Thursday, August 27, 2009

China Accused of Ignoring Burmese Junta's Graft

The Irrawaddy News

MANILA — China and other governments with lucrative business deals in Burma are ignoring massive corruption by its ruling military junta, a pro-democracy activist said Thursday.

Ka Hsaw Wa said corruption has become the second worst problem in Burma after widespread human rights violations and afflicts all levels of its government.

Ka Hsaw Wa gestures during a press presentation August 27 in Manila, Philippines. Ka Hsaw Wa, one of six 2009 Ramon Magsaysay awardees, is honored for Emergent Leadership and cited for his "dauntlessly pursuing nonviolent yet effective channels of redress, exposure, and education for the defense of human rights, the environment and democracy in Burma." (Photo: AP)

He spoke to The Associated Press in Manila, where he was named one of six recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award, considered Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, for documenting human rights and environmental abuses in his country.

Corruption in Burma should be dealt with urgently, since most people struggle to afford three meals a day, Ka Hsaw Wa said. But obtaining evidence is almost impossible, he said.

"It's simply economic plunder," Ka Hsaw Wa said, adding that "99.9 percent of the ruling junta, from a normal soldier to the top generals, are completely corrupt."

He said corruption within the military should be apparent to friendly foreign governments like China, but they look the other way.

"We won't turn a blind eye to that (corruption), of course," said Ethan Sun, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Manila. He added, however, that trade and economic cooperation "benefit the peoples of both countries."

China has often supported the junta against international pressure in the past.

Most ruling Burmese generals live in sprawling, heavily guarded compounds which are off-limits to the public, he said. When a secret video of the lavish 2006 wedding of Snr-Gen Than Shwe's daughter surfaced on YouTube, it caused outrage in his country.

International watchdogs have consistently ranked Burma among the world's most corrupt nations. Transparency International's 2008 list put it next to last, ahead of only Somalia.

The junta does not publicly respond to accusations of corruption, but it has launched anti-corruption drives mostly targeting low-level offenses. A call to the embassy in Manila was not answered Thursday.

"A lot of countries want to swallow Burma alive, it's so rich in natural resources," Ka Hsaw Wa said. "But they try not to see (corruption) in a way that they can do business there."

While the Burmese government officially restricts logging, middle-level military officers have cut down huge swaths of rain forests for personal profit, he said.

Ka Hsaw Wa, a member of Burma's ethnic Karen minority, was a 17-year-old student activist when the government violently suppressed 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations. After his arrest, he fled to the jungle where he witnessed atrocities committed against villagers, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said.

EarthRights, the nonprofit group he co-founded, filed a case in the United States in 1996 against the US-based oil company Unocal for alleged complicity in human rights and environmental abuses committed by Burma's military in the building of the Yadana gas pipeline. After 10 years of litigation, Unocal agreed to compensate the 11 petitioners.

EarthRights also runs a school in Thailand that trains young people from Burma and other countries in nonviolent social change.

READ MORE---> China Accused of Ignoring Burmese Junta's Graft...

Expert Doubts Napyidaw’s Nuclear Program

The Irrawaddy News

A well-known expert on Burma’s military affairs is skeptical about recent reports on nuclear cooperation between the Burmese regime and North Korea.

In a paper published on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Web site on Monday, Andrew Selth, an expert on Burmese military affairs and author of “Burma’s Armed Forces: Power without Glory,” expressed doubts about Burma’s nuclear capability.

Selth said that Burma’s recent arms and materiel purchases from various countries including North Korea “do not necessarily mean that the junta is engaged in a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD).”

“Some generals—possibly including regime leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe—are clearly attracted to the idea of acquiring a nuclear weapon, in the belief that possession of WMD would give Burma the same stature and bargaining power that they believe is now enjoyed by North Korea,” Selth said.

“The key question, however, is whether this is just wishful thinking, or if there has been a serious attempt by the regime to pursue a nuclear weapons program,” he said.

In early August, based on interviews with defectors conducted over two years by Professor Desmond Ball of the Australia National University's Defense Study Center and Thailand-based journalist Phil Thornton, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Bangkok Post published stories saying that the junta could develop a nuclear bomb by 2014.

Selth said US officials knew about the Burmese defectors more than two years ago. “Yet, even when armed with the apparent revelations of all these defectors, the Bush administration remained conspicuously silent about Burma’s nuclear status,” he said.

Selth also said that the tunnels pictured in recent news reports were “quite modest” and would be vulnerable to attack by “a modern air force equipped with latest weapons.”

“Many of these underground facilities are probably for military purposes, such as command bunkers, air raid shelters and protective tunnels for vehicles and weapons systems,” Selth said, noting that the Burmese generals have feared an air attack ever since the Gulf War.

“Some are more likely to be related to civil engineering projects. None of the photos support claims of a secret nuclear reactor, or nuclear weapons project,” he said.

Facing an arms embargo since 1988, the Burmese junta sought to reduce its dependency on foreign arms suppliers, Selth said, suggesting that recent purchases could be part of a program for the country’s large defense industrial complex to produce more sophisticated weapons, rather than WMD.

Selth said that it is certain that North Korea is “selling Burma conventional arms, sharing its military expertise and experience, and helping it upgrade its defense infrastructure.”

However, Selth does not totally deny reports of Naypyidaw’s nuclear ambitions, saying that Burmese natural gas sales have given the regime untapped foreign exchange reserves that could be used to fund a nuclear program.

“Russia is providing technical training for a large number of Burmese servicemen and officials, including in the nuclear field,” he said. “Some sophisticated equipment has been imported, and it is possible that sensitive nuclear technologies have been provided to Burma by North Korea.”

Speaking in an interview on National Public Radio, Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based expert on the Burmese junta, said that the Burmese are “certainly interested” in acquiring a nuclear weapon.

“[The Burmese are] seeing how the North Koreans have been able to stand up against the Americans and the rest of the world because they are nuclear-armed. And they would like to have the same kind of negotiating position,” he said.

According to Lintner, Beijing is “well aware of Burma’s nuclear ambitions,” and “there’s definitely Chinese complicity in this new cooperation between North Korea and Burma.”

However, Lintner said the Chinese can conveniently deny any role by saying that it is the North Koreans who are cooperating with Burma, and that China cannot control them.

READ MORE---> Expert Doubts Napyidaw’s Nuclear Program...

No Turning Back

The Irrawaddy News

It’s no secret that the regime in Burma wants to repair its frosty relationship with America. It would especially like to see the lifting of US sanctions, which have an impact not only on the general population, but are also hampering the junta leaders’ ambition to build a modern armed forces.

Historically, there is little reason for the two countries to regard each other as enemies. Despite the US-backed occupation of northern Shan State by the Chinese Kuomintang in the 1950s, Burmese military commanders have never felt the same hostility toward the US that they reserve for Burma’s former colonial masters, the British.

Burma’s current rulers have not forgotten that their predecessor, Gen Ne Win, was a guest in the White House just a few years after seizing power. At the time, the US was keen to get a foothold in a country on China’s doorstep. Ironically, when Ne Win killed unarmed students in 1970s, it was Beijing, not Washington, that expressed outrage.

Fearing Communist China’s growing influence in the region, the US had no qualms about forming close military ties with Burma. For decades, top officers in the Burmese armed forces attended West Point and the Command and General Staff College, while key members of Burma’s most feared spy agency were trained by the CIA.

Washington was also generous with its military hardware. Until the late 1980s, Burma’s army and air force employed US jet fighters, helicopters and M-16 assault rifles. Bell helicopters supplied by the US to help Burma wage a war on drugs were also used in operations against ethnic insurgents. And when Burmese riot police fired on students in 1988, they were armed with American-made M-16s.

But it was at this point that US-Burma relations rapidly deteriorated. After decades of ignoring Burma’s poor human rights record and political repression, Washington suddenly became a staunch champion of the country’s brutally suppressed pro-democracy movement and an outspoken critic of the junta that seized power in 1988.

Now, after two decades of treating Burma’s rulers like pariahs, Washington is reviewing its policy toward the country as part of President Barack Obama’s new, less confrontational approach to dealing with the world’s dictators. Even as he tells “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent” that they are “on the wrong side of history,” Obama says that he is ready to offer his hand to those who are “willing to unclench their fist.”

The Burmese generals were quick to read this as a sign that the US was likely to soften its stance toward them, and were only too happy to share Obama’s conciliatory message with the people of Burma in state-run media—except for the part about the need for dictators to “unclench their fist” if they want to enjoy better relations with the US, which was deemed too “sensitive” by the junta’s censors.

In August, the generals finally got their chance to show the world that they, too, were ready to extend their hand in friendship. The highly publicized visit of US Sen Jim Webb was lauded in the state-run press as “a success for both sides as well as the first step to promotion of the relations between the two countries.”

A commentary in The New Light of Myanmar, a regime mouthpiece, noted that Webb did not act like a typical “neocolonialist” or “loud-mouthed bully.” However, it cautiously added that Webb’s visit was just “the first step toward marching to a 1,000-mile destination.”

What was most remarkable about this encounter was how starkly Webb’s reception contrasted with that of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who traveled to Naypyidaw in June but was denied a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The difference signaled the junta’s eagerness to cut a deal with Washington.

The immediate outcome of Webb’s visit was the release of John Yettaw, the American who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for illegally entering Suu Kyi’s residential compound in May. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi and her two live-in aides are now serving a further 18 months under house arrest because of Yettaw’s actions.

To the junta’s way of thinking, all of this makes perfectly good sense. Just as Suu Kyi’s trial and conviction were obviously politically motivated, Yettaw’s release was clearly a political gambit intended to improve the regime’s chances of repairing ties with the US.

But the regime is going to have to go a lot further if it expects the Obama administration to meet it halfway. Following Webb’s visit, the White House issued a statement welcoming the junta’s gesture, but also urging “the Burmese leadership in this spirit to release all the political prisoners it is holding in detention or in house arrest, including Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Clearly, then, Webb’s visit was not the breakthrough that he and other champions of engagement with the regime hoped it would be. If Burma’s rulers think they can simply return to the “good old days” when Washington didn’t care how dictators behaved, as long as they were friendly to America’s interests, they are mistaken. Until it makes real changes in its behavior, the junta’s dream of rapprochement with the US will remain a “1,000-mile destination.”

[This article appears in September issue of The Irrawaddy.]

READ MORE---> No Turning Back...

Thein Htay: Burma’s Terminator?

The Irrawaddy News

To win respect and rapid promotion in the Burmese military you have to play hardball. Maj-Gen Thein Htay, who is deputy-chief of Defense Industry l, is one of the toughest players on the field.

Military insiders say that Thein Htay has played a key role in the modernization of the armed forces, and he is one of the prime promoters of the idea of purchasing missiles.

Maj-Gen Thein Htay, center, with Gen Thura Shwe Mann, right, and a delegation of North Korean officers in 2008.

If reports are true that Burma is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, then he is likely to be a key player in that effort.

Last year, he accompanied Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the regime’s No 3 general, on his clandestine trip to North Korea. During the visit, he and Shwe Mann visited several arms factories and a military hardware deal with the Communist regime was signed.

Known to be an extreme nationalist, Thein Htay didn’t serve long at the infantry battalion level, and he was quickly given an important position at the military industry ministry because of his extensive knowledge of the weapons industry.

Thein Htay received special attention when he advised junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe on how to upgrade the Burmese armed forces. He received a “jump” promotion when Than Shwe grew more serious about buying missiles and missile technology after a series of border skirmishes with Thai forces in 2001-2002.

In 1998, Thein Htay was a lieutenant-colonel on the general staff. In 2006, he was promoted to major general, followed by deputy-chief of Defense Industry 1—a sign that he had the trust of Than Shwe.

Sources say that the junta leader sometimes comes to weapons tests when Thein Htay demonstrates newly bought missiles or other weapons.

Defense Industry 1, one of Burma’s main military industrial complexes, operates 22 manufacturing or procurement facilities, many located on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River west of the Pegu mountain range. Several weapon testing grounds are located near Pegu and Pyi.

Military sources said that Thein Htay has been involved in the upgrading and creation of military facilities, including tunnels for missiles, aircraft and even naval ships. He has also expanded technological assistance of Russia, China, North Korea and Singapore.

Under Thein Htay’s command, military factories manufacture conventional weapons, including automatic rifles, light machine guns and landmines. Sources said that at least two military facilities are believed to be involved in refining uranium.

In earlier decades, the Defense Ministry purchased most of its arms and ammunition under contract with the Federal Republic of Germany’s state-owned Fritz Werner, according to defense analysts.

Burma has procured small arms, jet fighters and naval ships from the West particularly the US and EU countries. However, after the 1988 democracy uprising, Western countries imposed arms embargo and stopped selling arms to Burma.

Thein Htay often travels abroad to look for new sources of weapons and ammunition, upgrade missiles, defensive rockets, anti-aircraft radar and command and control technology.

Should Burma be trying to acquire a nuclear capability, Thein Htay and the Defense Ministry will be key players in that effort.

READ MORE---> Thein Htay: Burma’s Terminator?...

Fighting Breaks Out in Kokang Area

Refugees in Burma's Shan State arrive at Nansan town in Zhenkang County in Yunnan Province, China, on August 25. (Photo: Reuters)

The Irrawaddy News

Several skirmishes broke out between the Burmese army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) on Thursday near the Kokang capital, Laogai, in northeast Shan State, as tension between Naypyidaw and the ethnic Kokang ceasefire group boiled over.

The MNDAA, led by Chairman Peng Jiasheng, was reportedly joined in a counteroffensive against the Burmese army by its military allies, National Democratic Alliance Army, also known as the Mong La group, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

According to sources on the Sino-Burmese border, gunfire was exchanged between the Burmese army and the ethnic ceasefire groups at three different bases near the Kokang stronghold of Laogai for several hours on Thursday.

The red circle (see arrow) located southeast of Muse on the Sino-Burmese border is the location of tension between junta and Kokang troops. (Map created by Transnational Institute)

The sources said the Kokang troops and their allies took back one base from the Burmese army. No casualties were reported.

“The clashes occurred between the Burmese troops and the Kokang Battalion 7 near Laogai,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst based on the Sino-Burmese border.

“As far as I know, the Kokang have taken back one of their bases,” he added.

Also on Thursday, gunfire broke out briefly in Yanlon, a town near Laogai, when a unit of MNDAA soldiers encircled a group of Burmese policemen who exchanged fire before escaping to the Chinese side of the border, according to sources on the Sino-Burmese border.

Aung Kyaw Zaw told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese police officers inadvertently shot at each other as they fled over the border.

Another source said that at least one Burmese police officer had died during the clash.

“At least seven policemen fled into China. They were later sent back to the Burmese side by Chinese police,” he said.

The skirmish came after about 1,000 soldiers of the Burmese armed forces, or Tatmadaw, seized the Kokang stronghold of Laogai without a shot being fired on Monday night.

Recent tensions had escalated leading up to the fall of Laogai with a drugs raid on the house of Peng Jiasheng, and a military build-up by the Burmese army in the area.

In recent weeks, an estimated 10,000 Kokang civilians have fled to the Chinese side of the border where they are being temporarily sheltered by Chinese authorities.

MNDAA Chairman Peng Jiasheng, who abandoned his house in Laogai before the Burmese army entered the town, reportedly fled with his troops to the base of his closest ally, the UWSA, from where he released a statement on Thursday urging the Burmese regime to withdraw all its troops from Laogai and seek a peaceful solution to the conflict, said Aung Kyaw Zaw.

But tensions still remain high between the Burmese junta and the ethnic ceasefire groups in northeastern Burma as the Tatmadaw steps up its military maneuvers in the region, he said.

Analysts have said that after if they successfully oust the MNDAA from its stronghold, the Burmese regional military commanders will likely turn their focus to the other ceasefire groups.

“After the Burmese regime has control of the Kokang situation, it will make a move on the Mong La group,” said Saeng Juen, one of the editors of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News.

Instead of armed attacks though, the Burmese regime will likely explore alternative methods to break down the ceasefire groups, including the strongest insurgent army, the UWSA, said Saeng Juen.

About 700 Chinese troops have been deployed along the Sino-Burmese border for security reasons, he added.

After the fall of Laogai, several defecting MNDAA leaders were appointed by the Burmese regime as the new Kokang leaders.

However, in his statement, Peng Jiasheng rejected the formation of a new Kokang leadership, saying the new leaders did not represent the Kokang people, said Aung Kyaw Zaw.

Meanwhile, the Burmese authorities have released an arrest warrant for Peng Jiasheng and the commanders loyal to him.

The MNDAA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military government in 1989.

READ MORE---> Fighting Breaks Out in Kokang Area...

China to promote trade with Thailand and Burma

by Usa Pichai

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - With China keen on opening one more border trade checkpoint with Burma, a boost in trade is likely by corporates in Northern Thailand and southern China.

Thailand’s Department of Exporting Promotion organized an event on Wednesday to promote trading and investing in Xishuangbanna Prefecture in Yunnan Province, southern China close to Shan State in Burma.

Apmornphan Nimanan, Chiang Mai province Governor presided over the event and said that Thailand and Xishuangbanna have close cultural ties. Besides, transportation is smooth along Mekong River and over land by R3A route between Thailand – Lao – China or R3B between Thailand – Burma – China, according to a report in the government run Thailand’s News Bureau website.

Earlier, regarding discussions with officials in Chiang Rai Province, Qian Min, the Director of Trade Office’s Xixuangbanna said R3B is the shorter route but there are many checkpoints in Burma that result in excessive transport costs.

“Our officials will discuss this issue with the Burmese authority in Keng Tung and open the Mongla-Daluo border checkpoint soon,” he said. Kieng Tung is located in Shan State, Burma.

The Burmese side of the Mongla-Daluo checkpoint is under the control of the ceasefire group the National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS), led by Sai Linn aka Lin Mingxian, which is also known as Shan State Special Region 4.

Dao Linyin, Governor of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture said in Chiang Mai that the R3A is used officially, which would benefit trading between China and Southeast Asian nations.

“China would speed up cooperation with Thailand in commercial, investment and tourism and infrastructure development. We will also provide more support for investors with special privileges. If there are problems that the local government can solve, we will do so immediately,” she said.

Early this year, Chinese authorities placed restrictions on this border checkpoint to curb drug smuggling, where trading and other business including casinos were affected.

Burma’s cross-border trade was banned by the late dictator Gen. Ne Win after the military assumed power in 1962 but the ban was lifted following negotiations in 1988.

Bilateral trade has risen steadily since, increasing by 60 per cent in the fiscal year ending 31 March, 2008, and constitutes 24 per cent of Burma's trade, making China a major trading partner, second only to Thailand.

Trading between China and Thailand has also risen steadily. In 2008 it was more than 36,000 million US$ which rose by about 20 per cent compared to 2007 but the global economic meltdown resulted in a significant drop early this year.

READ MORE---> China to promote trade with Thailand and Burma...

Fighting breaks out between Kokang and government troops

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) – The palpable tension between Kokang and Burmese troops, finally sparked a clash on Thursday with at least three separate gun battles taking place along the Sino-Burmese border.

The first clash, according to border sources, occurred at about 7 a.m. (local time) near the town of Yan Lone Chai on the Sino-Burmese border. In another incident, the Peng Jiasheng led faction of the Kokang Army ambushed government troops which were trailing them in the jungle. Later in the evening, the two armies skirmished near the town of Chin Shui Haw along the border for more than an hour.

“The battle has begun between the Kokang and the junta’s troops,” said Sino-Burmese border based analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw.

On Tuesday, he told Mizzima that fighting seemed imminent as tension between the two groups was building up.

According to Aung Kyaw Zaw and other observers, tension began to mount between the Peng Jiasheng led Kokang rebels and Tatmadaw soldiers after the Kokang, like many other armed ceasefire groups, rejected the junta’s proposal of transforming their army into a Border Guard Force to be controlled by the regime.

Unable to persuade the ceasefire groups to transform, the junta had extended the deadline for the groups to decide on the proposal to October.

Though Peng and his loyalists had rejected the proposal, the junta exploited fissures in the Kokang force as Bai Xuoqian, deputy to Peng, was keen to comply with the junta’s proposal.

Meanwhile, government troops have been infiltrating Kokang Special Region (1) under the pretext of drug eradication, setting up a Regional Operation Command in Lao Kai.

Government troops and police raided Peng’s residence in Lao Kai on August 8 and again on August 21. But Peng evaded both the raids.

Following the raids, the Lashio police station on August 22 served a summons to Peng and three other colleagues, including his brother, to appear before the court. But the four did not show up and as a result the court issued an arrest warrant for Peng and his group.

On the wanted list of the Burmese junta, Peng and his troops, as of Tuesday, moved out of Lao Kai to the north, having lost control over Kokang’s capital.

On Tuesday, sources said government troops reorganized the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and installed Bai Xuoqian as their leader.

But Aung Kyaw Zaw said, “Most of the Kokang troops have joined Peng and only a few remain with Bai in Lao Kai. Bai does not really have an army with him.”

Once members of the powerful Burma Communist Party (BCP), MNDAA, or the Kokang Army, broke away from the BCP in 1989 and signed a ceasefire agreement with the ruling junta the same year. The ethnic Chinese Kokang, following the ceasefire pact, enjoyed special privileges and were allotted several business concessions.

Mizzima’s correspondent on the Sino-Burmese border added, “Peng’s troops are now literally breaking away from the ceasefire agreement and are hiding in the jungles.”

Phoe Than Gyaung, spokesperson of the Burma Communist Party, on Thursday said he is aware of the ongoing conflict and tension in the Kokang area and feels sad that they have also fallen victim to the junta’s old and devious trick of divide and rule.

“It is the junta’s tactic to always divide the groups. Though the Kokang has broken away from us, we consider them our good friends and it is sad that there is a conflict amidst them,” Phoe Than Gyuang elaborated.

But he hoped that the Burmese junta might not come down heavily on the Kokang Army as they are busy with plans for the 2010 general election and handling the internal political situation revolving around the sentencing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based analyst, on Wednesday told Mizzima that the Kokang case is another classic example of the junta’s tactics in action, and other ceasefire groups including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) can start preparing for their turn.

The UWSA and Kokang Army both broke away from the BCP, once a powerful group that posed a direct threat to the Rangoon government. But the loss of the UWSA, Kokang Army and other groups drastically weakened the BCP to where it is, today, almost non-functional with only a few remaining members.

READ MORE---> Fighting breaks out between Kokang and government troops...

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