Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Asean Charter: A Human Rights Whitewash?

Burmese Rep going against the grain with Asean - Dec 2008

The Irrawaddy News

The new Asean charter will do little to improve the regional grouping’s human rights reputation as long as Burma continues to dictate the agenda

ONE Caring and Sharing Community”—that is how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), in its newly launched charter, envisions itself some four decades after its creation on August 8, 1967.

This is probably a far cry from the self-image that the leaders of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines—the bloc’s five original members—had in mind when they first joined forces during one of the most incendiary periods of the Cold War era.

At the time, the governments running these countries were more interested in preventing the spread of communism, bolstering nationalist sentiment and building up their economies than in showing their citizens how much they cared.

Much has happened since then. The original members of the bloc have witnessed the end of a war that consumed Indochina and left a tragic legacy in Cambodia; been through a period of breakneck economic growth (followed by a traumatic collapse and painstaking recovery); and evolved, albeit erratically, toward somewhat more accountable forms of governance.

But perhaps the most significant development has been Asean’s expansion to include Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. It now covers an area roughly half the size of China, with a population to match.

On the surface, all of this bodes well for the grouping’s future. But Asean’s drive to encompass virtually all of Southeast Asia has come at a price, as the newer members, especially those that joined after 1997 (Brunei became a member in 1984 and Vietnam in 1995), are significantly less developed, both economically and politically.

With the introduction of the new charter, however, Asean hopes to accelerate its integration by putting it on a similar legal footing to the European Union, making it, in the words of the association’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, “more rules-based and more people-oriented.”

But Asean’s reluctance to act on its own rules may be the greatest obstacle to realizing its long-term goal of establishing an EU-style union. Critics charge that the bloc’s longstanding policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states—enshrined in the charter alongside “the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, [and] respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms”—will continue to serve as an excuse to do nothing, even in the face of blatant violations.

Underlining Asean’s lack of will in enforcing acceptable norms of behavior among its members was its failure to respond effectively to egregious abuses perpetrated by Burma in late 2007, at the very moment Asean was preparing to make a binding commitment to transform itself from a regional assemblage of ruling elites into a “people-oriented” community.

The charter officially came into effect last year on December 15, but was ratified at the 13th Asean Summit in Singapore on November 20, 2007—less than two months after Burma’s military regime moved to crush the largest popular protests against its rule in nearly two decades.

At the time of the junta’s crackdown on massive monk-led demonstrations, Asean broke with its customary reticence about the affairs of its members to express “revulsion” at the bloodshed. In an official statement, nine of the bloc’s 10 foreign ministers said they were “appalled to receive reports of automatic weapons being used” on crowds, causing hundreds of casualties.

Much of this consternation undoubtedly stemmed from the likely consequences for Asean’s efforts to raise its standing in the international community. Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo, speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York at the time of the crackdown, put it bluntly: “Our credibility is at stake; our collective reputation has been besmirched. Unless we put things right, and set Myanmar [Burma] to a new course, we will all be affected and dragged down with Myanmar.”

This sudden recognition of collective responsibility was short-lived, however. Ahead of the Singapore summit in November, Burma—backed by Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos—succeeded in blocking the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, from delivering a briefing on the country’s situation to a gathering of Asean and other Asian leaders.

Ironically, Asean’s eagerness to introduce its historic charter may have helped to lift the Burmese regime out of the hot seat. Instead, it found itself in the driver’s seat, controlling not only Burma’s restive population, but also a group of regional leaders determined to savor their moment of self-congratulation.

In subsequent months, there was little to suggest that Asean was prepared to become more serious about tackling human rights abuses in Burma and elsewhere in the region.

Then, in May 2008, the grouping saw an opportunity to redeem itself by taking a leading role in the humanitarian effort in the Irrawaddy delta, which had been hit by
Cyclone Nargis, the most devastating natural disaster in the country’s history.

By forming the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), a relief-coordinating body that also includes United Nations agencies and the Burmese regime, Asean sought to demonstrate that it was capable not only of playing a responsible role in a major crisis, but also of bringing the junta into the international fold.

On July 21, the same day that Burma officially endorsed the charter, the TCG released the Post Nargis Joint Assessment (PONJA) report to provide prospective donors with a credible evaluation of the humanitarian needs in the delta. In keeping with the TCG’s policy of depoliticizing the relief effort, the PONJA report made no reference to the Burmese regime’s highly controversial initial response to the disaster, which delayed a full-scale aid operation by several weeks. Instead, it highlighted the junta’s status as an equal partner in international efforts to assist survivors of Cyclone Nargis.

Any expectation that the regime’s newfound respectability would lead to an improvement of its human rights record was soon dashed, however. In the weeks and months leading up to the enactment of the Asean charter, the junta resumed its unfinished business from the previous year, sentencing scores of pro-democracy and free-speech activists to lengthy prison sentences for their part in the 2007 protests. This time, Asean opted to remain silent about the crackdown.

In December, a breakdown in the rule of the law paralyzed Thailand and became an obstacle to Asean’s desire to present itself as an organization that has come of age. The postponement of the 14th annual Asean Summit due to the political unrest in Thailand, however, was just a minor stumble for a grouping that has yet to find an effective way of dealing with Burmese intransigence on human rights issues.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Asean charter is its inclusion of an article calling for the creation of a commission responsible for “the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” which critics say is doomed to irrelevance because it will have no powers of enforcement. Unless Asean is able to make this human rights commission work effectively, there is a danger that the charter will merely end up institutionalizing the association’s past failures.

READ MORE---> The Asean Charter: A Human Rights Whitewash?...


The Irrawaddy News

Intimidation, arrests and draconian prison sentences reached new heights in a media crackdown in Burma last year

JOURNALISTS in Burma faced Orwellian-type scrutiny and were subjected to imprisonment and intimidation throughout 2008, while exiled Burmese media groups were also attacked—via their computers.

2008 should have been a year when Burma’s reporters reached a worldwide audience. The country was constantly in the global spotlight: hundreds of political activists from September 2007’s monk-led demonstrations were imprisoned; the Irrawaddy delta was devastated by a killer cyclone; and a junta-sponsored constitutional referendum was pushed through.

Yet except for the state-run mouthpieces, Burma’s newspapers, journals and magazines were muzzled, and their reporters faced harassment by thugs employed by the Burmese authorities.

At least 10 journalists in Burma were detained last year. One received a prison sentence of 19 years.

Fortunately, there were no reports of Burmese journalists killed. Nevertheless, international media watchdog Reporters without Borders included Burma in its overview of persecution of journalists in the same breath as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

2008 was a year in which the officials of Burma’s notorious censorship bureau, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, found themselves poring over pages of print with magnifying glasses and mirrors, looking for hidden anti-regime messages within the texts.

The measures followed a case in February when a poet, Saw Wai, published a poem in the weekly Love Journal which contained a subtle message mocking regime chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Saw Wai was convicted and sentenced to two years.

Other bureaucrats scanned the Internet, moving to plug the flow of information.

The editor of a weekly journal in Rangoon who asked to remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy that the degree of censorship in Burma had increased from previous years.

Routinely, many articles submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division by Burmese publications in 2008 were rejected, he said.

“Reporters in Burma have to be careful about every single word they write and speak,” he said, adding that they could be fired if the authorities didn’t approve of their language or found the material too sensitive.

He said editors and publishers in Burma often send expensive gifts to the heads of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division in the hope of getting favorable treatment and speedy approval of each issue.

“Every editor here, at one time or another, has been reprimanded by the censorship board,” he said.

In August, Saw Myint Than, chief reporter for the Rangoon-based weekly Flower News, was summoned by police and rebuked for a story he and another reporter had written about the murder of a couple in Rangoon. Burmese authorities do not approve of crime reporting.

In another case, a journalist at 7 Day News Journal was reprimanded by the censorship board after writing a story about the murder of five people in a house near the residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was sternly reminded that Suu Kyi’s name cannot be mentioned in the media—unless of course the article seeks to slander the democracy icon.

In spite of the risks and threats, an average salary for a reporter is only 35,000 to 70,000 kyat (US $30—$60) per month. Editors generally make about 80,000 kyat ($70), and a chief editor can take home 200,000 to 300,000 kyat ($170—$260) monthly.

“For a journalist in Burma, possessing a mobile phone or a laptop is like a dream,” said one reporter, adding that many journalists’ expenses often exceed their wages.

Publishers are also feeling the pinch. More than 30 local and national journals and magazines were unable to pay their license fees last year and were forced to close down.

2008 saw an intense campaign by the junta to target citizen journalists, bloggers and Internet users.

In November, well-known blogger Nay Phone Latt, 28, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on a multitude of trumped-up charges. Sources indicated the real reason behind the harsh sentence was a cartoon of Than Shwe, which appeared in one of Nay Phone Latt’s e-mails.

Giving interviews to exiled media publications and radio stations is also a risky affair.

Burma’s best-known comedian, Zarganar, who had his own blog, was sentenced to 59 years imprisonment after helping cyclone survivors in the Irrawaddy delta. Shortly before his arrest, he gave interviews to The Irrawaddy and radio stations overseas detailing conditions in the delta.

Meanwhile, exiled media in Thailand and India faced cyber attacks and difficulties communicating with sources in Burma.

In September 2008, several Web sites run by Burmese media groups in exile—The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, the Democratic Voice of Burma and Khitpyaing—came under repeated cyber attacks.

Three of the agencies were bombarded by so-called “distributed denial-of-service” (DDoS) attacks, which overloads Web sites with an unmanageable volume of traffic. The Irrawaddy site was forced to shut down for a few days during the attacks.

The assistant editor of New Delhi-based Mizzima, Mungpi, said his agency’s Web site was hacked four times in 2008, at least once by a group calling itself “Independence Hackers from Burma.”

He said his reporters also missed deadlines and had to drop stories because they could not get confirmation from sources inside Burma due to poor Internet and telephone connections.

The editor of Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), Khuensai Jaiyen, said that apart from communication, funding was a major headache.

Almost all exiled publications are non-profit and depend heavily on funding, which has to be renewed annually. As funding is scarce, many groups say that they cannot plan ahead.

Verification and the inability to travel and report inside Burma also present practical challenges. At the same time, exiled Burmese reporters often work abroad illegally.

Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), said that the lack of cooperation from Burmese authorities remains a major obstacle for media groups.

He said that many Burmese government officials hang up the phone as soon as reporters identify themselves as working for DVB.

Nine DVB reporters inside Burma were arrested in recent years. Six were given long-term jail sentences and the other three are currently awaiting trial.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of The Irrawaddy, said the foremost problem for journalists in Burma is that the military regime forces journalists to impose self-censorship.

“Reporters in Burma have to be careful about every single word they write and speak.”

“I doubt that this dreadful situation will change as long as the junta rules the country,” he said.

Ethnic media groups in exile face even more obstacles.

Nai Kasauh Mon, chief editor of Independent Mon News Agency (IMNA), said that financial support and capacity-building for his reporters are major challenges, not to mention the physical threats.

The New Mon State Party and the Burmese army are camped out at the Thai-Burmese border, and some IMNA reporters have regularly been threatened by unknown assailants while covering sensitive issues.

Many ethnic and Burman journalists who live close to armed groups along the border dare not report the ongoing conflicts accurately for fear of retribution.

The editor of the Karen Information Centre, Nan Paw Gay, said that on top of the financial difficulties and threats, they are constantly losing staff due to a UN resettlement program that is sending thousands of ethnic refugees to third countries.

However, in spite of the challenges that media gropus inside and outside Burma face, they continue to tackle the issues and inform the public, playing a key role as watchdog.

“We will continue doing what we have to do,” said Aye Chan Naing. “The regime can no longer block the flow of information about what is happening in Burma. Communication is too sophisticated nowadays.”

The head of Washington-based Voice of America’s Burmese Service, Than Lwin Htun, said: “There will be no press freedom in the country as long as the rulers view the media as their enemy.

“The media is the eyes and ears of the people,” he said.

Additional reporting by Irrawaddy staff members inside and outside Burma.

READ MORE---> Suppressed...

The Battle’s Not Over

The Irrawaddy News

Scarred and disillusioned—A Burmese Army vet continues to fight on a different front

IN June 2008, 46-year-old Myo Myint walked through the gates of Umpiem refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border, travelled to Bangkok airport and boarded an aircraft for the first time in his life, for a journey of 19,000 km (12,000 miles) to the United States. Many hours later, on a humid Indiana evening, he embraced a brother he hadn’t seen in almost 20 years.

The emotional reunion marked the end of one chapter in an extraordinary life and the beginning of a new one. For Myo Myint is no ordinary refugee.

As a young man, he joined the Burmese army, witnessing appalling atrocities and losing an arm and a leg in battle. In 1988, he became an activist, appealing to his former comrades to join hands with those calling for peaceful democratic change. He was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for 15 years for his participation in the popular uprising.

Myo Myint came from a military family. His father was a soldier and the young boy, like so many others, looked up to men in uniform. They looked smart and commanded respect. “Back then, I didn’t know the difference between people showing respect and people acting out of fear,” he said.

Myo Myint enlisted and after training in Maymyo, he was sent north to join frontline units in a large offensive against Communist insurgents. There, amid the din of battle, he witnessed the reality of army life in Burma.

He saw comrades die around him or fall with hideous wounds. “I began to think I should never have joined,” he said.

He saw his own unit force villagers at gunpoint to act as human mine-sweepers and saw many of them blown to pieces. He stood by as his comrades carried out summary executions, raped local women and tortured civilians.

“I feel guilty, as though I was responsible for these things,” Myo Myint said. “But I never committed any atrocities.”

In one battle, a shell exploded next to him as he made his way through a minefield, tearing off one of his arms and a leg.

No longer of use to the army, 25-year-old Myo Myint was discharged with a small pension.

He opened a bookshop and became interested in world literature, reading Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and biographies—including the life of one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

He also thirsted to understand Burma’s history and its conflicts.

In the tumultuous days of 1988, after attending Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech at Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, he joined her party, the newly formed National League for Democracy, and met her on several occasions.

Supported by crutches, he stood on a podium outside Rangoon’s Mingladon military base in Rangoon and addressed a crowd of several thousand anti-government protesters about the horrors of the civil war. Armed soldiers were also present and he aimed much of what he said directly at them.

“I’d been thinking that it is one thing for an ordinary civilian to talk to a soldier, but as a former soldier, disabled, if I spoke it would have greater effect,” he recalled.

“I was very scared to talk,” Myo Myin confessed. “If the soldiers started firing, I would be the first one to be shot.”

Instead of opening fire, about 100 soldiers joined the protestors and more followed in the days after. “The people were happy to have soldiers join them. Most were
demonstrating in uniform.”

The heady optimism of those days was to be short-lived, however. Gen Ne Win mustered his forces and sent them in to break up the demonstrations.

Myo Myint escaped the massacre but was tracked down by the authorities. He was interrogated and tortured for days on end, accused of being a traitor to his country.

“Why are you, a former soldier, turning people against the army?” yelled his accusers.
They took away his crutches and forced him to stand for long periods of time on his one leg, with no other support.

“They swore at me, kicking me, hitting me in the face, shouting, ‘You were a soldier. Why are you so ungrateful to the army? Why have you betrayed the army?’”

While Myo Myint was in prison, his brother, Ye Naing, fled to the Thai border and joined the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), whose members were remnants of the student movement that had spearheaded the 1988 uprising. They were armed and supported by ethnic Karen and Mon insurgents.

There, on Burma’s eastern frontier, Ye Naing learned to fight the very army his brother and father had once served. After years in the jungle, he left for the US, where he and his wife now work in a factory outside Fort Wayne, Indiana.

After serving 15 years in Burmese prisons, Myo Myint was released and also made for the Burmese-Thai border. He crossed to Thailand and worked for a while with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners—Burma.

He later entered the Umpiem refugee camp, which shelters 19,000 refugees who have fled the scorched earth policies of the Burmese military, and from there he was resettled in the US.

“To be honest, I don’t want to go to America,” Myo Myint said as he packed his belongings in the camp and prepared to say farewell to friends and comrades in the democracy movement, many of whom had shared the hardships of Burmese prison life with him.

“It’s only because my brother and sister are there and my mother told me to go that I’m leaving.”

Myo Myint’s sister, also a former NLD member and wife of a former political prisoner, settled in the US several years ago. She has just given birth to her first child.

“I’d rather stay and continue working in politics here,” Myo Myint said—but he knew there was no future in a refugee camp in Thailand. “I know that America has given a lot of support to the people of Burma. I hope to continue the struggle from there.”

A reunion with his brother and sister “could be the happiest moment of my life,” he said on the eve of his departure.

The reunion took place on June 24, 2008. Weeks later, in August, he and his brother and sister travelled to New York to join anti-regime protesters commemorating the 1988 uprising.

It was the first time the two brothers had been on a demonstration together since the Rangoon uprising 20 years previously. This time, however, they had no fear of arrest or of being shot.

READ MORE---> The Battle’s Not Over...

Burma and Obama

The Irrawaddy News

Washington remains the Burmese people’s best hope for reliable support in their struggle for democracy

AS Barack Obama assumes the heavy duties of the US presidency, the oppressed Burmese people who have seen little political progress in their crisis-racked country are looking to him to see how his Burma policy differs from his predecessor’s.

Although thousands of miles separate Burma and the US, the Burmese people still look to Washington—rather than the capitals of China, India, Russia or any of the EU or
Asean member countries—to provide reliable political support for democratic change.

The question remains, however: will US policy toward Burma under Obama’s administration be low on megaphone diplomacy and heavy on demanding results? More importantly, how will the new administration’s policy differ from the Bush policies that won the appreciation of Burmese inside and outside the borders of Burma?

Obama is no stranger to the Burma issue. When detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her 63rd birthday last year, Obama—a senator at that time—said the occasion offered “an opportunity to remind the world community of the continuing tragedy in her country and the responsibility we have to press for change there.”

Fine words, but the truth is that Burma’s plight won’t figure among Obama’s top priorities. His attention will be mostly occupied by a worsening domestic economic crisis, while foreign policy concerns like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, Darfur and Zimbabwe will undoubtedly push Burma onto the back burner.

Aung Din, director of the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma, said that although Obama would be “occupied with many pressing issues … we will continue to work with the Congress to remind him of the situation of the people of Burma.”

On the positive side, Aung Din noted: “We still enjoy strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and House. I believe the Congress will help us to put Burma on Obama’s foreign policy priority list sooner or later.”

It’s felt that the Obama team has inherited a lot from the Bush administration stand on Burma, and activists have reason to be hopeful that the Burma issue will attract serious attention.

Burma also commands continuing attention in the US press, and one influential newspaper, The Washington Post, carried several editorials on Burma after Obama won the race for the White House.

“Like South Africans, Burmese will remember who sided with her during their years of oppression and who sided with the oppressor,” the newspaper said. “And as the world watched and measured America’s shifting stance on apartheid, so it will measure the next administration’s commitment to democracy in Burma and beyond.”

In December, former Secretary of State Madeleine K Albright, chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), presented the institute’s human rights awards to a staunch supporter of the Burma cause, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and to the Women’s League of Burma.

Albright visited Burma in 1995, when she was US ambassador to the UN and met Suu Kyi at the opposition leader’s home in Rangoon, a year after US congressman Bill Richardson had visited Suu Kyi.

Burmese activists recall that it was Bill Clinton who first imposed investment sanctions on the Burmese regime in 1997. He also presented a presidential award to Suu Kyi.

The Burmese have influential friends in the US Congress, and they won’t forget the engagement shown by Bush and first lady Laura Bush during their time in the White House.

Said Aung Din: “Even in the last days of his administration, President Bush and the first lady have put Burma in the international spotlight again and again and set up a precedent for the next administration. We owe them a lot.”

Although preoccupied by his “war on terror” and under heavy criticism at home and abroad for his foreign policies, particularly his invasion of Iraq, Bush nonetheless won the admiration of most Burmese for his firm stance on the repressive regime.

Bush has often been faulted for his tendency to see complex issues in black and white.
But while many condemn him for trying to impose his political perspective on Iraq, few can argue that in the case of Burma, he has taken a genuinely principled stand that is perfectly consistent with reality. Even some anti-Bush critics admitted, albeit uncomfortably, that Bush and his wife Laura were doing something good on Burma.

Bush had a meeting at the White House in 2005 with Shan human rights activist Charm Tong. Laura Bush frequently met Burmese activists in Washington and New York, talked passionately on the subject of Burma whenever she had a chance and strongly pushed the Burma agenda at the White House.

When the regime crushed protests in 2007, she called UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the situation—a rare approach by a US first lady. She even addressed a challenge to regime leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe to step down. Though no longer the first lady, Laura Bush isn’t quitting, and she’s expected to continue working on the Burma issue.

In 2008, Bush and his wife traveled to Thailand, where Bush met prominent exiled Burmese, and Laura Bush visited the Burmese border, where she met refugees and humanitarian workers. The couple recently met a monk and a blogger from Burma.

Min Zin, a US-based Burmese academic and a contributor to The Irrawaddy, agreed that the Burmese people are indeed fortunate to have the support of both Bush and his wife, who has been a real driving force in keeping Burma at the top of the political agenda.

“It was very much like a personal issue,” he said. The only mistake the Bush administration had made, he said, was to push the Burma issue on to the agenda of the UN Security Council, where a US-initiated resolution was vetoed by China and Russia.
Moves to bring the Burma issue before the Security Council “should be maintained only as a threat,” Min Zin said.

Some Bush critics thought his disastrous Iraq venture had led a number of policy makers in the West working on the Burma issue to oppose US policy on Burma because they were concerned about his foreign policy agenda and growing anti-Americanism.

Burmese within Burma and in exile felt comfortable with the Republican administration, however, because they knew its Burma policy would be tough. With the arrival of Obama in the White House, they may have reservations, although some observers in Washington say they shouldn’t be too concerned.

Obama’s vice-president, Joseph R Biden, is no stranger to the Burma issue. While chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he played a prominent role in shaping US policy on Burma.

Biden spearheaded the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (the Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act 2008, which was signed into law by President Bush on July 29, 2008. The bill renews an act of 2007 restricting the import of gems from Burma and tightening sanctions on mining projects.

Biden said in presenting the bill that it was a “tribute to my dear friend Tom Lantos who worked tirelessly on behalf of human rights for the people of Burma.”

Biden added: “We must continue Tom’s work. Working together with the international community, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the EU, India and China, I look forward to the day when a democratic, peaceful Burma will be fully integrated into the community of nations.”

The Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act marks the outline of a strong US policy on Burma. The act has three aims: to impose new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the leaders of the junta and their associates; to tighten the economic sanctions imposed in 2003 by outlawing the importation of Burmese gems to the US; and to create a new position of special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.

Michael Green, who formerly served on the National Security Council and is currently an associate professor at Georgetown University, was nominated for the post, but the changeover at the White House has put his confirmation on hold.

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.

While Burmese dissidents want Obama to maintain a tough Burma policy, they may want to see some tactical changes and a better strategy.

The prominent Burmese opposition leader Win Tin, in congratulating Obama on his election victory, urged the US to adopt a multilateral approach toward Burma. “We want the US to work with the international community and the United Nations,” he said.
Win Tin, who spent 19 years in a regime prison, warned the US not to compromise with the junta. More effective sanctions and proactive pressure from the international community were necessary for the advancement of the pro-democracy struggle within Burma, he said.

Win Tin appears to have no cause for concern about the steadfastness of US policy on Burma. Ahead of the US presidential campaign, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said in its October analysis that
Obama would continue to support sanctions against Burma.

The analysis said: “While the dynamics of change ultimately must come from within the country, Obama will work toward achieving a coordinated international approach that includes the nations of Asean, China, India, Japan and European countries to help contribute to the process of reform and reconciliation in Burma.”

Frank Jannuzi, a senior Asia adviser to the Obama campaign, said the Burma question should not prevent a deeper US engagement with Asean. “Rather, the United States should work with Asean to ensure that Burma lives up to its obligation as an Asean member,” he said.

Burma scholar David Steinberg believes the Obama administration won’t change the US sanctions policy without some strong indication of conciliation from the regime. Nevertheless, he expects the new administration “will be more willing to have discussions with the junta.”

There is no doubt that the generals want to forge a normal relationship with the world’s superpower. A decade ago, they even hired lobbying firms in Washington to approach State Department and White House officials in the hopes of improving ties. They abandoned these efforts after failing to make headway with the Clinton and Bush administrations.

When Obama won the election, Burma’s state-run media formally congratulated Obama and Than Shwe sent a congratulatory message.

According to some recent unconfirmed reports, a number of former Burmese ambassadors traveled to Western countries, including the US, on what are thought to have been missions to sound out the incoming administration’s Burma policy. It’s premature to imagine an informal dialogue between the Obama administration and the regime, but such a development can’t be ruled out.

In 2007, a meeting took place in Beijing between Eric John, then Washington’s deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Burmese government ministers.

The meeting came at the request of the military junta and was marked by what was described as a frank and free exchange of opinions on both sides. Burmese officials had wanted the meeting to be held in Burma, but US officials declined because they were told they could not talk to Suu Kyi.

Although the substance of the talks between the US and Burmese sides was not disclosed, topics clearly included the continuing detention of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, US sanctions and the political situation in Burma in general. US officials at the meeting recalled that as soon as they mentioned Suu Kyi’s name the faces of Burmese ministers suddenly changed as if they had seen a ghost.

Further US-Burma talks are not ruled out, although it’s unlikely they would be held in Burma unless access is granted to Suu Kyi.

According to Steinberg: “Unless there are changes, any direct talks would probably take place outside Burma, because it would seem doubtful that an American official would be allowed by the US administration to go to that country and not see Aung San Suu Kyi, which—assuming Gen Than Shwe is still in command—seems unlikely.”

Steinberg did not expect any dramatic changes on Burma under Obama but added: “I think that in many circles in Washington there is an increased realization that the military will be part of the solution or amelioration of Burma’s problems, and that simply asking them to return to the barracks, which was once US policy, is no longer possible or feasible, if it ever were.

“Overall, there seems to be less change and more of the same, to the continued suffering of the Burmese people.”

Min Zin’s concern is whether the new administration’s policy on Burma will focus more on finding consensus than the “do-it-alone” policy adopted by Bush.

The downside of departing from the Bush approach will be more compromise and accommodation with the other international players on the Burma issue, Min Zin said. In this sense, he thought that the goal of achieving a tangible result in Burma would be compromised.

In an interview with the US TV network ABC in December, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—who famously identified Burma as one of the world’s “outposts of tyranny”—said she regretted that the international community had let the Burmese people down.

Her honest confession is welcome—but the Burmese people don’t want to be let down again.

READ MORE---> Burma and Obama...

Kachin state, waiting for an ecological disaster

By Shyamal Sarkar

Kachin State in northern Burma is sitting on a powder keg of an ecological disaster. From impending dam related devastation to the rape of the environment in terms of incalculable damage to the flora and fauna has rendered the state extremely vulnerable. Rampant felling of trees and the wanton killing of myriad wildlife for filthy lucre for export to China has led to a serious situation which is far from being addressed.

Anti-Myitsone, Irrawaddy River dam poster was pasted in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Burma in November, 2007.

For instance a series of earth quakes in China's southwest Yunnan province, bordering Burma has thrown up the spectre of future Chinese-made dam disasters in northern Burma. There was an earthquake of 4.9 magnitude on the Richter scale in Ruili (Shweli) on the China-Burma border last week. China's Yunnan province and Kachin state in northern Burma sit on the same earth quake fault line.

China and Burma are into construction of three dams for hydropower projects in Taping River (also called Dapain River in China) in Kachin state. The Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) based on the Sino-Burma border nurses fears that if the three dams on Taping River should burst due to earth quakes originating from Yunnan province, the floods will threaten the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in Myothit, Momauk (N'Mawk) and Bhamo (Manmaw).

The Burma-Asia World Company and China's China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) are jointly gearing up to construct dams in Myitsone, the Mali-N'Mai River confluence, 10 miles north of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state and Chibwe in N'Mai River. There will be a total of seven dam projects in Mali and N'Mai Rivers in Kachin state leading to not only displacement of people but raising the chances of disasters and severe damage to the environment.

Natural disasters man made or otherwise apart, the ecology of Kachin state is being systematically destroyed due to rampant logging where trees by the thousands are being felled.

Rampant logging is one of biggest enemies of Kachin state and big money comes into play in the timber business which is denuding the forest cover of the state and ruining the ecology. In order to allow felling of trees bribes are paid on a monthly basis. Everyone from the Burmese Army to the police and government officials have their palms greased by Chinese timber businessmen in Kachin state.

Body parts of different wild animals in Kachin state are mainly sold in the markets on China-Burma border.

Chinese loggers and log trucks in hordes from China's northwest Yunnan province arrived in the forests in Bhamo District in Kachin state in early November. At the last count there were 300 Chinese trucks and about 1,000 Chinese loggers. Hardwood and softwood is being felled non-stop and transported to the Sino-Burma border day and night. The lucrative trade that the Chinese are into is spelling the death knell of Kachin state's forest cover.

The heavy logging underway is a direct fall out of a deal struck between the Northern Command commander Maj-Gen Soe Win and local Chinese-Burmese timber businessman Lee Maw Yung. Bhamo District Military Strategic Command commander Lt-Col. Khin Maung Maung and Northern Command commander Maj-Gen Soe Win are said to receive the largest slice of bribes from Chinese timber businessmen. Even loss of life means nothing when it comes to timber trade for on December 15, a villager of Kone Ting in Mansi Township also called Manje in Kachin was shot dead in a dispute over logging between the Kone Ting villagers and timber-logger-thieves close to Chinese loggers.

Commander Maj-Gen Soe Win granted permission to export timber to China through the border checkpoints controlled by the two Kachin ceasefire groups--- Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) and Lasang Awng Wa Ceasefire Group (LAWCG) in September after he was appointed as the new commander of Northern Command in June.

While China officially stopped importing timber from northern Burma in late 2005 Chinese timber businessmen had never really stopped timber felling. Now China has resumed importing timber from Kachin state as of early December 2008.

As if denudation of forest cover was not enough, in northern Burma there is a raging trade in elephant body parts. The pachyderms are being killed for its ivory and skin for over a decade by local people. The shocking trade continues unhindered with prices in Kachin state for a set of tusks weighing between one to two Viss at 500,000 Kyat (US $ 397) to 600,000 Kyat (US $ 476). It is over 1.5 million Kyat for a set of tusks weighing over 10 Viss (1Viss = 1.6 Kilograms in Burmese measurement in terms of weight). Again one Viss of dry elephant skin is valued at over 40,000 Kyat (US $32). An elephant has at least over 100 Viss of skin so hunters earn over 4 million Kyat just from the skin. Ivory is mainly exported to Thailand and some to China but elephant skin mainly goes to China for traditional treatment. Here again bribes are offered in abundance to regime functionaries. There are only about 1,000 wild elephants where as the figure in 1994 was over 3,000 in Kachin state.

Chinese log trucks on the China-Burma border in northern Burma.

It would seem that conservation of wild life is an alien concept in Burma. Less than a month ago 2,000 snakes being transported in a truck were seized by special branch policemen in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state.

The reptiles were being exported to China where demand for all varieties of wild animals as food items is high. The snakes were in hundreds of wooden boxes. While some of the reptiles had died the rest were killed by the police and fire brigade personnel. They beat and set the reptiles, which included vipers, cobras and Boa Constrictors on fire without batting an eyelid.

China imports all kinds of wild animals from Kachin state. Leopards and tigers face the danger of extinction. The Chinese import the animals for its flesh, skin, horns, bones and other body parts.

The damage caused to the ecology and the environment is also immense because of rampant trapping and export of wild animals to China for food. Environmentalists are concerned. But the military junta pays no heed to such wanton destruction for money is to be made from all this.

The one thing that the Burmese generals do not do, is think of future generations, even their own, in terms of environment and ecology.

READ MORE---> Kachin state, waiting for an ecological disaster...

US Envoy to UN Signals Support for ‘R2P’

The Irrawaddy News

UNITED NATIONS — US Ambassador Susan Rice signaled on Thursday during her first appearance before the UN Security Council that President Barack Obama's administration feels a "responsibility" to sometimes take on nations that abuse their own citizens.

"As agreed to by member states in 2005 and by the Security Council in 2006, the international community has a responsibility to protect civilian populations from violations of international humanitarian law when states are unwilling or unable to do so," Rice told the council, without elaborating, during a closed-door session.

The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, answers questions from reporters at the United Nations in New York. (Photo: AFP)

"But this commitment is only as effective as the willingness of all nations, large and small, to take concrete action. The United States takes this responsibility seriously," she said, according to a transcript of her remarks made available to reporters later.

During the past year the UN has debated whether it has a "responsibility to protect" civilians in such cases.

Last May, for example, the council discussed a proposal by France to authorize the UN to enter Burma and deliver aid without waiting for approval from the nation's ruling military junta. Several countries, citing issues of sovereignty, blocked the idea.

France had argued that the UN has the responsibility—and power—because of language adopted at a UN summit in 2005 saying the world body sometimes has a "responsibility to protect" people from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing when nations fail to do it. A Security Council resolution adopted in 2006 reaffirmed that agreement.

Rice also emphasized, in keeping with the subject of Thursday's council meeting, that the U. would work to strengthen protections for civilians in conflict zones and support international prosecutions of war crimes.

"It is in this spirit of cooperation and determination that we will seek to use this body of international law to minimize human suffering and protect vulnerable populations," Rice said.

She said the International Criminal Court "looks to become an important and credible instrument for trying to hold accountable the senior leadership responsible for atrocities committed in the Congo, Uganda and Darfur."

The US opposed the court's creation and for the past decade refused to join it. The court is not part of the United Nations, but the 107 nations that ratified the 1998 treaty creating it, along with the UN, are responsible for responding to its requests for cooperation.

As former president George W. Bush's administration wound down, the United States became a strident supporter of bringing Sudan's president before the court on charges of orchestrating atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region.

Rice, who began work at the UN on Monday, defended Israel while pressuring it to account for its military actions. Much of Thursday's council discussions revolved around Israel's three-week offensive and January 18 cease-fire in Gaza, diplomats said.

"Violations of international humanitarian law have been perpetrated by Hamas through its rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in southern Israel and the use of civilian facilities to provide protection for its terrorist attacks. There have also been numerous allegations made against Israel, some of which are deliberately designed to inflame," Rice said.

"We expect Israel will meet its international obligations to investigate, and we also call upon all members of the international community to refrain from politicizing these important issues," she said.

READ MORE---> US Envoy to UN Signals Support for ‘R2P’...

Forever at the Frontline

The Irrawaddy News

January 31 marks the 60th anniversary of one of Asia’s oldest rebel movements—the Karen National Union (KNU). It is a day commemorated by Karen people all around the world.

A Karen soldier at the frontline. (Photo: Steve Sandford)

Since it declared war on the central government in 1949—shortly after Burma declared independence from Great Britain—the KNU has faced a great many ups and downs during its six-decade fight for autonomy.

It is undergone rifts and splits, and breakaway Karen groups have emerged. It suffered defeat at the hands of the Burmese army and in 1995 was forced to abandon its jungle fortress at Manerplaw on the Thai- Burmese border. Its aging leadership is fading away while the number of Karen refugees continues to grow. Discontent is high among the Karen population and thousands of families are currently resettling in Western countries under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR).

However, unlike so many other armed insurgent groups, the KNU has steadfastly refused to sign a ceasefire agreement with the Rangoon government.

When the KNU’s founding father, Saw Ba U Gyi, established the rebel movement in 1949, he unveiled his “Four Principles” of resistance: “There shall be no surrender; The recognition of the Karen State must be completed; We shall retain our arms; and We shall decide our own political destiny.”

The KNU has locked itself to those principles through thick and thin for 60 years.

In 1995, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) split from the KNU and joined forces with the Burmese army. Manerplaw fell soon after. The KNU, led by Gen Bo Mya, scattered while its civilian population joined the exodus into Thai border refugee camps. The KNU lost their only true sources of income: logging and taxation.

After fighting the Burmese army for 30 years, KNU commander Tha Mu He and hundreds of his followers surrendered to the regime in April 1997.

He told journalists and diplomats that he split from the KNU because of the failed peace talks between the Burmese junta and his mother organization in 1994 and the realization that the conflict would continue indefinitely.

One year later, Phado Aung San, a central executive member of the KNU, and hundreds of his followers also surrendered to the Rangoon government. He gave the same reasons for laying down his weapons as Tha Mu He had.

Then in early 2007, another splinter group reached a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese regime. Known as the KNU/ KNLA Peace Council and led by Maj-Gen Htein Maung, it included around 300 defecting KNU soldiers.

Brig-Gen Johnny, head of KNLA Brigade 7, said that Karen breakaway leaders who had reached ceasefire agreements with the Burmese regime had betrayed their people and their comrades who had died for the Karen revolution.

“We have to carry on the unfinished duty for our people. If we give up, it is as if we were betraying our comrades and our leaders who have died for us,” said Brig-Gen Johnny.

“Our enemy [the Burmese military regime] is trying to divide us every day. We have to be united and always be careful,” he said.

Meanwhile, the DKBA has boasted that its forces will overrun the KNU’s military wing, the KNLA, by 2010.

The target of its operation would appear to be Kawkareik Township in southern Karen State, which is rich in gold, teak forest, antimony, zinc and tin. Sources from both the KNU and the DKBA circles have said that the DKBA seeks to control the regions that do business with the Thai authorities.

However, the KNU leadership, as always, remains resolute.

KNLA Battalion 201 Maj Bu Paw acknowledged recently that the DKBA would attack his battalion in Kawkareik and try to seize its military bases, but stated: “The DKBA can not defeat us.”

Assassinations among the KNU and the breakaways groups have increased since 2007.

On February 14 last year, KNU General-Secretary Mahn Shah was gunned down by two men at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand.

Mahn Sha had been widely respected, not only by ethnic Karen people, but by most democratic alliance groups and individuals who have participated in the pro-democracy movement for Burma.

Aung Thu Nyein, a Burmese political analyst and former senior leader of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, blogged: “It is necessary for the new KNU leadership to quickly stop the assassinations and divisions among Karen people.

“It is time for the KNU to reestablish unity among the Karen people,” he said.

The newly appointed joint secretary (1), Maj Hla Ngwe, admitted the divisions among KNU leaders and said that the Burmese regime had cleverly manipulated the KNU.

“We have had weaknesses and divisions in the past. That is natural. It can happen in any party or organization. But, we should learn from these events and ensure it doesn’t happen in the future,” he said.

Brig-Gen Johnny agreed, but was more cynical. “It is not because our enemy is clever, it is because we are not clever,” he said.

Breakaway groups have been quick to criticizing their former patrons, claiming that they now enjoy improved living conditions.

DKBA Chairman Tha Htoo Kyaw once said that the KNU had been poor since 1949. He said that his followers who had settled in Myaing Gyi Ngu village, on the bank of the Salween River, enjoyed peace, an improving economy, proper education and a healthcare system since splitting from the KNU.

“The path we chose has been beneficial to the Karen in the area,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, several voices from the overseas Karen community have been vocal in criticizing the KNU leadership for its inactivity in both the political and military arenas.

Some claim that the KNU’s policy of self-defense is not enough to protect the Karen civilians and the impact on Karen civilians who are internally displaced in Karen State.

As the conflict between the Karen rebels and the Burmese army goes on, observers say the problem of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees will continue unabated.

There are about 451,000 IDPs in Karen State, according to a 2008-released report by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC). The report stated that since 1996 about 3,300 villages in Karen State have been destroyed by the Burmese army and its allies.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Karen refugees from the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border resettle every year in third countries. About 32,000 refugees went overseas in 2008, according to TBBC.

“We want to say to the world that we only want peace,” said Myat San, an IDP from Ei Tu Hta camp on the banks of the Salween River. “We want to live in peace. We want to urge the world to push for the fall of military rule in Burma and create peace for us.”

According to Brig-Gen Johnny, the KNU and all the pro-democracy forces inside and outside Burma, including Buddhists monks and students, should speed up the movement for democracy in 2009 and boycott the junta’s multi-party election in 2010.

“If the junta wins the election, we [the opposition] will continue to be under the boots of the Burmese army,” he said.

“But if every single person knows their role in the democracy movement, the goal of the revolution will not be far away.”

READ MORE---> Forever at the Frontline...

Friday, January 30, 2009

Amnesty slates Burma on migrants

(Bangkok Post) -The human rights group Amnesty International on Friday called on Burma to stop persecuting its Rohingya people and urged its neighbours to meet their humanitarian obligations.

London-based Amnesty International said in an open letter issued in Bangkok that the mistreatment of the Muslim minority from Burma's western Rakhine State was the "root cause'' of a crisis which has seen thousands of migrants cast adrift in open seas.

"Burma must immediately stop the persecution of the Rohingya minority, which is the root cause of the crisis,'' said the letter, signed by Amnesty's Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zarifi and circulated to six Asian nations.

"All governments should meet their obligations under the law of the sea and provide assistance to those in distress at sea,'' it added.

Thailand's military was accused of towing hundreds of Rohingya people out to sea in poorly equipped boats with scant food and water.

The accusations surfaced earlier this month after nearly 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some claiming to have been beaten by Thai soldiers.
Hundreds of the boat people are still believed to be missing at sea.

"The Thai government must stop forcibly expelling Rohingyas and provide them with immediate humanitarian assistance and cease any plans to proceed with more expulsions,'' the letter continued.

Amnesty said it was "encouraged'' by reports that Thai premier Abhisit Vejjajiva had invited the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) to participate in a regional forum on the issue.

Meanwhile, UNHCR on Friday refused to comment on the condition of teenagers from Burma being held in Thai custody out of "courtesy'' to Thailand's government.

UNHCR on Thursday visited 12 teenagers being held in Thailand's southern Ranong province -- part of a group of 78 migrants discovered off southern Thailand on Monday.

They claim abuse at home but Burma's junta denies the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group in the mainly Buddhist country and claims the migrants are Bangladeshis.

On Friday Indonesia said it would repatriate the 174 Rohingya migrants found off its coastline, currently being detained on an Indonesian naval base.

READ MORE---> Amnesty slates Burma on migrants...

Burma refuses to recognize Rohingya as citizens

By Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - Burma on Friday, refused to recognize Rohingya - Muslim minorities, as citizens of the country and said they are not included in the multi-ethnic groups recorded by the state, the government mouthpiece, New Light of Myanmar Newspaper said.

The statement in the newspaper said, "The Rohinja [Rohingya] is not included in over 100 national races of the Union of Myanmar [Burma]," denying media reports that groups of boatpeople, who recently landed on Thai coast, are from Burma.

The statement by the Burmese government, however, said it will "take necessary measures in connection with the above matter."

The statement came as the Amnesty International on Friday urged the Burmese regime to stop systematic persecutions and discrimination on the Rohingya, who the AI said were living in Burma's western state of Arakan for decades.

Benjamin Zawacki, AI's Burma and Thailand researcher, said the statement by the Burmese government clearly demonstrates its policy on the Rohingya and shows how they are denied the right of citizenship, despite of living in the country.

"They have been made stateless as a government policy. In this case we have a government policy to purposely render its own citizens stateless by saying they are not citizens at all," Zawacki told Mizzima.

"This policy needs to change, it should not be accepted by the international community and first and foremost it should not be accepted by the regional countries," he added.

According to Zawacki and leaders of the Rohingya community, Rohingyas live in northern areas of Arakan State in Western Burma, bordering Bangladesh.

The Rohingyas, according to Zawacki, have been living in Burma for decades but the Burmese government has adopted a policy of "Exclusion" on them.

In a statement released on Friday, the AI said the problem of Rohingya boatpeople needs to be solved at the root in Burma, while regional countries including Thailand should ensure the safety and dignity of the boatpeople, who are being rescued in their territory.

Zawacki said regional countries must pressurise the Burmese government to change its policy against the Rohingya and to stop persecuting them.

"The solution to the problem does not simply start with when they [Rohingya] board the boats but the solution needs to start with why they are boarding the boat and why they are fleeing and their need to flee," Zawacki said.

Meanwhile, Thailand's Foreign Minister on Thursday met UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and discussed on coordinating in solving the problems of Rohingya boatpeople, who have recently landed on Thai soil.

UNHCR told Mizzima that it had received a positive signal from Thailand to allow access to the Rohingyas, who are detained by Thai authorities, to find out their protection needs.

Thailand also said it has also met representatives from Bangladesh, Burma, and Indonesia to discuss on how to solve the problems associating with the boat people.

But Amnesty International, in its statement on Friday urged Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand not to just deport the boatpeople but to assess their protection needs and provide safety to those who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of being returned.

Zawacki welcomed Thailand's meeting with the UNHCR saying, "It is definitely a positive step," but further urged Thailand to immediately conduct investigations on allegations of rights abuses by the Thai Army on the Rohingyas.

READ MORE---> Burma refuses to recognize Rohingya as citizens...

Veteran Shan politician preparing to contest 2010 election

By Nem Davies

New Delhi (Mizzima) - A veteran ethnic Shan politician, Shwe Ohn on Thursday said he and his friends have formed a group that will be transformed into a political party to contest the ensuing 2010 general elections.

Shwe Ohn, in an interview to Mizzima said, he and his colleagues based on the spirit of federalism and democracy had chosen a party name – the Union Democratic Alliance. And on January 26 formed an eight-member organising committee that would work for the formation of the party.

"We have formed it with the aim to represent all groups of people including the Burmans. We will represent 135 ethnic groups. We have sent a letter to Naypyitaw expressing our intention to turn the group into a political party," Shwe Ohn said.

While there has been no response so far from Naypyitaw, Shwe Ohn said once the authorities allow the group to form, they would welcome all communities and ethnic groups to become members.

Shwe Ohn had earlier served as an advisor to an ethnic alliance party – the United Nationalities League for Democracy – which the junta later banned.

In 2005, Shwe Ohn was arrested by the junta along with other ethnic Shan leaders including Hkun Tun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin, who are respectively chairman and secretary of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD).

Though the government later released Shwe Ohn, (86) the junta continued to detain Hkun Tun Oo and Sai Nyunt Lwin.

Shwe Ohn was an observer at the historic 'Panglong agreement', where ethnic leaders and representatives along with Burma's Independence architect General Aung San together signed an agreement to form a federal Union.

Despite his age, Shwe Ohn contiues to actively engage himself in politics and has regular contacts and interactions with other politicians.

READ MORE---> Veteran Shan politician preparing to contest 2010 election...

Over five million people face food shortage in Burma

By Salai Pi Pi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - At least five million people out of a population of 55 million in military ruled Burma are living below the food poverty line, said the United Nations.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) in a joint report 'crop and food security assessment mission to Myanmar' said that there are over five million people who are finding it difficult to access food in Burma after Cyclone Nargis ravaged the delta region in May last year.

"Access to food remains a critical challenge for the poorest people and for vulnerable populations in remote areas of Myanmar [Burma]," Chris Kaye, WFP's Representative for Burma said in a written text.

Meanwhile, FAO/WFP's report said, during the 2008 monsoon season, agricultural production suffered a significant decline in areas severely affected by Cyclone Nargis because of poor quality seeds, salinity and iron toxicity in the water, lack of agricultural labour and draught animals.

"Many households are not earning a living from their pre-Cyclone Nargis livelihoods because they could not access the capital required to acquire productive assets lost during the storm," said the report.

The cyclone-related damage to the livestock and fishing sectors in the Irrawaddy Delta will continue to affect food supply and income generation in 2008/09, the report added.

Moreover, the report also said that around 685 hectares of rice and 400 hectares of maize in 121 villages in Chin state were destroyed as a result of rat infestation triggered by the flowering of bamboo in the beginning of 2007, causing food insecurity in these areas.

"Nearly all households reported losing that year's harvest," the report said, "The situation will remain critical until July 2009 and households without alternative income sources (female, single-headed or the elderly) are especially vulnerable".

Similarly, the people from northern Arakan state in western Burma face malnutrition as a consequence of increase in rice price touching 75 percent compared to the previous year, according to WFP assessment undertaken in June 2008.

"Households were found to be reducing the number of meals consumed," the report said and added that the average number of meals declined from 2.8 to 2.0 over the year prior to the assessment.

With high percentages of food insecurity and vulnerable populations in Burma, the WFP/FAO's joint report said," emergency food assistance continues to be required in several areas of the country".

"And for many of those affected by Cyclone Nargis, who are engaged in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods, the limited delta harvest means they will continue to rely on assistance to meet their food needs," said Chris Kaye.

The report also mentioned that the state and division in Burma which urgently need emergency food assistance are cyclone-affected areas of Irrawaddy Division (85 000 tonnes); rat infestation affected areas of Chin State (23 000 tonnes), north of Arakan state (15 000 tonnes), Kachin State (8 300 tonnes); north Shan State (20 200 tonnes), east Shan State (7 000 tonnes) and Magwe Division (27 500 tonnes).

The report also recommended 'Food-for-Education' to be implemented in the areas for both food insecurity and low attendance rate for primary and secondary schools and 'Food-for-work' activities to be created for reducing high unemployment and underemployment rates and high temporary migration rates.

READ MORE---> Over five million people face food shortage in Burma...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Drowning Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma

By Andrew Lam
New America Media

For a country steeped in Buddhism, Thailand is accruing terrible karmic debts. News reports, including those by the Thai press itself, indicate systematic abuse of refugees fleeing from its neighbor, Myanmar.

Tourists have seen and photographed Thai troops abusing members of a Muslim minority group who were fleeing Myanmar by boat to Thailand’s southern shores. On the Similan Islands, tourists reported seeing boat people lying down on the beach, bound, struck and whipped by Thai military if they raised their heads. CNN recently confirmed with a Thai military source that Thailand is practicing a dump-at-sea policy: towing boats back to the sea, often without giving refugees food or water.

UN refugee agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey expressed the gravity of the situation: "The reports that we are hearing are very alarming. That the [boat people] were detained in Thailand and then towed out to sea on unseaworthy boats and left to die basically."

If it strikes the world as contradictory that Thailand, which bills itself as the Land of a Thousand Smiles and boasts of refined hospitality, could also be a country that rejects and beats up on the poor and the dispossessed, it does not strike any of its neighbors as anything but business as usual. Thailand’s long antipathy toward its neighbors is notorious.

Ask a Vietnamese boat person during the '80s who survived Thai piracy in the Andaman Sea and you will hear tales of unspeakable horrors – rape, robbery, murder, and human trafficking. UN records are full of documents, describing how Thai pirates used hammers, machetes, and guns to massacre entire boats of refugees, including children and women. Others were simply dumped at sea to drown. Despite international protest, the Thai government made few attempts to prosecute those accused.

During the Cold War, Thailand also supported the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the death of more than 2 million Cambodians. What did the Land of a Thousand Smiles gain from supporting such a murderous group? Access to the Pailin gem mines and precious timber under Khmer Rouge control, and the promise to keep at bay the invading Vietnamese, who until 1989, occupied Cambodia.

If Thailand is now practicing a cruel and unacceptable policy toward refugees fleeing the cruel and unacceptable military regime in Myanmar, it is because Thailand hasn’t been exactly nice to its own Muslim minorities. Resentment against the Thai government has been brewing, along with allegations of abduction, torture and the disappearances of various Thai Muslim activists in the southern provinces. A primary example is human rights lawyer Sonchai Neelaphaijit, who disappeared while under police surveillance in March 2004. That same year, Thai police and security forces shot dead 107 machete-wielding youths, leaving them in a pool of blood. Thousands have been killed since then. The image of Thailand as a peaceful and gracious country has tarnished since then.

There is also an incentive for Thailand not to take refugees: it risks offending the ruling junta in Myanmar, with whom it enjoys a cozy relationship. After all, Thailand is buying jade, precious minerals and timber – all much-needed natural resources -- from Myanmar for a song, with the generals’ blessings. Last year, when the world condemned Myanmar for its inaction after the cyclone Nargis devastated half of its country, Thailand spoke in favor of the junta.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to investigate the current refugee crisis. But an official investigation, given the government’s record so far, and Vejjajiva's military backing, may very well be another word for stonewalling.

Thailand has been a blessed country. While its neighbors suffered under colonial rulers, Thailand escaped that fate and was the only country in Southeast Asia to develop independently and in peace. While Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia and Vietnam suffered from insurgencies and warfare in the post-colonial period, Thailand – land of golden temples and pristine beaches - grew in confidence and sophistication. Many Thais attribute the country's peace and prosperity to an adherence to Buddhism and devotion to the Buddha.

But such good karma can last only so long. Buddha teaches love and compassion as key components to Buddhist practice. The world and the people of Thailand should seriously question whether killing unarmed refugees is the right path toward peace.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Reflections

READ MORE---> Drowning Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma...

Boat people arriving in Thailand not from Myanmar: official

YANGON (AFP) – A senior Myanmar official on Thursday denied that boat people from the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group, who have washed up in Thailand claiming abuse back home, originate from its shores.

Human rights groups have said the Rohingya come from Myanmar's western region and often flee persecution by the junta, but the official told AFP the group were from Bangladesh and had no historical connection with Myanmar.

"There is no so-called Rohingya ethnic minority group in our history before or after our independence," said the official, who refused to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media. (JEG's: but Maung Aye promises to address the problem... ooops a bit of lack of communication here...)

"It is totally unacceptable to say the Rohingya are from Myanmar," he added.

Thailand has been accused of mistreating up to 1,000 Rohingya migrants, hundreds of whom were rescued off India and Indonesia last month claiming they had been beaten by Thai soldiers and towed back out to sea.

The issue has cast into the spotlight a group believed to number about 700,000 in Myanmar but which has long been denied citizenship and faces religious persecution and crippling poverty, rights groups have said.

A further 78 boat people were detained this week on arriving in Thailand, supposedly from Myanmar, and await deportation.

Local press carried pictures of some of the men with welts on their backs and the Bangkok Post newspaper reported that the migrants said they were caned by Myanmar authorities and threatened with death if they returned.

The Myanmar official, however, claimed that such reports were untrue.

"These so-called Rohingyas are Bangladeshi who left their state for a better life, trying to get sympathy from Western countries by claiming to be Rohingyas from Myanmar," he said.

"(It's) not our problem. It's the problem of Bangladesh," he added. (JEG's: pass the buck, never their problem)

Myanmar -- ruled by the military since 1962 -- is a predominantly Buddhist country but is also home to more than 135 different ethnic groups, some of whom are Christian and Muslim.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has requested access to any Rohingyas arriving in Thailand, saying there are legitimate concerns that some could face persecution back in Myanmar.

The Thai foreign ministry Wednesday "categorically denied" reports that it had mistreated any migrants.

READ MORE---> Boat people arriving in Thailand not from Myanmar: official...

‘Illegal Immigrants’? Who’s Threatening Whom

The Irrawaddy News

The issue of migrants has returned as a security concern in Thailand, where the government has responded to reports that Thai officials were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya refugees by vowing to crack down on “illegal migrants.”

Not for the first time, Thailand’s treatment of migrants has become a focus of international attention. Last year, 54 Burmese workers suffocated to death while they were being transported in a sealed truck to the Thai resort island of Phuket. That incident was blamed on the driver, who failed to ensure that the vehicle was properly ventilated. This time, Thai authorities have been faulted for allegedly towing boatloads of Rohingya out to sea without adequate food or water.

While the exact circumstances surrounding this latest incident are still under investigation, it is clear that, despite the official rhetoric, Thailand’s security fears are far less serious than those of the migrants, whose very lives are at risk from the moment they enter the country.

This danger does not derive simply from accidents or even from abuses at the hands of officials, but rather from the juridical-political treatment of migrant workers, who fit into a category of disposable labor created by the state-business alliance. That is why millions of Burmese migrants are able to enter the Thai workforce through the back door, only to be declared a “threat” when they are not needed.

In response to the Rohingya incident, Thailand’s new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, reiterated the country’s standard position on the migrant issue: “We have to solve the illegal immigrant problem, otherwise it will affect our security, economy and the opportunities of Thai laborers.”

As an Oxford-trained economist, Abhisit belongs to the liberal economic tradition, which removes migrant workers entirely from statistical calculations of production and profits, seeing them only as a liability.

It is not that the economic elite are unaware of the positive role of migrant labor; they simply do not want to acknowledge it. If they did, their attempts to exploit migrant labor would be called into question, and that is a risk they consider too great to take.

Treating some migration as “illegal” is to deny an enormously important facet of human history. From pre-recorded times, human beings have been on the move. Modern Thais, for instance, are the descendants of ethnic Tai who migrated from southern China millennia ago. Chinese Thais whose ancestors were more recent migrants have also had a major impact on Thai society after decades of social, economic and political assimilation.

In pre-colonial times, people did not cross borders; but in more recent times, borders have crossed people. Before the creation of national borders, people frequently moved back and forth between the different tributary states that now constitute parts of modern Thailand. These states did not have fixed political and geographical boundaries. Nor were they the vassals of the same powerful kingdoms or empires; at times, there were independent. Thus, they were neither Siamese (Thai) nor Burmese.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, however, the rulers completed the bounding up of territories into nation-states with fixed political boundaries to create modern Burma and Thailand. Human migration goes on, but it is now restricted by these artificial political borders.

Thus, if anything is illegal, it is not the people who cross the borders, but the national borders themselves, which were drawn up undemocratically by those from the power centers. (This is not to reject political borders altogether, but rather to highlight the need for more humane borders.)

If we replace the artificial national borders with the regional border of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Program, under which Thailand has been extracting resources, we can see the senselessness of regarding Burmese as “outsiders.” It is unfair to fix political geography at the nation-state level to exclude the Burmese and deny their rights, while scaling up the economic geography to the regional level to accumulate profits.

Despite Thailand’s hand in displacing people in dam and gas pipeline areas in Burma, some continue to claim that the political crisis in Burma is solely responsible for the migrant issue. In fact, Burmese rulers and domestic business partners, as well as their counterparts in Thailand, China, India, other investor countries and the Asian Development Bank (which provides the GMS cooperation framework) share responsibility.

Burma’s political crisis is not an isolated event; rather, it is part of the sick drama of the global market economy, in which the Burmese regime’s international business partners suck resources such as gas and electricity out of the country while displacing people from their homes.

Looking deep into the very nature of this global economic system, propagated and led by Europe and North America, we can see that the system itself is anti-people. That is, it forces all countries to compete on the world market. One way to survive in this market is to stay competitive by securing natural resources and labor as cheaply as possible.

The transnational alliance of elites, united under the GMS Program, hijacks resources in Burma and dispossesses its people in a process David Harvey of the City University of New York calls “accumulation by dispossession.” Among the alliance members, Thailand is the biggest winner, drawing both resources and labor from Burma. That is why Thai policymakers are deaf to the Burmese cry for democracy and migrant justice.

But the dispossessed people do not become fully exploitable until they have been made “illegal” and labeled a threat. Thailand’s migrant registration system is partly responsible for the creation of “illegal immigrants.” Nicholas de Genova of Columbia University calls this the “legal production of migrant illegality,” in the sense that the so-called “illegal immigrants” are produced by legal processes whose narrow definition of who could be included ends up excluding a majority of migrant workers.

Indeed, the issue of “illegal migrants” was not visible in Thailand until 1995, when the government decided to implement the regular registration of undocumented migrants, according to Yougyuth Chalamwong, research director of the Thailand Development Research Institute. This is not to disregard migrant registration completely, but simply to shed light on the calculated manipulations of the government.

A good example is the 1999 registration, which allowed migrant workers to work in 37 provinces, down from 54 in 1998. The revised regulation ended up generating new undocumented workers outside these 37 provinces who had registered one year earlier. Ten years have passed, but the story continues. The newly “illegalized” workers then became the subjects of deportation.

Yet, it is “deportability,” and not actual deportation per se, that matters, as rightly pointed out by de Genova. The government’s attempts to deport migrant workers merely serve to destabilize the situation of migrants (both registered and unregistered), so that they become vulnerable and therefore more ready to accept exploitative working conditions.

Police crackdowns are thus meant to secure the physical presence of migrant workers while excluding them from political and legal entitlements. The crackdown on migrant workers by calling them a threat, therefore, is indeed the elites’ dirty laundry of their anti-people transnational profit accumulations.

Therefore, the future challenges for humanitarian groups would include re-connecting the role of migrant workers to the Thai economy for a better distribution of profits. Moreover, since migrant issue is embedded in the broader global political economy, activists need to go beyond the enclave of locally celebrated communities towards engaging with the networks of national and global alliances for a more democratic global economic operation.

The most immediate task: practitioners, activists and journalists should themselves stop using the language of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘migrant problems’ uncritically.

Sai Soe Win Latt is a Ph.D. student of geography at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

READ MORE---> ‘Illegal Immigrants’? Who’s Threatening Whom...

Ordeal at Sea Described by Rohingya Survivors

The Irrawaddy News

SABANG, Indonesia (AP) —The bearded farmer wept in his hospital bed as he recounted a harrowing six-month journey that brought him from the isolated country of Burma to this remote island in the Indian Ocean.

Nur Mohammad, a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority group, said he was forced to work for the Burmese army, after being detained and tortured without charge. When he fled that country, he said he was exploited by Bangladeshi human traffickers, beaten by Thai officials and then forced out to sea in an overcrowded boat that nearly sank off Indonesia's coast.

And his ordeal is not over.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh perform evening prayers at an Indonesian Navy base where they are being held after having been rescued at sea on Sabang Island off the Coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

The 37-year-old Muslim, who is being treated for internal bleeding and trauma, faces possible deportation by the very people who plucked him from the water.

"I would rather die here," Mohammad told The Associated Press, describing the abuse in Burma against the Rohingya, who for generations have been denied citizenship and reportedly face torture, religious persecution and forced labor under the ruling junta.

"If I'm sent back, I am sure authorities will kill me."

The stateless Muslim ethnic group, which is not recognized by the military regime, numbers about 800,000 in Burma. Their plight gained international attention after several boats carrying around 1,000 migrants were intercepted last month by the Thai navy. Human rights groups allege Thai officers detained and beat them before forcing them back to sea in vessels with no engines and little food or water.

Survivors recounted how four migrants were tossed overboard before the rest were forced at gunpoint onto a makeshift barge in the middle of the ocean, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Bangkok-based advocacy group Arakan Project.

Hundreds are missing and feared drowned, according to human rights groups; others have landed on remote corners of Indonesia and India, where they are being kept well away from the media, making it difficult to corroborate their stories.

Authorities in both Thailand and Burma have denied wrongdoing.

Rohingya refugees from Burma and Bangladesh stand outside their shelter at an Indonesian Navy base. (Photo: AP)

In the meantime, the harrowing accounts of victims like Mohammad continue to trickle in from hospital beds and jail cells.

Mohammad said by the time his boat reached Thailand's southern coast on December 26—after working for months on fishing vessels in Bangladesh—he and other fellow Rohingya had been at sea for four days and nights.

They were dehydrated and hungry, he said, but given almost no food or water when they reached land.

Authorities took the men to a hillside prison overseeing the Thai city of Ranong, he said, where they were lined up and stripped down to the waist. One by one, they were pummeled and taunted, with some officers scoffing at them for being Muslim and threatening to burn their traditional beards, he said.

"They tied me and beat me with sticks and kicked me with their boots until I was vomiting blood. They only stopped because I was about to die," said Mohammad. A doctor who treated him at an Indonesian navy base on Sabang island told the AP the wounds appeared to have been caused by a blunt object.

Soon after, he said, the migrants were crammed back into their boats and sent adrift in stormy seas.

Brad Adams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the story of the Rohingya has been made all the more tragic by the consistent lack of compassion shown by some regional governments, which appear to have ignored the suffering of the ethnic minorities or played a direct part in it.

Thai authorities insist repeatedly that they do not forcibly evict migrants but only detain and repatriate people entering the country illegally.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, facing growing criticism from rights groups, said last week the government would investigate claims of abuse. The Foreign Ministry also said it would convene a meeting with its neighbors to find a solution to the growing illegal migrant problem.

On Wednesday, a Thai court convicted more than 60 migrants on the same charge, raising the prospect that they could be kicked out. The men alleged they were abused by Burmese navy officials.

A spokesman for Burma’s military government was not available for comment.

The ruling junta does not officially recognize the existence of a separate Rohingya group in the country's western areas and sometimes refers to them as "Bangladeshis."

Restrictive citizenship laws enacted in 1982 make many Muslims living in the area stateless; "'Rohingyas' do not exist in the Union of Burma and are not one of Burma's indigenous national races," the government told the UN Human Rights Council last year.

At the same time, it rejected as untrue "allegations of discrimination and harassment" toward Muslim refugees returned from Bangladesh—meaning the Rohingya.

In addition to the Rohingya, the military regime has brutally repressed a number of groups and millions have risked their lives fleeing the country.

The Rohingya, who are believed to descend from 7th century Arab settlers whose state was conquered by the Burmese in 1784, face religious persecution because they are Muslims in a Buddhist-majority country. Human Rights Watch said in its latest annual report they faced forced relocation, land seizures, and denial of citizenship and identity papers, among other things.

The State Department agreed, saying they "experienced severe legal, economic, and social discrimination."

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have ended up in neighboring Bangladesh—some getting illegal jobs and others living in crowded, squalid refugee camps—after borrowing huge sums of money from family and friends to pay smugglers.

Others have settled in impoverished communities in Malaysia and Thailand, which depend on migrant labor; even more have braved the sea to go as far as the Middle East.

"It is a horrible humanitarian crisis unfolding, the fairly large numbers of people leaving in these boats, either drowning at sea or finding themselves in exploitative, abuse situations on arrival," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

Like other stateless people, the Rohingya are especially vulnerable to human trafficking because they provide cheap labor and are not protected by the law, he said.

"The issue of people in poor countries trying to reach richer ones is not going to stop," he said. "It's going to become more serious and it needs to be addressed, not just regionally, but globally."

In describing his persecution in Burma, Mohammad said his village was placed under a curfew and the Rohingya were unable to marry and often had their land confiscated.

He said he was forced to work as a laborer for the army after being detained and tortured without charge.

He decided to cross the border illegally into Bangladesh, where he worked as a fisherman until he was able to earn enough money to pay for a boat to Malaysia—around $430. He and others set off in their rickety wooden boats on Dec. 16 with a captain who seemed not to know the way.

The men were picked up and beaten by the Burmese navy who held them for two days, he said.

When they reached Thailand, they were again taken into custody and pummeled before being cast adrift in a boat that had been stripped of its engine and emptied of fuel, Mohammad said.

"The boat was leaking badly," he said. "The water started rising inside. Finally, it was a foot deep and we started to sink. We prayed to Allah, we asked him to save us."

A fishing boat spotted them off Indonesia's westernmost coast and alerted the navy, which brought 193 men, all but 17 of them Rohingya, to shore on Jan. 7 as it was on the verge of sinking.

Many were too weak to stand and were hospitalized.

Now the Indonesian government is threatening to send them back to where they came from.

READ MORE---> Ordeal at Sea Described by Rohingya Survivors...

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too