling for national reconciliation. Now she officially and publically said she was serious about lifting the sanctions.

But the Rangoon divisional court was ordered to turn down the appeal. So it is evident that the regime wants neither sanctions nor Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile the regime will float the sanction issue. But they will not make any serious change to be able to lift sanctions. As the section of the west is too theoretical rather than practical, the junta may collect some aid. However small, it is just fine for them. For the military rulers the assistance from World Bank, IMF and ADB are not real wants like the successful roadmap.

The United Nations, the Secretary General, the General Assembly, the Security Council continued annual routine calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Habitually Russia and China continued blocking the strong statements at the UN. The ASEAN bloc stepped back from letter writing campaign for her release.

The UN diplomats politely commented that the junta missed the opportunity to prove its commitment in holding inclusive elections next year. In fact, for generals, it was not regarded as opportunity but the hurdle to overcome as in a military training. They are also prepared to pass through all hurdles before 2010 election. As long as all veto powers at UNSC do not change their minds, as long as neighbours maintain controversial non-interference and if the oppressed people of Burma can’t flex its muscles though feeble, dictatorial control will remain as it is.

(The author Dr. Tint Swe is the elected Member of Parliament and the Information Minister of the exiled government National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma or NCGUB)

Burma Newscasts - Ostensible verdict against Aung San Suu Kyi
Monday, 05 October 2009 13:00

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Thaw in US-Burma ties

By Chua Chin Hon
The Straits Times

The unexpected thaw in US-Burma ties in recent months has raised a host of intriguing questions.

The most obvious are perhaps the trickiest: Why do Burma's military rulers want to engage the Obama administration in dialogue, and why now? What do they hope to gain?

Diplomats familiar with the issue say it is futile to try to second-guess the thinking of the secretive military junta. Yet, the answers to these questions will shape the negotiation strategies of the United States.

At first sight, there does not seem to be any urgent or compelling reason for Burma's generals to engage their biggest critic, Washington. After all, they have successfully weathered all the criticisms and economic sanctions that the US and other Western countries have imposed since the 1990s.

And Burma's growing importance in providing resources and energy for regional powers like China and India will ensure that foreign investments continue to roll in. So why bother?

Experts who track Burma, however, say that it is wrong to assume that the junta is satisfied, or completely assured, by the status quo. They add that a combination of domestic and external factors probably prompted the generals to seek talks with Washington.

For starters, next year, Burma will hold its first election in two decades, a move widely seen as an attempt by the military to legitimise its rule. Much remains unclear about the participation of the opposition in the elections, and whether international election monitors would be admitted.

Even the date for the election has not been officially announced. But what would be abundantly clear to the junta is that any attempt to garner international recognition would be futile without some level of acceptance from the US, experts say.

"I do think that the (Burmese government) is very anxious to have international recognition and some sort of legitimacy," says Dr Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia scholar with the Singapore Management University (SMU).

"And when people talk about the issue of acceptance, they are really referring to this recognition from the US."

The question of whether bilateral talks - and election assistance should Burma request it - could lend legitimacy to the junta-run elections could become a political hot potato for the Obama administration, given the nature of US politics. Hence, US diplomats have hedged their recent contacts with Burmese officials with numerous caveats.

"We will continue to stress to the (Burmese) authorities the baseline conditions that we consider necessary for any credible electoral process," US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a Senate hearing last Wednesday.

"They include the
release of political prisoners,
the ability of all stakeholders to stand for election,
eliminating restrictions on media, and
ensuring a free and open campaign."
Campbell met U Thaung, Burma's minister of science, technology and labour, in New York last week in what was termed the highest level contact between the two sides in nine years. The negotiators did not set a date for a second set of talks, but Campbell said he sensed from the Burmese officials "a very clear determination that dialogue was possible".

Beyond the search for international acceptance, experts say Burma's willingness to engage the US could also be prompted by the rapidly changing international environment, particularly since President Barack Obama came into office.

Obama's approach to foreign policy has been markedly different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who refused direct contact with countries deemed to be rogue regimes.

It would not have escaped the attention of Burma's military rulers that other countries on Washington's blacklist - Iran and North Korea - have all had increased contact with the new US administration lately. There is little strategic value in being the odd man out in what is already the small and unpopular club of rogue nations.

But the bigger strategic issue on Burma's radar is likely to be the growing ties between the US and China, experts say. Whereas it could play one against the other before, that is no longer a given, as the two global powers see a growing convergence in their interests.

And despite Burma's close economic ties with China, the relationship is not necessarily problem-free.

"On China, we have to remember that the present army leadership grew up fighting the Communist Party of Burma, a well-armed Chinese-supported insurgent force that once threatened huge parts of the eastern uplands," historian Thant Myint-U told Wednesday's Senate hearing.

"Many see their present dependence on China as an anomaly, a tactical move that needs correction."

With all these shifting plates in motion, Burma likely has to recalibrate its position.

Said Dr Welsh of SMU: "They have to find a new configuration...and dialogue is the first step in that process."

For the US, the impetus for the talks goes beyond its traditional concerns about human rights, civil society and the imprisonment of democracy-icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma's growing ties with North Korea and the uranium deposits in the central and northern parts of the country have raised fears that the junta will try to play a similar game of nuclear brinkmanship as Pyongyang has done since 2003.

So far, there has been no smoking gun evidence of Burma contemplating such a move. But that is not likely to assure Washington, which already has its hands full dealing with Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Said Campbell: "Let me be clear: we have decided to engage with (Burma) because we believe it is in our interest to do so."

Burma Newscasts - Thaw in US-Burma ties
5 October 2009

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Regional implications of US policy on Burma

Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation (Thailand)

The carefully crafted 490-word US policy on Burma is aimed at all players in the region and afar, directly and indirectly, involved in the Burmese quagmire. Coming as it did at this juncture, the policy will be used as a new benchmark to gauge Rangoon's genuine desire for dialogue and openness. It also seeks to rejuvenate international engagement with regional dynamics. This represents another much-needed effort to break the current impasse that the regime can take after Australia made the first attempt—with a long list of demands-at the 1994 Asean ministerial meeting in Bangkok.

Washington realises now that the new approach is likely to be "slow and incremental." In other words, it will be a step by step process. This time a more concerted international effort is required to ease the Burmese crisis after decades of sanctions. The Obama Administration should be lauded for seizing this unique opportunity to formulate a new policy that some regional players can identify with.

The US softer approach has short and long-term objectives. In the next 15 months, pressure on Burma would be a step up building on existing progress accomplished since August including increased US-Burmese high-level meetings and dialogues, as well as ongoing communications between General Than Shwe and the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi on ways to loosen up sanctions. After the US completed its policy reviews, Suu Kyi reiterated her readiness again to help end sanctions against the regime, which she first outlined two and half years ago.

Washington also wants to lay groundwork for inclusive, free and fair elections next year in Burma. Judging from the tone of US senior officials, any positive response from the junta on Suu Kyi's unconditional release or electoral process in coming weeks or months would immediately help to build up mutual confidence and widen the communication channels between the two capitals. Cooperation on counter-narcotics, health, environmental protection, and the recovery of World War II-era missing-in-action (MIAs) could be new incentives.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Kurt Campbell made clear that lifting or easing sanctions at the outset of a dialogue without meaningful progress on the US concerns would be a mistake. "We will maintain our existing sanctions until we see concrete progress, and continue to work with the international community to ensure that those sanctions are effectively coordinated," he told a Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs last week.

In the medium and long term, the US policy seeks to break up the twin influence of China and India over Burma. In the policy statement, the US says it will continue to cooperate and coordinate closely with the UN, Asean, the EU, China, Japan, India, Australia, the Burmese opposition and others. In reality, the US targets China and India—the two key players which have propped up and strengthened the military junta. The US new positions are more or less closer to those held by key players which prefer more contact,with sanctions still intact, or backing easing of sanctions with more humanitarian assistance.

Since Cyclone Nargis, the EU has picked humanitarian options for the Burmese people albeit growing criticism that it would benefit the regime. For decades, Japan has limited its assistance aid to humanitarian and human resource development, especially in economic planning. Australia also tried without much success to increase awareness on human rights and democracy inside Burma.

With the US new policy, Asean will find it easier to work with the US on Burma—a new element under the Obama administration and Asean. Asean opposes sanctions against Burma, since it was admitted into the grouping in 1997. Apart from sharing common objectives of seeing a united, prosperous and democratic country, now the two sides are moving closer on sanctions. Asean argues sanctions must stop as it hurts the Burmese people.

Ironically, the Asean-US closer cooperation on Burma effectively put an end to the Aseanisation process of Burmese conundrums that began in earnest in Luxembourg in 1991, fuelling the longstanding feud between EU and Asean over Burma. Even before the country joined the grouping, Asean leaders believed they could handle the Burmese issue better than the outsiders through peer pressure and the Asean way. The polarisation reached its peak in 1997 when Burma was admitted to Asean with strong support from former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad and Indonesian ex-President Suharto.

The US-led "internationalisation" process could overtake the Asean-initiated or even the UN framework, if Burma responds positively to Washington's overtures in a timely manner. In that case, Rangoon has lots of explaining to do for its Asean colleagues and international community. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya's decision to give up the joint Asean appeal on Suu Kyi's freedom, citing the existing international efforts, confirmed this inevitable trend. Like it or not, Asean future positions on Burma would have to take in broad-based international sentiments.

The first US-Asean summit in Singapore, scheduled on November 15, will include Burmese Prime Minister Thien Sein. It was no longer a taboo for the leaders of US and Burma to meet. The summit—whether it is institutionalised-would further deepen the US role played in regional issues. With its Asean ambassador in residence in Jakarta (the first in Asean) to be announced soon, Washington will also have a senior official follow up on this issue with the Asean Secretariat. Later this month, at the Asean summit in Cha-am, Asean expects to see more positive signs from Burma related to the electoral process and relations with the opposition partners.

Closer to home, the US policy will impact on the porous Thai-Burma border. Issues related to attacks on minorities, drugs and human smuggling would be placed high on the US watch lists. More than before, both Thailand and Malaysia—not to mention China over the Kokang conflict- have all suffered from the influx of Burmese refugees.

Recent attacks on minorities along the Thai border by the Burmese troops again displaced thousands of minorities inside the Thai territory.

In years ahead, the US policy serves to enhance Thailand's position vis-a-vis Burma over its nuclear ambition. US senior officials have reiterated the UN Security Council's resolution 1874 (as well as 1718 during testimonies) which deals with nuclear proliferation as part of the Burmese policy gist. Washington has been very concerned about the nature and extent of Burma's nuclear ties with North Korea. During recent testimony, Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana continued to question Burma's motives in dispatching hundreds of its officials to Russia for nuclear technology training. He pointed out the number of persons travelling to Russia for specialised training seemed to be far beyond the number needed for the eventual operation of a nuclear reactor for medical research purposes, intended to be built by the junta with Russian government assistance Thailand has yet to treat with seriousness this explosive issue.

Except for selective army intelligence officials working closely with Australian and American counterparts, the rest of Thai society has been kept in the dark on Burma's nuclearisation program and its implications on the country's future security. The Thai policy makers, in particular the National Security Council, tend to view Burma's quagmire and security concerns through myopic bilateral prisms, which immediately mitigate any serious strategic evaluation of potential nuclear threats to Thailand.

Burma Newscasts - Regional implications of US policy on Burma
5 Oct 2009

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beijing and Burma no longer best of friends

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - There is a growing rift between the two close allies and neighbours, China and Burma over their border problems, with relations at an all-time low. The Burmese junta have cooled towards their main benefactor, Beijing, with increasing public signs of their dissatisfaction. Beijing has even issued some unusually forthright criticism of their neighbour in the past few weeks.

China has also reacted with a diplomatic flurry of activity – in Beijing, Naypyidaw and New York. The Chinese are so concerned about the clouds over their relationship, that they dispatched one of their most seasoned negotiators, the vice-minister for foreign affairs, Wang Yi to Burma on a secret mission within the last ten days, according to senior Burmese officials.

The first signs of the cracks in the relationship appeared when the Burmese army launched an offensive against the Kokang ethnic rebels who have had a truce with the regime for twenty years. Thousands of refugees fled across the border for safety, raising fears of a fresh civil war along Burma’s northern border and alarming China. Beijing’s attitude to Burma has also been compounded by concern over the junta’s future relations with the United States – Beijing is wary of Washington’s offer to the junta of a dialogue.

“Beijing has been taken aback by the Burmese junta’s cavalier approach to their normally strong relationship,” said Win Min, a Burmese academic based at Chiang Mai University. “But it is likely to prove to be a hiccup, rather than a major shift in relations.”

China has several major concerns, including their massive economic investment in the country, especially the planned oil pipeline, pumping oil from the Arakan Sea off the west coast of Burma into China’s southern province of Yunnan. But Beijing is also concerned about the growing unrest along their common border, and the safety of the Chinese living in Burma. Around a quarter of a million Chinese have crossed the border and sought work and economic opportunities in northern Burma in the last ten years.

Concerns are now mounting for their safety with the deteriorating situation in the border areas. Last weekend a government-controlled provincial television channel, which is based in Kunming – the capital of Yunnan -- broadcast a Chinese government announcement advising all Chinese citizens in eastern Burma to return home quickly.

This followed a formal complaint from China to Burma days earlier over the way Chinese citizens living in a border region had been treated during recent clashes between the Burmese army and the ethnic Kokang militia last month. In statement issued last week, China's Foreign Ministry said the recent conflict with the Kokang, in a north-eastern Burmese region bordering China, had "harmed the rights and interests of Chinese citizens living there." It also said the Burmese government should make sure similar incidents do not happen again.

Burma insists that peace has been restored to the area in question, and most of the refugees who fled to China had returned. But there has still thousands seeking refuge across the border, not just from the Kokang areas, according to residents living in China along the border with Burma. Nearly forty thousand refugees, many of them Chinese businessmen fled into China when the fighting erupted. They were housed in makeshift camps provided by the Chinese authorities. Officially these refugees have since been dispersed, and returned to Burma. “The Kokang capital Laogai, remains a ghost town,” a recent foreign visitor there told Mizzima. Most of the main cities and towns are also empty, including the main border city in the east of Shan state, he added.

Right along the border, from the Kachin areas in the west to the Shan areas in the east, people have fled into China for fear of renewed fighting between other ethnic rebel groups, especially the Kachin and the Wa and the Burmese army, according to Indian entrepreneurs who travel along this area doing business. “Everyone fears that the twenty-year old ceasefire agreements have been torn up by the Burmese generals, and a return to fighting is imminent,” said a Kachin student living in the Chinese border town of Ruili.

“At moment it does not look as though the Burmese army is about to attack any of the other ethnic rebel groups that have ceasefire agreements, though there is a lot of posturing going on,” said Win Min. “There is no doubt that the regime means to have all the ethnic rebel armies disarm before next year’s elections and become part of the border guards under the control of the Burmese army.” The ceasefire groups told Mizzima that they have until the end of October to comply with the government order to disarm, and join the Border Police Guard under the control of the Burmese military, and take part in next year’s planned elections.

Earlier this year the junta sought the assistance of the former intelligence chief and prime minister, General Khin Nyunt – who was deposed in October 2004 and is now under house arrest in Rangoon – to help negotiate with these rebels groups, especially the Wa. Khun Nyunt had mater-mined these ceasefire agreement some twenty years ago, and was still trusted by many of the ethnic leaders. He agreed on condition that his men – some 300 military intelligence officers who were jailed in the aftermath of Khin Nyunt’s fall – be freed.

The government refused to accept his condition, and turned to the Chinese – who have extremely close relations with the key ethnic groups along the border – the Kachin, Kokang and the Wa. The Chinese reluctance to help has angered the Burmese junta’s leaders.

It is now increasingly evident that a significant rift exits between the two countries that could have crucial implications for other countries in the region, and any approach the international community may take to encourage the Burmese military regime to introduce real political change.

The implications of this growing divergence could have significant affects on the border region, as the most of the ethnic groups – especially the Kachin, Kokang and Wa – in this area have ceasefire agreements with the Burmese junta, but also have traditionally close ties with the Chinese authorities. Economically and culturally the area is certainly closer to China than the Burmese regime.

Many of these ethnic leaders go to Chinese hospital across the border for medical treatment and send their children to school in China. The Chinese language and even the Chinese currency the Renminbi is used throughout the Kokang and Wa areas in northern Shan state.

Anything which forces Beijing to choose between their ethnic brothers inside Burma—the Kokang are ethnically and the Wa, a Chinese ethnic minority -- and the central government will cause the Beijing immense problems. And in the end will bring into sharp focus the real nature of the Burma-China axis.

Beijing is now more worried about Burma’s longer-term allegiance. The junta has been a China’s key ally and strategic partner in south-east Asia in the past few years. So the current overtures between Washington and Burma have dismayed the Chinese leaders, who remain suspicious of the US interest in re-engaging with the region and increasing its influence – also fearing it is a return to the old US strategy of containing China. The region is seen by Beijing as its back-yard, and any competition for influence is far from welcomed.

China fears that its influence in south-east Asia is waning. Vietnam has never been a strong supporter, and as far as Beijing is concerned, for sometime Hanoi’s main interest has been to cosy up to Washington. Recently Cambodia and Thailand have strengthened their ties with the US, increasing China’s strategic concerns.

Now its rock-solid ally has begun to flirt with improving relations with Washington. “China will react with measured nervousness to this unwelcomed encroachment into Burma,” Justin Wintle, a British expert on Burma and biographer of Aung San Suu Kyi told Mizzima.

Beijing’s current concerns stem from the unstable basis of their bilateral relationship. The Chinese government remains suspicious of the Burmese military junta. “When we meet the Thais, they look Chinese and speak Chinese, but when we see the Burmese leaders, they don’t speak Chinese and they look South Asian,” said a senior Chinese government official.

‘Burma and China are not ‘real’ friends – as with Thailand for example,” he said. “It’s a Machiavellian relationship: we are in for what we can get out of it, and they are also in it, for what they can get out of it,” he said.

So according to Chinese diplomats, it is a relationship that could shift easily. “But it is not likely to become antagonistic anytime soon,” said Win Min. “Burma is far too economically dependent on China for the government to really consider ditching Beijing as its main ally.”

More than ninety percent of direct foreign invest in Burma last year was Chinese. While the western-led sanctions remain in place, that is unlikely to change in the near future. Sanctions of course now more than ever rankle with the regime.

"Sanctions are being employed as a political tool against Myanmar and we consider them unjust," the Burmese prime minister, General Thein Sein told the UN’s annual General Assembly meeting in New York last month. Undoubtedly Burma’s interest in a dialogue with the US is motivated by the regime’s main concerns, to have sanctions lifted, for international humanitarian and development assistance to flow into the country, and to attract foreign investment.

“Though generals are certainly unhappy about being too dependent on one supporter, and will be trying to balance Chinese influence with better relations with the US as well as other countries –like ASEAN and India, they will not be looking to cut the umbilical cord with China in the near future,” said Win Min.

But there is no escaping from the fact that Burma’s military leaders are upset with Beijing. The Chinese embassy put on a lavish reception for the massive 60th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China. The coverage in the official New Light of Myanmar the next day paid scant notice to the importance of the occasion or the ambassador’s address, Instead it noticeably focused on Secretary One’s attendance. This comes after the Myanmar Times recently was allowed to refer to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama when he visited Taiwan, last month. Both these incidents are clearly signs that the junta wants to rebuke China.

But thinks may already be on the mend after the Chinese envoy’s secret mission to see Than Shwe recently. China is desperately trying to mend fences with the junta. One example of this is the diplomatic initiative China took at the UN Security Council to make sure Burma is not on its agenda – at least this month.

It looks like the trouble between Burma and China maybe on the wane. Nevertheless Beijing will be watching with growing concern, any further overtures between Burma and the US. So far it seems to have been a spat between two close partners – siblings or even husband and wife, according to Asian diplomats who have also been following the situation closely.

But in the end it is Burma that may hold the upper hand. China’s economic, trade and military involvement in Burma gives the junta the upper hand rather than making them more subservient to Beijing. The issue now is how far will the junta leaders go in flexing their muscles.

Burma Newscasts - Beijing and Burma no longer best of friends
Sunday, 04 October 2009 18:05

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Peace in Name only

The Irrawaddy News
OCTOBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.7

War and refugees will remain a fact of life in Burma as long as the root causes of conflict in the country’s borderlands remain unaddressed.

The rout of the ethnic Kokang militia, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, in northern Burma in late August has brought into stark relief what millions of people live with in Burma every day: conflict between the central state and non-state armed militias. For decades, clashes between the Burmese regime’s army and its myriad enemies have been forcing people into hiding or across borders. What is different about the recent fighting is that it involved China—not usually a country that tolerates refugees from Burma or instability along its borders.
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The cause of the latest outbreak of hostilities is the decision of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to pressure cease-fire groups to transform their armies into border security guard forces before next year’s election. Under the SPDC plan, which was first proposed in April, the militias would be split up into battalions consisting of 326 soldiers, mostly from ethnic militias, but with a number of Burmese government army troops and officers. The deadline for a response to the plan was June, with training to begin in October.

Many groups have refused, and with good grounds. How could an armed group such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 20,000 soldiers, practically accept such a demand under such a tight timeframe? The Kachin Independence Organization seems to have diplomatically rejected the junta’s demand by conditionally agreeing to it, but other groups have declined outright, leading to fears of a resumption of armed conflict.

Yet as negative as the potential consequences of the SPDC’s demands are, the status quo is equally bad, not just for national political reforms, but also for civilian protection. Burma’s hinterlands have for most of the past 20 years been ordered into a network of semi-autonomous cease-fire zones, run by politico-military armed groups often financed by investments in the narcotics trade, illegal logging, smuggling, transport and casino capitalism. From Mon State up the eastern borderlands and around Shan State to Kachin State, a string of “special regions” has emerged, often in an uneasy coexistence with central state forces based on verbal agreements with Burmese military leaders.

For the cease-fire groups, the dividends of this arrangement included some form of autonomy in future constitutional changes, as well as national and international development assistance. In return, they agreed to stop fighting. This pact has paid off handsomely for the leaders of the various groups, many of whom have amassed substantial fortunes. But for many of their “constituents,” the cessation of active conflict has only produced a tenuous peace.

Paradoxically, the number of armed groups in Burma has actually increased since the cease-fires, because of factionalism and local security requirements.

Burma has been through all of this before. In the 1960s, the Tatmadaw created Ka Kwe Ye (Home Guard) units, sometimes called “anti-insurgency forces,” from the private armies of local warlords. Pyithu Sit (People’s Militias) have also increased, especially in Shan State, where, as local motley bands of militia under the direction of Tatmadaw battalions, they often exist as the bottom feeders of the Burmese drug trade, acting little better than modern dacoits.

The Kokang showdown was preceded in a more peaceful, if not more productive, format, in early 2005, when the SPDC forced the surrender of the Palaung State Liberation Party. According to the Palaung Women’s Organization, the surrender dramatically increased suffering among the civilian population.

Two years later, in 2007, the small Shan State Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization split into three factions as a result of intensified pressure from the SPDC to surrender their weapons. One of their military leaders who broke the cease-fire and returned to active hostilities, Col Hkun Thu Rein, said, “We got nothing from the cease-fire. Even when international development agencies came to our area, the SPDC warned us not to tell the truth.”

The one seemingly avid convert to the border guard scheme, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), was not surprising, marking the group’s gradual transformation from a splinter faction of the Karen National Union with some genuine political and social grievances to a snarling criminal gang with somewhat unconvincing appeals to nationalism. The DKBA’s growing business empire along the Thai-Burmese border shows the economic returns of cooperation: agro-business, people smuggling, illegal car importation, cattle smuggling, mining, transportation concessions, and local methamphetamine production and trafficking. In return, the DKBA has continued to attack Karen communities inside Burma, and now acts as little more than a willing auxiliary of the SPDC.

Non-state armed groups such as the DKBA are being primed by the SPDC to act as border militias under a future civilian government, and if recent fighting is any indication, many groups could act with the same ferocity and disregard for civilian protection as the Burmese army.
Weapons seized from Kokang rebels are displayed by the Burmese police in laogai on Sept. 8.

War has displaced millions of civilians in Burma. Currently there are nearly half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Burma alone. Around 150,000 refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border, even though more than 46,000 have been resettled to third countries since 2005. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Shan struggle for survival in northern Thailand, unregistered and unrecognized as anything more than migrant workers. India has more than 50,000 ethnic Chin refugees and thousands more Burmese refugees in Mizoram and New Delhi. Some 28,000 Rohingya Muslims from Arakan State live in dire conditions in camps in Bangladesh, with about 200,000 more living in surrounding areas. Burmese refugees also live either as migrant workers or UN-recognized asylum seekers in Malaysia, Singapore and scores of other countries around the world.

The fate of the displaced varies vastly, depending on a host of factors. Sometimes even groups that are located in close proximity to each other can be worlds apart in terms of their access to assistance.

Take, for example, the camp for Shan IDPs across from Mae Fah Luang in Thailand. Home to nearly 3,000 civilians, the village of Wan Loi Saw Nien is made up of assorted Shan, Lahu, Akha, Palaung and Chinese from throughout eastern Shan State who were displaced by more than 10 years of fighting between the Shan State Army-South and the UWSA and Tatmadaw. Much of the fighting started because the UWSA forced some 100,000 civilians from its northern area to resettle along the Thai border to create a new enclave called Mong Yawn, basically to provide a civilian cover for intensified methamphetamine production.

This disastrous experiment in mini-state creation also produced the UWSA-controlled town of Yawngkha, just 9 km from Wan Loi Saw Nien. However, the experiences of the two towns couldn’t be more different. Yawngkha receives UN assistance, funding from Thailand’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation, and visits from Western academics in Tatmadaw helicopters. Wan Loi Saw Nien, on the other hand, is shunned by UN and international relief agencies because the UN doesn’t “do” borders. This could, however, change if the SSA signs a cease-fire agreement with the regime.

Abuses against civilians in conflict areas and around cease-fire zones have been exhaustively documented in the annual internal displacement surveys of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), as well as by several grassroots documentation organizations, such as the Karen Human Rights Group and the Human Rights Foundation of Monland, among others.

Although there is some truth to the argument that there are fewer human rights violations in ethnic areas as a result of decreased hostilities, it is more accurate to say that the patterns of human rights violations have changed.

While horrific numbers of abuses were perpetrated by all sides in the conflict during active hostilities, many civilians living in or near cease-fire zones must now bear the burden of heavier militarization, with the attendant demands for forced labor, food and anything else that Burmese government forces “living off the land” require. Meanwhile, other abuses normally associated with open conflict, such as rape and summary executions of civilians, continue, as evidenced by the recent attacks in the Kokang region and central Shan and Karen states.

Under the Second Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, attacks against civilians, the destruction of things indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food, crops and water supply, and the forced removal of civilians unless it is for their own safety or for imperative military reasons, are prohibited. Furthermore, parties to the conflict must facilitate immediate and unimpeded passage of humanitarian assistance.

The Tatmadaw and its proxy forces have blatantly violated these principles of customary international humanitarian law for years. In a remarkable and rare public denunciation in June 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cited what it called “major and repeated violations of international humanitarian law” by the “Government of Myanmar” against civilians in eastern Burma between 2000 and 2005.

The only thing more remarkable than the ICRC’s highly unorthodox public statement was the apathy with which it was received by the international community. It was as if the world shrugged and thought, “Heard it all before.”

Well, in fact, the world has heard it all before, and refused to act. The recent report by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Clinic, “Crimes in Burma,” used United Nations documents to demonstrate that since 2002, crimes in conflict areas have been widespread and systematic, especially in regards to forced displacement, sexual violence, torture and murder. And yet, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon refused to discuss the matter either within the UN Security Council or during his fruitless visit to Burma in July this year. Ban did give a strong speech (at the Rangoon Drug Eradication Museum, of all places) on Burma’s deplorable human rights record, but the UN has done precious little to address it.

The willful refusal to acknowledge the scale of human rights violations in Burma’s conflict zones is absolutely inexcusable. And yet, a muttering cabal of academics, international relief workers and erstwhile Western investors is seeking to roll back years of documentation proving the extent of the suffering in IDP and refugee zones. Some even preface these exhaustively documented human rights violations with the word “alleged,” as if there were any doubt about the atrocities being committed in the name of Burma’s “national reconsolidation.”

Much of the new wave of denial is linked to an endorsement of next year’s planned elections, which some see as an opportunity to create a small opening for change inside Burma. Yet one layer of these reforms—the long postponed incorporation of ethnic armed groups—suddenly looks to be in jeopardy after two decades of relative stasis.

For the international media, the recent Kokang fighting has evoked comparisons to Darfur, the Congo, Sri Lanka and other countries that have disintegrated into war zones of disorder. But the best guide to Burma’s future is its own past: if the cease-fire areas descend into conflict again, they will resemble the situation before the cease-fires of 1989. That was a period of intense warfare on several fronts throughout the country, with dozens of armed groups of varying legitimacy. At the time, human rights documentation was rudimentary and refugees spilled across borders unheeded, or were pushed back mercilessly.

Should war resume in parts of Burma’s borderlands, the country will simply return to its pre-1989 situation, and the challenges of national reconciliation and local sustainable development will begin again.

David Scott Mathieson is the Burma Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Burma Newscasts - Peace in Name only
OCTOBER, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.7

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Burma’s 2010 elections to test new US policy

by Brian McCartan

Mizzima News – The United States is seeking to more actively engage with Burma’s military rulers, but made it clear they will not repeal sanctions unless the regime shows that it is taking concrete steps to address American concerns over human rights and democratic reform. A key test of this policy will be elections scheduled for next year.

The United States neither endorsed nor dismissed the electoral process in Burma in its policy announcement. Instead, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged countries to “take a measured approach” until electoral conditions are assessed and it becomes clear whether opposition and ethnic groups will be allowed to participate.

In effect, the US is asking the regime to make concessions to the opposition and ethnic political organizations to allow them to actively engage in the election process rather than the token participation that many observers expect. Most Burma analysts believe that the military has already worked out the percentage of seats to award the opposition and ethnic groups in the final vote tally, expected to be nowhere near enough to influence policy in the ensuing parliament.

Attempts by ethnic leaders to put forward changes to the constitution were ignored by the regime during the constitution drafting National Convention which concluded in 2007. A nationwide referendum held in 2008 approved the constitution, but was widely condemned as rigged. The political opposition and ethnic leaders have called for the constitution to be amended before the vote is held next year, but the government insists that can only be done after elections. Activists argue that any amendment to the constitution after the elections will be impossible due to the military’s heavy role in any new government.

Ethnic ceasefire organizations are currently under heavy pressure to join the electoral process and hand over control of their military wings to the government as part of a new Border Guard Force. Yet, the groups contend that without their troops they will have no bargaining power against a government that regularly uses force to impose its will. Several groups such as the New Mon State Party and the Kachin Independence Organization have allowed members to resign in order to form political parties.

Junta pressure was backed up by action in August when Burmese Army troops attacked Laokai, the headquarters of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), routing the Kokang-based ceasefire group. Although fighting has largely subsided, tensions are high in Shan and Kachin States. The deadline for acquiescence to the junta’s border force demand is only days away and there is a genuine fear that fighting could erupt across the region.

A government offensive, and the inevitable corresponding human rights abuses, would surely run counter to American demands of ending ethnic conflicts and putting a halt to gross human rights violations in ethnic areas. Fighting in the area in the 1970’s and 1980’s resulted in thousands of casualties and the displacement of tens of thousands of villagers. Human rights groups accuse the government of using various forms of forced labor, including portering supplies for government troops and using civilians as human minesweepers, during current counterinsurgency operations in Karen State and southern Shan State.

The main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has said that it will not participate in the elections until amendments are made to the constitution that gives the military less of a controlling role. The junta’s insistence that amending the constitution is impossible until after the election has virtually shut down dialogue between the NLD and the regime.

The US, however, has made it clear in its policy announcement that it wants to see engagement not only between itself and the regime, but also between the regime and the political opposition and American representatives and the opposition. Suu Kyi, herself, seized on this theme in a statement made through her lawyer welcoming US intentions to diplomatically engage the generals, but restated that the opposition should also be consulted. A letter written by her to Senior General Than Shwe has asked for permission to meet with ambassadors from foreign countries to get their opinions on sanctions and what can be done to end them.

The NLD’s other main precondition for joining the electoral process is the release of all political prisoners and their participation in the electoral process. The US has similarly identified the freeing of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, as one of its “core concerns.” A prisoner amnesty two weeks ago included 128 political prisoners among the 7,114 released, however key leaders including Suu Kyi, NLD chairman Tin Oo, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy leader U Khun Tun Oo and 88 Generation Student leader Min Ko Naing, still remain in prison or under house arrest. Most observers believe the junta intends on keeping political leaders in detention until after the elections are finished to remove any chance of their serving as rallying points for the opposition.

Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said on Monday, “We are skeptical that the elections will be either free or fair, but we will stress to the Burmese the conditions that we consider necessary for a credible electoral process.” For most observers of the Burmese regime, it is doubtful that they will be willing to make the concessions to the political opposition or ethnic groups needed to make the elections credible in the eyes of Washington.

Unless the generals are serious about reaching out to the US, then the whole exercise risks becoming simply another of the junta’s diversionary tactics aimed at drawing attention away from other issues in the lead-up to the all-important elections. The same tactic has been used with the UN on numerous occasions to deflect criticism until international attention shifts elsewhere. The generals have spent decades consolidating their hold on power and are not likely to be willing to accept any compromise that may weaken their grip.

Burma Newscasts - Burma’s 2010 elections to test new US policy
Friday, 02 October 2009 12:33

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Rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal ‘legally flawed’: Defence lawyer

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer on Friday said the Rangoon division court’s decision to reject the appeal against her sentence is “legally flawed” as the court arrived at its verdict on a constitution that it acknowledges being non-existent.

Kyi Win, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s legal team, said the divisional court acknowledged that the 1974 constitution is no longer in effect, but said the 1975 law, which is based on the constitution, is still in effect and under which the lower court’s verdict on August 11 is legally binding.

“It is a serious legal fraud. If the constitution is no longer in effect, the law based on that constitution cannot be alive, and thus Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be detained,” Kyi Win told Mizzima on Friday.

According to the law enacted in 1975, Aung San Suu Kyi had been deprived of her fundamental rights, which are stated in the 1974 constitution.

The district court in Rangoon’s Insein prison on August 11 sentenced the Nobel Peace Laureate to three years, on charges of violating her detention regulations, which is prescribed in the 1975 law.

Despite the argument by defence lawyers that the 1974 constitution is no longer in vogue, the district court did not acknowledge it and handed down the verdict, Kyi Win said.

Following the sentence, the defence team appealed to the divisional court, citing mainly that Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be sentenced and must be acquitted as the law, under which she was charged is no longer in effect.

“It is bizarre. I am a high court lawyer and I have also served as a judge but I do not understand how the 1975 law can restrict the fundamental rights prescribed in the 1974 constitution, which is no longer in effect,” Kyi Win said.

He added that the defence will continue appealing to the high court and will focus on the flaws of interpreting the law and the constitution.

After independence from the British, Burma had its first constitution in 1947, but following a military coup led by General Newin in 1962, the constitution was scrapped. Under the Newin regime, a new constitution was drafted and approved in 1974. But in 1975, the Newin regime promulgated a set of laws based on the constitution.

“The division court’s argument is that though the 1974 constitution is dead, Aung San Suu Kyi is charged with the 1975 law,” said Kyi Win.

Burma Newscasts - Rejection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal ‘legally flawed’: Defence lawyer
Friday, 02 October 2009 20:10

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US embassy to put up lawyers for detained citizen

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) – The US embassy in Rangoon has got in touch with lawyers to defend its detained citizen, Aung Kyaw Zaw, arrested on arrival in the former Burmese capital’s international airport on September 3.

Kyi Win, a high court advocate, on Friday told Mizzima that he was contacted by the US embassy to defend Aung Kyaw Zaw (alias) Nyi Nyi Aung, currently detained in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison.

“The embassy contacted us to defend him and offered us a fee equivalent to the amount paid to the lawyer they had hired for John William Yettaw. But we said we are willing to provide ‘Pro Bono’ [free of charge] service,” Kyi Win said.

Kyi Win said the embassy had contacted him and his colleague Nyan Win, with whom he teamed up to defend detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to take up Nyi Nyi Aung’s case.

Both Kyi Win and Nyan Win are advocates practicing in the high court.

“I don’t know if Nyi Nyi Aung has been charged yet. I am yet to receive a reply from the embassy,” Kyi Win said.

While it is still not clear whether he has been charged and on what grounds, a report in the state-run media the New Light of Myanmar newspaper last week accused Nyi Nyi Aung of trying to instigate civil unrest in cahoots with underground activists inside Burma.

The report also accused Nyi Nyi Aung of working together with several Burmese organizations in exile including the Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB), the Student and Youth Congress of Burma (SYCB) and alleged that he had provided financial assistance to activists inside the country.

Nyi Nyi Aung was a student activist and was involved in the 1988 student-led uprising. He along with several other students fled to Thailand in the wake of the military crackdown on protesters. Later he was resettled in United States from Thailand and was naturalized as a US citizen.

Nyi Nyi Aung holds a valid US passport and had a legal social visit Visa to Burma. He flew from Bangkok to Rangoon on September 3 on a TG flight.

Since his arrest, Nyi Nyi Aung was taken to several interrogation centres, where he allegedly endured torture. He was finally taken to the Insein prison. The US embassy spokesman said, Nyi Nyi Aung had complained of ill-treatment during their meeting.

Burma Newscasts - US embassy to put up lawyers for detained citizen
Friday, 02 October 2009 21:28

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ENC wants ethnic groups to contest 2010 elections

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - A group of Burma’s ethnic political organizations in exile – the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) - has urged US Senator James Webb not to condemn the junta’s 2010 election before it takes place but to call for more inclusiveness and for it to be free and fair.

In a letter to Sen. Webb, a strong advocate of engagement with the Burmese regime, two days before he hosted a Congressional hearing on Burma, the ENC urged the Virginian Senator that the US can best help by “Not condemning the 2010 elections before they are held.”

“But instead call for a more inclusive election process that will be free and fair. Electoral assistance can be offered either directly or indirectly through neighbouring countries,” said the letter dated September 28, 2009.

The letter, a copy of which is in Mizzima’s possession, was sent to Senator Webb in appreciation for his interest in the Burma issue and as an explanation on the nature of the complex problems of Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities.

Webb on Wednesday hosted a Congressional hearing on Burma where four experts gave their testimony on what should be the policy of the US towards Burma and the potential role that the US can play in bringing change in the military-ruled Southeast Asian nation.

The letter signed by Saw David Thaw, General Secretary of the ENC, states that ‘in principle’ ethnic nationalities in Burma cannot accept the junta’s 2008 constitution and does not believe that the 2010 elections will lead to democracy.

But the ENC argues that since the ethnics are left with little or no choice, they will have to participate in the elections, because “If there are no opposition parties, the military’s candidates will win by default. The military (and the majority ethnic ‘Burman’) candidates will then become the “elected representatives” of the seven ethnic states.”

Besides, the ENC said, if the ethnic armed ceasefire groups refuse to participate, they will be forced to revert to armed struggle, which will then cause further complications.

Burma under the current administration has seven states, which are home to seven major ethnic groups, and seven divisions, which have no particular attachment to any ethnic groups but are mostly known as habitats of the majority Burmans.

In view of the ENC’s policy of ethnic groups having a voice in Burma’s national politics, participating in governance and development of their homelands, the letter urged Senator Webb not to condemn the 2010 elections until it takes place but to urge the Burmese junta to make it more inclusive and free and fair.

The letter also states that the US can best help the people of Burma by providing assistance in civic education on elections and helping civil organizations that are educating potential political candidates on how to run for office and on democratic governance. And also to support groups that are educating the people about their rights and preparing local organizations on how to monitor the forthcoming elections.

The letter, which for the first time reveals ENC’s policy, states that ENC’s short-term policy is to support eligible ethnic groups in running for office in the 2010 elections.

It also said the ENC’s long-term policy is to develop a robust civil society that will be capable of holding an elected government accountable to the people.

“While the Burmese military will remain in control after the 2010 elections, it is our hope that representatives elected by the people will be able to help hold the military accountable to their own constitution,” said the letter.

“It is also our hope that the new government will be more open to negotiating a political solution with the ethnic groups that are still engaged in armed struggle,” added the letter.

In contrast to the ENC’s policy, the Committee Representing Peoples’ Parliament (CRPP), a group formed with 1990 election winning parties, said unless the regime amends the 2008 constitution, the elections would be meaningless and the CRPP would not contest.

Aye Thar Aung, Secretary of the CRPP, told Mizzima on Friday, “Without amending the 2008 constitution, the ethnics can do nothing even if they participate and are elected. They would just end up as puppets of the junta.”

He said the CRPP as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – the National League for Democracy – have both demanded that the junta release political prisoners, amend the 2008 constitution, and recognize the 1990 election results.

“Unless these demands are met, we the CRPP and the ALD, will not participate in the elections,” Aye Thar Aung, who is also secretary for the Arakan League for Democracy, said.

“And without the junta fulfilling these demands, I would like to urge ethnic groups and others not to participate in the elections,” he added.

The CRPP, formed in September 1998, is an alliance of ethnic political parties that won elections in 1990, which the junta refused to honour. Its members include the NLD, ALD, Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD), Mon National Democratic Front (MNDF) and Zomi National Congress (ZNC).

Burma’s military rulers, as the fifth step of its seven-step roadmap to democracy, said it will hold general elections in 2010, that will elect a semi-civilian government based on the 2008 constitution, which according to the junta was approved by over 90 per cent of voters in May last year.

Critics said the junta’s roadmap is to buy-time and to cement the role of military in Burma’s future politics.

Burma Newscasts - ENC wants ethnic groups to contest 2010 elections
Friday, 02 October 2009 23:31

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Burmese-American Tortured in Prison: AI

The Irrawaddy News

Amnesty international has issued a statement of grave concern about Burmese-American activist Nyi Nyi Aung (aka Kyaw Zaw Lwin), who it says has been tortured and suffered other ill-treatment while in detention in Insein Prison in Rangon.

Nyi Nyi Aung, who has dual citizenship, was arrested in Rangoon on Sept. 3 after returning from exile.

While in detention he has been tortured including beatings and kicking, lack of food for seven days, no sleep and denial of medical treatment for injuries sustained while tortured, said the report.

The New Light of Myanmar, the state-backed newspaper, reported in detail on Thursday on Nyi Nyi Aung’s arrest. The report included photographs of Nyi Nyi Aung, explosives and a satellite phone he was alleged to have had in his possession.

The story described underground activities allegedly undertaken by Nyi Nyi Aung and connections between dissidents inside and outside Burma.

Nyi Nyi Aung’s mother, San San Tin, is severing a 5-year prison sentence and his cousin, Thet Thet Aung, is serving a 65-year prison sentence for participating in the anti-government demonstrations in September 2007.

Meanwhile, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a statement on Thursday that welcomed the amnesty of prisoners and noted reports of torture undergone by some detainees during interrogation and imprisonment.

The AHRC said torture and abuse of prisoners is endemic across Burma and singled out Myo Yan Naung Thein, Bo Bo and Aung Myint as having been tortured after their arrest and imprisonment followed by a lack of appropriate medical treatment.

The statement called on the junta to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit detention facilities in Burma without further delay.

Also, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia) issued a statement criticizing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) silence on Burma at the recent UN Human Rights Council meeting and called on Asean to stand with victims of human rights abuses in Burma.

Yap Swee Seng, the executive director of Forum-Asia, said “While we appreciate the efforts of some governments to make a joint appeal of the Asean at the General Assembly for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, we deeply regret that the same effort has not been taken at the Human Rights Council nor has any Asean member country spoke out on Burma in its own national capacity.”

Burma Newscasts - Burmese-American Tortured in Prison: AI

Friday, September 25, 2009

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Engaging Naypyidaw

The Irrawaddy News

If the United States believes engaging the repressive regime in Burma will change the behavior of the generals, I would just like to say, “Good luck, but I’m afraid that leopards don’t change their spots!”

In fact, the “new” US policy on Burma comes not so long after the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act 2008, the US’s attempt at a strong-arm policy on the generals.

The 2008 act has three aims:
1) to impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates;
2) to tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the US;
3) and to create a new position of special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.

The proposed US special envoy would have the task of working with Burma’s neighbors and other interested countries, such as those within the EU and Asean.

The envoy’s mission would also involve developing a comprehensive approach to the Burma crisis, including pressure, dialogue and support for nongovernmental organizations providing humanitarian relief to the Burmese people.

It remains to be seen if the Obama administration is going to appoint the special US envoy to Burma anytime in the near future.

Burmese dissidents and observers by and large think that the generals in Naypyidaw may be more receptive to a US envoy than someone from the UN or EU—after all, we all witnessed how generously Snr-Gen Than Shwe treated US Senator Jim Webb in August.

In any case, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act was a mixture of sanctions and engagement. Unsurprisingly, the new US policy on Burma is a mixed bag of sticks and carrots.

In her most recent statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Engagement versus sanctions is a false choice in our opinion.

“Going forward we will be employing both of those tools,” Clinton said, but added that lifting sanctions would send the wrong signal.

On the surface, the substance of the policy is to encourage credible, democratic reforms and the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and serious dialogue with opposition and ethnic minority groups.

Speaking on behalf of detained democracy leader Suu Kyi, party spokesman Nyan Win said that she accepted the concept of engagement by the new US administration.

In fact, the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s message to the US is clear and well-calculated.

“She said she has always espoused engagement,” Nyan Win said. “However, [she] suggested that engagement has to be done with both sides—the government as well as the democratic forces.”

The statement forces the US to ponder whether it can be seen to betray or abandon the pro-democracy camp in Burma and the issue of human rights.

In any case, several pundits and scholars have voiced their opinions on the “new US policy”; however, I think it is important to listen to Burmese who continue to live under the regime.

I believe the main skeptics of the new US policy are the oppressed Burmese citizens, and political dissidents and Buddhist monks who remain in prison.

On the international front, the generals’ powerful allies China, India and Russia will be carefully eyeing the US’s new approach.

I believe an extra dimension to the Obama government’s new engagement policy is the issue of China.

China remains the junta’s major arms supplier and trading partner. It offers security guarantees at the United Nations Security Council, investment and trade links, as well as development assistance.

However, Beijing was displeased by the instability on its border when the Burmese government forces attacked ethnic Chinese and the Kokang ethnic rebel group recently.

China’s repeated requests to solve the issue peacefully went ignored. Beijing must have seen this as a breach of their fraternal relationship and time to reassess its own Burma policy.

In a rare move by China, the foreign ministry spoke out urging Burma to “properly handle domestic problems and maintain stability in the China-Burma border region” and to “protect the security and legal rights" of China’s citizens in the country.

“The insular and nationalistic generals do not take orders from anyone, including Beijing,” said Robert Templer, International Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.

Regarding China-Burma relations, Templer warned: “By continuing to simply expect China to take the lead in solving the problem, a workable international approach to Myanmar [Burma] will remain elusive.”

The ICG also said that the West should emphasize to China the unsustainable nature of its current policies and continue to apply pressure in the Security Council and other fora.

The joke among Burmese dissidents is that Beijing has been left broken-hearted after seeing Washington’s move on Naypyidaw.

China definitely doesn’t want to be left out in the cold, but, simultaneously, it should feel some form of victory as it has for years pushed the US and its allies not to punish or isolate the Burmese regime.

Common ground between the US and China would appear to lie in their approach to the 2010 election in Burma.

“The Burmese election should not be dismissed at this time,” said Clinton in New York. “At the same time, we should continue discussions with the Burmese authorities to emphasize that the international community will only recognize the planned 2010 elections as a positive step to the extent that the Burmese authorities allow full participation by members of Burma's opposition and ethnic minority groups.”

To sum up, the US and China may both be repositioning and trying out new policies with Burma. And both will know that while they may not have suffered a defeat, they most certainly have had to make concessions.

The intransigent, stubborn, brutal regime in Naypyidaw, however, maintains its grip on power and does not need to make a concession to anyone.

Burma Newscasts - Engaging Naypyidaw
Friday, September 25, 2009

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Arrested Dissident Accused of Terrorist Intentions

The Irrawaddy News

The Burmese regime’s official newspaper The New Light of Myanmar accused arrested dissident Nyi Nyi Aung on Thursday of being a terrorist and planning to create unrest.

Nyi Nyi Aung (aka Kyaw Zaw Lwin) was arrested in early September after returning from exile in Thailand. A second Thailand-based dissident, Ko Htut, was also arrested after crossing separately into Burma.

Nyi Nyi Aung aka Kyaw Zaw Lwin

The New Light of Myanmar reported in detail on Thursday on Nyi Nyi Aung’s arrest. The report included photos of Nyi Nyi Aung, explosives and a satellite phone he was alleged to have used.

The report described underground activities allegedly undertaken by Nyi Nyi Aung and connections the paper said existed between dissidents inside and outside Burma.

The arrests of Nyi Nyi Aung and Ko Htut were followed by crackdowns on Burmese dissidents in Burma and Thailand.

Shortly after the two were taken into custody, 16 ethnic Arakan youths were arrested—seven in Rangoon and the others in Sittwe, capital of Arakan State. They were accused of maintaining links to the Thailand-based All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC).

Activists belonging to Generation Wave and Best Manure, members of the opposition National League for Democracy and several Buddhist monks were arrested in the crackdown.

In neighboring Thailand, the offices of several Burmese exile groups were raided by Thai police— including the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, where Ko Htut used to work.

In Chiang Mai, 10 Burmese women activists were arrested and held in custody for several days. Other dissident groups closed their offices, and several remain shut in the Thai-Burmese border towns of Mae Sot and Sangkhlaburi according to dissident sources.

Sources reported that staff of Burma’s Bangkok Embassy are photographing activists attending demonstrations and other functions in Thailand.

Win Min, a Chiang Mai-based Burmese analyst, said a Burmese military attaché in Bangkok is active in requesting Thai security officials to harass Burmese opposition groups in exile.

Burmese opposition groups last faced close Thai scrutiny during the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Many offices closed for several weeks, fearing official crackdowns.

Burma Newscasts - Arrested Dissident Accused of Terrorist Intentions
Thursday, September 24, 2009

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

At least 104 political prisoners released

(Mae Sot – Thailand) -The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) can confirm that so far 104 political prisoners have been released from 22 different prisons in Burma.

The 104 released include 37 members of the National League for Democracy, including 3 MPs; 18 women; 11 former political prisoners; 4 monks; 4 journalists; 9 members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network; 6 members of the 88 Generation Students; and 1 lawyer.

On the evening of September 17, 2009 in Rangoon, state-run MRTV carried a news bulletin announcing that 7,114 prisoners were to be released “on humanitarian grounds.”

The list of political prisoners released will be continually updated at our web site as AAPP receives more information. In alphabetical order:

1. Angaelay (Mandalay prison) - student
2. Aung Gyi (Insein prison) - student
3. Aung Gyi @ Aung Thwin (Shwebo prison) – journalist, former political prisoner, 88 Generation Students
4. Aung Ko Oo (Tharawaddy prison) - student
5. Aung Lwin (Thandwe prison)
6. Aung Myint (Myaungmya prison) - NLD member; Human Rights Defenders and Promoters member
7. Aung Myo (Shwebo prison) – NLD Township Organiser
8. Aung Naing (Insein prison) – NLD member
9. Aung Swe (Shwebo prison) - NLD member
10. Aung Tun (Tharawaddy prison) – student; member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions
11. Aye Min (a) Aye Min Min (Tharawaddy prison) – private tutor
12. Ba Chit (Tharawaddy prison) – Ex-captain in the army
13. Ba Min (Kale prison) – NLD member
14. Bo Bo (Myingyan prison)
15. Bo Gyi (Pegu prison)
16. Cho Mar Htwe, (Female) (Moulmein prison) – NLD member
17. Eimt Khaing Oo, Female (Insein prison) – journalist; Cyclone Nargis volunteer
18. Hlaing Aye (Kale prison) - NLD MP, Former Political Prisoner
19. Hla Shein, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
20. Htay Win (Thayet prison) – NLD Township Organizer
21. Khaing Kaung Zan, (Thayet prison) – Arakan League for Democracy in exile member
22. Khin Khin Lay (a) Khin Lay, (Female) (Pegu prison) – NLD member
23. Khin Maung Chit (Meiktila prison) - NLD Local Secretary
24. Khin Maung Thein (Shwebo prison) – NLD member
25. Khin Moe Aye (a) Moe Moe (Female), (Myingyan prison) – 88 Generation Students member; former political prisoner
26. Kyaw Kyaw Thant (Insein prison) – journalist; Cyclone Nargis volunteer
27. Kyaw Lwin, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
28. Kyaw Maung (Myitkyina prison) – NLD MP
29. Kyaw Thu Htike (Taunggyi prison)
30. Kyaw Win (Tharawaddy prison) – All Burma Students Democratic Front
31. Kyi Kyi Min, (Female) (Insein prison) – NLD member
32. Kyi Lin (Myintkyina prison) – NLD member
33. Ma Ei (female) (Paungde prison)
34. Ma Htay (a) San San Myint, (Female) (Insein prison)
35. Ma Mi Mi Swe (female) (Henzada prison)
36. Maung Maung Htwe (Shwebo prison)
37. Maw Si (Shwebo prison) – NLD Youth member
38. Mi Mi Sein, (Female) (Insein prison) – NLD Township Joint-Secretary
39. Michael Win Kyaw (Kale prison) – 88 Generation Students member; former political prisoner
40. Min Min (a) La Min Tun, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
41. Min Min Soe (Myingyan prison) – 88 Generation Students member
42. Moe Hlaing (Moulmein prison)
43. Moe Kyaw Thu (a) Bo Bo (Mandalay prison)
44. Moe Lwin (Moulmein prison) – individual activist
45. Monywar Aung Shin (a) U Aye Kyu (Insein prison) - Member of NLD and poet
46. Mya Sein, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
47. Myint Oo (a) Ni Ni (Mandalay prison) – NLD Township organizer; former political prisoner
48. Myint Oo (Thayet prison) – NLD Township Joint Secretary
49. Myo Min Lwin (Moulmein prison)
50. Myo Yan Naung Thein (Thandwe prison) – 88 Generation Students member, former political prisoner
51. Nay Win (Myintkyina prison) – NLD Township Organizer
52. Nine Nine (Insein prison) – NLD MP, Former Political Prisoner
53. Nu Nu Swe @ Pauk Pauk (female) (Myaungmya prison)
54. Nyi Nyi Min (Buthidaung prison) – NLD member
55. Nyo Mya (Kale prison) – NLD member
56. Pe Tin (Pegu prison) – NLD member
57. Pyae Phyo Aung (a) Hnan Mue (Pa-An prison)
58. San Pwint (Kale prison) – NLD member; teacher
59. San Ya (Tharawaddy prison) – NLD member
60. Sandar Min (a) Shwee, (Myaungmya prison) – 88 Generation Students, Former Political Prisoner
61. Sandar, (Female) (Myingyan prison) – NLD member
62. Saw Myo Min Hlaing @ James (Thaton prison) - Private Tutor
63. Saw Taw Kyi (Thayet prison) – Karen National Union member
64. Shin Sandaw Batha, Monk (Insein prison) – All Burma Monks’ Alliance
65. Shwe Thar (a) Tin Win (Tharawaddy prison) – Karen National Union member
66. Soe Han (Lashio prison) – lawyer; Chair of the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) legal advisory body
67. Soe Wai (a) Than Zaw (Myitkyina prison)
68. Than Min (a) Tin Tun Aung, (Taungoo prison) – NLD member
69. Than Than Htay, (Female) (Insein prison) – student
70. Than Than Sint, (Female) (Insein prison)
71. Than Tun (Shwebo prison)
72. Than Zaw Oo (Tharawaddy prison) – NLD member
73. Thar Cho, (Thayet prison) – NLD Township Organizer
74. Thein Zaw (Tharawaddy prison)
75. Thet Oo (Taungoo prison) – Human Rights Defenders and Promoters member
76. Thet Zin (a) Maung Zin (Kale prison) – journalist; former political prisoner; member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions and the Democratic Party for a New Society
77. Thin Min Soe, (Female) (Insein prison) – labour activist
78. Thura Win @ Thura Lin (Buthidaung) – Student
79. Tin Mar Swe (female) (Mandalay prison)
80. Tin Maung Nyunt (Shwebo prison) – NLD Township Organiser
81. Tin Mya (Insein prison) - National League for Democracy Township chairperson, Former Political Prisoner
82. Tin Myint (Insein prison) – NLD member
83. Tin Myint (Tharawaddy prison)
84. Tin Myo Htut (a) Kyaw Oo (Insein prison) – Generation Wave; former political prisoner
85. Tin Tin Myint, (Female) (Insein prison) – third year chemistry student
86. Tin Tun (a) Kyaw Swa (Tharawaddy prison) – UN Development Program staff (New Era journal distributor)
87. Tun Hla (Tharawaddy prison)
88. Tun Oo (a) Ngar Kalar (Taungoo prison)
89. Tun Tun Nyein, (Thayet prison) – NLD Youth member
90. Tun Tun Oo (a) Nanda Malar (Taungoo prison) – monk
91. Tun Tun Oo (Thandwe prison)
92. U Han Sein (Tharawaddy prison) – NLD member
93. U Myint, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
94. U Pannita (a) Myint Aye (Taungoo prison) – monk; Human Rights Defenders and Promoters member
95. U Peter (Loikaw prison)
96. U Win, (Hinzada prison) , Human Rights Defenders and Promoters
97. U Zawana (a) Soe Myint (Taungoo prison) - monk
98. Win Myint (Insein prison)
99. Wunna Soe (Pa-An prison) – Democratic Party for a New Society member
100. Yan Aung Shwe (Thayet prison) – All Burma Students Democratic Front member
101. Yan Naing Min (a) Nan Wai (Mandalay prison) – student
102. Zaw Htet Aung (Kale prison) - student
103. Zaw Tun (Taungoo prison)
104. Zin Mar Aung (female) (Mandalay prison) – student; NLD member


For media interviews please contact:

Tate Naing, AAPP Secretary +66(0)89-899-7161
Bo Kyi, AAPP Joint-Secretary +66(0)81-324-8935
19 September 2009 18:45 Thailand Standard Time

Burma Newscasts - At least 104 political prisoners released
as at 19 September 2009

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Don’t Let the Junta off the Hook

The Irrawaddy News - Editorial

On the eve of the 21st anniversary of the bloody coup that crushed the 1988 student-led pro-democracy uprising, Burma’s junta announced plans to free 7,114 prisoners. MRTV, the state-owned television station, announced on Thursday night that the prisoners were being released on “humanitarian grounds.”

Previous mass releases have mostly involved petty criminals, with just a handful of political detainees among those freed. No details were provided about the identities of the prisoners included in this latest amnesty, so it is difficult to even confirm if the regime has actually released the number of prisoners it said it would. But according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 87 political prisoners have so far been set free, while other sources estimate that the total could reach as high as 250.

This is good news for the prisoners and their families, and we should welcome it. However, we should also note that this apparent act of magnanimity comes as Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein prepares to travel to New York to attend this year’s United Nations General Assembly. Indeed, it has been widely expected for several months. In July, Burma’s ambassador to the UN, Than Swe, promised the Security Council that his government would grant an amnesty to an undisclosed number of political prisoners to allow them to participate in democratic elections scheduled for 2010.

Thein Sein will be the highest-ranking Burmese official to attend a UN meeting in over a decade, so it should come as no surprise that the regime decided to do something to deflect criticism of its abysmal human rights record ahead of his visit. Releasing some of the country’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners was an obvious course of action, as there are growing concerns over the dramatic increase in the number of activists detained since the monk-led Saffron Revolution was crushed almost exactly two years ago. Human rights watchdogs estimate that the political prisoner population has doubled since late 2007, when Burma witnessed its largest anti-regime protests in nearly two decades.

Conspicuously absent from the list of those released so far are the names of some of Burma’s most prominent activists. Far from considering leniency towards these prisoners, the regime appears to be intent on making their lives as miserable as possible. U Gambira, one of the leaders of the All Burma Monks Alliance, the group that spearheaded the 2007 uprising, has been moved to a remote prison, making it harder for his family to visit him. Other prisoners, including Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, activist-comedian Zarganar, labor activist Su Su Nway and 88 Generation Students group leader Min Ko Naing, are also suffering from physical and mental health problems due to their mistreatment, according to AAPP.

Political prisoners have always been treated like pawns in the junta’s political game. The regime continues to insist that there are no political prisoners in any of the country’s 43 prisons and more than 50 labor camps, but the fact is that the generals do not hesitate to imprison anyone who speaks out openly against their brutal misrule. Even as the junta makes a show of releasing some prisoners, it continues to round up new ones, including several democracy activists and monks who were arrested just last week.

With this in mind, the international community must continue to confront the regime and demand the release of all political prisoners in Burma, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Until this happens, and until all activists are allowed to participate freely in the country’s political process, we can only assume that the generals’ occasional release of political prisoners is just part of a cynical game.

Burma Newscasts - Don’t Let the Junta off the Hook
Saturday, September 19, 2009

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