Monday, June 1, 2009

Former Burmese intelligence official ‘would testify’ at ICC

(DVB)–A former Burmese senior intelligence official and ambassador to Washington has said he would testify against Burma’s ruling generals if they are eventually brought in front of the International Criminal Court.

On Saturday Burma marked the six-year anniversary of the Depayin massacre, in which 70 supporters of opposition National League for Democracy party were killed by a government-backed militia.

The massacre happened whilst Aung San Suu Kyi had been campaigning for supporters, and following the incident she was placed under house arrest.

Speaking to DVB on the anniversary, Aung Lin Htut, who served as the junta’s deputy ambassador in Washington before he sought asylum in the US in 2005, supported the idea of bringing the junta to the ICC.

“I myself would testify if [junta leader Than Shwe] is taken to the international court,” he said.

“Even if I am imprisoned, I could appear as witness.”

The comments were backed by the general secretary of the exiled Burma Lawyers’ Council, Aung Htoo, who is campaigning to take those responsible for the Depayin massacre to the ICC.

“The most obvious point about Depayin is that no one was arrested and no action was taken against a serious crime known to the country and the world,” he said.

“[The authorities] not only failed to take responsibility for the security, it was also arranged that people who take the security responsibility commit the crime.”

Burma’s military government, and Than Shwe in particular, are said to be shaken by the idea of being taken to the ICC.

A number of people have suggested recently that the spiraling human rights situation in Burma, particularly regarding the use of child soldiers and increasing numbers of political prisoners, warranted attention from the ICC.

Last week, Thai MP Kraisak Choonhavan, who also heads the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus, said the junta should be brought to court.

“If they [ICC] are in their right mind and they go through the facts, there is no denying that [junta leader] Than Shwe and his cronies should be persecuted at the ICC,” he said.

Similarly, a group of over 60 British MPs last month called for a United Nations commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma.

And in April, former senior legal adviser to the ICC, Morten Bergsmo, said that the Burmese army’s use of child soldiers could constitute a war crime.

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

READ MORE---> Former Burmese intelligence official ‘would testify’ at ICC...

Will ceasefire groups yield to junta’s pressure?

by Salai Pi Pi

New Delhi (Mizzima) – The Burmese military junta is gearing up for another round of talks with the armed ceasefire group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), after it rejected the junta’s proposal to hand over control of its army.

An UWSA officer on Friday told Mizzima that the junta’s Chief Military Affairs Security (MAS) Lt-Gen Ye Myint is planning to pay a second visit to the UWSA in an attempt to persuade the group to accept the junta’s proposal.

“We heard that he [Ye Myint] will come again and talk about the proposal,” the UWSA official, who spoke to Mizzima on condition of anonymity, said.

“This comes after we informed the Burmese military government in Naypyitaw of our decision that we have decided to reject their proposal to turn our army into a border guard force controlled by them,” he added.

He, however, failed to mention the venue and time for the forthcoming meeting between UWSA’s leaders and Ye Myint.

In late April, Lt-Gen Ye Myint, held separate talks with delegations of several armed ceasefire groups including the UWSA, Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), Myanmar National Democratic Allied Army (MNDAA) and the National Democratic Allied Army (NDAA) in eastern Shan State.

Similarly, the Commander of the Northern Military Command, Maj-Gen Soe Win also met the Kachin Independent Organization/Army (KIO/A) and the New Democratic Army-Kachin (NDA-K) in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state in northern Burma.

During the meeting, military officials proposed to the groups to transform their armies into a ‘Border Guard’ force, which will be under the administration of the Burmese Army.

According to the proposal, each battalion of border guard force will have 326 soldiers of which 30 will be Burmese soldiers. The salaries, rations, and other allowances for the soldiers would be paid by the junta. The administration of the force will include a few officers from the Burmese Army.

The UWSA, which signed a cease-fire pact with the regime in 1989, following its meeting on May 19, decided to retain its army and not to comply with the junta’s proposal.

“We think it is too early to reform our army as now we are in the transition period. We would like to keep the army,” the official told Mizzima.

The official added that transforming their army would undermine their decade-long armed struggle.

Along with the UWSA, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (MNDAA-ESS), Myanmar National Democratic Allied Army (MNDAA) and Shan State Army-North have reportedly rejected the junta’s proposal.

The decision apparently came after leaders of the UWSA, MNDAA-ESS, and MNDAA met in northeast Burma and discussed the regime’s proposal. All three groups had earlier worked together under the banner of the Communist Party of Burma (CBP), which collapsed in 1989.

Observers said the rejection could escalate tension between the ceasefire groups and the junta, as the proposal from Naypyitaw has come in a much lesser concession than the generals’ original idea of disarming the ceasefire groups.

The generals, according to Htay Aung, a Burmese analyst based in Chiang Mai, will keep the heat on the ceasefire groups to transform their armies even if they have rejected it.

“The junta will continue to pressurize them and push them, but if the cease-fire groups are reluctant and are not willing to accept their proposal, I believe, the junta will finally take military action against them,” Htay Aung said.

But he said, military action would be the regime’s last resort, as they are determined to conduct their planned elections in 2010 smoothly. The most pressing issue that the junta wants to tackle at this point is to carefully plan and eliminate the Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) before the election.

“So, the regime seems to be carefully and patiently handling and trying to convince the cease-fire groups, who rejected their proposal,” he added.

While agreeing that the junta will continue stepping up pressure on the ceasefire groups to accept the offer, a Sino-Burmese military affairs analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw said it is highly unlikely that the regime would want to start a fresh military offensive against the ceasefire groups at this point.

The regime knew that their proposal would be rejected by the ceasefire groups, but is giving it a try and would follow it up with more pressure, Aung Kyaw Zaw said.

“But I don’t see the regime taking military action against them [ceasefire groups],” he said.

Meanwhile, another major ethnic rebel group, the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), however, has not finalized any decision as yet on the junta’s proposal.

Dr. Tuja, Vice-Chairman of the KIO, in an earlier interview with Mizzima said, the KIO will decide only after taking a consensus from its organization’s leaders, community leaders and other concerned people.

“This is what has been proposed by the junta. The KIO needs to discuss it. We can decide only after a detailed discussion with KIO leaders, community leaders and others,” Dr. Tuja said.

But Dr. Tuja said he welcomed the regime’s proposal, as it aims to benefit Kachin people saying, “I'm optimistic about everything. So should be the method in implementation too.”

While observers believe that the junta’s proposal is likely to be rejected by many of the ceasefire groups, there is also a soft-corner on the ceasefire’s side. Following the ceasefire pacts, the regime has made special business concessions for leaders of these armed resistant groups, which might make it difficult for many of the groups to ignore the junta’s proposal.

Htay Aung said for some groups, it might be difficult to ignore the junta’s proposal and take up a confrontational stand, because many of the leaders from these cease-fire groups would find it hard to abandon the business opportunities they have got.

“It is not very easy for the leaders of the cease-fire groups to abandon such an opportunity and the luxuries they have received from the Burmese regime,” Htay Aung said.

Leaders of many of the ceasefire armed groups including the UWSA, and the KIO have reportedly received business concessions from the junta, and own or run companies, by proxy, in cities including Rangoon and Mandalay.

Htay Aung said the most likely situation could be that both sides would come to a compromise and remove harsh conditions, as both sides seem to prefer keeping the guns silent.

READ MORE---> Will ceasefire groups yield to junta’s pressure?...

Insein Prison Trial is a One-Way Street

The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi believes she is innocent and will continue to defend herself against the charge she faces in the Insein Prison court, according to her lawyers.

One of her lawyers, Kyi Win, told The Irrawaddy that, according to the evidence, “we have a very good case because she has not breached any conditions and restrictions imposed upon her.”

Analysts believe, however, that the regime is likely to extend her detention, pointing to the latest official statement on the case. Burmese Deputy Defense Minister Maj-Gen Aye Myint told a security conference in Singapore, “If offenders are not [prosecuted], anarchy will prevail, and there will be breach of peace and security.”

Breach of peace and security? What can the man mean?

Kyi Win was firm in saying that the Nobel Peace Prize winner broke no law or any of the restrictions imposed upon her during her current term of house arrest, which expired last week.

First, the restrictions bar Suu Kyi or anybody else condemned to house arrest from communicating with any foreign embassy or any political party or connected persons. House arrest restrictions also bar any postal or telephone communication with the outside world.

Suu Kyi strictly followed these regulations, addressing the regime leaders in Naypyidaw through her lawyers. Their legal appeal against an extension of her house arrest was rejected by the regime, indicating that the military leaders had already made up their minds to keep her in detention.

According to Kyi Win, the American who gained access to Suu Kyi’s home, John William Yettaw, had been guilty of breaching security, not she. “John W Yettaw came into her compound without her knowledge or invitation and he was the one who was breaching the security cordon placed around her house,” he said.

Suu Kyi asked Yettaw to leave but he begged to stay, promising to leave soon. Suu Kyi gave him the benefit of the doubt, the lawyer said.

Consequently, it’s Yettaw who should be on trial for breaches of security, not Suu Kyi. Yet, to the surprise of her lawyers, Suu Kyi said last week that she wanted to offend no one, including the regime, at her trial.

During the court proceedings, Suu Kyi is careful not to make accusations or jump onto the bandwagon of those who suggest that the case was set up by the regime to extend her detention.

“Suu Kyi herself does not suspect the government of that kind of set-up and that’s her attitude,” Kyi Win told The Irrawaddy.

“I lost my words [after hearing Suu Kyi’s remarks],” Kyi Win said.

“I was astonished to hear that kind of attitude from her,” he added with evident admiration.

During the three weeks she has now been held in Insein Prison, Suu Kyi has been denied even the limited access to outside news that she had in her home.

At home she at least had a radio and is believed to have kept herself well up to date with news on Burma and the rest of the world. Visiting UN officials were often surprised to learn how well informed she was.

In Insein Prison, however, she has no access to a radio and very limited access to news from outside. She did meet some diplomats who were allowed to attend two sessions of her trial last week, but journalists who were also present were not allowed to talk to her.

Through her lawyers, though, Suu Kyi has learned about the international outcry against her trial and the overwhelming support she commands.

Kyi Win said, “I conveyed sentiment and support from world leaders including [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown, [US President] Obama and many other leaders. She expressed her sincere thanks to them.”

Moral support alone is not enough, however.

Another of her lawyers, Nyan Win, who is also spokesman of her National League for Democracy, questioned the country’s judicial system and its independence.

It is believed that the details of the court proceedings have been submitted to the top leaders in Naypyidaw. Diplomats have said they believe that the verdict has already been written, ready to be read out on the final day of the trial.

There is no doubt that junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe holds the key to the final decision. Political observers in Rangoon believe that the decision to postpone the trial until Friday also came from Than Shwe. The judges exercise no power in the Insein Prison court.

Although they know the verdict has already been decided, Suu Kyi’s lawyers say they cannot afford to lose hope. “We will always have hope,” Kyi Win said.

Kyi Win and Nyan Win did not want to comment on why the regime has suddenly postponed the trial until Friday.

Has Than Shwe perhaps had second thoughts as international pressure mounts? Analysts say that he still can still exercise one option—placing Suu Kyi under house arrest with a suspended sentence—hoping with such a gesture to reduce at least some of the pressure.

The regime is unpredictable, however, and defendants who appear before special courts in Insein Prison rarely receive any mercy from the military authorities.

There are plenty of examples, including 88 Generation Students leader Min Ko Naing, Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo and prominent journalist and activist Win Tin, all sentenced by these courts to long jail sentences.

Whoever is unfortunate enough to be brought to trial before a special court in Insein Prison stands in a one-way street, where there is no U-turn. Suu Kyi is probably no exception, despite Kyi Win’s note of optimism.

Suu Kyi undoubtedly knows where she stands. “She is aware that there is no rule of law in the country,” according to Nyan Win.

READ MORE---> Insein Prison Trial is a One-Way Street...

Staff of Rangoon Journal Summoned by Censor Board

The Irrawaddy News

Senior editors and staff of the True News Journal in Rangoon were summoned to appear before the censor board of Burma’s military regime on Monday following the distribution of the publication at Insein Prison, the location of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial.

The Press Scrutiny and Registration Board told the publication that it objected to the headline on a story written by Ludu Sein Win, an outspoken, veteran journalist, which said: “Newsmen dare express the truth and risk arrest.”

An unidentified staff of the journal apparently sold copies of the journal to people in the crowd outside the prison last week and displayed a small sign saying, “The True Journal which dares to report the truth,” according to sources.

The staff who sold the journal in front of the prison was arrested in the journal’s office on May 28, sources said, and later released.

According to World Report 2009 by Reporters without Borders, a global media watchdog group, “Burma is a paradise for censors, one of the very few countries where all publications are subjected to prior censorship. After China and Cuba, it is the world's largest prison for journalists and bloggers.”

The junta sets out to physically and psychologically break imprisoned journalists by sending them to prisons far from the capital, according to political activists.

READ MORE---> Staff of Rangoon Journal Summoned by Censor Board...

Burma Locked Out of Region’s Prosperity, Says Gates

The Irrawaddy News

Burma is “one of the isolated, desolate exceptions to the growing prosperity and freedom of the region,” according to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates made his comment at a security conference in Singapore, where Burma’s deputy defense minister, Maj-Gen Aye Myint, tried to deflect criticism of his government and its latest action against opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma’s state-run-newspaper The New Light of Myanmar reported on Monday that Aye Myint told the conference that Suu Kyi’s trial in Rangoon was an internal Burmese affair.

“Thus, if any country interferes in the internal affairs of another country, that particular act may possibly affect the mutual understanding and friendly relation between countries,” he said.

Gates, however, repeated calls for Suu Kyi’s release. He said, “We need to see real change in Burma—the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the institution of meaningful dialogue between the junta and the opposition.”

Gates said, “We saw Burma's resistance to accept basic humanitarian aid last year following the cyclone, a decision indicative of that country's approach to the rest of the world.”

The Singapore conference, the 8th Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the city-state’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, brought together defense ministers or their deputies from 27 countries. The situation in Burma and the trial of Suu Kyi were raised by several participants, despite Aye Myint’s objections.

Burma is facing mounting international pressure, also from within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

At an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of foreign ministers in Phnom Penh last week, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win opposed any consideration of the Burma issue, complaining that the gathering “has overlooked the important issue of non-interference.”

Nyan Win declared, “This is an internal legal issue and it is not a human rights issue.”

Despite Nyan Win’s objections, ministers from the European Union and Asean discussed Suu Kyi’s trial and called on the Burmese government to free her and other political prisoners.

Burma’s traditional allies, China and India, are also reportedly concerned about the impact of Suu Kyi’s trial.

The trial is also expected to be an issue at an Asean meeting in South Korea next week.

“Asean leaders will meet and discuss an issue that has received international attention —about a neighboring country—for further cooperation,” said Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose country is currently chairman of the regional grouping.

One human rights expert, Sriprapha Petcharamesree, of Bangkok’s Mahidol University said three Burmese issues—the junta’s response to Cyclone Nargis, refugees, Suu Kyi and other political prisoners—are real threats for the Asean Charter.

READ MORE---> Burma Locked Out of Region’s Prosperity, Says Gates...

Did NMSP Reject Border Guard Role?

The Irrawaddy News

One of Burma’s major ethnic ceasefire groups, the New Mon State Party (NMSP), has rejected the Burmese military authorities’ instruction to transform their soldiers into border guards under joint-command of the Burmese army, according to a source close to the party who claims to have been present at the deciding meeting on March 26.

However, Nai ong Ma-nge, a spokesperson for the NMSP, refused to comment on the Mon group’s decision. Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, he would only say that the Mon army was expected to guard Mon people, not to guard a borderline.

The Mon source said the NMSP leaders met junta representative Lt-Gen Ye Myint on March 3 and were told the party would not have to disarm if they undertook the role of border guards.

If the Mon party has indeed rejected the junta’s offer, it would follow the decision of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which in May reportedly rejected the border guard role it was offered.

According to the Burmese regime’s guidelines, each border guard battalion would consist of 326 troops, including 30 from the Burmese army, of whom three would be Burmese officers with administrative positions, according to sources.

The border security force would be mobilized within the territory currently held by the armed ceasefire groups.

According to the sources, the Burmese military authorities had given several ethnic ceasefire groups a deadline of the end of May to accept their offer of undertaking the new roles.

However, several ethnic ceasefire groups have rejected the proposal because they refuse to work under the command of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army.

A total of 17 insurgent groups have signed ceasefire agreements with the ruling generals since 1989, according to official Burmese reports.

The NMSP controls about 700 troops and the party has already announced it will not support nor participate in the national election, which is due to be held in 2010.

READ MORE---> Did NMSP Reject Border Guard Role?...

China’s Chance

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

How the global financial crisis has helped Beijing expand its influence in Southeast Asia

BEIJING — The global financial crisis is proving a boon for a resurgent China, which is poised to exert ever greater influence in Southeast Asia.

While drawing neighboring countries back into China’s economic orbit has been part of the country’s strategy for restoring what it sees as its rightful place on the global stage, recent months of recession have furnished Beijing with new opportunities to further its leadership ambitions in the region.

After the political turmoil in Thailand led to the cancellation of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit aimed at tackling the global crisis in April, Beijing made political mileage by inviting regional leaders and chief executive officers to the southern Chinese island of Hainan, where the annual Boao forum later that month was billed as a new “platform for emerging economies” to cope with the economic downturn.

With the theme “Asia: Managing beyond Crisis,” the meticulously organized Boao forum was held as a contrast to the failed Pattaya summit—with China pledging help and leadership to the region.

“Developed economies have long dominated international media,” said Long Yongtu, the forum’s secretary general. “Our aim is to offer a platform for emerging economies to present their voices. This is particularly important against the backdrop of the current financial crisis.”

China’s actions to further its leadership role in the region include a US $10 billion investment cooperation fund and an offer of $15 billion in credit to its Southeast Asian neighbors.

These are aimed at helping countries weather the current crisis. The fund will finance infrastructure development linking China and its neighbors while the loans will be offered as rescue packages over the next three to five years.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that China would take an active role in pursuing closer economic and trade cooperation in the region. “The fate of all nations is tied together. No one is immune from the global financial crisis and is able to conquer it alone,” he told the forum.

Wen Jiabao also vowed that Beijing would encourage trade settlement in Chinese yuan with neighboring countries to help ease foreign-exchange shortages and aid bilateral trade and investment. Beijing has already signed currency swap agreements with Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea this year.

At the forum, Chinese economists promoted the use of the yuan as a regional currency while at the same time blaming the toll of the global economic crisis in Asia on the region’s high degree of dependence on the US economy.

“Asia is heavily dependent on US markets partly because of the US dollar’s role as an international currency,” Fan Gang, a leading Chinese economist, said at the forum. “America’s attitude in the past has always been ‘this is our currency, but it is your problem.’ Asia, however, is now in a position to raise demands and choose its foreign exchange reserve currencies.”

Commentators in the mainland press have called on Chinese leaders to extend a helping hand to neighboring Asian countries in order to achieve greater trade diversity while using regional markets to absorb excess manufacturing capacity at home. As many neighboring economies are undergoing a flurry of new construction projects, investment is expected to create more employment chances for China’s workers.

“Along with the World Bank and other financial institutions, China should use part of its enormous reserves to help developing countries with the hope of promoting its own development and enhance its image as a responsible world power,” Ding Yifan, a researcher with the Development and Research Center under the State Council—China’s cabinet—wrote in the China Daily newspaper.

Ding Yifan noted that by providing capital to the US and by buying its government treasury bonds, China has been blamed for its “excessively” high savings rates and for causing the credit bubble.

“It [the US] is really an unreasonable debtor,” Ding wrote. “If we invest our capital in infrastructure programs of developing countries, there will be no such blame.”

The Mekong countries—Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—have been a particular focus of attention for China as it tries to further establish itself in Asia. Along with other proposals, Beijing has announced 270 million yuan ($ 39.7 million) in aid to Burma, Cambodia and Laos, and a donation of 300,000 tonnes of rice to an emergency East Asia rice reserve—boosting food security in the region.

“Stressing the Greater Mekong sub-region area is an important part of China’s whole periphery strategy of nurturing neighboring friendship,” said Zhang Xizhen, a professor at the School of International Studies of Beijing University.

A thousand years ago, the modern Chinese province of Yunnan was the center of the so-called Southern Silk Road, along which tea, salt, spices and medicinal herbs were transported between China, Tibet and India. Through trade and diplomacy, Chinese power spread deep into the Mekong region.

Today the countries that are bound by the Mekong River offer China’s southwestern regions the chance to catch up economically with the more prosperous provinces of the country’s east coast. The two Chinese provinces within the Mekong region, Yunnan and Guangxi, are being groomed for central roles in China’s plan to revive its influence in Southeast Asia.

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, would be the Chinese terminus of two proposed pipelines—a gas pipeline from central Burma, and an oil pipeline from the Burmese port of Sittwe, which would create a route for Middle Eastern crude and bypass the strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait shipping route.

Guangxi—which has the advantage of being located near the economically vibrant Pearl River Delta in neighboring Guangdong Province—is focusing on increasing the seaborne traffic through the Tonkin Gulf.

Central and local government investment will finance infrastructure in the capital city of Nanning and along the coast—aiming to increase Guangxi’s access to Mekong region markets and those of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines—creating a new channel for goods to flow between southwest China and Asean countries.

Cooperation with other Mekong countries is important, not only as a way of boosting foreign trade and development in southwest China and redressing the country’s imbalanced economic structure, but also as a diplomatic tool, according to Zhang Xizhen.

“Through cooperation with these countries, China can set up an example of a ‘win-win’ partnership to prove its peaceful rise to other Asean members and the world, and to counter the spread of a ‘China threat’ theory,” he said.

READ MORE---> China’s Chance...

Under a Stormy Sky

Thousands of Cyclone Nargis survivors are still living in tents and
temporary shelters. (Photo: Minn Minn/IPS Asia-Pacific)

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

One year after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta, there’s a sense of accomplishment, but also a realization that recovery remains a distant goal for those without homes, land and livelihoods

AT a military top brass meeting on May 4 in Naypyidaw, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s ruling junta, declared unequivocally that the country has almost tripled its rice production in the past two decades and now enjoyed a surplus.

“There is no need to worry about food, even when the nation’s population reaches 100 million,” he stated boldly.

But, like so many of the aging dictator’s claims, the statement bears little resemblance to the realities of life in a country where 51 million people have been struggling and suffering under military rule for nearly five decades.

In a makeshift hut in Outkwin Village, near Pyapon Town, one of the areas hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3 last year, a 32-year-old mother of six, Than Myint, said she feels completely foregotten by the country’s ruling elite.

Since December, she has not received any food aid from either humanitarian agencies or the government. She constantly faces a severe shortage of rice and there have been times her family has had to skip a meal.

“I often have to go around the village to borrow rice. Sometimes, I have to exchange some of our clothes for food,” she said.

Prior to the cyclone, Than Myint’s family never found it difficult to make ends meet. Her husband worked as a fisherman and her eldest son as a day laborer in the paddy fields surrounding their village. But, since the cyclone struck, Than Myint’s husband and son have barely had a chance to earn any money whatsoever.

There are thousands of families like Than Myint’s in the cyclone-affected townships of Rangoon and Irrawaddy divisions—living in swampy makeshift shelters nailed together from tarpaulin, bamboo and corrugated metal; families with no homes, no land and no livelihoods.

The cyclone and its subsequent tidal wave shattered the agricultural, fishing and small-scale business sectors—the main livelihoods of the delta people—leaving the majority of cyclone-affected people solely dependent on food aid.

On the weekend of May 2-3 this year, Burma’s military leaders coldly ignored the first anniversary of the storm that killed some 140,000 people. There were no ceremonies to mark the country’s worst ever disaster and no mention of events commemorating the dead in the state-run media. Any reports mentioning the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis in Rangoon’s privately owned journals were severely censored by the regime’s notorious censorship board.

The silence was an eerie reminder of the junta’s reaction to the storm one year ago when it stubbornly refused to allow aid to enter the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy delta. To date, no official explanation for the government’s incompetence and callousness during this period has been offered.

Bending to sustained pressure from the international community, the Burmese authorities eventually gave a green light to something approaching a full-scale relief effort, but it continued to assert control in a heavy-handed manner. Military authorities hampered the delivery of aid to the delta, and relief workers faced harassment and arrest if they failed to play by the regime’s rules.

Traumatized villagers whose houses and farms had been destroyed were forced to leave temporary shelters by security forces and return to work in their ravaged fields.

Junta-controlled newspapers carried editorials reprimanding the international community for being tightfisted with its aid. To add insult to injury—and without a hint of irony—they then claimed that Burma did not need help from the rest of the world, because people in the delta could easily survive on fish and frogs from nearby rivers.

The good news was that, despite all the constraints imposed upon them by the authorities, many Burmese did everything in their power to help deal with the horror wrought by the cyclone.

Private relief groups, formed by monks, students, celebrities, medical groups, businessmen, charitable organizations and other like-minded people, are still very active in the cyclone relief effort, laying the groundwork not only for rehabilitation in the delta, but also cultivating hope for the country’s prospects of achieving justice, pluralism and, ultimately, democracy.

“Even UN agencies and INGOs cannot access the delta and run their humanitarian projects ... without the dedication and enthusiasm of local Burmese staff,” said a foreign observer, who has spent nearly 20 years in the region.

The survivors of Cyclone Nargis have certainly been extremely resilient in the face of a dismal situation. But the recovery process has been achingly slow, with recent data showing that some 500,000 people still have no permanent place to live, 200,000 lack access to fresh water and 350,000 are still receiving food aid from the World Food Program.

Access to clean water is still one of the biggest everyday concerns for people in the delta. Wells and ponds were inundated by the inflow of seawater by the cyclone’s horrific tidal wave. Since then, ponds have been repeatedly cleaned but residents claim that the amount of saltwater leakage into groundwater has increased.

Hunger also remains a serious threat. Even farmers who own dozens of acres of rice paddies are unable to feed themselves. According to the British charity Oxfam, thousands of farmers in the delta region lost rice crops to the cyclone, leaving them unable to pay back loans or purchase seeds, water buffaloes and equipment needed to cultivate crops.

U Nyo, a 52-year-old farmer, told The Irrawaddy he grew 15 acres of paddy in the previous rice-planting season. However, this year he only harvested around five acres. The rest failed. “I had to sell all the rice just to pay off the debt that I took during the rice-planting season last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, large amounts of infrastructure—everything from schools, monasteries and churches to clinics, bridges and jetties—remain in ruins. The Burmese government’s promises to build disaster shelters in the delta have proved hollow, with only 20 communal shelters currently standing. “We have no idea where we will run to if there is another cyclone,” a survivor in Bogalay said.

These days, many frightened villagers tune in to the radio just for the weather forecasts. When the regime’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology warned in April of the approach of Cyclone Bijli, panic broke out in the delta.

People packed up their belongings and immediately headed toward the nearest city. In many villages, families were advised to send elderly folk and children to stay with relatives in Rangoon and other cities far from the Irrawaddy delta seaboard.

According to a recovery plan launched in February by the United Nations, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and the Burmese government, almost a quarter of households in the cyclone-hit areas have reported signs of psychosocial distress, but only 11 percent have received help. The UN estimates that more than 2,400 primary teachers have been trained to give psychosocial support.

Meanwhile, Burma’s undeveloped, broken healthcare system has little capacity for handling trauma victims, so aid groups are trying to fill the gaps.

Too often the gaps in the system are simply too large and fragmented. Take the case of Khin Yee, a 43-year-old “cyclone widow,” who was too traumatized to return home and moved with her three children into a makeshift hut along the roadside close to the town of Mhawbi in Rangoon Division.

She was initially promised a house by volunteers from humanitarian agencies. Then it became clear that only those with land could be allotted homes. Left landless and widowed by the cyclone, Khin Yee has to continue living in a shelter she constructed by hand, mainly from bamboo and sheets of tarpaulin. She said her family has nothing to go back to, and there is nowhere she can get access to daily food.

Khin Yee’s family, like others, has no other option than to wait—for aid, for food and for land.

She shook her head in despair when asked about the upcoming rainy season.

“I’m afraid our hut will just get washed away as soon as the heavy rains come and cause flooding,” she said, her tearful eyes staring out across the swamp in front of her shelter.

Irrawaddy correspondents Wai Sann, Aung Thet Wine and Kyi Wai contributed to this article

READ MORE---> Under a Stormy Sky...

Distrust and Division in the Delta

A full year after Cyclone Nargis, evidence of its destructive force
can still be seen in many parts of the Irrawaddy delta. (Photo: AFP)

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

One year after Cyclone Nargis, doubts about the Burmese regime’s role in the relief effort continue to slow the recovery of the Irrawaddy delta

ONE year on, the nightmare of Cyclone Nargis still haunts people living in Burma’s Irrawaddy delta region. Those who narrowly survived the storm have seen their lives changed permanently. Proud farmers and workers are now vulnerable refugees living in makeshift shelters—their land destroyed, their livelihoods stolen by a horrific storm.

The magnitude of the May 2-3 disaster—the worst in Burma’s recorded history—challenged the ability of the military regime to conduct and control a massive relief operation. Around 140,000 people were killed, while some two million others were directly affected. Many suffered injuries and few were spared the trauma of losing their homes or loved ones.

The international community responded with an outpouring of emergency aid for the affected areas. But once the recovery and reconstruction phase began, the country had to pay an enormous price for the junta’s initial rejection of aid and obstruction of efforts by relief agencies to reach the delta during the first weeks after the disaster.

The United Nations appealed to the international community to donate US $690.5 million for the Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PONREPP), but has so far received far less, with the total in pledges amounting to around $100 million.

Why is the international community so reluctant to donate generously for the Nargis victims in Burma? Why do donors find it so hard to accept the assessments of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) working inside Burma, who insist that aid is being utilized effectively?

The problem appears to be that the junta has done little to earn the trust of the outside world, and continues to act as if it is up to other countries to demonstrate their sincerity by providing unconditional assistance.

“Myanmar [Burma] is one of the countries that wants to seclude itself from the outside world,” said Koos Richelle, the director general of the European Commission’s EuropeAid Cooperation Office during the Asia-Europe Development Conference held in Manila in April. “It’s not us punishing them; it’s them not opening up for what we consider to be normal contact.

“There is no possibility for us to start [development aid] because we are not a money machine throwing envelopes over the fence.”

Distrust of the junta

The greatest impediment to the flow of humanitarian aid into Burma is the junta’s policies and attitude towards foreign aid agencies working in the country.

It is evident that the junta tried to manipulate the international humanitarian assistance and created an element of competition between the INGOs, playing games of favoritism and giving concessions to those who pleased them.

In 2005, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) France left Burma due to the junta’s growing restrictions, while MSF Holland stayed in the country and has so far been able to carry out its programs. The Global Fund also withdrew from Burma the same year as MSF France, taking with it about $100 million in aid.

Perhaps the best example of the regime’s disdain for the work of INGOs was its treatment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Renowned throughout the world for its impartiality and apolitical objectives, the ICRC has managed to maintain health projects and treat the wounded in world wars, civil conflicts and humanitarian disasters since 1863.

In March 2007, the ICRC made the decision to close down some of its field offices and cease several major operations because it couldn’t navigate its way through the regime’s red tape and restrictions due to a complete lack of cooperation from the junta.

Just a few months later, the junta drastically hiked fuel prices, exacerbating the already deteriorating humanitarian situation and sparking the worst civil unrest in nearly two decades, culminating in massive Buddhist monk-led demonstrations nationwide.

Witnessing the people’s plight, 13 INGOs in the country issued a joint statement in October 2007 calling on the junta and the international community to work together to achieve three goals: strengthening public sector policies by increasing public expenditure in health, education and sustainable livelihoods; improving the operating environment for local and international humanitarian organizations; and significantly scaling up international humanitarian assistance to directly address the needs of the poor.

A year later, however, none of these objectives had been met, a fact that was made evident by a report issued by MSF Holland criticizing the regime for its failure to do its part to provide adequate access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to patients with HIV/AIDS.

“MSF can no longer continue to scale up ART provision, in the face of so little response by other actors,” said the report, titled “A Preventable Fate: The Failure of ART Scale-up in Myanmar,” released in November 2008.

“Therefore, it has had to make the painful decision to restrict the number of new patients it can treat… With growing revenue from oil and gas exports, the government must invest more in its ailing health system and specifically HIV/AIDS care and treatment,” the report stated.

The report, released nearly half a year after Cyclone Nargis, demonstrates the military regime’s lack of commitment to cooperation with the INGOs in their efforts to meet the basic needs of Burma’s people.

This is the kind of report that international donors carefully scrutinize for indications that the junta is a reliable partner in multimillion-dollar aid projects. Generally, however, they find nothing to suggest that the country’s rulers share their concerns for the well-being of ordinary Burmese citizens.

Distrust weakens relief and breeds division

Cyclone Nargis abruptly changed Burma’s humanitarian landscape, with the number of INGOs operating in the Irrawaddy delta doubling to more than 100 and numerous field offices opening around the region since last May.

The scope and depth of the relief operation is unprecedented, requiring the creation of a networking mechanism among the INGOs to address disaster-related issues. No such mechanism had ever existed before in Burma.

Save the Children-Myanmar has emerged as the leading INGO in the region since the cyclone, coordinating a consortium of six local and international NGOs. Known as “Paung Ku,” the consortium was created to offer capacity-building support and a small grants service to the emerging local relief groups which were urgently in need of technical and financial support. Another similar consortium is the Local Resource Center (LRC) initiated by the Burnet Institute and several other INGOs.

When analyzing the expansion of the humanitarian aid programs in the region, there is no denying that Cyclone Nargis significantly altered the capacity of the INGOs in terms of the number of organizations operating and the structural expansion within those organizations. For instance, Save the Children employed around 500 staff before the cyclone; now it has a staff of 1,600.

However, now that the emergency relief period is over, many INGOs are scaling down their operations. According to a source close to Save the Children, the organization will reduce its staff by some 300 in the near future and close down five of its field offices.

Many INGOs that entered the delta after the cyclone are now leaving, even though the region is still in crisis, with many people lacking food, access to clean drinking water and shelter. Despite the evident need for their services, the INGOs are scaling down their operations or pulling out completely because they face a severe shortage of funding.

Another significant factor in the equation is the expansion of local civil society organizations (CSOs), which have continued to play a key role despite being forced to operate under numerous restrictions. One major obstacle for these local groups is that they cannot officially register or open a bank account with the state-owned Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, which is the only conduit in the country for receiving money transfers from overseas and conducting other foreign currency transactions.

Due to such constraints, they have to rely heavily on INGOs inside the country to channel aid funds to them. This means that they are also likely to be adversely affected by the funding shortages faced by the INGOs, with the result that they may also be forced to cease or scale down their operations.

Just as aid groups working in the delta were raising the alarm about the desperate need for more international funding, a new report was released detailing human rights abuses by the junta in the wake of Cyclone Nargis.

Produced by the Thailand-based Emergency Assistance Team (Burma) with technical support from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the report, titled “After the Storm: Voices from the Delta,” soon came under attack from some aid groups operating inside Burma.

A group of 21 INGOs—including Save the Children—challenged the credibility of the EAT-Johns Hopkins report and accused its authors of undermining the case for further aid to the survivors.

Andrew Kirkwood, the country director of Save the Children-Myanmar, said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that the EAT-Johns Hopkins report was not “balanced.” He went on to say that Save the Children was working closely with the Burmese junta.

“With [the regime’s] cooperation, we are able to do a lot of community-based assistance. So it’s really not right to say that all parts of the government are not being cooperative.”

However, some exiled groups say that criticism of the EAT-Johns Hopkins report is unfair. If the same report had been released by an internationally recognized human rights group, they say, its critics would not have been so quick to dismiss its conclusions, which were based on interviews with local villagers who would have been unwilling to speak openly with foreigners for fear of reprisals from the junta. Because most EAT members were ethnic Karen, they were able to conduct interviews discreetly to get a better picture of the situation in the delta, defenders of the report argued.

In any case, the report did not call for a moratorium on humanitarian aid to the cyclone victims, as some have erroneously reported, but simply urged the donor countries to ensure that aid is delivered with “transparency, accountability and respect for human rights.”

Although many aid groups inside Burma have been quick to defend the junta’s role in the Nargis relief effort, they have so far been silent on the fate of local aid workers who have been arrested by the regime and given prison sentences ranging from two to 35 years.

One year after Nargis, the regime has shown no signs of relenting in its efforts to intimidate local relief workers who might be tempted to offer a different picture of the situation on the ground from the official one. In early April, it handed down prison sentences to Dr Nay Win, his daughter and four colleagues for their efforts to help villagers in the delta cremate the bodies of the deceased. The six were detained by authorities and sentenced under sections 6 and 7 of the Unlawful Association Act.

Nargis changed the delta, not the junta

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on April 22, Dr Frank Smithuis of MSF Holland acknowledged that restrictions on the activities of international aid agencies outside the cyclone-affected areas remain unchanged.

The past two years have been a critical period for INGOs working in Burma, during which they have proven that they can carry out their programs to a certain extent even under severe governmental restrictions.

They should be commended for taking on this difficult task, and for their occasional criticism of the junta and efforts to change its policies, even if these efforts have so far not met with any success.

International relief agencies inside Burma have been especially effective in establishing networks that have enabled them to respond not only to the challenges they face in the field, but also to threats that could potentially undermine the continuation of international aid to Burma.

However, the time has come for the INGOs to reassess their three demands and exercise their networking mechanism to try to impress upon the junta the benefits of truly allowing the aid groups to work to the full extent of the capabilities.

More international humanitarian aid will follow if the regime genuinely creates a better operational environment without restrictions and repression.

The author is an independent researcher and a graduate in International Development Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok

READ MORE---> Distrust and Division in the Delta...

Thailand’s Crisis: Lessons for Burma

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

Power-holders must learn that the voice of the majority is the true voice of democracy

WHAT does Thailand’s protracted political crisis tell its neighboring countries? What are the lessons to be learned from the Thai experiences? And what is the most vital message for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which Thailand is a member, as the organisation moves toward a greater regional integration?

The current political stalemate in Thailand is the work of two competing networks: one that supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the other the old establishment.

Thaksin is represented by the red-shirt movement which comprises the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the poor in far-flung regions and underprivileged Thais. The old establishment is supported by the Bangkok elite, part of the military and big business. Its proxy agent is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose members wear yellow shirts that symbolize the king’s color.

The battle between the two political networks has been ferocious. When red-shirted protesters forced the cancellation of the Asean summit in Pattaya on April 11 and raged in the streets of Bangkok days later, it signalled that at least one side of the network was willing to engage in a warlike fight to undermine its opponent. In the process, leaders of both networks claimed to act for democracy. But their brands of democracy have so far failed to untie the political deadlock.

The deep turmoil in Thailand reveals certain realities that have long existed in the countries of Southeast Asia. Yet, leaders in the region have pretended not to see them. This time, as Thailand found itself on the brink of becoming a failed state, a few lessons could be learned by its neighboring countries.

First, the continuing crisis and escalating violence imply that democracy has remained a fragile commodity. A decade ago, Thailand was praised for its rapid economic development and progressive democratization. Today, its political domain is transformed into a battlefield between two powerful forces possessing different ideologies.

The Thai case shows that an elected government with excessive power, living on corruption and lack of respect for human rights, can be vulnerable; that traditional power-holders must face up to modern-day reality whereby the voice of the majority is the true voice of democracy; that the military has to be depoliticised for the sake of democracy; and that violent means employed to serve political purposes only further alienate democracy.

The rise of the red-shirt movement has the potential to unleash a new political wave in certain Southeast Asian states where people have been denied democratic rights. Not every member of the red shirts supports Thaksin. Some have participated in the rallies genuinely for the return of real democracy.

Second, although the power struggle is a part of Thailand’s democratic evolution and this proves that the country has come a long way since the political transition in 1932, its political drama does not necessarily encourage positive changes in certain parts of the region. It could send out the wrong message.

The message, for example, that anti-government activities must not be tolerated because stability is more precious than democratic rights; that challenges to the ruling regime must not be allowed; and that Western democracy is not really compatible with Asian societies—a canard fostered by Asian leaders for generations.

In other words, the Thai conflict could convince illegitimate regimes elsewhere, including Burma, to tighten their grip on power in fear of public disobedience and uncontrollable situations.

Third, Asean has been led to believe that the sole major obstacle to regional integration stems from the widening gap between the more and the less economically developed members. Unless Asean closes this economic gap, regional integration will remain largely elusive.

Yet, Asean leaders have overlooked the fact that a widening political gap, in terms of different levels of democratic development, has also affected the process of regionalism. The Thai political unrest has already delayed Asean gatherings. The political storm has held back the Thai leadership in Asean. The organisation has been operating on autopilot since last year. Its slow response to the global financial crisis proved this point.

However, this is not Thailand’s problem alone. The gap in the levels of democratization in the region has so far tarnished the good work Asean has achieved in other areas.

This existing political gap has produced different mentalities and attitudes among Asean leaders as they look ahead into the future. Some are enthusiastic about Asean’s newborn regionalism. Some are using Asean as merely a symbol of their duplicitous embrace of international norms and practices.

Both Thailand and Asean have a long way to go to meet their objectives. The crisis in Thailand can be used to remind its neighbors that true democratization is an extremely arduous process. But its postponement would only make this exercise even more excruciating and troublesome.

READ MORE---> Thailand’s Crisis: Lessons for Burma...

Character Assassination, or Something Worse?

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3
The Irrawaddy News

Burma’s rulers may take their efforts to silence Aung San Suu Kyi a step further

THE ruling generals in Naypyidaw must be smiling as their nemesis goes to trial charged with a crime that they did nothing to prevent. In Burma, that is the kind of perversion of justice that truly delights the country’s brutal junta.

The case against Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been accused of violating the conditions of her house arrest by allowing a “guest” to stay overnight in her home, is as ludicrous as it is outrageous. But the people of Burma are not laughing, because they know the consequences of this absurd episode could be deadly serious.

The guest in question is, of course, John William Yettaw, the “wretched American” denounced by Suu Kyi’s lawyers and other Burmese for exposing the country’s revered pro-democracy leader to yet another assault on her indignity by Burma’s generals.

There is nothing to suggest that Yettaw is anything more than a misguided individual who happened to hit upon the bright idea of swimming to Suu Kyi’s lakeside home, where she has spent most of the past two decades under house arrest, as a way to get an interview.

Conspiracy theories are flying fast and furious, but none is more convincing than the suggestion that the junta somehow put him up to this foolhardy plan. We know that the authorities were aware of the fact that he breached the perimeter of her tightly guarded residential compound once before, late last year, but did nothing about it. Nor did they try to prevent him from entering the country in late April, when he returned determined to repeat his improbable feat.

This may not be enough to prove that the regime had a hand in this violation of Suu Kyi’s rights, but it is infinitely stronger than any evidence against “the Lady” herself, who is accused of contravening Section 22 of the Law Safeguarding the State from Dangers of Subversive Elements. And it certainly shows a deplorable disregard for her safety, which has often been disingenuously cited as a reason for locking her up in the first place.

In the first few days after the state-run media reported Yettaw’s arrest, pro-junta blogs set up by the Burmese Ministry of Information had a field day offering their own “theories” about what happened between May 3 and 5. Some even suggested Yettaw was a CIA agent, no doubt plotting some dastardly deed to undermine the “peace and security” that the generals have bestowed upon Burma.

Still others made crude innuendoes about a supposed tryst between the 63-year-old Suu Kyi and 53-year-old Yettaw. Such despicable slurs could hardly have been expected to convince the Burmese public, but they probably earned some ambitious young sycophant a pat on the back from a pleased superior officer, who is now in line for a promotion by Snr-Gen Than Shwe, a man who is said to show rage at the mere mention of Suu Kyi’s name.

As Than Shwe and his cohorts move forward with their efforts to force Burma to accept their dead-end “road map” to a military-dominated “democracy,” they are showing growing impatience with the world’s obsession with Suu Kyi. They know, as they learned to their infinite chagrin in 1990, that they would not stand a chance in a fair election that pits them against her party, the National League for Democracy. So they want her silenced, once and for all.

This raises the fear—the very real fear—that the generals have more in store for Suu Kyi than just a sham trial to justify barricading her in her home for another half-decade or so of less than splendid isolation. If they think they can get away with it, they will happily leave her in her “guesthouse” in Insein Prison to spend the remainder of her rapidly passing years.

What is truly frightening about this prospect is that Burma’s prisons are notoriously hazardous to the lives of their inmates, particularly those doing time for displeasing the powers that be. Suu Kyi is known for her indomitable spirit, but it is doubtful that this alone would help her to withstand the rigors of life in a Burmese gulag, especially given her recent health problems.

The question that many Burmese are now asking themselves is whether the regime will stop this time at character assassination—a tactic that they have used against Suu Kyi in the past, to absolutely no effect. What the people of Burma fear most is that they will lose another leader to martyrdom—not in a hail of bullets like her father, but at the hands of jailers who have killed countless others with their policy of malign neglect.

Burma’s generals have shown how far they’re ready to go to silence Suu Kyi, most infamously with the Depayin attack of 2003, which served as the pretext for her current incarceration. Regardless of how the farcical trial against her plays out, it is clear that the regime’s ultimate goal is to permanently remove her from her unassailable position of moral authority, by any means necessary.

READ MORE---> Character Assassination, or Something Worse?...

Chronicle of a Cooked-up Crime

MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3

(Illustration: Harn Lay/The Irrawaddy)

As rumors swirled around the arrest and trial of Aung San Suu Kyi and her uninvited American visitor, The Irrawaddy pieced together the known facts of this bizarre case

Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home on Rangoon’s University Avenue is one of the city’s most secure locations, with at least a dozen security men posted outside its high fence at all times.

In late 2008, an American citizen, Vietnam War veteran John William Yettaw, stayed for several weeks in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot and talked openly there about a visit he claimed to have made in November to Suu Kyi’s home. He reportedly told Mae Sot residents he had swum to her waterfront compound across Rangoon’s Inya Lake. According to National League for Democracy sources, Suu Kyi asked her personal physician to report the incident to the authorities, but they did nothing.

Yettaw returned to Thailand from his home in the US earlier this year after telling his family he was working on a book. on May 2, he entered Burma again.

Immigration officials at Rangoon International Airport, trained to spot suspicious visitors, issued him with a tourist visa.

Yettaw booked into Rangoon’s Beauty Land Hotel.

On May 7, the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar broke the news of Yettaw’s arrest, reporting that he had spent two days and nights at Suu Kyi’s home after swimming there across Inya Lake. The report said that Yettaw set off during the night of Sunday, May 3, and stayed at Suu Kyi’s home until late on May 5. At 5.30 a.m. On May 6, security officials spotted him swimming in the lake near the International Business Center on Pyay Road, more than a mile from Suu Kyi’s home, and arrested him. Yettaw is 53 years old, suffers from asthma and diabetes and lives modestly in the US on an ex-serviceman’s disability pension. He allegedly strapped a pair of home-made flippers to his feet to help him swim to Suu Kyi’s home and back.

In 2003, Burmese authorities argued they were putting Suu Kyi under house arrest for her own safety. The lapse in security that allowed Yettaw to enter her home was not an issue, however, when Suu Kyi was transferred to Rangoon’s Insein Prison on May 14 and charged with violating the conditions of her detention order. Under the terms of the order, unauthorized visitors are banned. Yettaw’s fateful visit was clearly not authorized—and certainly not by Suu Kyi.

READ MORE---> Chronicle of a Cooked-up Crime...

Sink or Swim

The Irrawaddy Magazine
MAY — JUNE, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.3

Can efforts to relax US sanctions against Burma stay afloat in the wake of John William Yettaw’s fateful swim across Inya Lake?

NOBODY knows for sure what inspired John William Yettaw to don a pair of homemade flippers and swim across Inya Lake to the home of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. But if his intention was to frustrate efforts to open a new chapter in US relations with Burma’s ruling regime, all we can say is: Mission Accomplished.

Suu Kyi enters the Insein Prison building where the trial is being held.

Of course, Yettaw should not be the one held accountable for the hardening of attitudes toward the Burmese junta in the wake of this incident. For that, Burma’s generals have only themselves to thank.

It was the regime’s decision to exploit this episode as a pretext for extending Suu Kyi’s illegal detention that prompted US President Barack Obama to renew sanctions on Burma on May 15, ending months of speculation that the new administration was steering away from the hard-line stance of Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush.

This is a serious blow to those who had hoped that Obama’s message of change would somehow reach Burma, where the junta’s obstinate grip on power has long been met with an equally unyielding adherence to sanctions by the world’s superpower.

Suu Kyi is escorted to a car after a session of the trial attended by reporters and diplomats.

Critics of the US sanctions policy say that it has failed to have any real impact on Burma, apart from putting its people more at the mercy of the generals, whose regional allies, such as China, India and Thailand, have shown little compunction about engaging with the junta to advance their own commercial and geopolitical objectives.

Soon after taking office, new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the limited effectiveness of sanctions as a policy tool. Speaking during a tour of Asia in February, she noted that neither sanctions nor engagement had succeeded in moving Burma closer to democracy. This set off a vigorous debate among Burmese exiles and other close observers about the possible outcome of a review of US policy on Burma.

Sources close to the action in Washington said they wouldn’t be surprised if Obama signaled a more conciliatory approach to Burma by referring to the country as “Myanmar,” its official name under the current regime. Others suggested he might upgrade the American diplomatic mission in Burma, where the US has a huge new embassy, but has had no ambassador since the junta seized power in 1988.

But even such symbolic gestures now seem unlikely, as the junta moves forward with its efforts to marginalize the democratic opposition by going after its major figurehead with a zeal that we have not seen since the Depayin massacre of May 2003, when Suu Kyi and her supporters came under attack from murderous pro-junta thugs.

With Suu Kyi facing imprisonment for allegedly violating the conditions of her house arrest—a charge stemming from Yettaw’s uninvited visit—the Obama administration has shown that it is in no mood to cut the regime any slack.

“We reject their baseless charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, their continuing resistance to a free and open electoral process,” Clinton told senators at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on State and Foreign Affairs.

“If they stay on the track they’re on, their elections in 2010 will be totally illegitimate and without any meaning in the international community,” Clinton warned.

By linking Suu Kyi’s arrest and detention in Insein Prison to the credibility of elections planned for next year, Clinton underscored the longstanding US insistence that Washington will not accept the junta’s “road map” to a military-dominated quasi-democracy unless it includes the democratic opposition.

Barricades are set up at a road junction in Rangoon
amid high security in the former capital. (Photo: Reuters)

This refusal to embrace a junta-engineered end to Burma’s political deadlock contrasts with the attitude of many other governments—including not only those of Burma’s Asian neighbors, but also some in Europe—that have been more inclined to regard the 2010 elections as a potential watershed in a gradual transition to genuine democracy.

While many have focused on next year’s elections as an opportunity to advance the cause of Burmese democracy, others have identified last year’s devastating Cyclone Nargis as a turning point in Burma’s engagement with the outside world.

Nargis, which revealed the extent of the country’s desperate need for humanitarian aid, also supposedly opened up the possibility of large-scale cooperation between the regime and the international community.

On May 8, several prominent proponents of humanitarian engagement with the junta held a meeting at a US Senate office building to discuss the “view from the ground” in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta. The gathering, co-sponsored by the US-Asean Business Council and the relief agency Refugees International, also included speakers representing the governments of Thailand, Singapore, Norway, Japan and Australia.

Police and security forces man a checkpoint
outside Insein Prison. (Photo: Reuters)

It remains to be seen what impact, if any, this meeting will have on US policy on Burma. But it is interesting as evidence of the coalition of disparate interests that is forming around this issue, and the growing momentum of the movement to challenge decades of sanctions-based policies in favor of an approach that will inevitably involve bestowing some measure of legitimacy upon Burma’s present rulers.

For now, however, the push to do away with sanctions appears to be dead in the water, as the Yettaw affair has served as a reminder of the sort of intransigence that the regime displayed in the crucial early weeks after Cyclone Nargis, when countless lives were lost because of the junta’s xenophobic response to offers of foreign assistance.

If opponents of US sanctions are hoping for any breakthroughs, they will have to keep a keen eye on Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the man who holds all the cards. Until he demonstrates that he is prepared to meet the expectations of countries that care about the rule of law, there will be little talk in Washington of relaxing sanctions.

Than Shwe now has three options: He could give in to international demands and release Suu Kyi; he could say sanctions be damned and throw her in prison; or he could restore the status quo and put her back under house arrest.

Of these three, the third seems most in keeping with the method that usually lies behind Than Shwe’s madness. By escalating fears about Suu Kyi’s safety and then simply sending her back to her home, he would be showing the world that he is willing to “compromise.”

But at this stage, such a display of false magnanimity will probably do little to help the pro-engagement camp. Advocates of major changes in US policy on Burma may believe that they have a strong case to make, but as long as they are at the mercy of Than Shwe’s cynical ploys, they will just be treading water.

READ MORE---> Sink or Swim...

Recession bites: compounding misery for migrants

By Joseph A. Allchin

(DVB)–The economic recession became real to Yomana in March. Seven years of working up to 13 hours a day came to an end when, like most in his garment factory, he was laid off.

His story could prove quintessentially 21st Century. Yomana (not his real name) joins approximately 4000 factory workers in Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border, who have lost their jobs in recent months as a result of the recession. But according to Moe Swe of Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association (YCOWA) the recession has come late to Mae Sot precisely because the wages are so suppressed here. Despite this Moe Swe estimates that as many as 12 factories have closed.

Yomana’s days of toil were rewarded invariably with less than the Thai minimum wage, and his overtime went unpaid. A thirteen-hour day therefore could result in him being paid under US$2. The conditions were exacerbated by a system that, whilst relieving great desperation in the first place, verges on bonded labour.

As a farmer in Mon state, Burma, he left his lands as erosion ate into his dozen acres of rice paddy; a peril that will perhaps come to inflict many this century as a result of global warming. His journey was orchestrated by brokers, who for a large fee escorted him and his young family the short distance over the border into Mae Sot.

Arriving in Thailand illegally puts workers in Mae Sot in a particularly difficult place. According to Thetis Managahas of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), there is very little that the Thai authorities can do to regulate migrant workers; they arrive from Burma with no documentation.

As such, businesses in Mae Sot are able to pay pitiful wages, ones that would not be paid to Thais, and the local authorities and the business community enjoy what Mangahas terms a ‘built-in relationship’, and turn a blind eye. Moe Swe of YCOWA confirms this relationship, saying that “everybody knows that workers in Mae Sot are exploited but nobody does anything”.

The ugly truth is that the commodity of cheap labour is treated as such, with workers reporting suffocating factory floors with little fresh air and intense pressure to produce more. These conditions encourage injury and accident. All ‘wastage’ must come out of the pitiful wages, and workers speak of being punished or threatened with violence from factory bosses.

The majority of Burmese migrants are forced to stay in Mae Sot. Few towns outside of war zones can have quite such strict departure measures. On leaving the town on the main road away from the border, one is liable to pass through as many as five different army checkpoints where Burmese are systematically targeted. ‘Fees’ to leave and travel freely in Thailand can be paid, but would dwarf most salaries.

An overarching responsibility for the worker is also placed on the employer in Thailand, putting the lives of workers such as Yomana in the hands of their employers. He says his bosses would levy ‘security’ charges out of wages and look after their work permits. Fees are also often levied for food and other things, giving bosses an almost parental control over workers. Inspections are rare and, according to Moe Swe, done as part of the ‘cosy’ relationship, with hand-picked workers reportedly rolled out for the inspectors.

Thai law further forbids migrant workers the right to unionise. Whilst they are allowed to join Thai unions, none are present in Mae Sot purely because there are so few Thai workers here.

All this makes for suffocating working conditions before the recession, and with the rise in the value of the Burmese currency, the Kyat, things were tough enough. As a footnote, the rise of the value of Kyat occurred partly as a result of a sudden influx of aid money in the wake of cyclone Nargis. This makes the hope of sending remittances back to impoverished family members even more unlikely.

As the recession bit and orders dried up, Yomana’s job ended. A few remained in the factory who would work even longer hours for even less remuneration and, as the desperation mounted, workers further undercut each other. He now takes daily wage labour work, when it comes - he gets a few days work a month and is sheltered by an NGO. Every now and then, particularly in these tough economic times, the Thai police erect check points or go house-to-house, factory-to-factory, rounding up the ‘aliens’ in what Mangahas describes as a “nice political release”; essentially a proverbial scapegoat.

Transnational economic migrants are an essential plank of the Thai and global economies. The Federation for Thai Industry acknowledge the value of the foreign currency that the rock bottom wages in Mae Sot bring into the Thai economy. Yet their labour here is rewarded with subsistence wages, no security and backbreaking work at the best of times.

In other parts of the world they call such a space an ‘export processing zone’ or a ‘special economic zone’; a space where regulations and taxes are particularly favourable to business. Mae Sot is such a space with only semi-official recognition and no fancy acronym to conceal the money-making that feeds off desperation.

READ MORE---> Recession bites: compounding misery for migrants...

Suu Kyi Trial Sparks Helpless Outrage in Burma

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON (AP)— The spray-painted demands appear overnight: "Free Aung San Su Kyi" read the scrawls on walls across this city—only to be whitewashed by security forces as soon as they are discovered.

Since the trial of Burma's pro-democracy leader began two weeks ago, these small signs of defiance hint at the undercurrent of anger over the treatment of a woman considered to be a living icon by many of her compatriots.

But out in public, under the watchful gaze of the military regime, supporters feel helpless to do more as the trial winds to an end, with closing arguments scheduled for Friday.

There is little sign that private anguish will explode into the mass protests—all violently suppressed—that have marked the history of Burma, since the military began its rule in 1962.

"I'm so upset about what has happened in my country," said Zin, a 28-year-old housewife who, like most Burmese, won't give her full name for fear of retaliation. "People are angry and people are sad, but we can't do anything for her. We have no power."

Suu Kyi, 63, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is being tried on charges of violating her house arrest after an American, John W. Yettaw, swam uninvited to her lakeshore home and stayed for two days.

Suu Kyi has already been held in detention for 13 of the past 19 years, including the past six years. Closing arguments have been delayed until Friday, but expectations are high that she will be found guilty since Burma's courts operate under the command of the ruling military.

The trial has drawn condemnation from the international community and Suu Kyi's local supporters, who worry that the military junta has found an excuse to keep her detained through elections planned for next year.

But with memories of the government's bloody crackdown against the Buddhist monk-led uprising in 2007 still vivid, few people are willing to challenge a regime with no qualms about using violence against its own citizens. At least 31 people were killed that September, including a Japanese journalist, the UN says.

Aung, a 55-year-old businessman who witnessed the military's response to the protests two years ago, said the Burmese learned a bitter lesson from that experience. Thousands were detained in the aftermath of demonstrations that drew 100,000 people into Rangoon's streets. Hundreds of activists were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

"The person who becomes involved in protests, their whole family is persecuted. If you want to be brave, OK, but do you think all your family must be brave too?" he said. "Nobody wants to risk that now."

Longtime observers say it is unlikely that major public demonstrations will follow Suu Kyi's sentencing.

"If Suu Kyi is found guilty and jailed, there will be much popular anger, but it won't make a real difference because (the government) is well-equipped and experienced in dealing with the people's protests," said Donald Seekins, a Burma expert at Japan's Meio University.

Seekins said the regime has already posted soldiers throughout Rangoon, the largest city, "and can suppress demonstrations with little difficulty."

For a nation still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Nargis last year, which left at least 138,000 dead, the ongoing economic hardship makes coping day-to-day—not politics—the priority for many Burmese, said Aung.

"People are so disturbed, so angry" about Suu Kyi, he said, clenching his fist for emphasis. "But Nargis was a big hit. Everybody's suffering and when people suffer, they don't have time to think about anything."

In the streets of Rangoon this past week, there was little evidence of heightened tension, with businesses operating normally.

However, increased security could be seen around Suu Kyi's gently decaying lakeshore home as well as near her party's headquarters as a key anniversary was marked—19 years since Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory at the ballot box but were prevented from taking office.

A few political stalwarts have still managed to keep the faith. At a small celebration Wednesday attended by foreign diplomats, senior party members wore T-shirts calling for Suu Kyi's freedom and then released a total of 64 doves and balloons into the air at the dilapidated party offices. She will turn 64 on June 19.

Meanwhile, several dozen faithful, including 80-year-old former political prisoner Win Tin, have been holding daily vigils in the rain outside the gates of Insein Prison, where Suu Kyi is being held, despite the presence of plainclothes security videotaping their movements and recording their identities.

Acknowledging the difficulties faced by regular Burmese, Win Tin said last week that "everyone is angry, but people are concerned with earning their daily bread. They are afraid, and there is no leadership."

Even if people wanted to talk about the incarceration of "The Lady," as Suu Kyi is known, the dangers of criticizing the ruling regime too openly are known to everyone, said Thein, a 48-year-old English teacher.

Instead, he said, political discussions are reduced to secret whisperings in neighborhood teashops and small gatherings in private homes.

"People have been frustrated a long time," Thein said. "We don't trust anything. We don't trust each other. Always we think, 'Is he a spy?' The rule is: 'Don't talk politics.'"

READ MORE---> Suu Kyi Trial Sparks Helpless Outrage in Burma...

Soldiers Commit Gang rape in Karen State: Villagers

The Irrawaddy News

A gang rape against an ethnic Karen woman committed by Burmese soldiers has been reported in Karen State in eastern Burma

Villagers in Kawkareik Township claimed that a 30-year-old Karen woman was taken from her farm hut to the jungle and raped by soldiers of Infantry Battalion 283 led by Capt Htay Win on May 25'09, according to the Karen Information Center, a Karen news organization.

On May 27, the UN human rights special rapporteur Sergio Pinheiro urged the UN Security Council to undertake an investigation into crimes against humanity in Burma committed by the Burmese military regime.

Pinheiro said that for the past two decades, ethnic minorities in Burma—more than one-third of the population—have not received enough of the world’s attention, adding that, “For Burma's process of national reconciliation to be successful, the
plight of the minorities must also be addressed.”

In 2007, the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) released a report titled: “State of Terror,” highlighting the campaign of abuse against women in Karen State, including rape, torture and forced labor.

The KWO said it documented more than 4,000 cases of abuse, including rape, murder, torture and forced labor over the past few years in more than 190 villages by troops from more than 40 Burmese Army battalions. Many of the human rights violations were from late 2005 through 2006.

Many of the abuses took place during ongoing military offensives in eastern Burma since early 2006, which have displaced more than 25,000 civilians and have forced thousands of refugees to seek safety along the Thai-Burmese border, he report said.

The UN human rights envoy also advocated that the UN Security Council form a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity and impunity in Burma.

Meanwhile, Zipporah Sein, the general secretary of the ethnic Karen National Union, said that it is time for the UN Security Council to take action against the Burmese regime’s use of systematic rape in ethnic minority areas.

In a statement, Pinheiro said that he received a report in 2000 estimating 625 women were systematically raped in Burma's Shan State over a five-year period. However, there was not a single account of a successful prosecution, he said.

The UN special rapporteur said in December 2008 a Burmese soldier went into an ethnic Karen village in eastern Burma and abducted, raped and killed a 7-year-old girl. Authorities refused to arrest the soldier; instead, officers threatened the parents with punishment if they did not accept a cash bribe to keep quiet.

During the past 15 years, the Burmese Army has destroyed more than 3,300 villages in a systematic and widespread campaign to subjugate ethnic groups, Pinheiro said. UN reports indicate that Burmese soldiers have recruited child soldiers, used civilians as minesweepers and forced thousands of villagers into slave labor, he said.

READ MORE---> Soldiers Commit Gang rape in Karen State: Villagers...

Bangladesh, Burma Work to Resolve Rohingya Repatriation

The Irrawaddy News

The influx of Rohingya refuges into Bangladesh will not stop until there is a change in Arakan State and Burmese officials agree to repatriation, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said at a press conference on Friday.

“If there is no qualitative change in the place they come from, the influx will be continuing no matter how serious we are in trying to resolve the crisis,” Dipu Moni said.

She made the comment in response to media reports that more Rohingya refugees were entering Bangladesh through the Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts.

The foreign minister said nearly 30,000 Rohingya currently reside in two makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar District and many more live outside the designated camps.

The foreign minister recalled that Burma claimed that the Rohingya were Bangladeshi at the Bali Conference on human trafficking in April.

“But I presented the historical facts and necessary evidence on the Rohingya, their origin in Burma, at the conference to convince the international community,” she said.

During her visit to Burma on May 16-17, Dipu Moni said the Burmese government agreed to take Rohingya refugees back if a proper list was provided. “Progress has been made in this regard,” she said.

“We will provide the list to Rangoon in consultation with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHRC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM),” she said.

The UNHRC earlier called the Rohingyas issues a “protracted” humanitarian problem that began 30 years ago.

Khine Mrat Kyaw, an editor at the Bangladesh-based Narinjara news agency, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that he didn’t believe the Rohingya issue would be easily solved.

Under a subsequent tripartite agreement between Dhaka, the UN refugee agency and Rangoon, Burma had agreed to take back Rohingya following Bangladesh refusal to shelter them for an indefinite period, calling it an "economic burden."

Khine Mrat Kyaw said, “When I asked them [Rohingya], they don’t want to go back to Burma. If the Bangladesh government sent them by force, they would protest and demonstrate. Bangladesh needs to negotiate with the UNHRC and Burma.”

Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain told the press briefing: "Unless the situation in Burma improves to restore the confidence of the Rohingya, the problem is unlikely to be resolved despite the tripartite agreement or Rangoon's statements."

Rohingya have alleged widespread, systemic human rights abuses by Burmese authorities, saying the government deprives Rohingya citizens of free movement, education and rightful employment.

Rohingya have migrated to Bangladesh since the late 1970s, and, more recently, Malaysia and Indonesia.

READ MORE---> Bangladesh, Burma Work to Resolve Rohingya Repatriation...

Burmese Army on High Alert After Unidentified Reconnaissance Plane Spotted

Buthidaung (Narinjara): The Burmese army in the Buthidaung cantonment has been put on high alert after an unidentified reconnaissance plane was spotted taking photos of military bases in the area last week, said a source close to the army.

The source said, "An unidentified reconnaissance plane flew over Buthidaung last week secretly snapping photos but the authorities knew a plane intruded into Burma's airspace on that day."

After the incident took place, high army authorities put security forces in the area on high alert.

The town of Buthidaung, 80 miles north of Sittwe, is the largest military base in western Burma, with at least 15 army battalions, including an artillery battalion, stationed there. A brigade, called Sakakha 15 in Burmese, and the military operation planning bureau are also stationed in the area.

The source reported that a military official said, "The Burmese army officials suspect the reconnaissance plane was from the US Air Force, but have not officially disclosed that this happened."

The Burmese military authorities in the area are anxious about the unidentified plan intruding into their territory.

It has also been learned that Kha Kha Kyi, the defense bureau in Burma's new capital Naypyidaw, also knew of the incident and some high technical officials from the air defense force have been sent to Buthidaung to investigate the incident.

READ MORE---> Burmese Army on High Alert After Unidentified Reconnaissance Plane Spotted...

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