Thursday, August 20, 2009

Burma urges West to lift sanctions

(DVB)–Burma has urged Western countries to remove the economic blockade on the country that it says has curbed development and blocked the path towards democracy.

An article published today in the government mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper said that the goal of democracy was being “[diverted] from its route” through sanctions exercised by “anti-government groups”.

Likely pointing to the recent visit to Burma by US senator Jim Webb, who is outspoken in his criticism of sanctions on the country, the comment praised “visionary” members of the US government who don’t support the boycott.

It urged "all political forces to give up the tactic of economic sanctions and collectively open the golden door to a modern, developed and peaceful democratic nation".

The article follows a recent comment by Webb, who met with Aung San Suu Kyi last week, that the Burma opposition leader could be revising her pro-sanctions stance.

He told reporters earlier this week that “it was my clear impression from her that she is not opposed to lifting some sanctions."

She also apparently indicated that tourism in Burma should be encouraged, in contrast to years spent dissuading tourists from visiting the country.

However, according to her lawyer Nyan Win, who met with her yesterday, she denied mentioning the tourism boycott to Webb.

“She said she made a remark about the issue back in 2007 that it isn’t her responsibility to lift the sanctions as she was not the one who imposed them [on Burma.],” he said.

He added that Suu Kyi said sanctions should be lifted if they were indeed hurting the nations, and that there should be more interaction between Burma and the international community “only if it’s started from inside Burma”.

Webb was the first senior US official to visit Burma in over a decade, and the first time a US politician has met with the junta leader Than Shwe.

Burmese state media hailed the trip as a success after Webb secured the release of John Yettaw, the US citizen whose visit to Suu Kyi’s compound in May triggered a seven-year prison sentence for him and her extended detention under house arrest.

Reporting by Francis Wade and Htet Aung Kyaw

READ MORE---> Burma urges West to lift sanctions...

Refugees of the Maepa Rubbish Dump

The Irrawaddy News

MAE SOT, Thailand — Burmese refugee families have lived for years around a trash dump in Mae Sot, but with free medical care and free education for their children, it’s not all bad.

Many families have tried to return to Burma, but most came back to Mae Sot because the life was better. Still, they struggle daily, their wages are miniscule and their humble homes are periodically torn down by Thai authorities.

Burmese refugees sort through rubbish at the Maepa trash dump in Mae Sot. (Photo: Arkar Moe/ The Irrawaddy)

"I had decent pay before,” said 28-year-old Soe Win, as he washed a frayed jacket he found in the rubbish dump. “But now it’s hard to survive.”

An illegal migrant worker, he has worked around the trash dump for three years, ever since he came from Shwe Kyin Township in Burma to find a job in Thailand.

The Irrawaddy interviewed Burmese refugees who live around the Maepa trash dump in Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak Province, only a few kilometers inside the Burmese-Thai border.

"There are 287 people here on the resident list. I came here eight years ago. In the past, I earned more than 100 baht per day. Most of people here get only 50 or 65 baht per day,” said Myint Aye, who works in the rubbish dump.

“This recycling factory was opened in May 2009, and there are about 26 workers,” he said. “We get only 2 baht for one kilogram.”

Myint Aye said the residents around the dump have problems with the Thai police who come into the area to remove homes in the spring of each year.

“Now, we all are worrying about it,” he said. “Thai authorities won’t even allow people to build huts here.”
Even so, there are about 70 houses and 290 people live around the rubbish dump, most Burmese or ethnic Karen, he said.

A 42-year-old woman, Than Myint, said: “I came here from Magwe Township two years ago. There are nine members in my family. Only three people work, but, we can survive here. Now I get at least 50 or 60 baht a day because the plastic recycling factory set up near us.” She said her makeshift hut was destroyed last year by authorities, and her bicycle confiscated.

She tried to return to work in Burma, she said, but faced more difficulties and went into debt. She returned, and things are better here, she said.

Makeshift dwellings around the trash dump are razed by Thai authorities annually. (Photo: Arkar Moe/ The Irrawaddy)

“We can get free health care and an education for our children,” she said. “We only need to pay a 50 baht school fee per year.”

The School Clinic or the Mae Tao Clinic, founded and directed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, provides free health care for refugees, migrant workers and other individuals who cross the border from Burma.

The dump ground community has a small school, built with the help of the Thai government and donor agencies.

Aung Zaw Oo, the headmaster of Moo (6) School, said: “Our school started in 2005 with the help of the World Education Center (WEC) and the Ministry of Education. Now, there are seven teachers and 92 students from kindergarten to grade five. We plan to expand to grade seven. We teach subjects about Myanmar, science, geography, English and mathematics. The Thai language is taught three times a week.”

A nongovernmental group, “Children on the Edge—New Zealand” helps to support the school with material and funding. The humanitarian agency was founded in 2006 to work on behalf of marginalized and vulnerable children from Burma.

Nan Aye Phyu, a Karen teacher, said, “I think our students get a better education here than children inside Burma.”

READ MORE---> Refugees of the Maepa Rubbish Dump...

Regime Goal: The Strongest Army in Southeast Asia

The Irrawaddy News

The Burmese military regime is well on its way to modernizing its military services, including a self-manufacturing infrastructure for the army, navy and air force.

Many of the changes have occurred under the direction of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who became chairman of the ruling council in 1992.

The Defense Industry (DI) ministry, Burma’s main military industry agency, operates 22 manufacturing or procurement facilities, many located on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River west of the Pegu mountain range.

Lt-Gen Tin Aye, a trusted Than Shwe ally, is chief of the Defense Industry ministry.

Htay Aung, a Thailand-based military researcher, said that since the military took control of the country in 1988, Burma has steadily expanded its military services and modernized armament production and procurement.

“In Southeast Asia, Burma has the second largest military after Vietnam,” Htay Aung told The Irrawaddy.

“The primary reason for military expansion is that the generals fear that Burma could face an invasion, since it is located between two giant neighbors [India and China].”

The regime also may be trying to acquire nuclear weapons, said Htay Aung.

Late in the1950s, the Defense Industry, or Ka Pa Sa, maintained arms and ammunition production facilities under contract with the Federal Republic of Germany’s state-owned Fritz Werner.

Since then, the Defense Industry network has expanded its infrastructure and today manufactures small arms, ammunitions, land mines and other military hardware. Analysts said the Defense Industry also produces surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs), and may be in the process of exploring ways to build or acquire nuclear weapons.

One facility, the No (2) Defense Industry, located in Upper Min Hla Township in Magwe Division, was built by Singapore, say analysts. The facility is said to produce 60 mm, 81 mm, 105 mm and 120 mm mortars. Singapore is a major source of arms technology for Burma, according to analysts.

The Korean Daewoo Company signed a deal with the government in May 2002 to build an arms factory valued at US $133 million near Prome in Pegu Division. The factory may build or assemble missiles.

No (10) Defense Industry was built in 1993 near Kongyi village in Upper-Min Hla Township in Magwe Division to manufacture surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and rocket launchers. Parts and other material at the No (10) Defense Industry facility are believed to be supplied by South Korea, Russia and China.

Defense analysts say the junta may have started a guided missile development program with the help of firms in Singapore.

In the face of an arms embargo by Western countries, the regime now relies on China, South Korea, North Korea and Russia for help in upgrading its military hardware.

The junta’s desire to acquire some form of nuclear weapons has received extensive exposure in the media in recent months, including in The Irrawaddy.

A Rangoon-based company, Soe Min Htaik Co. Ltd, plays a central role in weapons procurement from China, South Korea, North Korea and Russia.

Soe Min Htaik Co. Ltd is a private company that was formed by Burma’s Defense Industry in the early 1990.

Analysts say Soe Min Htaik Co. procured surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) from China and North Korea.

The Burmese military also has created two military-managed economic organizations: the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (UMEHL), established in 1989 and 1990 respectively.

The mission of the two commercial enterprises is to make the military services self-sufficient. Heavy weapons, ammunition and other defense technology are acquired with profits from MEC and UMEHL.

The UMEHL has numerous subsidiary and affiliated firms engaged in trading with Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, China, South Korea and India. Cooking oil, fuel oil and automobiles are important imports while exports include cigarettes, beans and pulses, gems, garment products and gas.

UMEHL also has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from the Daewoo Company which has a contract to export natural gas.

Defense analysts have said that Than Shwe has a goal to acquire nuclear weapon capability by 2025.

READ MORE---> Regime Goal: The Strongest Army in Southeast Asia...

Eastern Burma: Another Darfur?

The Irrawaddy News

You could say it runs in the family—45-year-old Saw Lubermoo’s grandmother and grandfather were IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), his parents were IDPs, and now he is an IDP.

The ethnic Karen says he has been constantly on the move and hiding in the jungle since he was four years of age.

He is among hundreds of thousands of ethnic Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan civilians who have been displaced in eastern Burma for decades.

According to a 2008 report by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an umbrella group of donors and humanitarian organizations, the total number of IDPs in eastern Burma is likely to be well over half a million with at least 451,000 people estimated to have been displaced in rural areas alone. The group also says that many IDP cases in eastern Burma go unreported.

According to Shan and Karen relief groups, there are currently about 20,000 IDPs in hiding in the jungles of central Shan State and northern Karen State.

A separate group of some 4,000 Karen villagers fled during the joint Burmese army– Democratic Karen Buddhist Army offensive against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in June and are presently being sheltered on Thai soil.

Shan community-based rights groups, including the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), reported on August 13 that in the previous two weeks, the Burmese army had burned down more than 500 houses and forced about 40 villages to relocate, mostly in Laikha Township in Shan State.

On Wednesday, a top US administration official expressed anxiety over the displacement of thousands of civilians in northeastern parts of Burma due to the Burmese army’s military activities.

“We have been deeply concerned by very recent reports of large-scale displacement, perhaps as many or more than 10,000 civilians,” the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Eric Schwartz, told reporters on Wednesday at a special briefing at the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the US State Department.

Observers and human rights advocacy groups have said that the conditions under which villagers are forced to become IDPs in eastern Burma is conducive with the criteria regarded by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as “crimes against humanity.”

Aung Htoo, the general-secretary of the exiled Burma Lawyers’ Council (BLC), said, “We can say with certainty that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being committed in Burma.

Charm Tong, a spokesperson for SWAN, said, “The regime brazenly committed these crimes even as the whole world was watching them during the trial of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Several activists have said that crimes committed by soldiers of the Burmese regime include murder, rape, torture, looting, forced relocations and displacement. Many compare the situation in eastern Burma to the Darfur crisis in western Sudan where about 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have been displaced.

The ICC has issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, accusing him of being responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan.

Since 1997, the Burmese regime has destroyed over 3,000 villages and displaced over half a million civilians in eastern Burma. Karen sources report that there have been many unreported displacements and destroyed villages in Karen State alone since 1949 when the Karen armed revolution began.

International and regional rights groups, such as the International Federation for Human Rights, Altsean-Burma and Burma Lawyers’ Council, have urged the European Union to support the establishment of a UN Security Council Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

Regional activist, Debbie Stothard, the coordinator of Altsean-Burma, said, “How can the SPDC’s planned elections be given any credence when war still rages in eastern Burma?”

A Karen rebel commander with the KNLA for more than two decades said he decided to join the fight against the Burmese army after he witnessed the bloodthirsty murder of children by Burmese soldiers.

He could not control his emotions as he told the story. “In one village, I saw the Burmese army kill women and infants. This event motivated me to pick up a gun and protect my Karen people,” he said.

“I have asked myself many times why Burmese soldiers are killing civilians. But, I have never found an answer.”

A Karen girl, Taw Oo Paw, 13, said, “I pray every night before I go to bed that I can be reunited with my mother and my sisters, and return to my village and live in peace.”

Her father was killed by the Burmese army and she has been separated from her mother and sisters for two years. She said that she hopes for a family reunion, one day.

Washington-based The Irrawaddy correspondent Lalit K Jha also contributed into this article.

READ MORE---> Eastern Burma: Another Darfur?...

Time for Decisive Action

The Irrawaddy News

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is guilty and her sentence is three years hard labor. That was the judgment handed down by a court in the compound of the notorious Insein Prison on August 11th, 2009. As a result, the military regime in Burma may believe that it has fulfilled its aim of excluding her and the pro-democracy forces from the country's political process.

There should be no doubt that Snr-Gen Than Shwe and the junta have no intention of reconciling with either Suu Kyi or any of the pro-democracy movement and ethnic forces for the interest of the various peoples or the nation.

They have made that blatantly clear time and time again, and now, this latest verdict is a loud resounding "No!" to domestic and international calls for reconciliation and an inclusive political process.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), the leadership of the pro-democracy movement, has decided to appeal the court decision. While exposing the absence of an independent judiciary and the rule of law is crucial to understanding the current state of Burma, is it really possible for a legal case to reform the judiciary system?

When the charges are trumped up, when the verdict is ridiculous and the when the sentence is politically manipulated, is it remotely possible for an appeal to successfully secure the release of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

Than Shwe has already given us his answer when he intervened to put his stamp of recognition of the courts' verdict and colluded with the court to sentence her to 18 months house arrest. However, he did not use his omnipresent power to intervene for her release.

His intervention can only be interpreted as a sign that the regime refuses to reconcile with Suu Kyi or to move toward national reconciliation and democratic transition.

It may be that the leadership of our movement has a strategic plan to bring about positive change through taking on the judiciary system and, indeed, in the face of such injustice, it is of course absolutely necessary to fight in the court.

The trial may also encourage international sympathy and support for the movement and contribute to raising public awareness, fueling discontent with the regime’s wily ways.

However, one can't help but worry that the legal battle will divert the NLD's direction away from mobilizing the public, which is surely the most critical challenge at this current juncture; critical because the response to the looming challenge will define the future of the country's political process. This challenge is the 2010 election.

The forthcoming election—which will exclude all democrats from the nation's political process—will soon be accomplished, just as the referendum was accomplished, unless pro-democracy groups can change Than Shwe and his military clique’s minds.

The election result will be just as rigged as the referendum's—unless, of course, the pro-democracy groups can change the rules of game beforehand.

The election will activate the military constitution, but will otherwise go nowhere except to legalize military rule in Burma.

The NLD proposed to the regime through its ''Shwe-Gone-Taing Declaration'' that it would consider participating in the election if certain conditions were met. Two vital conditions are the release of its leader, Daw Aung san Suu Kyi, and all other political prisoners, and the review and revision of the 2008 constitution. The NLD has indeed offered some middle ground to break t the country's political deadlock.

Again, Than Shwe has said “No” by transferring Suu Kyi to Insein Prison and bringing yet more charges against her.

In my opinion, in the face of all these refusals, the leadership of the pro-democracy movement is left with no choice but to oppose the elections in 2010 and must state so urgently and without diversion.

This is the right moment for them to bring all political forces on board to boycott the elections.

Time is running out for the leadership of the pro-democracy movement. The place for today's strategic battle is in the political arena, supported by the people. It is time for the leadership to take decisive action to prepare and mobilize for a mass boycott of the 2010 elections.

Aung Moe Zaw is chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society, an opposition group based in exile.

READ MORE---> Time for Decisive Action...

Junta Conscripts Ethnic Youths

The Irrawaddy News

About 70 Chin teenagers in Matupi Township in Chin State in western Burma have been forced into military training, according to Chin sources.chi

Local sources said soldiers from Infantry Battalion No.304, which is based in Matupi Township, ordered nine villages to select at least eight youths over 18-years-old per village for military training.

“People have to work in the fields to grow paddy at this time of year [the rainy season]. We are short of food and no one wants to go for military training,” said a Chin resident in Matupi.

Matupi is one of seven townships in Chin State facing food shortages due to plagues of rats destroying crops.

The World Food Program (WFP) in Rangoon has reported that about 85 percent of the population in Chin State is in debt after borrowing money to buy food.

Similar conscription took place in the northern part of Ye Township in Mon State in southern Burma in July, when Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) No. 343 ordered 200 youths to go for military training, according to Lawi Oung, a resident in Ye Township.

“The participants were taught how to beat people, how to handle riots and how to hold guns,” he said. “The training took one month, but the participants were only given fake bamboo guns during training.”

The families of those who refused to join had to pay 6,000 kyat [US $5.50] for exemption, according to Lawi Oung.

The villages where conscription took place are in a “black area,” which is close to a Mon rebel-controlled area, according to Thailand-based the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM).

Analysts said that the junta is training militias to prevent any uprising in the planned 2010 election, but they may also be preparing them for use as frontline troops when they attack Mon rebels.

Junta troops have conducted similar military training in several townships in Shan Sate in Northern Burma in recent months, according to the Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald Agency for News.

About 100 youths in Muse Township near the Chinese border in northern Shan State were forced to undergo military training.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Saengjuen, an editor for the Shan Herald Agency for News, said: “an estimated 1000 people have been forced into training. Many are former members of forces loyal to the drug lord Khun Sa [who died in Rangoon in 2007].

“More people have been conscripted this year for basic military training, and to be taught how to collect news, organize campaigns and prepare military operations,” he said.

Saengjuen believes such militia troops will be used to attack armed ethnic ceasefire groups in Shan State, such as those in the Wa, Kokang, and Mong La areas, if tension keeps mounting.

Meanwhile, about 500 private mercenaries from Tang Yan Township in eastern Shan State were forced to join junta troops in preparation for a possible attack on the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Tension between junta troops and ethnic ceasefire groups has been mounting after the latter refused to transform their troops into border guard forces in Shan State in July.

READ MORE---> Junta Conscripts Ethnic Youths...

Mutual farming system results in loss of land for farmers

by Phanida

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – The mutual farming system in collaboration with private companies has been a disaster for over 1,600 farmers from Dagon Seikkan Township in Rangoon Division, with farmers losing their lands, according to the NLD Peasant Affairs Committee.

The new mutual farming system took off in over 30,000 acres of farmlands in a special agricultural zone last year. But this year, the private companies paid a pittance of only Kyat 20,000 per acre instead of the market price of Kyat 400,000 to 500,000 and then seized farmers’ lands.

"The farmlands were taken over by paying only Kyat 20,000 per acre and farmers are not allowed to till the land.

Moreover farmers were ordered to demolish the farmhouses on the lands. The farmers are seething in anger," the NLD Peasant Affairs Committee Secretary Kyaw Myint told Mizzima.

Over 10 private companies including Htoo, Dagon International, Pinle Koe Thwe, Good Brother, Ahmyother Totetyay, Shwe Nagar Min, Aden Co. worked the farmlands along with the farmers on a mutual farming system by sharing farm produce.

Under the agreement, the farmers, who own the lands, were to get 40 per cent of the profit and get extra money as wages if they worked on their own farmland as farmhands.

The private companies were to provide farming equipments and implements and all production costs. They firms were to get 60 per cent of the profit for investing.

But the private companies seem to have gone back on their commitment and are now paying at a rate, which is much below the market price. To make matters worse the companies are not letting the farmers work in their paddy fields as farmhands. Adding insult to injury they are being forced to demolish their farmhouses. A farmer from Thayetpin Chaung village has lodged a complaint at the NLD office by providing documentary evidence.

An official of one of the private companies working with farmers said that they could not make profits in keeping with the agreement but some companies did make some profit.

"Initially, we agreed. But later it didn't work out. Some companies paid Kyat 20,000. Those who could not work in their land were content with what they got. Some worked in their land and they got something but not in accordance with the agreement reached," he told Mizzima.

"As for the discontent among farmers, some people who bought the land when prices were low would say they are losing their farmlands. It depends on the private companies too. It's impossible to please everybody in every business," he added.

Over 8,800 acres of paddy fields owned by over 1,600 farmers have a dispute regarding profit sharing and ownership in the agriculture special zone in Dagon Seikkan Township. The villages were the dispute exists are Thayetpinchaung, Nyaungbin, Kyisu, Laydaungkan and Thonegwa, the NLD Peasant Affair Committee Secretary said.

It is learnt that some farmers who received refund for their paddy fields have already lodged complaints with the Ministry of Agriculture and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

READ MORE---> Mutual farming system results in loss of land for farmers...

Rise in child labour feared over Thai policy

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - The Thai Government’s policy of not registering families of migrant workers is likely to escalate the problems of child labour, a social worker said.

Executive Director of the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, Sompong Srakaew, who works in close tandem with migrants in Samut Sakorn Province, told Mizzima that the recent government policy to register and verify the nationality of migrant workers from neighbouring countries, particularly Burma, but excluding their family members, may create more child labour issues.

“Many of them have to tell lies that they are older, than their actual age, so that the Thai authorities let them live and work in Thailand, with their parents. Some of them were unable to go to school, because they had to take care of their younger sisters or brothers and help their parents to work,” he said.

In 2004, the Thai government had set up registration for family members of migrants, but later it cancelled this policy. During that time there were about 3,000 migrant children in Samut Sakorn Province, one of the biggest towns in Thailand, which has a thriving fisheries industry.

However, the total number of migrant children is expected to increase to 10, 000, only in Samut Sakorn.

Activists are of the opinion that the registration of these children would show the number of children, who should be in school and then medical and other necessary public facilities could be provided for them.

A 10-year-old girl in Mahachai district of Samut Sakorn told Mizzima that she was attending a local school, but after her sister was born her mother needed her to help at home.

“In addition, the school I went to was quite far from home, so it was difficult to continue,” she said.

The girl also said that in the morning she works at a small frozen prawn factory, while her mother also works there and in the evening she helps her mother take care of her sister.

Many children have to live alone, while their parents are working. Normally these are small rooms in apartments, where hundreds of workers live as a community.

The Thai authorities allow young people above 15, to work in some businesses, but a large number of children aged under 15 told the employers that they were 15 years old. Some employers also reported the child worker’s ages to the authorities and let them work, generally in bad conditions, both in below standard payment and environment.

Local authorities estimated that current statistics of workers in the province is up to 300, 000. Mainly they work in fishery industries, such as prawn shell peeling and cleaning seafood for frozen business. The biggest groups of workers are ethnic Mon, Burmese and some are Kachin and Karen people.

READ MORE---> Rise in child labour feared over Thai policy...

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