Monday, January 5, 2009

Looking Back at Burma 2008

DECEMBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.12- The Irrawaddy News


11—Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with the Burmese junta’s liaison officer, ex Maj-Gen Aung Kyi. The meeting was the fourth since the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in August and September 2007.

18—The UN Security Council (UNSC) held a closed door meeting on Burma. Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi of Libya, UNSC president for January, said that the Security Council members regretted the slow rate of progress to date toward meeting its objectives. The presidential statement that followed said that the UNSC emphasized the importance of the early release of all political prisoners.


Tay Za, left, speaks with transport minister Maj-Gen Thein Swe and Rangoon Regional Commander Maj-Gen Hla Htay Win. (Photo: AP)

5—The US government slapped additional targeted sanctions on the cronies of Burma’s authoritarian regime. Four companies and three individuals connected to a well-known Burmese tycoon, Tay Za, were added to the list. The individuals were: Aung Thet Mann, son of Gen Thura Shwe Mann; Thiha, Tay Za’s brother and business partner; and Kyaw Thein, the director of Tay Za’s business ventures in Singapore. Also targeted were the wives of four senior Burmese government officials: Gen Thura Shwe Mann, Construction Minister Saw Tun, Lt-Gen Ye Myint and Foreign Affairs Minister Nyan Win.

25—The US government added more names to the targeted sanctions list of the Burmese junta’s business cronies. On the list were Tun Myint Naing, aka Steven Law, his father, Lo Hsing-han, and his wife, Cecilia Ng, a Singaporean citizen. Ten companies they own which are based in Singapore and four companies they own based in Burma were also targeted.


10—UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Suu Kyi for the second time during his third mission to broker political reconciliation efforts and to encourage democratic reform in Burma. Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe had already refused to meet Gambari and the junta would later reject Gambari’s call to allow international observers to monitor the upcoming referendum on a new constitution in May.

Burmese soldiers march during the 63rd Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2008. (Photo: AFP)
27—During a ceremony in the capital, Naypyidaw, to mark Burma’s 63rd Armed Forces Day, Than Shwe denied that the regime was power hungry, saying “The handing over of state power can be done after multi-party elections in 2010.”


1—The enshrined body of revered abbot U Vinaya, known as Thamanya Sayadaw, was stolen from its resting place at a temple in Karen State in eastern Burma by a group of armed men wearing camouflage uniforms. Thamanya Sayadaw was renowned and respected for his integrity and generous donations to local development projects and was a supporter of and spiritual adviser to Suu Kyi. He died at age 93 in 2003.

9—Fifty-four Burmese migrants suffocated to death in a container truck in Ranong Province on the west coast of Thailand while they were being transported to the resort island of Phuket to work illegally. Among the victims were 37 women. Sixty-seven migrants survived the ordeal.


2—Tropical Cyclone Nargis, which was rated Category 3 and formed in the Bay of Bengal, started to rip through the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon on the night of May 2. At wind speeds of 190 km/h (120 mph), the cyclone wreaked havoc on the region, causing Burma’s worst natural disaster in modern history. Nargis claimed the lives of more than 140,000 people and directly affected millions.

8—The US announced it was ready to airdrop relief materials and food to hundreds of thousands of people in the cyclone-hit areas of the Irrawaddy delta upon approval of the Burmese government. Three US ships in the Gulf of Thailand sailed toward Burma to be in position to provide help. A French amphibious naval craft, Mistral, and the British Royal Navy frigate HMS Westminster joined the American ships a few days later. However, all appeals to allow relief supplies ashore were rejected by the Burmese authorities.

Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta and once again drew international attention to the Burmese regime’s brutal indifference to the needs of the country’s people. (Photo: AFP)
10—Despite the natural disaster, Burma’s constitutional referendum went ahead as planned in areas not affected by Cyclone Nargis, amid accusations of massive cheating at polling stations and reports of a very low turnout. Many voters told The Irrawaddy that referendum officials had handed out ballot papers already filled in with ticks indicating approval of the government’s draft constitution.

23—Than Shwe finally met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Naypyidaw to discuss the UN’s role in the aid operation. Ban had previously complained that Than Shwe would not take his calls or communicate with him. After the meeting, Ban announced that Than Shwe had agreed to allow all foreign aid workers into Burma to assist in the humanitarian mission.

25—The Asean-UN International Pledging Conference was held in Rangoon with 51 donor nations attending. The UN secretary-general later said he was cautiously optimistic that this could be a turning point for Burma to “be more flexible, more practical and face the reality as it is on the ground.”


10—A major multilateral operation of some 250 experts from the UN, the Burmese government and Southeast Asian nations was launched to assess the needs of Burma’s cyclone survivors.

1-18—Ten social activists were arrested for helping victims of Cyclone Nargis. The arrested aid workers were identified as Zarganar, Zaw Thet Htwe, Ein Khaing Oo, Myat Thu, Yin Yin Wine, Tin Tin Cho, Ko Zaw, Tin Maung Oo, Ni Mo Hlaing and Toe Kyaw Hlaing. Zarganar is Burma’s most popular satirist and an outspoken critic of the regime.

26—The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said that the alarming increase in opium production in Afghanistan and Burma in 2007 is posing a serious threat to the progress made in drug control over the past several years. The 2008 World Drug Report noted that after six years of decline, opium poppy cultivation increased by 29 percent in Burma.


21—The Burmese regime signed the new Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Charter, which includes a regional human rights body.

Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan holds up a copy of the Post-Nargis Joint Assessment report at the Asean Ministerial Meeting on July 21. (Photo: Reuters)
21—The Post-Nargis Joint Assessment Report, prepared and released by the UN, Asean and the Burmese regime, said the damage from Burma’s Cyclone Nargis in May was estimated at US $4 billion. That was in sharp contrast to the Burmese government’s initial report, which called for $11 billion in aid.

29—US President George W Bush signed into law the Block Burma JADE Act, restricting the import of precious Burmese gems and stones. The US Department of Treasury said the sanctions targeted two conglomerates: the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and the Myanmar Economic Corporation. Both are extensively involved in a variety of sectors critical to the Burmese government, including the gem, banking and construction industries.


7—US President Bush met nine Burmese activists in Bangkok while first lady Laura Bush visited Mae Lah refugee camp and Mae Tao Clinic at the Thai-Burmese border.

20—UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari was snubbed by Suu Kyi. In an attempt to meet Burma’s detained opposition leader, two aides shouted for Suu Kyi through a loudspeaker outside the gate of her house in Rangoon, but to no avail. Observers later said that Suu Kyi’s refusal to meet the UN envoy showed her disappointment with his failed attempts to broker a solution to the country’s decades-old political standoff.


12—After weeks of refusal to accept deliveries of food and household supplies in protest against her unlawful detention, Suu Kyi won some concessions from the military regime, including deliveries of international magazines and personal mail. She had earlier discussed an appeal against her current term of house arrest with lawyer Kyi Win.

23—Burma’s longest-serving political prisoner, 79-year-old journalist Win Tin, was freed after 19 years in prison. He was among 9,002 prisoners released, only a handful of whom were political detainees. Press freedom organizations throughout the world welcomed the release of Win Tin, winner of the 2001 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize.


13—Seven people died and one person was critically injured when an explosion ripped through a passenger-carrying pickup truck in Rangoon. It was later confirmed that a compressed natural gas (CNG) cylinder had exploded, one of several such accidents since the introduction of CNG on public transportation in Burma in recent years.

Members of the National League for Democracy march in support of their detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on May 27, 2008. (Photo: AFP)
16—More than 100 youth members of the opposition NLD resigned, complaining that the party hierarchy did not give them a democratic voice in the decision-making process. The group urged the NLD leaders to air discussions on the junta-drafted constitution as well as campaign for the support of the people and conduct a dialogue with ethnic leaders.

17—Zipporah Sein, a well-known Karen leader and the 2007 winner of the Perdita Huston Human Rights Award, was elected general-secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) at its 14th Congress. She became the KNU’s first woman general-secretary, succeeding Mahn Sha, who was assassinated on February 14.

27—Burma’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win visited North Korea for the first time since the two reclusive regimes resumed diplomatic ties more than a year ago. Burma severed relations with North Korea in 1983 following a bombing in Rangoon, allegedly by North Korean secret agents targeting South Korea’s then President Chun Doo-hwan.


11—Twenty-three leading activists, including five women, from the 88 Generation Students group were each given 65-year sentences for their political activities during the monk-led uprising in 2007.

Throwing away the key: Lengthy prison sentences for dissidents will likely mean continued international isolation for Burma’s junta. (Illustration: Harn Lay/The Irrawaddy)
14—The United States named 26 individuals and 17 companies as “specially designated narcotics traffickers” and imposed new economic sanctions, including the freezing of assets held in the US. The individuals and companies were associated with Wei Hsueh Kang and the United Wa State Army.

16—At least 21 convicted political prisoners, including Buddhist monks, 88 Student Generation group leader Min Ko Naing and prominent human rights activist Su Su Nway, were transferred from Rangoon’s Insein Prison to remote prisons around Burma.

7-18—The military government sentenced at least 86 activists, including monks and women, in special courts held in Insein Prison in Rangoon. The White House said that the international community and the UN should not remain silent to the oppressive, anti-democratic actions of the junta.

21—Ashin Gambira, one of the leaders of the September 2007 uprising, was sentenced to a total of 68 years.

25—About 25,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in Burma in 2007 and 76,000 out of an estimated 240,000 people who are believed to be carrying HIV/AIDS urgently need antiretroviral treatment, said Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

27—Zarganar, whose anti-regime satire was a constant thorn in the side of Burma’s ruling generals, was sentenced to an additional 14 years imprisonment, following an initial sentence of 45 years imposed on November 21.

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