Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Democracy plan fuels war in Myanmar

By Brian McCartan

MAE SOT, Thailand (Asia Times) - At a November meeting of ethnic minority and pro-democracy groups in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, a representative of the Danish government development agency DANIDA called on the dissident participants to take part in the political process inside Myanmar, including support for the upcoming 2010 elections, or face funding cuts.

Those behind-closed-door remarks were followed in January by a visit to Myanmar of Danish Development Minister Ulla Toraes and Norwegian minister Erik Solheim. While officially presented as a visit to observe Cyclone Nargis relief efforts, several Myanmar watchers questioned whether the delegation breached a European

Union prohibition on high-level visits to Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has been wishy-washy on its stance towards the elections, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari simply requesting that the ruling generals ensure that the elections are free and fair. Amid growing calls for Ban to make another visit to Myanmar, the UN has said little concerning what would make the elections internationally acceptable or what actions the international community should take if they are not.

Behind the silence is a growing notion among certain Western governments and international aid agencies that the junta's controversial planned elections will usher in a new era of stability to Myanmar. The reality is that the junta's push to legitimize its electoral process is already causing greater instability, especially along Myanmar's borders with Thailand and China. Myanmar's various ethnic-based ceasefire organizations are making moves to secure their power bases and territory in order to either maintain their bargaining positions whatever government results from the elections or, if push comes to shove, go back to war.

The elections represent the fifth step on the military regime's seven-step "roadmap to democracy". The generals have said that before the elections can take place the various ethnic insurgent ceasefire groups along the country's border areas must disarm and become legal political parties. Only once a "discipline flourishing democracy" has been established, says the government, will the concerns of the various ethnic groups be addressed.

With a year to go before the polls, ethnic insurgent organizations are being forced to decide whether to carry on the struggle or become state-controlled militias. Although Gambari was able to meet with certain ethnic Shan politicians on his visit in early February, and UN Human Rights Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana met last week with members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), it is unlikely that these staged meetings would have given either envoy a real sense of the dilemma facing many of the ethnic organizations.

For many Myanmar analysts and ethnic leaders there is a real worry that a military showdown is brewing between the generals and the ethnic groups that could tilt the region towards fighting on a scale not seen in over 20 years. Increased government pressure to disarm has already resulted in increased fighting along the Thai-Myanmar border as a Karen insurgent group allied with the junta tries to create more space for itself.

With little faith in the central government and its post-election promises, many other ceasefire groups say they will retain rather than give up their arms. Since the first ceasefires were signed in 1989, ethnic armies have resisted handing over their arms because they believe without them it would be impossible to negotiate a final settlement on equal terms or protect their people from a regime renowned for its gross human rights abuses.

The junta's disregard for ethnic group representatives at the National Convention to draft a new constitution, which was completed in 2007, and the forced disarmament of several smaller groups has only intensified ethnic distrust of the generals. Initial pressure to disarm, or at least to become militias or border guards under the control of Myanmar's armed forces, began prior to the completion of the National Convention.

That pressure intensified after the controversial national referendum held in May that approved a new constitution, which paved the way for next year's elections. The generals contend that under democracy there will be no need for ethnic organizations to retain their arms and instead that they should form political parties to represent their minority interests.

Electoral dilemma
Ethnic political organizations are caught on the horns of an electoral dilemma: if they boycott the polls, their grounds for criticizing the results will be weakened; by contesting, they will seemingly condone a process which most observers, including several ethnic leaders, view as a sham. Different groups are taking different approaches, though all have a common thread: the retention of arms.

The largest ceasefire groups are based in northern Myanmar, along the border with China. They include the United Wa State Army (UWSA) with an estimated 15,000-20,000 fighters, the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS) with around 2,500 and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) with up to 10,000 men, and the Kachin Independence Organization/Army (KIO/A) with between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers in Kachin State. The UWSA, NDAA and SSA-N all agreed to ceasefires in 1989, while the KIO signed on in 1994.

With a large and well-equipped army, wealth derived through legitimate business as well as drug trafficking, and support from China, the UWSA has historically played hard ball with the junta. In a move which observers see as a test of the generals' commitment to their new constitution, the UWSA has recently started stamping official documents as "Government of Wa State, Special Autonomous Region, Union of Myanmar" and changed its official office signs to read the same.

The constitution sets out a "Self-Administered Division" for the Wa and the UWSA is in effect declaring its rule over the area. The move comes amid increased tensions following a December meeting between UWSA officers and Major General Kyaw Pyoe from the Golden Triangle Command based in eastern Shan State. The general ordered the UWSA to disarm and reform into a government-controlled militia, a request that was rejected out-of-hand by the UWSA.

Underscoring that authority, a 30-man government delegation led by Lieutenant General Ye Myint, chief of Military Affairs Security, or Myanmar's military intelligence agency, was forced on January 19 to disarm when it crossed into Wa-controlled territory. Ye Myint's main mission, to discuss the upcoming elections, was instead limited to economic matters. The UWSA has yet to comment on whether it will participate in the polls, but recent moves to establish a factory for the production of small arms and ammunition, suggest that the UWSA is instead readying for a fight.

The NDAA, which is closely allied with the UWSA, has also resisted government calls to disarm and tensions have since grown with the Myanmar army. Meanwhile, the arrest in February 2005 and continued detention of SSA-N chairman Major General Hso Ten, along with several other Shan leaders, has soured relations and SSA-N troops have since joined the non-ceasefire Shan State Army-South along the border with Thailand. Both groups are expected to resist rather than allow themselves to be disarmed and become government-led militias.

In Kachin State, the KIO has declared it will not participate in the elections, but recently gave its approval to civilians who wish to set up a Kachin political party to contest the polls. The group has said that it hopes to enter into a dialogue with a new democratic government. And in the southern Myanmar areas of Mon State and Tenasserim Division, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) declared after a recent congress that it will not participate in the elections and would not disarm. The NMSP has been a consistent thorn in the regime's election plans, including its move to walk out of the National Convention in protest over lack of consideration of ethnic issues and a March 2008 statement stating its opposition to the national referendum.

Several ceasefire group leaders have remained coy about their preparations for possible hostilities. On the ground, observers describe military preparations including trainings and increased recruitment, as well as growing apprehension among the civilian populace. The junta, too, appears to be preparing for armed showdowns. It has for years increased troop numbers in areas near ceasefire groups and recent reports suggest that these troops are being reinforced with heavy weapons, including 76mm and 105mm artillery and with specialized troops, including Light Infantry Divisions 66 and 88.

With those movements, reports are spreading along border areas that the regime may move to rehabilitate various middle and senior ranking members of the now defunct Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), including former prime minister and DDSI head General Khin Nyunt. The DDSI was responsible for brokering many of the ceasefires, but was dismantled amid corruption allegations in 2004 which most observers saw as an intra-junta purge against the increasingly powerful Khin Nyunt and his followers. The former top-ranking junta member is has been sentenced to 44 years and is now under house arrest.

Insurgent officers say Khin Nyunt's rapport with the ethnic groups has not been equaled by the Military Affairs Security, which replaced DDSI. According to one insurgent official, Myanmar
army commanders have realized that Khin Nyunt's men knew how to handle the ceasefire groups and have even recently begun seeking out their opinions on how to bring ethnic groups into the election process.

Their inclusion is necessary to give the elections legitimacy among the international community and more importantly to bring all of the country's territories under the generals' nominal control. Yet the only major group which has so far agreed to the border guard arrangement is the government-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which controls territories in Myanmar's eastern Karen and Mon States.

Economic lures
Viewed by some as a test case for how ceasefire groups may evolve under Myanmar's new democracy, the outlook so far is not good for stability. The DKBA was told at a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw in December that under the new constitution they were to become a border guard force. Under the terms of the agreement, which has so far not been made public, the DKBA was promised control over border tax checkpoints and continued concessions for transportation, logging and other businesses.

Sources close to the DKBA say the move was unpopular because it means handing over political power over to a Myanmar-dominated regime - a concession which goes against the founding principles of the Karen's long struggle - and several officers threatened to resign as a result.

Rather than release statements or make a show of force, the group has instead concentrated on seizing new territories particularly former Karen National Union-controlled areas near Myawaddy and Kayin Seikgyi townships across from Tak Province in Thailand, to gain administrative control over lucrative border trades, including mining operations and cross-border agribusiness projects, in the new democratic era.

For all its statements of representing the cause of self determination and equality for the ethnic Karen people, the armed group is believed by many to be motivated more by business opportunities, including drug trafficking, it needs guns to maintain. The DKBA has so far not made any statements about whether or how it will contest the 2010 elections. Three Karen political parties currently exist, but none have any connection with the DKBA and only one, the Karen State National Organization, won any seats in the 1990 election. The election itself, according to rival KNU vice president Saw David Thakabaw, may split the DKBA into competitive, business-driven factions.

By playing ceasefire groups-cum-militias against other insurgent groups, the junta could bid to keep ethnic groups weak and divided while building its new nominally democratic power structure through elections. Concessions such as the tax checkpoints promised to the DKBA provide some incentive for joining the border guard scheme as opposed to renewed fighting. These could yet be strong economic lures for some of the ceasefire groups, particularly in relation to tentative deals with neighboring and considerably wealthier Thailand.

Thai Army commander General Anupong Paochinda paid a two day visit to Myanmar in mid-February where he met with junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, Defense Minister Thura Shwe Mann and Foreign Minster Nyan Win. It is perhaps significant that Anupong, rather than Thai Foreign Minster Kasit Piromya, handled the meeting where border issues were on the agenda.

Several cross-border business schemes are in the works, but have not been completed due to instability. For instance, an agreement was reached in May 2007 for Thai agribusinesses to cultivate tax-free over seven million hectares of land in Myanmar border areas. The agreement includes four areas of Mon and Karen States designated for contract farming, totaling some 300,000 hectares. Myanmar farmers were to grow under contract cassava, rubber, oil palm, sugarcane, beans and corn for export to Thailand.

The project appears to have stalled however due to complaints by Thai investors over taxes levied by Myanmar government officials, as well as the DKBA and KNU. Conflict over taxes on the corn harvest resulted in fighting between the KNU and DKBA south of Mae Sot in October and November, sources say. The fighting spilled over into Thailand on several occasions resulting in the shooting up of villages, burning of food storage barns, and at least one shootout between DKBA and Thai soldiers. One Thai soldier was injured by a landmine in the skirmish.

Still the DKBA has been working on new roads leading north and south of Myawaddy to service the plantations and commercial agriculture projects along the border. Other cross-border projects envisioned include a border trade zone at the border town of Myawaddy and industrial zones in Pa'an and Moulmein. The projects, financed though loans and grants from Bangkok, are designed to curb the mounting influx of Myanmar migrant workers into Thailand, now estimated at over 2 million people.

But while the DKBA is angling for business opportunities, the rival KNU has resisted Thai incentives to end fighting against the Myanmar army. That's inhibited the group's armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, ability to fight along the border and allowed the DKBA to seize several of the areas it formerly controlled. A KNU official told Asia Times Online his group had no plans for ceasefire talks and that it would not participate in the 2010 elections. That means democracy is just as likely to bring more, not less, instability to Myanmar's contested border areas.

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at brianpm@comcast.net.

READ MORE---> Democracy plan fuels war in Myanmar...

Burma releases 113 prisoners from Buthidaung jail

(Kaladan Press) - Buthidaung, Arakan State: Burma has released 113 prisoners including Rakhine and Rohingya from Buthidaung jail in Arakan State on February 22 night. Among the freed were 22 Rakhine and the rest were Rohingya prisoners, said a relative one of the released prisoners on condition of anonymity.

Burma announced the release of over 6,000 prisoners including 11 political prisoners, five monks, six NLD members and other prisoners, from prisons across the country on February 22, according to State television and radio.

The Burmese ruling junta has persistently denied the presence of political prisoners in the country’s jail. People believe that about 2,162 political prisoners and some religious persons are still in detention in various jails. They were arrested in 2003, but military junta persistently denies it. They (junta) claimed that they all are criminals, sources said.

The junta released the prisoners to participate in the general election to be held in 2010, for ushering in democracy in keeping with the regime’s seven-point road-map.

The announcement came a day after UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana wrapped up a six-day visit to Burma on February 19. This was his second trip to Burma since he assumed office in May 2008. He first visited Burma in August 2008.

Quintana was scheduled to visit Arakan and Kachin States where local opposition complain of repeated harassment by the authorities. People of Arakan hoped to meet the UN envoy and they would have apprised him of the difficulties they have been facing in Arakan. But the wish was not fulfilled as the UN envoy was not allowed to come to Arakan State. Local authorities had selected local villagers to meet the UN envoy, to provide pro-government statements, said a businessman who declined to be named.

A schoolteacher said that the Burmese ruling military had earlier also released prisoners after or before a UN envoys visited Burma to save face.

READ MORE---> Burma releases 113 prisoners from Buthidaung jail...

Christians forced to donate for Buddhist pagoda festival in Putao

(KNG) - Burmese government employees in Putao district in northern Kachin State had to contend with a forcible cut in their January salaries as contribution for a local Buddhist pagoda festival. The cut was enforced by the Putao district military authorities two weeks ago, said local people.

Local government personnel said the junta’s District and Township Peace and Development Councils (Kha Ya Ka and Ma Ya Ka) forcibly cut between 700 Kyat to 1,000 Kyat (about US $1) from the January salaries of about 400 personnel in Putao and Machyangbaw townships in the district for the Kong Muq Lung Buddhist Pagoda Festival held from February 7 to 10.

Most government employees in the two townships are Christians but they dared not refuse to donate from their salaries for the Buddhist religious festival which has nothing to do with Christian practices, sources said.

Besides, the junta’s military strategic command commander of Putao summoned a meeting of middle-class civilians (who have less money than others) from Christian communities and collected funds for the Kong Muq Lung Buddhist Pagoda Festival, according to Christian sources in the district.

A local Christian who donated for the Buddhist festival said, “We do donate for any social cause. But we cannot donate to other religious functions. It is because of the junta’s order we were forced to donate for the Pagoda Festival.”

On the night of the last day of the pagoda festival while the stage show was being held, the temporary bamboo-bridge on Mali River which joins Kong Muq Lung village where the pagoda is situated on the east of the river bank and Htawa Dam village on the west of the river bank, collapsed due to overcrowding but the number of causalities are yet to be reported, added local people.

The festival of Kong Muq Lung pagoda is held every year and the junta’s Northern Military Command (Ma Pa Kha) commander Maj-Gen Soe Win also joined the festival, said locals.

READ MORE---> Christians forced to donate for Buddhist pagoda festival in Putao...

EU Calls for Political Reform in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

In a statement on Monday, the European Union (EU)’s current presidency called for dialogue between the Burmese junta and the opposition, the release of political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on political parties.

“The Presidency of the EU strongly calls for an immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and detainees, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, lifting all restrictions on political parties, and all-inclusive dialogue between the authorities and the democratic forces, including ethnic groups,” the statement said.

From January to June 2009, the Czech Republic holds the presidency of the EU, followed by Sweden in the second half of the year. The Czech Republic is known to be sympathetic toward Burma’s pro-democracy movement. Its former president, Václav Havel, nominated Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won in 1991.

The EU Presidency recalled the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution which said the political process in Burma is “not transparent, inclusive, [or] free and fair; and that the procedures established for the drafting of the constitution resulted in the de facto exclusion of the opposition from the process.”

The EU Presidency also said that it shared the view by UN Special Envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari, saying now is the time for the Burmese junta to demonstrate its commitment to addressing concretely the issues of concern to the international community.

Since 1996, the EU has had a common position on Burma. This includes economic sanctions, an arms embargo and visa bans on Burmese military officials and their family members, as well as restricting visits to Burma by high-level officials from EU member states. It tightened its sanctions on Burma following the junta’s crackdown on monk-led demonstrators in September 2007.

Although the EU still retains sanctions against the Burmese junta, the European Commission provided Euro 39 million (US $50 million) for the initial Cyclone Nargis recovery project in 2008.

The European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner previously addressed a Burma conference in October 2008 saying, “Some positive political signals [in Burma] can be perceived, such as the continuation of the political process—the ‘Road Map.’ However, much more needs to be achieved.”

Observers say the “Road Map” is the Burmese junta’s plan to enshrine military rule in Burma rather than encourage a process of democratization.

Ferrero-Waldner said Burma is in “dire need” of democratic reforms, release of political prisoners and good governance. She also said that the EU, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the UN had taken an “active role in fostering a dialogue on political reforms” in the country.

Last week, Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), called for political dialogue without preconditions between the junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe and the NLD leader, Suu Kyi.

READ MORE---> EU Calls for Political Reform in Burma...

Gas Discovery Reported Near Rangoon

The Irrawaddy News

The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) has located an inland gas deposit in Dagon Myothit Eastern Township near Rangoon, according to residents in the exploration area.

MOGE started drilling a test well on February 12 on land owned by a local farmer, Than Tun, near Laydaungkan Village, said a local farmer.

“The exploration group came into the bean fields to conduct seismic surveys in search of gas,” he said. He said drilling tests proved successful on February 14.

Another farmer from Laydaungkan Village said, “They destroyed the crops planted by Than Tun without compensation.” Than Tun was hospitalized because of stress associated with the drilling, he said.

MOGE, which operates under the Ministry of Energy, would not respond to queries from The Irrawaddy about the reported gas discovery. MOGE is the government’s exploration and production department for oil and gas in Burma.

At least 21 multinational oil and gas companies from China, Singapore, South Korea, India, Russia, Malaysia, Thailand, the United States, France, Japan and Australia have long-term contracts with MOGE. The Burmese military government began to allow foreign investments in energy production in 1988.

The military government has signed gas and oil contracts with multinationals such as Total of France; CNOOC and SNPC of China; Daewoo of South Korea; onGC of India; Danford Equities of Australia and PTTEP of Thailand.

According to the Rangoon-based Myanmar Times weekly journal, the Burmese energy sector, including hydropower, oil and gas, comprises 65 percent of Foreign Direct Investment, which is made up of 12 economic sectors that include power, energy, mining, manufacturing, hotels and tourism, livestock and fisheries, transportation and telecommunications.

READ MORE---> Gas Discovery Reported Near Rangoon...

Political prisoners set free in Myanmar

Ma Khin Khin Leh, pictured with her husband Kyaw Wunna -© Private

(Amnesty Org) - Twenty-four political prisoners were set free in Myanmar on Saturday after the government announced that it would release 6,313 prisoners.

One of those released is prisoner of conscience Ma Khin Khin Leh, who has been the subject of Amnesty International campaigns since her arrest in July 1999. The authorities detained her because they could not find her husband, Kyaw Wunna, who was connected to a pro-democracy march expected to take place that month.

Of the other released political prisoners, there were nine Buddhist monks and one nun. Some were members of Myanmar’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy. These included Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, a MP-elect who had been in prison since 1990.

Another man, Zaw Naing Htwe, was released from a labour camp. Zaw Naing Htwe was sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2008 because he had received a letter from his elder brother, who was one of the imprisoned 88 Generation Students group leaders.

"There are still more than 2,100 political prisoners behind bars in Myanmar. Many of them are in poor health, partly as a result of harsh prison conditions," said Donna Guest, Asia Pacific Deputy Director.

“While the release of these prisoners is welcome, the Myanmar government must release all other prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally."

READ MORE---> Political prisoners set free in Myanmar...

Myanmar political prisoners released

(CNN) -- Nineteen political prisoners were released by the government of Myanmar over the weekend, the human rights group Amnesty International reported Tuesday.

Among those released was Ma Khin Khin Leh, who was serving a life sentence because her husband, a student activist, had helped plan a protest demonstration in Bago in July 1999, according to Amnesty International USA's Web blog

Authorities prevented the demonstration from taking place, but took the woman and her three-year-old daughter into custody after failing to find her husband, Amnesty International said.

The child was released after five days but her mom, a 33-year-old school teacher, was sentenced to life in prison.

"Even by the normally harsh standards of 'justice' meted out by Myanmar's military government, the life sentence given to Ma Khin Khin Leh was extreme," the human rights organization said.

She was designated one of Amnesty International USA's priority cases. She was released with 18 others "widely considered to be political prisoners," Amnesty International said.

Myanmar's military rulers have been widely condemned for their alleged human rights abuses.

Pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been confined in her home for 12 of the past 18 years. Her last house arrest began in 2003 and has been periodically renewed.

In October 2007, clashes erupted between pro-democracy demonstrators and government security forces. As many as 110 people are believed to have been killed in that crackdown, including 40 Buddhist monks.

The protests were sparked by a huge fuel price increase imposed by the military government, and quickly escalated. Myanmar's military junta said in mid-October that it had detained more than 2,900 people amid the clashes.

In September 2008, Amnesty International reported that Myanmar, also called Burma, had released seven dissidents, among them U Win Tin, a journalist and senior official in the opposition National League for Democracy who had been imprisoned for 19 years.

READ MORE---> Myanmar political prisoners released...

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