Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Letter to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan

Burma's military government continues to deny its citizens' basic rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Repeated promises of democratic transition do not justify the subversion of these rights.

February 25, 2009

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
Secretary General - ASEAN
70A Jalan Sisingamangaraja
Jakarta 12110

Via Facsimile: +62 21 739 8234

Dear Secretary General,

We write to urge you and ASEAN leaders to use the discussions during the summit meeting from February 27 to March 1 to address three crucial human rights concerns in the region.

First, ASEAN should set a new standard to address the human rights situation in Burma.

Secondly, the recent tragedy surrounding the perilous exodus of Burma's Rohingya minority reveals glaring failures of ASEAN and its member countries on the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Finally, the global economic downturn and the resulting impact on migrants' rights highlights how gaps in current labor and policy frameworks across the region have left millions of workers at high risk of mistreatment.

A test case for ASEAN's fledgling Human Rights Body

Burma's military government continues to deny its citizens' basic rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Repeated promises of democratic transition do not justify the subversion of these rights. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regularly arbitrarily imprisons political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders-the number of political prisoners nearly doubled following the September 2007 crackdown to more than 2,150. The government's pardoning of thousands of prisoners in September 2008 and February 2009 has resulted in only a handful of political prisoners being released, while dozens or hundreds more are arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for peaceful political activities.

The Burmese military continues to violate the rights of civilians in ethnic conflict areas by committing extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and land confiscation without due process both as part of military offensives and in preparation for mega-infrastructure projects of foreign companies. The military government also worsened economic hardship and humanitarian crises in many parts of Burma by obstructing international assistance, including the ASEAN-led international humanitarian efforts to assist more than two million people affected by the devastating Cyclone Nargis.

The continuing serious violations of human rights in Burma reflects in part ASEAN's failure to devise concrete measures for the SPDC to adopt to improve domestic situations and conform to the core values of the ASEAN Charter, which came into effect on December 15, 2008. The ASEAN Charter commits member states to protect human rights. At the summit, foreign ministers will discuss the terms of reference for the ASEAN human rights body and this is an important opportunity for ASEAN leaders to create an independent and effective mechanism.

We urge that Burma be a priority in the AHRB's assessment of human rights situations in member countries. Findings and recommendations should then be presented and discussed during the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meetings and the ASEAN Summits so that there will be collective action of ASEAN to respond to Burma's serious violations of international human rights law and human rights provisions in the ASEAN Charter. In addition, we urge ASEAN to use the AHRB's mandate to encourage Burma on the following issues:

* Ratifying and implementing human rights and international humanitarian law treaties.
* Timely and adequate reporting to the United Nations human rights treaty-monitoring bodies.
* Opening the country to the United Nations Special Procedures and providing them with full assistance and access.
* Implementing recommendations of the United Nations treaty bodies and Special Procedures.
* Establishing national human rights institutions in accordance with the United Nations Principles relating to the status of national institutions (the "Paris Principles").
* Ensuring that human rights defenders can carry out their work unhindered.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees in ASEAN Member States

Recent events, when hundreds of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers were found perished at sea trying to reach the coastlines of Thailand and Indonesia, are a wake-up call for ASEAN to change its approach in dealing with the exodus of people from Burma. The Rohingya are among millions of Burman and ethnic minority populations inside Burma who have for decades sought refuge in neighboring countries, hoping to be protected from persecution and abuses committed by Burma's military government.

As more and more people try to escape from deteriorating conditions in Burma, ASEAN member countries cannot look the other way and close the door to those in need of assistance and protection. Horrific examples include the policy adopted by Thailand to use navy warships and maritime militias to block Rohingya boats from entering its territorial waters and tow those boats back to the high sea, and then failing to provide sufficient food and water.

The 14th ASEAN Summit may discuss short- and medium-term measures in recipient countries to provide the Rohingya fleeing Burma shelter and access to the protection mechanisms of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But given the trajectory of repression and hardship in Burma, those measures, while necessary, will not be sufficient. At present, only two ASEAN countries have ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol despite Southeast Asia's long history of both refugees and assistance for refugees. Countries like Malaysia and Thailand, have in the past assisted many refugees, but currently make no real distinction between undocumented migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and have at times committed refoulement, the forced return of refugees to places where they face persecution, a fundamental violation of international law.

We urge ASEAN member states to:

* Ratify the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol without delay.
* Incorporate the international refugee definition into domestic law and introduce asylum procedures consistent with international standards that will give asylum seekers a fair opportunity to present their claims and protect them while their refugee claims are pending. Grant rights to residence, documentation, and work.
* In the absence of a domestic asylum procedure that enables Burmese to challenge the grounds for their deportation, end the practice of deporting Burmese without an opportunity for UNHCR to screen them to determine if they are asylum seekers or refugees.

Migration, Forced Labor and Trafficking

Millions of men and women from Southeast Asia work as migrants in both Asia and the Middle East, typically in domestic work, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. While migrants' labor and their earnings play a pivotal role in the economies of both their countries of employment and origin, few protections exist to avoid their exploitation. ASEAN has a critical role to play to ensure that governments establish and enforce standards to ensure that recruitment, employment, and repatriation take place respecting international human rights norms.

Trafficking within and emanating from Southeast Asia remains a serious problem, and harsh immigration enforcement measures have served to fuel additional abuses in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. Many migrants are deceived about their working conditions, cheated out of the rightful wages, abused by their employers, and deported without access to redress. In Thailand, migrants are vulnerable to arrest and extortion by corrupt officials, and risk exploitation, abuse and death. Migrants have told Human Rights Watch how police routinely "shake down" undocumented migrants, threatening to arrest them if they do not pay up. Decrees in Ranong, Rayong, and Phang Nga provinces have made it unlawful for migrants to go out at night, carry mobile phones or ride motorcycles.

While some ASEAN countries have begun to establish regulations for labor recruitment, these remain inadequate and poorly enforced. For example, migrants from Indonesia are regularly charged illegal and exorbitant fees, often incurring debts at usurious interest rates. Prospective domestic workers are often locked up in pre-departure "training" centers for months. Agents sometimes deceive prospective workers about the nature and conditions of work they will perform, their wages, and the country in which they will be employed.

Countries that employ migrant domestic workers, such as Singapore and Malaysia have failed to ensure that these workers enjoy protections such as provisions for one day off per week, overtime pay, limits on salary deductions, access to labor courts, annual leave, and other benefits. Establishing standard contracts or separate laws with weaker protections than those in existing labor laws are not a substitute for providing domestic workers equal protection under the law.

In many cases, bilateral cooperation between ASEAN countries has failed to establish adequate protection for vulnerable migrant populations. For example, a memorandum of understanding between Malaysia and Indonesia fails to protect migrant domestic workers ability to keep their passports or to establish minimum labor standards. Regional cooperation and leadership from ASEAN can help to ensure minimum standards across the region that will avoid an unhealthy race to the bottom, as countries compete for jobs in a volatile economic climate. Furthermore, ASEAN can play an important role in facilitating mechanisms for complaints that cross international borders. In many cases, migrants are repatriated or deported before they have the opportunity to complain to authorities about mistreatment or crimes.

Such cooperation is also critical in the fight against human trafficking. Both Malaysia and Thailand have failed to investigate allegations of collusion between government officials and trafficking gangs on the Malay-Thai border. In 2008, Burmese migrants told Human Rights Watch of being sold to criminal gangs, who charged those with money to smuggle them back into Malaysia and trafficked those who could not pay. Human Rights Watch has interviewed Burmese migrants in Thailand who confirm the trafficking allegations. They said that others working alongside them on fishing boats have been trafficked by gangs working on the Malaysian border. Other Burmese had been in Thai police lock-ups, but brokers had paid police to release them, and then sold them to fishing-boat captains.

Immigration enforcement measures have compounded these issues. In Malaysia, enforcement of the Immigration Act 2002 has involved mass immigration sweeps without proper screening of migrants to detect individuals in need of protection-such as refugees, trafficking victims, and workers who have been subject to abuse-and to ensure that they are not subject to penalties imposed under the Act. Malaysia has failed to address abuses against migrants by the People's Volunteer Corps (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat or RELA), the government-backed force that apprehends irregular migrants and provides security for Malaysia's immigration detention centers. In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented a pattern of abuse by members of RELA, including physical assault, intimidation, threats, humiliating treatment, forced entry into living quarters, extortion, and theft perpetrated against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

We urge ASEAN member states to:

* End the use of government-backed civilian corps to apprehend migrant workers.
* Ratify the International Covenant on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and bring domestic law and policy into conformity with the convention.
* Extend equal protection of the labor laws to domestic workers and create mechanisms for enforcement.
* Institute screening procedures to identify and assist trafficking victims and abused migrant workers.
* Strengthen regulations governing recruitment agencies, with clear mechanisms to monitor and enforce these standards, independent monitoring, substantial penalties for violations, and clear standards for recruitment fees or their complete elimination.
* End unlawful restrictions imposed on migrant workers freedom of movement and freedom of association.
* Ensure migrants have access to justice and support services-Including international cooperation to file complaints from migrants who have been repatriated or deported.

While ASEAN has recently declared its intention to address some of these issues through the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, ASEAN Declaration on Trafficking in Persons, Particularly Women and Children, and the Bali Process, concrete improvements on the ground are yet to be seen.

We look forward to your attention to these matters of concern.

Yours sincerely,

Elaine Pearson
Deputy Director
Asia Division
Nisha Varia
Deputy Director
Women's Rights Division

Original Source: HRW

READ MORE---> Letter to ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan...

US lashes 'brutal' Myanmar rights record

(The Raw Story-AFP)- The United States lashed out at the Myanmar regime's human rights record Wednesday, saying the military was "brutally" suppressing its citizens and razing entire villages.

In an annual global report on human rights, the State Department said Myanmar's ruling junta carried out numerous extrajudicial killings along with rape and torture without punishing anyone responsible.

"The regime brutally suppressed dissent," it said, faulting the junta for "denying citizens the right to change their government and committing other severe human rights abuses."

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, crushed a 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks, killing at least 31 people, according to the UN. In May last year, a cyclone left 138,000 people dead or missing.

"The regime showed contempt for the welfare of its own citizens when it persisted in conducting a fraudulent referendum in the immediate aftermath" of the cyclone, the State Department said.

It said that Myanmar also "delayed international assistance that could have saved many lives."

The regime forcibly relocated people away from their homes, particularly in areas dominated by ethnic minorities, with troops then confiscating their property or looting their possessions, the report said.

"Thousands of civilians were displaced from their traditional villages -- which often were then burned to the ground -- and moved into settlements tightly controlled by government troops in strategic areas," the report said.

"In other cases villagers driven from their homes fled into the forest, frequently in heavily mined areas, without adequate food, security or basic medical care," it said.

The State Department also said that women and members of certain minority groups are completely absent in the government and the judiciary.

Myanmar's most famous woman, pro-democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest for most of the last 19 years.

READ MORE---> US lashes 'brutal' Myanmar rights record...

Rethinking Relations With Burma

(Voice of America) - President Barack Obama has held out his hand to world leaders seeking engagement, rather than confrontation to solve international disputes. This entails a review of the way the United States deals with specific countries, and such an effort is now under way regarding the government of Burma.

The U.S. government has long sought to encourage peaceful change in that Southeast Asian nation and has promoted genuine dialogue with opposition groups as necessary for transition to a representative government that responds to the will of its people. Since the 1960s, Burma has been controlled by a military junta that tolerates no opposition and keeps tight control of the nation's economy.

More than two thousand political prisoners languish in Burmese jails, a number that has doubled in the past 18 months, and democracy activist leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, has remained under house arrest for the majority of the past 19 years. In response, the U.S. has maintained economic sanctions and visa bans against members of the junta and its top supporters, but with no appreciable change in attitude by the generals in Rangoon.

On her recent visit to Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is looking at the best ways to influence the Burmese regime, acknowledging that neither sanctions nor engagement have worked. No decisions have been made, but there is a clear goal to develop a policy that ultimately benefits the Burmese people in their desire to shape the future of their own country.

In what the regime touts as a nod toward reform, the Burmese government has planned elections next year under a constitution approved in a referendum that was neither free nor fair, and conducted amid the turmoil following Cyclone Nargis, which devastated parts of the country. But it has a long way to go before achieving true representative government, since the military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

In its review of its approach to Burma,
U.S. leaders will have much to consider.

READ MORE---> Rethinking Relations With Burma...

Junta pressurizes KIO’s 4th brigade in northeast Shan State

(KNG) - The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is coming under increasing pressure from the Burmese military junta regarding the presence of its armed wing, the 4th Brigade of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northeast Shan State, said KIO sources.

The KIA’s 4th Brigade is under pressure and has been given two options by the junta--- to shift all KIA bases and troops from northeast Shan State to Kachin State or to surrender its weapons to the regime and transform into a new Kachin militia group in the same places, according to KIA’s 4th Brigade sources.

The KIA’s 4th Brigade has been under mounting pressure to relocate or surrender by the ruling junta since it signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta in 1994, said KIA officers in the 4th Brigade.

Recently, the Lashio based junta’s Northeast of Shan State Military Command (Ya Ma Kha) commander Maj-Gen Soe Win pressurized the KIA’s 4th Brigade with the two options, added the KIA’s 4th Brigade sources.

Till now, the KIA’s 4th Brigade officials have been countering the junta’s pressure and they say they will neither surrender their weapons nor move to Kachin State, said KIA officials in Laiza headquarters on the Sino-Burma border in Kachin State.

Under the control of KIA’s 4th Brigade in northeast Shan State, the KIA battalion 2, 8 and 9 are currently based in its controlled areas. The Brigade has now over 1,500 men and women in uniform and is the strongest brigade among all five brigades of the KIA in Kachin and Shan States.

In the past after the ceasefire agreement, there were two big killings in the KIA’s 4th Brigade by the Burmese Army.

On January 2, 2006, five KIO servicemen including office staff and KIA soldiers in Muse Township Office were shot dead by Burmese troops. All the bodies were creamed by the Burmese Army.

There were similar atrocities in the KIA’s 4th Brigade, where nine KIA soldiers and two civilians in the KIA’s developing agricultural field were tortured and killed by the Burmese Army on March 22, 2001.

Despite the seriousness of the incidents, the KIO/KIA did not react strongly or threaten to break the ceasefire agreement between them. For this it was strongly condemned by its men and women in service and the Kachin people.

READ MORE---> Junta pressurizes KIO’s 4th brigade in northeast Shan State...

Forestry officials confiscate cattle from farmers

(DVB)–Forestry authorities confiscated 24 bulls and 46 bullock carts from farmers in Kyauktaga village in Daik-U township, Bago division, accusing the farmers of stealing timber and bamboo.

The incident occurred on 22 February when the farmers were out collecting the materials they needed for their farms, one farmer said.

"We went to collect wood and bamboo for the rainy season and people from the forestry department came and confiscated our carts near Baina reservoir," a farmer said.

"They came with elephants, fired shots and confiscated [our cattle and carts]."

The officials confiscated the animals and carts from the farmers, reportedly on the orders of the district forestry office, and demanded a fine, the farmer said.

"We went to see them at the school building as we were told. We were then told to go to the district office for negotiations,” the farmer said.

“We don’t know where to go and don’t know how to proceed,” the farmer said.

“We will have to pay them the amount they demand by selling off what we have."

Daik-U township forestry department could not be reached for comment.

Reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat

READ MORE---> Forestry officials confiscate cattle from farmers...

Asean Financial Gloom to Trump Rights Issues

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — The prickly issue of human rights in Burma will take a back seat to the global financial meltdown as leaders of cash-strapped Southeast Asian countries meet this weekend for an annual summit.

Ducking the spotlight will be a relief for Burma's military junta, which has been busy locking up dissidents and has ignored UN demands to free its highest-profile political prisoner, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the rest of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the financial crisis offers an opportunity to avoid the perennial dilemma of confronting its most troublesome member and other sensitive topics.

Thailand, which currently holds Asean's rotating chairmanship and is hosting the summit, bills the meeting as a turning point for the bloc that has long been criticized as a talk shop that forges agreements by consensus and steers away from confrontation.

It is the first time leaders will meet since the group signed a landmark charter in December. The document made Asean a legal entity and moves it a step closer toward the goal of establishing a single market by 2015 and becoming a European Union-like community.

"This summit will mark a new chapter for Asean," Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said recently. "We want to make Asean a more rule-based and effective organization according to the charter."

But the run-up to the summit has showcased some of the disarray in Asean, which groups more than 500 million people and includes fledgling democracies, a monarchy, a military dictatorship and two communist regimes.

Originally scheduled for December in Bangkok, the summit was postponed because of political upheaval in Thailand. Abhisit, who came to power that month on the back of protests, shifted the venue to the beach resort Hua Hin, 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital, to escape lingering protests in Bangkok.

Senior officials start meeting on February 26 ahead of the weekend leaders' summit. Asean's 10 members include Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

In recent years, Asean summits have been followed by the so-called East Asia Summit, which includes the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. But Beijing couldn't make the new Feb meeting, forcing Thailand to call a second summit in April.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has decried the back-to-back meetings as "a waste of time," saying the absence this weekend of China, Japan and South Korea means Asean can't lobby Asia's economic powers for financial aid. The sharp-tongued Hun Sen has been particularly critical of Thailand since a border dispute last year sparked deadly clashes and brief concerns of war between the neighbors.

Philippine diplomats also say their interest in the summit has "really waned" without the three East Asian powers attending.

Southeast Asian countries are struggling to revive their export-driven economies amid rising employment and fears of recession. The economies of Thailand and Singapore have already shrunk while Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are grappling with rapidly slowing growth.

Asian finance ministers agreed last weekend to form a $120 billion pool of foreign-exchange reserves to protect falling currencies. Asean members will provide 20% of funding, with 80% from China, Japan and South Korea.

Among the key documents to be signed at the meeting are a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand and a roadmap for turning Asean into an EU-style bloc by 2015, as outlined by the new charter.

One of the charter's key pledges is to set up a regional human rights body, though critics doubt that members like Burma would allow it to have much clout.

Meanwhile, specific human rights issues—including the plight of the stateless Rohingya boat people who flee Burma and have recently washed up on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia—will be discussed on the sidelines but not as part of the summit's formal agenda.

Burma has come under vocal criticism by the United Nations for jailing hundreds of dissidents ahead of general elections promised for 2010—the first in 20 years. The junta holds more than 2,100 political detainees, including pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi. The 63-year-old Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial.

But Asean has no intention of formally scolding Burma, Vitavas Srivihok, the director-general the Thai Foreign Ministry's Asean department told reporters earlier this week.

"We don't have any specific meetings regarding Myanmar (Burma) because it is sensitive," he said, "and we don't want to single out any country."

READ MORE---> Asean Financial Gloom to Trump Rights Issues...

Time for NLD to Step Up to the Plate

The Irrawaddy News

Burma's military government last week announced it would release more than 6,300 prisoners, of whom just 23 were classified as political prisoners—including nine Buddhist monks. State-run television in Burma reported that the prisoners were being released for the "social consideration of their families" and to take part in the 2010 elections.

The statement coincided with a five-day visit to Burma by the United Nations’ human rights envoy, Tomás Ojea Quintana, and occurred at a time when the UN Security Council was meeting to hear a firsthand account from that other special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, on his recent visit and meeting with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the military junta. The announcement was also timely in that it came just one week ahead of an Asean summit in Thailand.

Whatever cosmetic appearance the junta was trying to solicit, most observers agreed that the release of prisoners represented the regime’s rather futile attempt to prevent—or at least reduce—the international criticism on their poor human rights record which raises its ugly head any time regional or global bodies meet to discuss Burmese issues.

Meanwhile, global diplomacy has failed yet again in Burma by its inability to produce any movement on the key Burmese issues: opening dialogue between Suu Kyi and junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe; releasing her and some 2,200 other political prisoners; and ensuring that the elections scheduled for next year will include all opposition parties and minority groups.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a trip through Asia, lamented last week that neither US sanctions nor engagement by regional nations have convinced the junta. "It is an unfortunate fact that Burma seems impervious to influences from anyone," Clinton said. "The path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the Burmese junta, but ... reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either."

The Burmese generals in Naypyidaw know only too well that the overseas criticisms are no more than the toothless growls of a paper tiger. Their unilateral decision to hold elections next year will be little more than a pantomime to rubber stamp the junta’s new constitution guaranteeing the military a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

However, sitting on the sidelines, some so-called "experts" have naively come to believe that the election in 2010 could represent a major turning point in Burmese politics, opening a space from which the pro-democracy groups will take initiatives for gradual economic and political reform.

In fact, Than Shwe has still not approved the election law. Rumors are circulating in Rangoon that no consensus has been reached in Naypyidaw on which officers will be given parliamentary seats and which will continue in military service.

If we compare the situation to Zimbabwe, we see that—like it or not—the grip of the African nation’s strongman Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party has not weakened because of any international or regional pressure, but due to the effects of drought, HIV/AIDS and economic meltdown.

After months of deadlock, Mugabe has finally been forced to confront the division of ministries in a planned national unity government with the opposition. In the wake of Zimbabwe's economic collapse and spiraling humanitarian crisis, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister with Mugabe remaining president, despite Western leaders calling on Mugabe to step down.

Likewise in Burma, after 20 years of struggle for national reconciliation and talk of rebuilding the failed nation, political leaders and policymakers in Burma must come up with more effective and pragmatic ways to deal with Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw.

To persuade the military to engage, the Burmese opposition should focus not only on its demand to free political prisoners, but to exploit the stagnation of the domestic economy and the humanitarian crisis. The NLD, in particular, has to date been too slow to react and has tiptoed around the issues. It needs to let the people know that it is capable of tackling the economic challenges that Burma will face in a post-dictatorial world.

READ MORE---> Time for NLD to Step Up to the Plate...

Lack of Proper Equipment Hampers Burma’s Firefighters

The Irrawaddy News

Lack of money and effective equipment is hampering Burmese local authorities tackle an increasing number of dry season fires.

The official government newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reported a total of 96 serious fires had broken out in Burma in January.

Fires so far in February include a blaze on Tuesday that destroyed a plastics factory in Rangoon’s Dawbon Township and a disastrous one on February 22 that swept through Kyaut Oe village in Sagaing Division, destroying 85 homes. The 649 villagers left homeless by the blaze are being sheltered at the local monastery.

A forest fire that began last week in a northeastern border region of Burma has spread into neighboring Chinese Yunnan Province, according to China's official Xinhua news agency. More than 200 hectares were ablaze, the agency said.

More than 3,000 soldiers, armed police and villagers were marshaled to fight the fire in the border county of Tengchong. The firefighters dug a 10,000-meter ditch on Sunday to keep the blaze from spreading, but a combination of strong gales, dry weather and mountainous terrain made their work difficult, Xinhua said.

Of the 96 serious fires registered in January, 74 were caused by kitchen accidents and negligence, 14 by electrical short circuits and six by arson. There was one forest fire.

The New Light of Myanmar report did not say whether there had been casualties.

In 2008, more than 5,000 houses, 15 factories and workshops and 30 warehouses were destroyed by fire, according to official statistics. More than 17,000 people were made homeless.

Firefighters in Burma are hampered by a lack of such essential equipment as extension ladders and fireproof clothing, according to fire department officials.

The country has 217 fire stations. There are an additional 328 auxiliary fire stations, which rely on donations from local communities. “If you want the firemen to put out the fire, you have to give them money”, said one source.

READ MORE---> Lack of Proper Equipment Hampers Burma’s Firefighters...

Two ABFSU leaders transferred to remote prisons

(DVB)–Two All Burma Federation of Student Unions leaders who were recently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment each have been transferred to remote prisons, according to their families.

ABFSU leaders Kyaw Ko Ko and Nyan Linn Aung were sentenced to three years in prison by Mingalar Taung Nyunt township court in Rangoon earlier this month under video laws.

Kyaw Ko Ko was among the political prisoners who met UN special rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana during his recent visit to Burma.

Kyaw Ko Ko’s father Kyaw Aye said he had not been able to see his son since the visit because political inmates are only allowed family visits once every two weeks.

“My son met with Mr Quintana on the 16th but I couldn’t go and visit him as I had just seen him on the 13th,” said Kyaw Aye. Kyaw Aye said he found out his son and Nyan Linn Aung had been moved from Insein to other remote prisons early on Saturday morning, but had not yet been able to confirm where they have been sent.

“I went to a court in Tamwe [on 23 February] to show support for some political activists on trial there,” he said.

“They told me that my son and his colleague were no longer in Insein prison ward 5 where they were previously detained.”

Kyaw Aye said he immediately went to Insein prison and was told by an official there that Kyaw Ko Ko had been transferred to Taunggyi prison in Shan state while Nyan Linn Aung was sent to Bhamo prison in Kachin state.

“I made a phone call to Taunggyi prison to confirm the news but they told me Kyaw Ko Ko had not yet arrived,” Kyaw Aye said.

Reporting by Nan Kham Kaew

READ MORE---> Two ABFSU leaders transferred to remote prisons...

Changing patterns in Burma's media

By Htet Aung Kyaw

(DVB)–With one of the most strictly-controlled media environments in the world, Burmese journalists who oppose the military government are forced to work in secret, with the prospect of lengthy imprisonment an everyday threat.

Exiled news organizations in countries such as Thailand and India work covertly with networks of journalists inside Burma, receiving and publishing articles and commentary on political developments inside the country.

The last few years have also seen a rise in internet bloggers, and subsequently a fierce crackdown by the regime. In 2008, two bloggers were jailed for 20 years each for publishing critical material of General Than Shwe.

DVB spoke to a number of journalists and media experts, both Burmese and foreign, to discuss the current media environment within Burma, and to highlight the differences for media inside and outside the country.

Maung Maung Myint is chair of the Burmese Media Association, Kyaw Zwa Moe is deputy editor of The Irrawaddy, and Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist with a focus on Burma.

DVB began by asking what the current situation is like for media freedom in Burma.

Maung Maung Myint: "It's obvious that Burmese government's pressure on the media inside the country has been more intensified since after the 2007 September uprisings – there has been sentencing of journalists and media right activists to long prison terms throughout this time.

"The situation on the Burmese media freedom is not good and we think it will be the same until 2010. After that, if we are unlucky, things will even get worse."

Kyaw Zwa Moe: "In Burma, now we have more journalists than we had 20 years ago. Despite various difficulties, the censor laws and the pressure from the government, they are doing what they can with an increased capacity."

"And we see that they are trying their best to reach their message and information to the audience."

Larry Jagan: “Twenty years ago the Burmese media was completely government-controlled and no dissident or different opinions were allowed.

“Now we see, particularly in the print media, a proliferation of magazines and newspapers, none of which are necessarily anti-government but many of which have pushed the boundaries of journalism, particularly on issues like HIV/Aids, the environment, and the economy.”

DVB: What is the significance of the outside media? Are exiled journalists affected by bias, and do foreign journalists have adequate expertise?

Kyaw Zaw Moe: "It is important for the journalists to be independent. There is always a factor about self-censorship, such as not criticising the democratic movement even when there is something wrong with it because the journalist himself/herself has is from the movement.

“This depends on how much they believe, understand and how much ethics they follow in their journalist profession."

Maung Maung Myint: "I don't see that the Burmese youths who became journalists out of the 1988 uprising and the other movements are holding bias thoughts just because they came from that path.

“They have their brain, and their own ability to see and hear things and they have their common sense to differentiate what is right or wrong. If one values his or her own status of being a journalist, then he or she will also value the quality of the news which is measured by truthfulness.

“A journalist who respects this will stand on the same side with the truth."

Kyaw Zaw Moe: "Another issue we are having with the media outside is that, we always emphasise on being the first to publish a news without trying to verify whether the information in it real or not, because the competition among the organisations here is big."

DVB: How much confidence can we can have in the outside media (with non-independent journalists and organisations worried about funding) and the inside media (with issues of oppression and self-censorship)?

Kyaw Zwa Moe: "I am positive about this. Despite increasing pressure from the government, we are having more committed journalists who aim for a more successful, independent media society in Burma.

“To have a say what will happen in next five years, it depends a lot on how much we, the media both inside and outside Burma, have in our mind to learn, devote and follow the media ethics."

Maung Maung Myint: "As long as there are people inside Burma who are fighting for the media freedom with a great sacrifice, the future light of the Burmese media will never go dim.

“At the same time, the media people inside Burma need to have an active communication with the media people outside. In that way, we will have more understanding towards each other and a better channel of information flow which will profit the people of Burma to get more knowledge and information.

“This is an achievement we have already gained to some level, but I have to admit that, we, the media people, have to do more than this as our people are not living in freedom like people in other countries."

Larry Jagan: “What I would say is that my experience is that Burmese journalists inside the country are very courageous. They try to push the boundaries quietly in their own way. They know far more than they are ever able to get into print.

“In the last five years or so there has been some very good training of Burmese journalists but what they all tell me is that we are waiting for the day when democracy comes so that we can be real journalists because there’s no way we can be journalists under the military regime.”

READ MORE---> Changing patterns in Burma's media...

Nargis accused to receive legal help

(DVB)–Six members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions who were arrested last year after helping victims of cyclone Nargis have been granted permission to have legal representation in their ongoing trial.

The trial is being held in Insein prison special court, where Dr. Newin and his daughter Phyo Phyo Aung, Aung Kyaw San, Phone Pyi Kywe, Shane Yazar Htun and Aung Thant Zin Oo (aka James) are defending government allegations of sedition and the unlawful association acts.

They were arrested for collecting and burying rotting corpses in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Central court lawyer Khin Maung Myint, who has been representing the six since they were arrested, said he was allowed to enter the courtroom during a hearing session on yesterday.

“I was allowed to meet them at the trial [on Tuesday] and I had a talk with them – all of them seemed to be in good health,” he said.

“The next hearing is on 3 March and then I will have to present some necessary documents at the court to get permission to talk on behalf of them at the trial.”

Reporting by Nan Kham Kaew

READ MORE---> Nargis accused to receive legal help...

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