Monday, August 17, 2009

US Senator’s mercy mission to Burma may start a new process

by Larry Jagan

Bangkok (Mizzima) - The American senator, Jim Webb may have started something significant, but at this stage everything to do with his visit is still shrouded in mystery. Even at his two press conferences in Bangkok on consecutive days, the usually garrulous and talkative politician was overtly coy, dodging questions and being continually non-committal. “He appears frightened and is hiding something,” said a senior western diplomat who closely follows Burmese affairs. “He knows more than he’s telling, something is surely afoot.”

This was certainly no ordinary or even private visit, despite senior state department officials insisting the senator visited Burma in a personal capacity. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, rang him last night to talk about the trip, Webb let slip during his encounter with the press on Monday. This only adds to the increasing suspicion that something significant may be happening beneath the public gaze. After all that is how serious diplomacy takes place.

Senator Webb, it must be remembered, is a rising political star in Washington, close to the Clintons and Barack Obama, according to sources on the Hill. He is also tipped to become the next secretary of defense, when the Bush-appointee Bill Gates stands down in around two years’ time. So the US could not have had a better envoy – even if unofficially -- than this conservative Democrat from Virginia.

One of the key messages Webb passed onto Than Shwe was that Aung San Suu Kyi should be released before the 2010 election, and allowed a political role. “We will just have to wait and see how the Myanmar government responds,” he told Mizzima. “I am hopeful that they will give my recommendation [that she be freed] serious consideration,” he added.

The pro-democracy opposition abroad is still complaining that Webb’s visit gave the Burmese military leaders international credibility, and even a measure of legitimacy. This accusation at least the senator dismisses. “I am not pro-Myanmar, but I believe the Burmese people deserve better than they are getting now. Isolation is only preventing them from developing economically and politically,” he told journalists on Sunday. A day later he was still loath to call his visit a success – the jury is still out, he implied. “It’s now in the hands of the Myanmar government,” he said.

Sensibly the senator is distancing himself from what many want to dub as his key success: bringing the American intruder, John Yettaw, out of Burma after he was officially deported on Sunday. It was Yettaw whose unwanted visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence some three months ago resulted in the detained opposition leader being put under house arrest for a further 18 months. “Mr Yettaw’s actions were regrettable,” Webb said. “But the Myanmar government responded favourably to my request to release him on humanitarian grounds.”

The American was sentenced to seen years in jail with hard labour – and his family feared that given his ill-health he would not cope with conditions in a Burmese jail. In fact during his imprisonment while the trial as on he frequently needed medical attention and was hospitalised at least once. Many analysts saw the harsh sentence as an open invitation to Washington to open discussions with the military government.

Yettaw is now in a Bangkok hospital undergoing an intensive medical check-up before returning to the US. “He's got severe medical problems, and had a relapse and fit this [Sunday] after he was handed over to US embassy officials,” a senior American state department diplomat told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

The hapless American’s release was one of three major requests the US senator made during his crucial meeting with the junta's reclusive leader, General Than Shwe. The other two were to be permitted to see the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and to strongly urge the regime to release her and allow her to fully participate in the country's political process. “He granted my first two requests during our meeting, and there is yet to be a response to my third,” he told journalists at a press conference in Bangkok.

In fact it is the two meetings – the one with Than Shwe and the other with Aung San Suu Kyi – that may yet prove to be more significant than the release of the hapless American visitor. The senator remained coy about the details of the talks he had with the two, though he said he had an extensive exchange with both on the current political process, which the junta calls its roadmap to disciplined democracy. “Without Aung San Suu being released and allowed to participate in the elections, the US and the international community would find it impossible to accept the process as free and fair,” he told General Than Shwe.

The pro-democracy leader preferred to wait until she and her party had formulated a detailed policy towards the elections, before issuing a statement, he told Mizzima. On sanctions we had a long and vigorous discussion, he added. “It was my impression that she was not opposed to lifting some sanctions, that is all I will say as I do not want to misquote her,” he said. He declined to give further details. This seems to be an admission that the detained Nobel Laureate may have given the new US administration the green light to consider dismantling some of the sanctions.

Many analysts believe that it is the senator’s support for a change in US policy towards Burma and his opposition to the sanctions’ approach that encouraged the regime to invite him. That and the fact that he is a former soldier, a marine who fought in the Vietnam War would also have been important. Burma’s military rulers mistrust all civilians.

Senator Webb’s visit is the first by an American Congressman in more than 10 years. But US officials, and Webb himself, played down any suggestion that he was an envoy for the Obama administration or that he was an interlocutor between the two governments. “I went in a private capacity – and in my role as chairman of the Senate foreign affairs East Asia and the Pacific sub-committee,” he told journalists in Bangkok. “But I will be reporting back on the visit to the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, on a wide variety of issues, including increasing humanitarian assistance,” he said. In fact Clinton could not wait until he returned and phoned him in Bangkok on Sunday evening.

Apart from conveying Aung San Suu Kyi’s best wishes to President Barack Obama, Webb said he had only his own impressions and general issues to report back to the White House. But all this will be part of the mix as the new administration mulls over what kind of policy changes might best help encourage the regime to introduce genuine political reform and make its roadmap internationally credible, according to senior state department officials. Many people are optimistic that the administration is planning significant if not radical changes to US policy towards Burma.

“Webb is after ‘aggressive engagement’, like Senator Lugar's report on US-Cuban relations,” seasoned Burma-watcher, Derek Tonkin told Mizzima. “The US and Burma should now look for areas of mutual interest on which they can start talking -- narcotics, even US certification, international terrorism, piracy around SE Asia and off Somalia, communicable diseases, conservation -- the list is endless,” he said.

What is now needed is quiet diplomacy, a senior European diplomat with experience in behind-the-scenes exchanges and negotiations in Asia told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. Webb seems to be optimistic: “maybe this trip has helped to start the ball moving forward,” he said. But it is yet to be seen whether Webb’s trip is a one-off visit or the start of a new serious policy of engagement by Washington.

But more importantly, perhaps the visit and the outcomes show a new approach on the part of the junta. Senator Webb was given a ceremonial reception – with all the top generals – that is usually reserved only for visiting heads of state. Shown prominently on the state-run television, it clearly shows Burma’s military rulers now crave international, especially American, recognition, said a long-time foreign resident in Rangoon.

If the Burmese military regime really does want to engage with the international community, it may even heed some of its concerns, and then they will have no alternative but to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi. Than Shwe, at the behest of some of its Asian allies, especially Singapore and China, is keen to improve relations with the US, according to military sources in the Burmese capital Naypitdaw. The senator’s visit makes this extremely evident.

“You cannot fail to see in this that the junta is keen to tell the world that sanctions do not work and we are open to dialogue – at least with other governments, if not Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement inside the country,” said a western diplomat based in Rangoon.

But in the end the regime will proceed with its plans for a disciplined democracy no matter what the international community thinks. But what Webb’s visit does show is that Than Shwe is getting ready to push the process forward. The next step will be the creation of an interim government, according to senior Burmese military sources. Than Shwe plans to announce this soon and it will take control of the government for a year, possibly from September, a Burmese official told Mizzima. Aung Thaung, the minister and a close confidante of Than Shwe’s, recently told his deputies that there would be a new government soon, and he may no longer be the minister. Most other ministers have also told their staff that they will not be in their current posts by the end of the year.

“According to Than Shwe’s plans, all the current ministers will have to resign, if they are to join a political party and fight the forthcoming elections,” said the independent Burmese academic, Win Min based in Chiang Mai. So far there have been no hints as to who will be in the interim administration. Some analysts speculate that it may even include a senior member of the NLD.

But most diplomats and analysts in Rangoon remain skeptical that Than Shwe plans any real change, even the formation of an interim government may be intended to deflect international criticism. The end result of all these changes is clearly to make sure the military retains political control.

“There have been abundant signals that the roadmap is not an inclusive process and the referendum [in May last year] dispelled any remaining doubts – this is a hyper-flawed process that will not lead anywhere, it’s simply a consolidation of the military’s control of the state,” the former UN human rights rapporter for Burma Professor Paulo Pinheiro recently told Mizzima.

But there may still be surprises in store. Never underestimate the generals’ cunning and ability to wrong-foot the opposition by doing the unexpected. Than Shwe is already planning to release political prisoners, including some high-profile activists, in the near future, according to a senior government source close to the junta leader.

After all, Than Shwe promised the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he visited Burma last month that political prisoners would be released. The Burmese Ambassador to New York re-iterated this when he told the UN Security Council last month that political prisoners would be released before the elections and allowed to participate – though did not say how many or who would be included.

So it should not be a surprise if Aung San Suu Kyi is freed before the elections – and maybe even sooner than that. Senator Webb’s coyness during his encounters with the press in Bangkok gives the impression he is definitely hiding something. A western diplomat who follows Burma closely believes the US senator may have been given some form of assurances or undertakings that the pro-democracy leader will be freed in the near future -- but has to keep mum for the time being.

READ MORE---> US Senator’s mercy mission to Burma may start a new process...

Ceasefire groups put business expansion on hold

by Phanida

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Four ceasefire groups, which have an alliance and have flatly refused the junta’s proposal to transform into the Border Guard Force (BGF), are putting on hold their business expansion plans for the moment.

This has been hinted at by the four ceasefire groups namely the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Maila a.k.a. the National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA).

An official of the Bugar Company’s Rangoon Office, which runs KIO owned operations in gems, tours and travel, roads and bridge building told Mizzima, “We are only continuing with our present business. We do not have any expansion plans for the moment”.

An official of the UWSA, which focuses on rubber plantations said, “There are no new and significant business operations. We are into plantation of substitute crops in lieu of opium, which is mainly rubber. We have not stopped this business but there is no expansion”.

It is learnt that MNDAA (Kokang) has also stopped investments in tea and rubber plantations along the Sino-Burma border.

“They have no plans to continue business operations inside Burma. For the time being, they have stopped the incomplete business ventures and accepting new contracts. They will consider resuming all these business operations only after 2010,”a source close to MNDAA told Mizzima.

Despite rumours in circulation about recalling their men based in Rangoon because of the palpable tension between the Burmese Army and these ceasefire groups, officials of the KIO, and the Shan State North Special Region (Shan State Army-North) SSA-N have denied it.

But a Rangoon based official of another ceasefire group the Kayan New Land Party, Kayah State Special Region 3 said that he had heard that the members of the Kokang and Wa based in Rangoon had returned to their mother units. But he did not know the details.

An officer from the Shan State South Special Region No. 6 Rangoon office said that it was true that UWSA and KIO had recalled their Rangoon based officials to their headquarters.

READ MORE---> Ceasefire groups put business expansion on hold...

Government employees to lose incentives in Naypyitaw

by Ni Moe Myint

Naypyitaw (Mizzima) – Authorities will begin collecting five different bills including house rent, electricity and water bills, from government employees they were earlier exempted from in Naypyitaw.

In July, the authorities collected Kyat 2,000 from each flat or houses as electricity bill up to July 2009. They, were however, told that they would be charged at the rate of Kyat 25 per unit next time.

Government employees have to pay rent at a flat rate of 10 per cent of their monthly salary regardless of the type of houses occupied, either with the family in flats or if they are staying together in dormitories, a staff from the Ministry of Forest told Mizzima.

“The monthly electricity bill may touch five digits as power is available here 24x7. Then we have to pay rent and Kyat 6,000 per month for cable TV. After deducting all these expenses from our monthly salary of just over Kyat 20,000, I wonder how much will be left for us to eat,” a low ranking staff from the Ministry of Economics and Commerce told Mizzima.

In Burma, where there has been military rule since 1962, the monthly salaries of low ranking government employees range from 15,000 kyat (USD 12 approximately) to 30,000 kyat.

In late 2005 and in early 2006, employees in various government ministries were ordered to move to Naypyitaw, as the military junta announced shifting of its capital to the jungle city. There was a lot of resentment among employees, habituated to living in urban areas. Some even toyed with the idea of resigning.

To persuade the employees to accept the transfer to the new jungle capital, authorities thought up incentives including one-step promotion, free housing in modern flats, round the clock free electricity and free cable for state-run TV.

However, there was a nasty shock in store for employees after they began settling down in their new homes. The regime began withdrawing the concessions one by one.

To make matters worse, government employees are forced to plant saplings and plants in their housing complexes and are given points on it. Those who fail to get 25 points are asked to explain.

“The authorities come and check our kitchen garden every week. A sapling of gourd fetches one point. It receives five points when it begins to bear gourds. So we dare not pluck our own gourd from our plants for fear of losing points. Five mango trees get one point,” a staff from the Ministry of Industry (1) living at the Bugwe Housing told Mizzima.

“And if we fail to collect 25 points, we have to explain to the minister. The minister is known to threaten employees with transfer to factories,” the staff complained.

Under pressure government employees have to attend office on holidays in rotation. Worse their families have to tag along when they need to do tiring work like planting trees, cleaning offices among other chores.

The ministries including Central government offices moved to Naypyitaw near Pyinmana in central Burma, as of November 2005 from the former capital Rangoon.

READ MORE---> Government employees to lose incentives in Naypyitaw...

Webb Visit a Success?

The Irrawaddy News

Senator Webb’s visit to Burma has been considered “successful” because he was able to tick three items off his checklist: “rescuing” John Yettaw from seven years in jail with hard labor; meeting Snr-Gen Than Shwe; and meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the eyes of international stakeholders who have gotten accustomed to the Burmese junta’s intransigence, the visit was a coup. This has been the biggest stride forward since former UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail secured Suu Kyi’s release in 2002 and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was able to persuade the generals to accept lucrative aid in 2008.

How ironic. Sen Webb’s “success” stems from the leverage enjoyed by the US’s significant (and effective) sanctions—a ban on imports from Burma and a ban on financial services—that were imposed in 2003 on top of the 1997 ban on new investment.

The US’s previous willingness to “put their money where their mouth is” has gained the respect of the Burmese regime. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has invested millions of dollars over the past decade to woo the US into greater engagement, compared to its cavalier treatment of Asean.

Than Shwe respects power by the extent to which is exercised. He recognizes that the US has traditionally backed its statements with action. Remember Asean’s great achievement of persuading the SPDC to open up to Cyclone Nargis aid? Well, it wouldn’t have been possible without the USS Essex-led carrier group and other foreign navies on standby off the Burmese coast. Than Shwe was given the impression he had to make the choice of cooperating with Asean or deal with the US navy.

The junta has generally responded to the relatively hollow diplomatic overtures made by the UN, EU and Asean with empty promises and bizarre statements, comfortable in the knowledge that these stakeholders are unlikely to hit them where it hurts.

A global arms embargo and a UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma will make this junta sit up and pay attention. It will be the catalyst for a type of engagement that is based on dialogue and negotiation.

While Sen Webb basks in the glory—and I don’t grudge him that—let’s not forget that the essential problems in Burma have not dissipated in any way. Over 2,000 political prisoners, Suu Kyi included, remain imprisoned. The military has stepped up its brutal atrocities in Eastern Burma, terrorizing hundreds of villages with rape, torture, forced labor and death.

Since July 27, over 10,000 civilians have been forcibly displaced from 500 villages in central Shan State. Attacks in Karen State forced over 6,000 civilians to seek refuge in Thailand. Refugees continue to flee their homes every day. This prolongation of one of the world’s longest-running wars is likely to get worse as the regime tightens the screws on ethnic ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups in an effort to completely control the 2010 elections.

Oh, and let’s not forget the chilling evidence of this regime’s chummy cooperation with North Korea: tunnels, long-range ballistic missile technology and a nuclear program.

Sen Webb must seriously consider: if this is the damage the regime can do without access to US resources, what would be possible if sanctions are dismantled willy-nilly?

It’s time to refocus our energies on the original checklist for Burma: the unconditional release of all political prisoners; the cessation of military hostilities in ethnic areas; and a tripartite review of the 2008 constitution.

Debbie Stothard is coordinator of Alternative Asean Network on Burma (Altsean).

READ MORE---> Webb Visit a Success?...

NLD Leader Undergoes Operation

The Irrawaddy News

Win Tin, 80, a senior National League for Democracy (NLD) leader, underwent an operation for a heart condition at a private clinic in Rangoon on Sunday.

Family members said he is in good condition.

Win Tin was hospitalized on Saturday. An NLD spokesperson, Nyan Win, said he may remain in the clinic this week.

Win Tin stands next to Aung San Suu Kyi's portrait at the headquarters of National League for Democracy in Rangoon. (Photo: Getty Images)

A family member told The Irrawaddy on Monday, “He was operated on successfully in Asia Taw Win Clinic last night.”

Win Tin, a former editor, was released from prison in September 2008 after serving 19 years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison.

He served as an adviser to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and was sentenced to 21 years in prison in 1989 during a crackdown on government opponents.

In 1996, he received an additional 7-year sentence for writing a testimonial on torture and the lack of medical treatment in Insein Prison, which he sent to the UN. As punishment, he was placed in solitary confinement in a room intended for dogs and was deprived of food and water.

He said a few hours after his release from prison, “I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country.”

READ MORE---> NLD Leader Undergoes Operation...

Burmese Puzzled and Angered by Yettaw’s Release

The Irrawaddy News

The release of John W Yettaw, the American who got Aung San Suu Kyi into trouble by intruding into her home, has puzzled and angered many Burmese.

Bo Kyi, joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Burmese human rights group based on the Burmese-Thai border, said Yettaw’s release came as no surprise. “I think the regime just wanted to use him. Everybody knows that the regime wanted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, not Yettaw.”

Bo Kyi was accused by the regime of sending the American to Burma, where he entered Suu Kyi’s home illegally at the beginning of May and gave the regime a pretext for arresting her and putting her on trial. She was sentenced to three years hard labor, but had her sentence cut to 18 months house arrest.

Yettaw was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, but a US senator, Jim Webb secured his release after a meeting with junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

Several Burmese, both within the country and in exile, likened the drama to a Hollywood farce.

One wrote on the Web site of The Irrawaddy: “Webb’s performance reminds me of Patti Page's song ‘How much is that (Yankie) doggie in the window” and [a] ‘Saving Private Yettaw’ movie directed by Than Shwe. Perhaps, they might win Oscars next year.”

A Rangoon physician said it was “unreasonable that the main culprit in the case was released but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is totally innocent, is still detained.”

Win Tin, a prominent opposition leader said the Burmese were interested not in the release of Yettaw but in Suu Kyi’s fate.

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said the junta killed two birds with one stone by freeing Yettaw. “Now the regime successfully keeps Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest and then they may reopen engagement with Washington.”

A veteran Rangoon journalist speculated that Webb’s success in securing Yettaw’s release was “part of the packages from America to restore a normal relationship with the regime.”

Speculation continued that Yettaw’s venture had been orchestrated—also with help from the US—to create a legal case against Suu Kyi. There were suggestions, not supported by hard evidence, that Yettaw had been paid by the regime to undertake it.

Yettaw claimed he entered Suu Kyi’s home to warn her after dreaming that she was in danger of assassination.

For his part, Senator Webb said in Rangoon: “I believe he (Yettaw) was probably motivated by good intentions but he committed a very serious violation in this country.”

Webb found good words to say to the regime about its role in the drama. “It was a good gesture from your country to our country for humanitarian reasons to allow him [Yettaw] to return to his family,” he told the junta.

Not only Yettaw’s family rejoiced at his release. One source at Insein Prison, where Yettaw spent the past three months—much of the time in the prison hospital—told The Irrawaddy anonymously: “He complained all the time.”

READ MORE---> Burmese Puzzled and Angered by Yettaw’s Release...

Webb Hints Suu Kyi May Favor Engagement

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK—The fallout from US Senator Jim Webb's controversial engagement with the Burmese junta continues. Today, Webb fuelled speculation that Aung San Suu Kyi favors the removal of some of the international sanctions applied by the US and EU.

Discussing the issue at a Bangkok press conference on Monday, Webb was coy, telling the media that “I don't want to misrepresent her views, but my clear impression is that she is not opposed to the lifting of some sanctions.”

US Senator Jim Webb gestures during a news conference at a hotel in Bangkok August 16. (Photo: Reuters)

Despite the timing of his visit to Burma so soon after the verdict against the pro-democracy leader, the senator was tight-lipped. He spent around eight minutes fielding questions from journalists, before closing the Q&A session.

The visit may have been something of a missed opportunity. Sen Webb stated that he had a “frank” exchange with Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and said that he asked the regime to consider releasing Suu Kyi.

However, Webb did not raise the issue of Western sanctions or the recent allegations surrounding nuclear cooperation with North Korea during his meeting with the junta leaders.

“This is not the way to discuss these matters,” he told reporters before conceding that neither did he bring up the issue of the more than 2,100 political prisoners who remain in jail in Burma.

Speculation persists as to what the visit means for US policy on Burma. Last week, President Obama denounced the Suu Kyi verdict, after earlier dismissing the proceedings as a show trial.

Back in February, however, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US would review its Burma stance, and while the US government renewed its sanctions policy less than one month ago, it has been dropping hints that it would consider a greater degree of engagement with Naypyidaw going forward.

Webb stated that he spoke with Clinton by telephone on Sunday night, and said that he will give her a full briefing on his five-nation tour in Southeast Asia when he returns to the US.

Previously, senior US officials were quoted as saying that Webb was "not carrying a message from the administration," but elsewhere American officials said they welcomed the visit, which they viewed as an opportunity for Washington to outline policy to Burma's top leader directly.

Webb's regional tour comes just weeks after the Secretary of State declared that the US was “back” in the region following her signing a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the 10 Asean foreign ministers in Phuket in July.

A video grab shows US Senator Jim Webb meeting with Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on August 15. (Photo: reuters)

Sen Webb described his trip as “very worthwhile so far,” and stated that he wants to remind countries in the region that the US regards Southeast Asia as important, after years of perceived neglect under the previous US administration.

Webb said he discussed Burma with the Thai foreign minister today, but did not elaborate on the details. He did not say whether he would discuss the Thai-led Asean initiative requesting the junta to pardon Suu Kyi.

Webb departs for Vietnam and Cambodia on Tuesday.

The Vietnamese government has publicly opposed the suggestion, after Hanoi joined China, Russia and Libya in watering down a draft UN Security Council resolution on Friday.

Queried about John W Yettaw, the US citizen who was given a seven-year jail term with hard labor for his role in the recent Suu Kyi case, Webb said, “I am not aware of Mr Yettaw's situation.”

Yettaw flew into Bangkok on Sunday on the same military aircraft as Sen Webb and was taken to a Bangkok hospital. Yettaw suffers from diabetes as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in the US military.

Yettaw's release comes less than two weeks after former US President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang on a “humanitarian mission,” after which the Communist regime released two American journalists arrested for allegedly crossing into North Korea illegally from China.

Pyongyang has since been hailing its own magnanimity in releasing the two reporters, but has also resumed its saber-rattling.

Webb's mission to Burma provoked concern among Burmese dissident groups, which worry that the junta will use his visit as a tool for public relations without any real alteration of policy.

The Burmese junta's media mouthpieces have already made much of Than Shwe's “gesture” in commuting Suu Kyi's sentence from three years in jail to 18 months house arrest, despite international condemnation of the trial process and pleas that she be freed.

Sen Webb today repeated that he requested to Than Shwe that Suu Kyi be released, but did not give any more details, beyond saying, "We need to wait and see what happens over the coming months."

READ MORE---> Webb Hints Suu Kyi May Favor Engagement...

Villagers Fear September Offensive

The Irrawaddy News

EI TU HTA—After overrunning the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7 headquarters in southern Karen State, a joint Burmese army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) force plans to resume its offensive in northern Karen State in September, and take over the remaining KNLA bases along the Thai-Burmese border.

The targeted areas are KNLA Brigade 5 and KNLA military bases along the Salween River on the border with northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province.

KNLA Brigade 5 troops prepare to resist the joint Burmese DKBA offensive. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/ The Irrawaddy)

The Commander of KNLA Brigade 5, Baw Kyaw, said his soldiers will defend the area and its villages to the best of their ability. He expects the offensive will come soon.

“If the DKBA follows the orders of the Burmese army, they are our enemy,” Baw Kyaw told The Irrawaddy in a KNLA controlled area on the border. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National Union.

Many Karen villagers in Papun District in northern Karen State and along the Salween River on the Thai-Burmese border are on alert against the joint Burmese and DKBA force, Karen villagers at the border said.

If the offensive succeeds, thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern Karen State and more than 4,000 Karen refugees in Ei Tu Hta, a temporary camp on the Salween River, will be forced to flee to Thai soil, Karen sources said.

Wah Eh Htoo, secretary of Ei Tu Hta refugee camp told The Irrawaddy: “Villagers fear the DKBA plan to take over the border.”

Ei Htu Ta camp is located on the Burmese bank of the Salween River in Karen State.

“We told the refugees to pack their pots and plates after meals and be ready to flee with other belongings at any time,” said Wah Eh Htoo.

Due to Burmese attacks, about 10,000 IDPs are currently hiding in the jungle in Nyaunglebin District in Pegu Division and Luthaw Township in Papun District, northern Karen state, said local villagers and relief groups who met with The Irrawaddy at the border on August 12.

Saw T’kwel, leader of Ei Tu Hta’s zone 6 said if the camp is attacked, the villagers will face problems getting food supplies, medical care and education for their children.

The IDPs dare not return home and fear that if they flee to Thailand, the Thai authorities will not permit them to stay long, he said.

“We live in fear of being caught on the battlefield,” Saw T’kwel said. “The expected offensive is the most common topic of conversation between businessmen and villagers.”

Refugee children in Ei Tu Hta must be ready to flee if they are attacked. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing/ The Irrawaddy)

One anonymous DKBA source said DKBA forces will be stationed along the Salween River after the offensive against Brigade 5 is complete.

The DKBA will take control of logging, border trade taxation and security around dam construction sites on the Salween and Moei rivers, he said.

If the DKBA gains control along along the Salween, Karen relief groups will find it difficult to transport supplies by boat from the Thai border to areas still under KNLA control, sources said.

Border traders also expressed fears about restrictions if the DKBA gains control.

The Salween River is one of the main conduits for Thai-Burmese trade, which decreased after the DKBA split from KNU in 1995. Trade has increased in recent years, however.

Burmese forces stationed in some areas along the river said they will withdraw and be replaced by the DKBA over the next year.

One of the strongest ethnic ceasefire groups in Burma, the DKBA is the only force that agreed with the Burmese regime’s order to transform its troops into a border guard force. Other strong armed groups such as the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization rejected the order.

According to the Burmese regime, the DKBA is among 17 ethnic ceasefire groups that signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese regime since 1995.

The joint Burmese DKBA force overran KNLA Brigade 7 in southern Karen State in July after three weeks of fighting. Since then, some border trade including logging and surveying for dam construction has resumed, border sources said.

READ MORE---> Villagers Fear September Offensive...

Mae Sot Reacts to Suu Kyi Verdict

The Irrawaddy News

News of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial verdict spread through Mae Sot’s Burmese community last week, sparking outrage at her extended 18-month house arrest.

Having read the news on the Internet, heard it on the radio or via word of mouth, everyone in Mae Sot was almost instantly aware that the democracy leader would spend the 2010 election campaign in her crumbling two-story house in Rangoon.

For many, Mae Sot acts is the bridge between the tight fists of the junta and Thailand’s democracy. Many political dissidents, who run the risk of lengthy prison sentences in Burma, flee to Mae Sot to operate in relative safety. As a result, many feel especially connected to their hero, Suu Kyi.

Political activists were deeply angered by the Insein Prison court’s verdict, seeing it as the work of a corrupt, dictatorial government.

“I think it is extremely unfair and a brutal act of the military regime,” said a leader of a prominent youth activist group. “It’s clearly all a trap, and we are likely to see trap after trap until the very end.”

In the lawyer community that has been forced to flee to Mae Sot as a result of challenging the junta’s legal system, many are fuming at the court proceedings.

“I am so angry with their behaviour” said Nyi Nyi Hlaing a prominent lawyer now working in Mae Sot. “They said no one is above the law, and then days later they act like they are above the law.”

“The verdict is not legal because they used the 1974 constitution law which was broken in 1988, so they don’t have any law to judge the case on,” said Nyi Nyi Hlaing.

“The government was not chosen by the 1974 constitution, making them an illegal government so they cannot judge Aung San Suu Kyi. I don’t need to say whether the verdict is illegal or not legal because the whole ordeal has been illegal since they arrested Suu Kyi.”

The same sentiments were reiterated by U Myo, a spokesman for the Burma Lawyer council.

“I think that the verdict is entirely wrong in a legal aspect and totally unfair,” said U Myo.

“The charge upon her itself is completely wrong since the responsibility lies upon the security personnel guarding her house.”

A major grievance among the lawyer community is Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s interference with the court proceedings, which they argue is an illegal act.

U Myo explained that the Criminal Procedure Code Section 401 (5) stipulates that only the president is allowed to exercise his or her power over the court.

“Than Shwe is not the president of state because the 2008 Constitution will come to life only after the first session of the 2010 Parliament” said U Myo. “So no one can affirm whether Than Shwe is president now. Thus he could not exercise the power in the said Code to put her under house arrest for one and half year. He has acted in total disregard of the judiciary and has interfered in a case which ought to be acquitted in higher courts. This verdict shows that there is no rule of law in Burma.”

Ko Bo Kyi, a joint-secretary of the Mae Sot-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, had another view on why Than Shwe intervened in the court proceedings.

“Than Shwe was just playing, because many high-ranking officers don’t agree with the verdict, and he wants to try to please them. He also wants other countries to be pleased and ease some of the pressure. Because he is an expert in psychological warfare, we can tell he is just doing it for psychological reasons not for the good of Burma.”

One of the major concerns in the Mae Sot activist community is that without Suu Kyi there can be no real democracy or fair elections in Burma.

“If Aung San Suu Kyi is not included in Burma’s political process, then Burma will not get peace and it will be difficult for national reconciliation” Ko Bo Kyi said.

The Karen communities have also followed the news closely, seeing Suu Kyi as the only way out of their decades-long conflict with the SPDC in Karen State. Although not all Karen wholeheartedly trust her, they see her as a beacon of hope that there may one day be national reconciliation.

David Thackrabaw, vice president of the Karen Nation Union, told The Irrawaddy that he saw the trial as “a plot by the junta to exclude Suu Kyi from the coming election.”

“Her verdict has created even more mistrust of the junta because they cannot treat the Burmese political organizations fairly, so it’s absolutely sure that they will not treat the ethnic organizations fairly” he said.

For the KNU and all Karen people her continued detention is a sign that Karen will continue to be pitted against Karen, all for the benefit of the SPDC. It’s also a sign that thousands of villagers will continue to flee the armed clashes, leaving behind everything they know and own to settle on Thai soil.

News of the trial has spread through the refugee camps surrounding Mae Sot. An English teacher working in the Mae La refugee camp told The Irrawaddy he was surprised to hear that so many of his students had already heard about the verdict.

Asked how she felt about Suu Kyi being sent back to house arrest, a 20-year-old Karen girl said that she “felt so sorry because she is an old lady, but we are not surprised because she is such a massive threat to the generals.”

The migrant worker community that has settled in Mae Sot, forced out of Burma as a result of economic hardships, see their future as being closely tied with the future of Suu Kyi.

“If Suu Kyi is released then all our country’s problems will be resolved” said a woman from Mon State who works in a knitting factory. “If she is freed and is our leader, then I can leave Thailand and live happily in Burma with my family.”

News of the verdict also swept through the brothels in Mae Sot. Like other migrant workers, sex workers left Burma with the hope of making money to send back to their family, but many young girls end up in the sex industry.

One 23-year-old sex worker from Karen State said doubted the government would allow Suu Kyi to participate in the elections even if she was released.

“We know the government is so unfair they will not share their power with her,” said the sex worker.

Even the poorest people in the Mae Sot community, people who work in the rubbish dump to make enough money to survive, have followed the events.

One woman from Karen State, who settled around the rubbish dump five years ago with her family, recalled how many people from the dump sat around a radio, waiting for the announcer to give the verdict.

“When they announced that Suu Kyi was to be sent back to house arrest, we got so angry we lost our minds and begun cursing the radio,” she said.

Mae Sot also has an artist community that followed the news closely.

Tee Lay Tee, a seven-man comedy troupe that was formed in 1998 with the help of the famous comedian Zarganar, who is now serving a 35-year prison sentence, performed at a large show in Rangoon in 2007 where they acted out a joke highlighting the government’s oppression. The Democratic Voice of Burma broadcasted the joke, forcing the group to flee to Thailand to avoid the same fate of their mentor, Zarganar

“When we were living in Burma, we were unable to make shows the way we wanted because there is no freedom of speech,” said a member of the group, now based in Mae Sot. “The moment we criticized the government even the slightest we were forced to leave behind our families and country to come to Thailand.”

He said Suu Kyi is so highly respected that even though the government sentenced her to further house arrest, it can only control her body and is unable to control her soul and the love she has from the Burmese people.

“The government can only imprison Suu Kyi’s body; it will never arrest her mind or spirit” he said.

The Burmese communities in Mae Sot continue to have high hopes for Suu Kyi and remain confident that she is the one person who can bring peace to Burma.

A construction worker summed up the feelings of many people who admire her.

“Like everyone I know in Mae Sot,” he said, “I would take her punishment any day so that she can save our country.”

READ MORE---> Mae Sot Reacts to Suu Kyi Verdict...

Opposition Leader On Continued Sanctions

(RFA) -Burma’s main opposition leader dismisses reports that she might support an easing of sanctions against the country’s military junta.

BANGKOK—Aung San Suu Kyi has dismissed published reports that she might support the lifting of certain sanctions aimed at pressuring Burma’s leaders, according to the opposition leader’s party spokesman.

National League for Democracy spokesman Nyan Win said Aung San Suu Kyi feels continued sanctions are needed, contrary to reports that she is “not opposed” to the idea of lifting “some” sanctions against Burma.

Nyan Win’s statement was in contrast to one made by Senator Jim Webb in Bangkok on Monday after Webb met with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and junta leaders over the weekend.

Webb, a Virginia Democrat, told journalists at a press conference there that it was "my clear impression from [Aung San Suu Kyi] that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions."

"I can say it was my impression from listening to her in the conversation that there were some areas that she would be willing to look at," Webb said, before declining to comment further for fear, he said, of misrepresenting Aung San Suu Kyi’s position.

The Senator could not immediately be reached for comment.

Webb is currently on a two-week tour of Southeast Asia. His visit to Burma resulted in the release of American John Yettaw, who was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment at hard labor for making an unauthorized visit to Aung San Suu Kyi at her home.

Nyan Win said Aung San Suu Kyi told him in a meeting on Monday that Webb “suggested she should have an interaction with Western nations on the sanctions issue” during their meeting.

“She said that there should be an interaction inside the country first, and that it would be of no benefit to have an interaction with the West before having any inside,” he said.

Nyan Win said that Aung San Suu Kyi had previously offered to discuss the issue of sanctions with the military regime, but that the junta had let the matter drop.

Policy under review

Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly discouraged foreign investment in Burma in an effort to pressure the country’s military government, but Webb has been a prominent critic of U.S. sanctions.

Webb, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's East Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, has called for a review of U.S. policy towards Burma.

He maintains that sanctions have failed to move Burma toward true democratic reforms and have given China, the country’s northern neighbor, more influence over its internal affairs.

China plans to build a gas pipeline to its southern Yunnan province from the Andaman Sea through Burma.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said earlier this year that U.S. sanctions policy would be reviewed, with potential incentives offered to Burma’s leadership if they make substantive political changes.

The United States and other Western nations have few dealings with Burma’s regime, preferring to use political and economic sanctions to pressure it to clean up its poor human rights record and lift its chokehold on power

Aung San Suu Kyi was convicted last week of breaching the terms of her house arrest when Yettaw visited her home and was ordered to serve 18 months under house arrest. She has been detained by the junta for 14 of the past 20 years.

Yettaw was deported from Burma on Sunday, after Webb became the first senior U.S. official to meet junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, and is currently being treated in a Thai hospital.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won elections in 1990 but was never allowed to take power.

Original reporting by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Burmese service director: Nyein Shwe. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Richard Finney.

READ MORE---> Opposition Leader On Continued Sanctions...

Burmese troops kill DKBA deserter

(DVB)–A deserter from a pro-junta militia wanted for the killing of two government soldiers was last week shot dead by Burmese troops and members of his former group.

A former lieutenant in the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Saw Pha-Htaw (also-known-as Ashaygyi) had been on the run since his desertion on 10 August following an argument with a senior official, Aung Chit.

Following the argument, he opened fire on two soldiers from the government’s Military Operation Command 12, and two local policemen, killing all four.

According to DKBA official, three days later DKBA troops stopped a Rangoon-bound bus in eastern Burma that he was riding on and a gun battle broke out.

“After four or five shots were fired into the truck, Ashaygyi, apparently worried that passengers might get caught in the crossfire, came out of the bus carrying a pistol and two grenades,” said the official. “He was shot dead on the spot.”

An associate of Ashaygyi was also shot and seriously wounded after attempting to flee the battle, while a 30-year-old pregnant woman was hit by a stray bullet and killed. One DKBA troop and one Burmese army soldier were also killed.

The DKBA official said the group had made contact with the woman’s husband in Bangkok, offering an apology and compensation for her death, but no response had yet been received.

“We kept her body in Kawkerit for three days and made contact with her husband,” he said.

“We told him to come here so we can explain to him what happened and give compensation but he never replied,” he said.

A funeral for Ashaygyi was held on Saturday.

DKBA troops and government soldiers had recently allied in an offensive against the opposition Karen National Union (KNU), which caused around 4000 Karen civilians to flee into neighbouring Thailand.

The DKBA split from the KNU in 1994 and have since enjoyed a ceasefire agreement and close association with the ruling junta.

Reporting by Naw Noreen

READ MORE---> Burmese troops kill DKBA deserter...

Police escorts for monks accepting offerings


It has become mandatory, from early last week, for Buddhist monks going out to accept food offerings from local devotees in Myitkyina, the capital of Burma's northern Kachin State, to be escorted by two policemen, said local sources.

Eyewitnesses said, two armed policemen escorted a column of monks, when they left to accept offerings of food from local devotees each morning. (Su Taung Pyi monastery in Myitkyina, Kachin State, northern Burma.)

A resident of Myitkyina told KNG today, he saw each column of monks being escorted by two policemen. Monks in Su Taung Pyi and Ann Daw Shin monasteries in the town were also escorted by policemen when they went out to accept food offerings from devotees in the morning.

Local police sources said, the monks are being escorted to prevent any anti-junta demonstrations in the town similar to the countrywide monk-led anti-regime demonstrations known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in September, 2007. The order to escort monks comes from the junta's Maj-Gen Soe Win, commander of Myitkyina-based Northern Regional command (or Ma-Pa-Kha).

During the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in Myitkyina, Burmese security forces cracked down brutally on the monasteries in the town. Several monks were beaten to death by Burmese soldiers on the orders of Maj-Gen Ohn Myint, former commander of Northern Regional command.

The military authorities of Myitkyina have been listing monks, Christian pastors and preachers and all government personnel along with their brief bio data since last July, said residents of Myitkyina.

Residents believe that the data collection could be to take action quickly in the event of any anti-junta demonstration.

At the same time, the junta is also collecting the names and listing properties of all members of the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) and its armed-wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), who are known to own houses and business ventures in Myitkyina.

From early this month, security has been beefed up in Myitkyina. Policemen in prison cell trucks are driving around the town at night, said local residents.

READ MORE---> Police escorts for monks accepting offerings...

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