Monday, March 2, 2009

Do We Need a ‘Diplomat Watch’?

The Irrawaddy News

I congratulate The Irrawaddy for publishing an interview with British Ambassador Mark Canning (“Mark My Words”). Canning said that, “...while the search for a political solution goes on, the people of this country should not be made to suffer further.” I completely agree with him.

I live in the country, and I notice that we now have fewer professional foreign diplomats based in Rangoon. Canning is a rare species—he seems focused, and he understands the situation. Before him, I remember Martin Morland as a courageous British ambassador who stood up against the Saw Maung regime. Former US Ambassador Burton Levin was also a strong supporter of the democracy uprising in 1988—the indiscriminate killing took place in front of the US embassy when people marched there to protest against the Ne Win regime.

But those days are gone. The US has downgraded its diplomatic tie with the regime since the 1988 massacre and since then many people see the quality and professionalism of diplomats posted in military-colonized Burma as something of a mixed bag. Some Asian ambassadors are known to be sympathizers with the regime and the generals—to name a few: India, China, Thailand, Singapore and Japanese embassies enjoy “friendly” relations with the regime. It is a shame and a disgrace in the history of Myanmar [Burma], and one day we will all remember.

But these Asian diplomats should not be disappointed. There are those in the West who share their views. In Burma, as recently as last year, a Western embassy invited only pro-junta people and regime sympathizers to one reception. The embassy claimed that it do not want a pro-democracy crowd. The US and UK missions are still popular among Burmese, but the postings of some diplomats have been controversial.

We all know diplomats and ambassadors based in Bangkok are also responsible for Burma. Those postings are difficult jobs as far as I understand. Burmese exiled groups and people friendly with the dissident movement have to deal with people in new postings about every three year. They find some good friends, but they tell me they also some who have differing views. Rumors circulated that these days some Bangkok-based diplomats and ambassadors support the 2010 election, and they naively believe that Burma is going to change after 2010. Is it true?

Some diplomats have, I was told, been “brainwashed” and ignore the plight of the Burmese people, refugees and displaced people along the border and inside. They have never traveled to the border zone to learn firsthand. Is it true? If it is, then it is sad news. The quality of diplomats working on Burma has gone down, I think.

My Burmese colleagues told me they hope for more diplomats who have real knowledge and a more balanced view on Burma.

Is there a complaint mechanism if Burmese supporters inside and outside the country believe that some ambassadors and diplomats aren’t professionally competent?

Are they happy giving their credentials to “Naypyidaw Than Shwe,” who in return offers them a political lecture? Since The Irrawaddy has a “Than Shwe Watch,” is it time for a “UN Watch or Gambari Watch?” Maybe it’s time for a “Diplomat Watch.”

Sit Naing Thu is an independent Burmese observer of politics and civil society in Burma.

READ MORE---> Do We Need a ‘Diplomat Watch’?...

Burmese PM Agrees to Election Monitors

“Before we even talk about monitoring
the election,
there has to be a constitutional review;
there has to be a release of
[political] prisoners,”
--by Debbie Stothard
The Irrawaddy News

Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein reportedly said he would allow United Nations officials and developed countries to monitor the military-sponsored 2010 election during a meeting with his counterpart Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at the Asean Summit in Thailand.

The Burmese junta will allow United Nations officials to observe its long-awaited general election next year, the Thailand-based Bangkok Post newspaper said on Sunday.

The newspaper quoted Thai deputy government spokesman Suphachai Jaisamut who said Thein Sein told PM Abhisit Vejjajiva that Burma would allow UN special Burma envoy Ibrahim Gambari and the UN staff to observe the election. (JEG's: passing over the "what she said, what he said... has Sein confirmed the Elections Monitoring?)

Burma also wanted observers from developed countries to monitor the election, the newspaper reported. No countries were named.

The move was seen by some as an effort to move the momentum for the election forward, in the face of strong criticism from democracy groups inside and outside Burma.

“Before we even talk about monitoring the election, there has to be a constitutional review; there has to be a release of [political] prisoners,” said Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of the Alternative Asean Network, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday. “There has to be freedom of association and freedom of expression.”

“Otherwise, there is no free and fair [election]—there is no need to hold an election,” she said.

Meanwhile, many Burmese opposition groups have said they will not take part in the election unless the recently approved constitution is reviewed and amended.

The National League of Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, has declared it will not take part in the election unless the regime releases all political prisoners, starts a dialogue between pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s leader and reviews the 2008 constitution.

Recently, the NLD said it did not agree with a joint-statement by UN special envoy Gambari and Japan Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, saying international countries should encourage the Burmese junta to hold general elections in 2010 in a form that would be accepted by the international community.

Nyan Win, an NLD spokesperson, told The Irrawaddy that the joint statement was not consistent with NLD positions as well as resolutions by the UN General Assembly which honor the 1990 election results, which were not implemented by the military regime.

READ MORE---> Burmese PM Agrees to Election Monitors...

Climbing the Summits

By Yeni
The Irrawaddy News

The summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ended in Thailand on Sunday with a short statement calling on Burma, the grouping’s most troublesome member, to release its political prisoners and engage in an “all-inclusive process” as the country moves toward a general election in 2010. Conspicuously absent from the statement was any mention of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

At a press briefing, Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: “The Asean leaders encouraged Myanmar [Burma] to continue cooperation with the United Nations and to make sure that the roadmap continues according to plan, and that the process would be as inclusive as possible, which includes, of course, the continuation of the release of prisoners or political detainees and also the participation of political parties in the upcoming election.”

Abhisit’s words were delivered in the characteristic tone that Asean members use when discussing the affairs of fellow members. There was no hectoring or threat of pressure—just a polite, and slightly pleading, request for cooperation. “The Asean way,” after all, is all about friendly, fraternal advice, non-interference, and the avoidance of anything that might sow seeds of dissension.

But this did not stop Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from expressing some dissatisfaction with the attitude of the Burmese delegation. During a closed-door exchange among Asean leaders, Gen Thein Sein, the junta’s prime minister, bluntly told his counterparts that Burma would deal with the United Nations, and not Asean, in talks about the country’s political future. Badawi told reporters afterwards that the regional club, which has provided the Burmese regime with diplomatic cover since it admitted Burma in 1997, “will not be the interlocutor” in efforts to end the country’s international isolation.

Far from seeking a more active role in pushing for political reforms in Burma, Asean seemed more interested in counseling the UN to move cautiously with its own efforts. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon against returning to the country prematurely, because doing so would “raise unrealistic expectations that cannot be met and would be counter-productive.”

This is a danger that the UN chief understands all too well. Speaking to reporters following a meeting of the so-called Group of Friends of Myanmar, Ban recently said: “I will try to visit, but there may be some issues. First of all, I have to discuss with the Myanmar government about timing, about agendas which I would be able to discuss, but nothing has yet been discussed.”

In the meantime, there are indications that the regime may be willing to make at least one concession to the UN. The Bangkok Post, quoting a senior Thai official, said that Thein Sein told the Thai prime minister that Burma would allow UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari and UN staff to observe a national election slated to take place in 2010.

Asean has also had to make some conciliatory gestures. After two civil society representatives—Khin Ohmar of Burma and Pen Sommoly of Cambodia—were barred from a meeting between representatives of Southeast Asian civil society and the 10 Asean heads of state, Thai PM Abhisit met them later to make up for the snub.

But it will take far more than this to convince the world that Asean is serious about becoming a credible defender of fundamental rights. If Asean wants to fulfill its ambition of creating an Asean Community by 2015, it will need to take bold steps to overcome its image as a grouping that is constantly at the mercy of controversies caused by a member that doesn’t seem to care how its actions affect others.

READ MORE---> Climbing the Summits...

Summit Happened—But We Don’t Know What

“I smell sound bites,” he mumbled, “but no news.”
The press pack awaits another sound bite.
(Photo: The Irrawaddy)

By DAVID PAQUETTE - The Irrawaddy News


By Saturday afternoon, any expectations we had of Burma issues being addressed at the Asean Summit went out the window.

Myriad versions of the old politician’s maxim, “We’re keeping the process moving forward,” consumed every press conference and photo-op. Discussions were frequently said to have been “candid and open,” and “conducted in a spirit of cooperation and consultation.”

In a single 10-minute statement to the press, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva managed to squeeze in “advancing,” “pushing ahead,” “reaching further,” step by step,” “shoring up confidence,” “restoration of confidence,” “pushing ahead” and “stepping towards building a framework” with seamless ease.

Rather than running back to the media center to file their stories post-haste, journalists milled around after each press conference, scratching their heads, exchanging pained looks with their colleagues and staring blankly at their notes.

The message we were being asked to relay back to the public was clear—this Asean summit was more than just a schmooze fest with nice wine and a chance for the wives to compare evening gowns. There was some serious progress going on behind the scenes.

Asean General-Secretary Surin Pitsuwan was positively buoyant. “You just have to trust us,” he seemed to be saying, suppressing a wink. Even if reporters’ questions weren’t being addressed, he hinted, you could be sure the delegates were addressing the issues. (JEG's: which issues were those???)

But you had to hand to it the assembled press. Whatever the subject, be it bilateral talks with Brunei or the signing of an agreement to allow Southeast Asian dentists to, I don’t know, perform root-canal surgery across the region, I guess—ultimately the press conference came back to the Rohingya issue.

Speaking in a rather adorable Essex accent, the Thai premier managed to smile, skip and sidestep all questions on the Rohingya issue at three successive press conferences, finally prompting one gritty reporter from the Bangkok Post to ask: “Is ‘Rohingya’ a taboo word at this conference?”

“Not at awwll,” replied the premier in his David Beckham lilt and then proved it by employing the word in every sentence thereafter—a departure from the semantic stumbling block that had beleaguered delegates for days, with the Burmese government apparently only willing to accept terminology such as “Bengalis” or “Illegal Migrants in the Indian Ocean.”

Not that we had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of Gen Thein Sein or others from the Burmese delegation. By keeping the 1,200 registered members of the press penned up at the Sheraton while the Asean delegates had the run of the Dusit some two kilometers down the beach, the Thai authorities ensured that the delegates could avoid nosy journalists while their
spouses had the pool to themselves.

Some 5,700 extra police had been pulled into Cha-am for the summit and reporters had to be shuttled back and forth through security checkpoints into the Dusit grounds in CNG minivans. Several times a day the highway that was the artery linking us to the summit was blocked, such as when members of the Thai royal family came and went or when one of the delegates passed through town.

Ten kilometers away in Hua Hin, elderly Scandinavian tourists stood under trees on the sidewalk in the scorching sun, unable to cross the road to get to the beach while traffic was halted for an hour at a time.

On Saturday morning, a protest against the Burmese government gathered just 15 activists on bicycles, surrounded by dozens of policemen, onlookers and reporters. For lack of juicy news from the summit—and with not a red-shirt in sight—the Bangkok dailies ran the protest on their front pages. (good idea...)

Back at the summit, a Thai government spokesman told the assembled press that the 10 Asean heads of state had met a delegation of civil society representatives for the first time in Asean’s 41-year history. Whether this was supposed to be a landmark coming-together of politicians and activists, or a photo-op for the new and improved “people-oriented” Asean, the meeting failed to cast anything other than a shadow over the summit, even before it began.

First, the Burmese and Cambodian delegates threatened to boycott the meeting because they didn’t like the NGOs that were attending. They succeeded in having two of the civil society representatives—including Burma’s Khin Ohmar—banned from the meeting. Then they asked the NGO leaders to take their shoes off before entering the meeting, in fear that they might toss their sandals at a head of state. The request was revoked, but not before it caused ripples of laughter from the press corps back at Base Sheraton.

We held out for something—a breakthrough. While business matters surrounding the global financial crisis appeared to have been dealt with neatly and swiftly in Bangkok the weekend before, you couldn’t help but get the impression that the Asean leaders were resting on their laurels and that slippery matters such as the human rights body, stateless refugees dying at sea and political prisoners in Burma could all wait for another day.

In the end, we had to settle for acting as stenographers for the Asean ministers’ press releases. I had visions of news headlines around the world blurting out: “Asean Ministers Conduct Candid Talks in a Spirit of Cooperation and Consultation.”

One veteran reporter on Burma, who had arrived late, summed it up with one slow 360-degree scan of the press room. “I smell sound bites,” he mumbled, “but no news.”

READ MORE---> Summit Happened—But We Don’t Know What...

Singapore’s Lee Urges Burma to Engage Int’l Community

The Irrawaddy News

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged Burma’s military leaders to engage the international community during an interview at the Asean Summit in Thailand on Sunday.

We see a window of opportunity for Myanmar [Burma] to engage the US and the international community,” he said. “Myanmar can capitalize on this opportunity by cooperating with the United Nations,” Singapore’s Straits Times reported Lee as saying.

The Singaporean prime minister also noted that during a recent visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that both sanctions and engagement have failed to achieve results in Burma.

Lee also urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to support the mission of UN special envoy to Burma. Ibrahim Gambari. But he added that Asean should not encourage a visit to the country by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “unless there are concrete deliverables.”

“A visit will raise unrealistic expectations that cannot be met and would be counter-productive,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Burmese junta on Friday agreed to take back boatpeople if they are identified as “Bengalis,” rather than as Rohingya, according to a report in The Nation, a Thai English-language daily.

The Nation quoted Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya as saying that his Burmese counterpart took the view that “The Burmese government does not recognize the Rohingya people as one of 135 minority ethnic groups and it would accept only those who can be identified as Bengalis residing in the country.”

READ MORE---> Singapore’s Lee Urges Burma to Engage Int’l Community...

Biting the hand that feeds the nation

By Pascal Khoo-Thwe

(DVB)–As Peasants’ Day is marked in Burma on 2 March, the plight of farmers in the country remains desperate.

Farmers or 'peasants', including tribesmen, are one of the most abused, exploited and overlooked social denomination in Burma – and they are often taken for granted not only by the ruling elites but also by the opposition groups.

Yet they make up the majority of the population, and the ruling elites are mostly of peasant stock.

Whenever there is political instability or power struggles among the ruling elites, rural areas are where they always go to rally for support. Villagers are forced to join willy-nilly at their own risk and irrespective of the outcomes.

After the coup in September 1988, preceded by the nationwide uprising, students and activists fled into the jungles to avoid arrests. Villagers gave us shelters, fed us and guided us through the dangerous jungles, feared by us so-called educated people. But as soon as we were out of danger, it was the villagers who bore the brunt of the wrath of the army, and their villages were burnt down, crops destroyed, and they themselves were imprisoned, tortured or even killed.

During the parliamentary democracy period from 1948 to 1962, many farmers were recruited as cannon fodder for various factions of the rebels fighting U Nu's government, which also recruited villagers. When asked by U Nu why so many farmers had joined the Burma Communist Party, someone reportedly replied that had the prime minister looked after the farmers better, there would not be much support for the communists.

The late dictator General Ne Win exploited the weakness of U Nu by enticing farmers with favours and actively promoting the myth of noble peasants on the one hand and meting out brutality towards those who opposed his myth with the other. As a result, the communists were driven out of their strongholds in central Burma, but sympathy for the communists never went away, even though most of them do not believe in Communism. Once he achieved his aim of gaining absolute power, Ne Win treated the farmers with same disdain as his predecessors and ignored their plight.

The situation was no better for farmers during the colonial period either. When ex-monk Saya San led farmers – mostly armed with amulets, spears and agricultural tools – against their foreign masters during the 1930s, the British ruthlessly crushed the rebellion with a campaign that treated the farmers no better than dacoits. They were imprisoned, hung and shot. The rebellion was said to be caused by money lending Chettiars from India who monopolised the rice market and sucked the blood of farmers dry with high interest rates, which was also exacerbated by the Great Depression.

But many, including those who lived under colonial rule, argue that the situation for present-day farmers is worse than that under the British. They are certainly not wrong, if not completely right. In place of Chettiars are now companies owned by the army and relatives and cronies of the generals, who are using all available means and tricks to bleed the farmers dry. Farmers are eking out a life no better than that of slaves as their best farms, crops, communal pastures and jungles are confiscated by the army, and they are commandeered into forced labour for 'government projects'. And their children are still forcibly recruited into the army.

Their remaining children cannot afford to go to school, and some of them have sold their ancestral farmlands to look for jobs in cities and neighbouring countries, or to join the rebels. When the guardians of Burmese rural life are forced to leave their homes due to the impacts of globalisation and greed, their old communities are left derelict and lifeless.

But it is hard to imagine the rise of a new Saya San in the near future for farmers as it is harder to fight your own flesh and blood than foreign 'bloodsuckers'. It will take more than Seven Samurais to get rid of the cancerous climate of fear and its agents in Burma, as the military itself is merely an agent of powerful neighbouring countries which only are mainly interested in getting cheap natural resources from Burma.

At the same time, farmers and the children of farmers who became soldiers, doctors, engineers and the like must change or at least improve our ways of thinking and modus operandi if we are to retain a hint of our traditions and identity. Burma is like a burning house and we can't save everything. What makes it worse is, most of us affected have been playing the crying and blaming game while the house burns.

Then again, in the past no one dared to think that peasants in China could defeat the mighty Chiang Kai Sheik government or that the mighty Shah of Iran could be overthrown by a religious figure. Look at the works of history and find in them hope or despair. But I do doubt if the majority of farmers would benefit from a successful revolution – which is one of the reasons why the farmers themselves are very reluctant to rebel against a government armed to the teeth. In any case, the farmers have too many things to do on the farms to survive and the best policy for any sensible government would be to leave them alone and let them do their jobs in peace. But will they? Paddy fields, jungles and villages have been the battlegrounds of greed and hatred for more than half a century in Burma and there is no sign that it will stop to be so.

Meanwhile, whether there is a government-appointed Peasants' Day in Burma or not – which incidentally is marked on the same day that Ne Win staged the military coup in 1962 – the role of the farmers is still being overlooked by all those involved who are wasting their time on theoretical matters which lead us nowhere and not taking action.

It's also time to think carefully whether it is successive constitutions and elections that have been feeding Burma every day or the 'peasants' and other hardworking people, and to look for more pragmatic strategies to help the country.

But one thing is certain – farmers will be the true inheritors of the earth for bad or for worse, as we will still have to eat the food they grow and the animals they feed.

READ MORE---> Biting the hand that feeds the nation...

Asean and civil groups: revealing a fast learning curve

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation

AROUND MIDNIGHT Friday, the 14th Asean Summit was hanging in the balance. That same evening, Cambodia and Burma had already threatened to boycott the planned first dialogue between Asean leaders and Asean civil society groups at lunchtime. Suddenly, senior Foreign Ministry officials were having second thoughts about their whole endeavour to broaden the participation of civil society organisations. As the summit's host, when push came to shove, a choice had to be made. In this case, it was clear the Asean leaders would have precedence over the civil society representatives. After all, this was their summit.

But disaster was averted at the last minute when the civil society leaders soften their stands. Cambodia's and Burma's representatives withdrew from the list of 10 participants at the interface. Laos and Brunei did not have any representatives listed.

To make amends, Abhisit agreed to meet the two representatives at a separate place later on. I was in the room along with Pen Sommoly and Khin Omar, the two activists barred from the historic meeting 40 minutes earlier.

The conversation was amicable. Abhisit listened calmly to Omar, who told him of her plight and the struggle of the Burmese people. She pointed out that Burma had not committed itself to the Asean Charter. She urged the prime minister to continue his efforts and fight for Asean.

Pen, who was next to speak, was trying to overcome his shyness. His subject of concern was important, as it involved the future of Asean youth.

In response to their concerns, the prime minister said both sides had to work together and strike a balance between the state and non-state actors.

"We have to be partners and walk together - low and high," he said.

He stressed that since this is the first time for an extensive face-to-face dialogue between Asean leaders and civil group leaders, both sides were on a fast-track learning curve.

At that moment, on reflection, I knew that the dialogue between them would survive and become more institutionalised. He asked the civil society leaders to work out a modality for a proper channel. He was confident.

Such openness and optimism have been rarely seen within the Asean circle in the past four decades. Somehow, the Asean Charter and in particular Article 14 - the mandate to establish the Asean Human Rights Body - have become a new all-weather instrument to prod sensitive issues ahead. Despite the charter's imperfections, it has given the current Asean chair more room to exercise strategy and pave the way for the grouping's future.

One positive trend emerging from the summit was the fresh attitude of the incoming Asean chair, Vietnam. President Nguyen Minh Triet made a brief but sharp intervention during the interface with the civil society leaders. Apart from the chair, Triet was the only Asean leader to comment.

The Vietnamese President surprised everybody by welcoming the dialogue between his colleagues and the civil society sector - very much to the latter's amazement. He urged them to work out a modality for the institutionalisation of the interface - one of the civil society groups' demands.

Indeed, it was a smart comment as it certainly would generate a positive image and favourable comments for Vietnam in coming months.

Now that Vietnam has set itself a new benchmark, the Asean-based civil society groups will follow-up on his comment by increasing their engagement with Vietnam's nascent but active 2,000 civil society organisations, which are still dominated by government-linked groups.

Now the Asean civil groups are hopeful that with Asean under his chairmanship next year, voices of independent and progressive civil organisations would be heard and reflected in the summit's normal discourses.

One additional development to be discerned is the awakening of Asean lawmakers within the grouping. For decades, they have completely left it to their executive branches to handle.

A selective group of Asean legislators got together to form a caucus on Burma five years ago in Kuala Lumpur because they wanted to contribute to Asean's policy towards its pariah member, which keeps suppressing its peoples.

Now with the Asean Charter in force, Asean lawyers, mainly from more democratic members, have suddenly realised they cannot stand idle as before. They have to do more.

Back to back with the Asean Summit, six lawmakers from ruling and opposition parties in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia met over the weekend in Cha-am/Hua Hin to establish a new inter-parliamentary caucus on rights and freedom of expression.

The new caucus will fulfil the pledges in the Asean Charter and the three blueprints concerning political and security, economic and socio-cultural fields. These lawmakers have studied the blueprint for the Asean Political and Security Community in detail. They resolved to accelerate its action plans to transform the Asean Community with Asean citizens at the centre within 2,129 days.

Obviously, Asean bureaucrats no longer hold a monopoly on power in shaping the future of Asean like before. From now on, they have to reach out to the lawmakers and civil society groups and listen to their voices.

Abhisit has done a remarkable job at this summit. He and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya went out to build trust among the non-state actors, risking the chair's reputation. His fingers almost got burnt. But then common sense prevailed. Both sides acknowledged quite reluctantly that there are things they can do and cannot do in their future engagements. The key is to balance and respond in proportionate ways.

Abhisit's opening speech on Saturday said it all, that after the promulgation of the Asean Charter, Asean citizens have been awoken and they want a greater share, ownership and role in the Asean process. No more looking back for them.

READ MORE---> Asean and civil groups: revealing a fast learning curve...

Burma: US gem sanctions bite

By Robert Karniol

(ST) - With Washington rethinking its policy towards the military-run regime in Burma, there are signals that Rangoon is being hard hit by tightened US sanctions on its lucrative gem trade.

The policy review currently under way is aimed at addressing a dreary conundrum acknowledged by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Jakarta press briefing on February 18. "Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn't influenced the (Burma) junta. But reaching out and trying to engage them hasn't influenced them either," she said.

Speaking by telephone from Washington, state department spokesman Rob McInturff explained the US objective. "We're going to be looking at all aspects of our relationship (with Burma). The goal is to make the policy effective, to have improved actions on the part of the regime," he said.

American economist Jeffrey Sachs, writing in the Financial Times in 2004, said: "Economic sanctions should be lifted because they do not work." He argued for increased diplomacy and humanitarian aid instead.

Pro-democracy activists instead favour a combined effort. Brian Leber, a Chicago jeweller at the forefront of the gem sanctions campaign, is among those advocating a carrot-and-stick approach. "Economic sanctions and the support of diplomatic efforts working towards reform can go hand in hand," he said.

The key, he added, is to finely target sanctions against a specific sector, company and individual. He, together with others in the US and elsewhere, find in Burma's gem trade the perfect fit.

According to reports citing government data, the gem trade was Burma's third most important export earner in fiscal year 2007/08 with a value of US$647.5 million. It was topped by natural gas at $2.6 billion and agricultural products at $1.1 billion, with forestry and marine products in fourth and fifth place respectively. However, the official figures are somewhat skewed as they fail to account for substantial smuggling activity of unknown worth.

Together with its contribution to state coffers, the gem trade provides specific benefit to Burma's military. Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted in a report last year that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), or ruling junta, "has a direct stake in many mines, in some cases through joint ventures with private entrepreneurs".

It added: "It also has a direct ownership interest in many of the country's top gem businesses, including state-run firms such as Myanmar Gems Enterprise and Myanmar Pearl Enterprise. In addition, the military-owned conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company owns many businesses...including in the lucrative gem-mining sector (so the) gem industry is dominated by the SPDC."

Several countries have imposed sanctions against Rangoon, some broadly based and some more specific. The European Union (EU) sanctions, for example, include more than 400 named individuals and nearly 1,300 state- and military-run companies. The EU, US and Swiss sanction regimes are particularly important because of the substantial markets these represent. But there remains significant trade with China and Japan, and with the gem processing centres in India and Thailand.

The US initiative is especially noteworthy, partly because of Washington's leadership role and partly due to the monetary impact. Its import of ruby and jade alone, according to industry estimates, was previously worth more than $100 million annually. But the broad US sanctions introduced in 2003 were flawed, not least because they included a loophole allowing the import of ruby and jade from Burma if these were processed through cutting and mounting in a third country.

The US Congress moved to tighten its sanctions and shut the loopholes with an amendment to the 2003 law called HR 3890. This was approved last July and came into force two months later, with another month set aside by the US Customs and Border Protection as a buffer period.

Bangkok gem traders began to notice the impact even before HR 3890's implementation last October, as the market anticipated change. "We've been hard hit by the US sanctions and are unable to unload our stockpiles," one trader complained to The Straits Times. "Jade and ruby are particularly affected but less so with sapphire, which isn't specified in the new law."

The Chiang Mai-based periodical Irrawaddy, meanwhile, noted in a recent article that "Mogok, the historic centre of (Burma's) gem industry, is struggling to cope with the effects of (tightened) US sanctions". Citing a source there, it reported that "at least 50 mine sites in the area have decreased production and several have closed completely".

"Our view is that sanctions have a role. The gem ban, together with targeted financial sanctions, are effective," said Arvind Ganesan, director of HRW's business and human rights programme, in a telephone interview from Washington.

Hopefully, Mrs Clinton is listening.

READ MORE---> Burma: US gem sanctions bite...

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