Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama, UN chief discuss world issues

US President Barack Obama on Friday called UN chief Ban Ki-moon to review a host of world issues, including the global economic crisis, climate change and food security, the world body and the White House said.

The two leaders also discussed the resolution of regional crises, particularly those in the Middle East and Africa, as well as ongoing efforts at UN reforms and the world body's "need for adequate political support and funding," a UN statement said.

It added that Ban was "encouraged by the US president's assurance of strong support as the organisation makes further progress in this direction," and noted that the two leaders "looked forward to mutual visits."

A White House statement meanwhile said Obama "underscored his commitment to a strong US-UN relationship and an effective UN working with us to fight climate change, poverty and terrorism."

The US leader also "voiced support for the UN's assistance mission in Iraq and his hope that the mission will expand this year and enjoy the continued leadership of the current special representative (Staffan de Mistura)."

Obama and Ban mulled ways in which the United Nations might undertake "additional management reforms to improve (the) efficiency and efficacy of the organisation in dealing with international problems," the White House said.

The UN said Ban also had a "very cordial conversation" with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on food security, the stalled peace process in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region, climate change and UN management reform.

Clinton stressed the importance of "working together with the UN in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq" and she and Ban discussed "greater cooperation in UN reform and budgetary issues as well as mutual visits," it added.


READ MORE---> Obama, UN chief discuss world issues...

Child Labor Widespread in Delta

The Irrawaddy News - Child labor has become widespread throughout the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta, according to sources in the region.

A member of a non-governmental organization in the delta who requested anonymity said that children aged 10 to 15 are valued sources of labor for Burmese businessmen, fishermen and farmers, because they work for much lower wages then adults—between 300 and 1000 kyat (US $0.25—0.85) per day for children, compared to wages of 1,500 to 3000 kyat ($1.25—$2.50) per day for adults.

A young boy works with a fisherman in the Delta region. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)A young boy works with a fisherman in the Delta region. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)
“Many fishing boat owners now prefer to hire children because of the difference in wages. Kids are willing to work for 300 kyat and meals,” he said.

Sources said that businesspeople in the delta also see children are easier to control and hard-working. Nowadays, children as young as eight can be found working on fishing boats, in restaurants, construction sites and with agriculture.

Myo Min lost his mother when Cyclone Nargis slashed through southwestern Burma on May 2-3. He now lives with his brother and works full-time aboard a fishing vessel in the delta.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy, 10-year-old Myo Min said, “I’m tired, but I’m just grateful to be able to survive.”

Mending nets instead of studying at the school. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Po Po, 11, lost his father and his elder brother in the cyclone. He then left school to work in a restaurant in Labutta Township. He washes dishes and earns about 5,000 kyat ($4.20) per month.

He admitted that he cries every night because he misses his mother.

According to a schoolteacher in Konegyi village in Labutta Township, many children are unable to continue their education because they are orphans or live with families that are struggling economically.

An estimated 400,000 children did not return to school after the cyclone, according to leading relief agency Save the Children Fund. Of those, Save the Children said they helped about 100,000 children get back to school.

The INGO estimated that about 40 percent of the 140,000 people who were killed or disappeared in the cyclone disaster were children. Many who survived were orphaned or separated from their parents, the agency said.

READ MORE---> Child Labor Widespread in Delta...

Will Obama be ready for radical humanitarian intervention in Burma?

By Sai Wansai - General Secretary of Shan Democratic Union

(Asian Tribune) -Even before the euphoria has died down, following the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, he moved almost with lighting speed, on his first day in the office, to tackle the issue of Guantanamo Bay detention centre closure.

Accordingly, the prison camp in Cuba would be closed down within one year and the administration has suspended trials for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of the military tribunals.

Many EU countries were particularly impressed with the intended Guantanamo Bay prison closure, which was seen as a right approach to undo the Bush’s era human rights violations, and restore America’s lost moral posture, befitted for a democratic superpower.

Meanwhile, Burma has been hinting that new US President should change Washington’s tough policy towards its military regime and end the “misunderstandings” of the past, according to a senior Burmese official on Wednesday.

In Obama’s inauguration speech, he states, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist".

Also, in the administration’s foreign policy agenda, a paragraph reads, "Seek New Partnerships in Asia: Obama and Biden will forge a more effective framework in Asia that goes beyond bilateral agreements, occasional summits, and ad hoc arrangements, such as the six-party talks on North Korea. They will maintain strong ties with allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia; work to build an infrastructure with countries in East Asia that can promote stability and prosperity; and work to ensure that China plays by international rules".

One wonders, whether the overtures or hinting of the Burmese military regime to have a better relation with Washington could be a fresh start for reconciliation and the beginning of a win-win outcome solution for the conflict within Burma and as well, the hostile Burma-U.S relationship.

Arranging a kind of the six-party talks, like in the case of North Korea, could be a possibility. The only condition to get it started is the give-and-take nature of compromising must be available.

While the US-led team wouldn’t pose a problem, the Burmese military regime will have to budge from its stance of insisting only to play by its own game plan and rules. In other words, the acceptance of political accommodation, all-inclusiveness and level playing field would have to be the agreed precondition.

The Burmese military regime couldn’t expect to better the relation with Washington without genuine compromise to end its tyrannical rule, oppression and political monopoly.

While the ethnic resistance and democratic opposition groups are well aware that Obama’s plate is full with heavy issues like global financial crisis, US troops withdrawal from Iraq, climate change, improving America’s relationship internationally, brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and empowering, supporting Afghanistan government against the Taliban, which would be given priority in his decision making, they are confident that the moral and humanitarian issue involving Burma would also be definitely part and parcel of his foreign policy agenda, down the line of his priority-setting.

As it is, the Burmese military has never been ready for compromise or flexibility, where power-sharing or political accommodation is concerned. In such a situation of continued rejection from the part of Burmese military, Obama would be forced to alter his approach to help deliver reconciliation and democratisation process in Burma.

Although the diplomatic overtures to woo the Burmese military for genuine democratic change and all-inclusiveness should continue without fail, Obama could also up the ante by innovative and radical humanitarian intervention, short of military undertaking by US forces.

For example, Washington could work with Bangkok, hand-in-hand, to create sanctuaries along Thai-Burma border, where the bulk of 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) are struggling to survive on a daily basis. All these could take place within Burma, close to Thai border, with the help of ethnic resistance movements like Karen National Union (KNU), Shan State Army South (SSA-S), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the likes. This way, the US military wouldn’t need to be involved physically, but only need to come up with material needs and know-how, under the supervision of UN or agreed international establishment, on how to manage and protect such sanctuaries.

If this happened, a row of other humanitarian devices and forms of aid could be carried out across the border without having to deal with the military regime. In other words, the international community could bypass the regime to help the badly needed oppressed population along the border.

For such a scenario to become a reality, Obama needs to secure Bangkok’s involvement in implementing humanitarian aids. It should be possible for the US President to co-ordinate and work closely with the newly elected Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajivat, notwithstanding ASEAN, known to be a real democrat with broad vision and not shy to take hard decision.

Imagine how such radical approach could weaken the Burmese military front-line soldiers, in contested areas, physiologically, which could lead to defection to the ethnic-democratic opposition side, provided there are facilities to accommodate and handle them. If this happen, the power of Burmese military based on coercion and fear would crumble like a house of cards.

Of course, this is just one out of many options in thinking out of the box to end the stalemate and create a new balance of power, so that the Burmese military would be willing to come to the table for genuine give-and-take discussion.

At the end of the day, a two-pronged approach of "pressure and engagement” would be the only viable approach to deal with such an entrenched military dictatorship.

What the people of Burma really need now is a real physical commitment from international stakeholders, with the lead of the United States, to give them a helping hand, once another massive uprising like last saffron revolution take place, and not just mere lip-service.

- Asian Tribune -

READ MORE---> Will Obama be ready for radical humanitarian intervention in Burma?...

Scandal of new boat people damaging Thailand

This picture taken December 23 by a tourist to Thailand's Similan Islands shows handcuffed refugees under guard.

(In the Field) BANGKOK, Thailand – The emerging scandal involving the Thai army’s alleged mistreatment of hundreds of ethnic Rohingya from Burma is slowly getting more and more worrying each day.

We don’t know yet exactly what happened, but a dark picture of hundreds of deaths at sea is emerging, and some are laying the blame with the Internal Security Operations Command of the Thai army.

The Rohingya have long been persecuted in Burma (or Myanmar as the junta renamed it) - many are stateless, living in horrendous poverty on Burma’s border with Bangladesh, unwanted and downtrodden.

Some 200,000 are on the Bangladeshi side of the border, scraping a living in sprawling refugee camps.

That context perhaps explains why so many thousand each year risk their lives in unseaworthy boats to try and find a better life in south-east Asia.

The men that boarded those boats must have known the journey would be perilous. They kissed good-bye to their wives and children and embarked on a voyage that was fraught with risk, destination unknown, but with the ultimate hope it would be transformative.

Just the slimmest chance of earning a few dollars a day in Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand made it seem worth gambling with their lives. Watch how the refugees’ plight came to light

Reported on: 22Jan09

Then imagine their overwhelming relief and delight at finally sighting land after days or perhaps even weeks adrift.

They’d made it - but what these refugees didn’t know was this was Thailand, not Malaysia, and the reception would be less than welcoming.

What happened next is unclear. The army insists it did nothing wrong, that it was villagers who took the Rohingya to a remote island in December, where they cared for them until they were ready to leave.

But according to many of the Rohingya survivors’ accounts, relayed to aid groups, they were detained by soldiers, beaten and intimidated and then towed back out to sea in their engineless boats, without sufficient food or water.

The lucky ones made it to either the Andaman Islands or Indonesia after weeks drifting at sea but many drowned as they jumped off the boats to try and make it to distant lights on the horizon or swimming in vain towards passing boats.

In the last couple of days the story has focused on another group of 46 Rohingya who came ashore in Thailand just last Friday.

Their whereabouts remains unknown. It’s the same story for another group of 80 Rohingya who also arrived recently, possibly part of the original group which arrived in December.

The U.N. has asked for access to these 126 supposedly detained refugees, but the Thai government has dragged its feet for days.

Perhaps it simply doesn’t know what became of them or perhaps it has something to hide?

There are reports that they may have already left Thailand, but that leaves more questions. When? How? The fear of course is that they have been dumped at sea again.

If this is true, it is utterly reprehensible and those responsible should be brought to justice.

The Thai prime minister has launched an inquiry, but many are wondering whether this will really result in any prosecutions. Read more from Dan Rivers on the scandal

All told, more than 500 Rohingya are missing and if the survivors are to be believed, the Thai army needs to be held to account.

This represents a major test of the credibility of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

I hope he has the courage to pursue a thorough, impartial and exhaustive inquiry into what has happened.

He needs to move fast - if these Rohingya are still in Thai custody, he must tell us where.

If they are not, who authorized their release, when were they set free and crucially how?

The prime minister has constantly reminded international audiences of the need to rebuild Thai society through the rule of law. This is his chance to put the rhetoric into action.

Posted by: CNN Bangkok correspondent, Dan Rivers

READ MORE---> Scandal of new boat people damaging Thailand...

Rights abuse? You wouldn't read about it

By Andrew Walker

(SMH) - Harry Nicolaides was herded, shackled, into a Bangkok holding cell on Monday. He was sentenced to three years in prison for the contents of a single paragraph. The Melbourne author's crime was to write a short passage referring to the private life of Thailand's crown prince in a self-published novel that sold only 10 copies.

He was sentenced under Thailand's draconian lese-majeste law, which forbids any frank discussion of the royal family. In the wake of the conviction, he threw himself on the mercy of the people he was accused of offending, petitioning the palace for a royal pardon.

Australian writer Harry Nicolaides in a criminal court cell.
Photo: AP

On Wednesday, this newspaper reported that the Thai army had - on two separate occasions - pushed about 1000 Burmese boat people back into international waters. The refugees were escaping from the Burmese regime's persecution of ethnic minorities. More than 500 are now said to be dead or missing.

The Thai military stands accused of detaining the refugees and beating and whipping them, before setting them adrift without motors or sufficient food and water. The Government says it has launched an investigation, while the local army commander denied the accusations, arguing his men gave the refugees provisions and "helped them on their way".

Thailand's human rights reputation has taken a battering. These two incidents represent a serious challenge for the new Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who says he is determined to restore his country's reputation after last year's political turmoil.

His Government came to power a month ago, after the dramatic occupation of Bangkok's international airport by protesters determined to overthrow the previous government. The protesters crippled Thailand's lucrative tourism industry, and shredded its long-cultivated image as a foreigner-friendly destination.

Abhisit presents himself as an urbane and modern leader (and Oxford educated to boot), one who can guide Thailand through the international financial crisis, restore the rule of law, and repair the country's damaged image.

But the Nicolaides case and the humanitarian tragedy of the Burmese boat people are not isolated incidents that can easily be dealt with by public relations spin. They relate to the role of two of the country's most powerful institutions - the monarchy and the army - which helped bring Abhisit to power.

The Government has placed protecting the monarchy's reputation at the top of its political agenda. Heightened political divisions over the past few years have generated increasing comment domestically and internationally about the political role of the royal family. There is unprecedented discussion about the palace's support for the campaign waged by the People's Alliance for Democracy against Thailand's former government, which was democratically elected in December 2007.

The Economist suggested - in a now infamous article - that the Thai king had "lost faith in democracy" by endorsing a series of military coups during his reign and remaining silent throughout last year while the ultra-royalist PAD campaigned to overthrow an elected government.

Forbes magazine encouraged further discussion by reporting that the king was the world's richest royal, with assets worth $US35 billion ($54 billion), while Thai internet bulletin boards regularly feature barely coded anti-royal comments that are especially critical of the Queen, given her open support for the PAD's campaign.

There has been a vigorous royalist backlash to this outbreak of free speech. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology has tried to block thousands of websites that carry material on the royal family, army units have been ordered to monitor the internet for inappropriate content and ordinary citizens have been encouraged to report anti-royal comments to police.

The crackdown is serious: a political activist was sentenced to six years in prison for criticising the king at a public rally, while another is in prison awaiting trial and facing the prospect of an even heavier sentence.

Just this week came another charge of lese-majeste. An academic at a prestigious university was charged because eight paragraphs in his book about the military coup in September 2006 referred to the political influence of the king.

Nicolaides was in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a campaign of good old-fashioned political repression. It is clear the Thai Government is willing to sacrifice freedom of speech for protection ofthe royal family's image.

But how will it respond to human rights abuses perpetrated by the army? The gravity of the charges over its actions towards the Burmese boat people, plus ongoing international scrutiny, should prompt firm action against the perpetrators. But this is far from inevitable, as there are bigger political issues involved.

The extent of military influence within the Government is not clear, but Abhisit owes his commanders big favours. His path to the prime ministership goes back to the 2006 coup, which overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra's populist government and sent him into exile.

The military-controlled government that followed put in place a new constitution. This included provisions that could be used to undermine a pro-Thaksin government if one was to regain power, which is exactly what happened in December 2007, at the first post-coup election.

The newly elected government had to live with judicial interference and speculation about another coup for much of its short life. Its fate was sealed when the army refused to move on PAD protesters who occupied Government House and, later, the international airport.

The army chief even took the extraordinary step of calling on Abhisit's predecessor, Somchai Wongsawat, to resign during the airport crisis. When the ruling party was finally dissolved by the Constitutional Court, the army chief played a key role in persuading government politicians to defect to Abhisit's camp, giving him the numbers to win the parliamentary vote for prime minister.

The army is politically powerful, and Abhisit can be expected to come under pressure not to expose it to undesirable domestic and international scrutiny. There is no lese-majeste law that can be called upon to cover up reports of refugee mistreatment. But already Abhisit seems to be laying the groundwork for a minimalist investigation, suggesting that media coverage of the incident may be exaggerated and that witnesses may have misunderstood what they were seeing. On Thursday he even seemed to endorse the army action, announcing a crackdown on illegal immigrants, declaring "we will push them out of the country".

The brutal dirty work against the unfortunate refugees is alleged to have been done by the internal security operations command, a military unit dating from Thailand's fight against communist insurgents during the Cold War. It was given expanded powers after the 2006 coup, and its broad national security brief may grant it protection from close scrutiny.

But whatever the outcome of the investigation, the incident is the latest in the army's very patchy human rights record. There is a well-documented history of forced repatriation of refugees by army units. And in the southern Muslim provinces, the army's heavy-handed response to low-level insurgency has compounded grievances and strengthened the cause of anti-government elements.

In 2004 there were two notorious cases of military brutality. In April, 28 militants were killed when the army stormed the sacred Krue Se mosque after a poorly managed siege. One of the commanders involved in the mosque killings, Colonel Manat Kongpan, is accused of leading the recent push-back action against the Burmese boat people. In October about 80 protesters suffocated when they were detained and stacked like logs in army trucks for a three-hour journey to a military base.

No one has been punished for these incidents, which took place under the watch of Thaksin, the champion of the notorious "war on drugs" that claimed over 2000 lives in a nationwide rampage of extrajudicial killings.

Abhisit is undoubtedly keen to distance his administration from the excesses of the Thaksin era. So far, despite some hitches, he has succeeded in presenting a positive image to the international community. After the political turmoil of the past year, his leadership holds out the attractive prospect of stability, perhaps even reconciliation.

But unless his Government is willing to expose the monarchy and the military to internationally acceptable standards of scrutiny and accountability, his human rights credibility will be compromised and he will bear a heavy burden of repression.

Murderous military brutality cannot go unpunished, especially when writing a paragraph about the private life of a prince in an unread book lands you in jail for three years.

Dr Andrew Walker is a senior fellow at the College of Asia and Pacific at the Australian National University, and convenor of New Mandala, a website on mainland South-East Asian affairs.

READ MORE---> Rights abuse? You wouldn't read about it...

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