Thursday, September 3, 2009

Junta Continues its Campaign against Burmese Diversity

The Irrawaddy News

Recent fighting in northern Shan state, between the junta’s army and the ethnic Kokang militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, has fuelled speculation that the regime intends to coerce Burma’s 17 ceasefire groups into accepting a plan to incorporate them into the state security apparatus as border guards.

The ceasefire groups are ethnic militias—most notably the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army—that have fought on and off, in various guises, against central rule since Burma became independent in 1948. They are part of Burma’s remarkably diverse ethnic, religious and cultural demography—40 percent of the country’s population is comprised of non-Burman minorities. In total, the state recognizes 135 different ethnicities.

However, the Burmese regime’s army has fought brutal campaigns against these groups, with long-documented human rights abuses, including mass displacement, forced labor and conscription, as well as countless cases of rape and murder targeting civilians. Some analysts believe that the level of abuses ranks alongside or even exceeds that of Darfur in western Sudan.

In some cases, the junta has successfully co-opted proxy or splinter movements from ethnic insurgent groups as part of its ongoing strategy of “divide and rule” to weaken ethnically based opposition. But far from bringing peace to the country, this approach has served only to perpetuate ethnic tensions.

Indeed, some observers believe that the regime has little interest in resolving a problem that has long been its raison d’etre. “Burma’s ethnic diversity has been one of the main justifications for continued military rule,” said Win Min, an analyst of Burmese affairs based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adding that the army has long seen civilian government as too weak to prevent potential secession by ethnic minorities.

Going back to the 1947 constitution, the military has always believed that civilian solutions to the problems posed by Burma’s ethnic divisions, such as local autonomy or federalism, with the option of secession in some cases, threaten national unity and foment instability.

The army goes by the maxim that diversity equals disunity, something seen in military-civilian political vehicles such as the National Unity Party, the junta-backed party that ran against the National League for Democracy in the 1990 elections, and the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a mass organization established in 1993 that is expected to be transformed into a pro-junta political party in time for elections in 2010.

The regime’s efforts to undermine ethnically based expressions of identity in Burma are also evident in the 2008 constitution, which circumscribes ethnic autonomy and is a digression away from the establishment of anything resembling a federal union—a demand of many ethnic groups.

“The constitution/election process is driving this policy to marginalize the ethnic groups,” said Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University whose research focuses on Burma. “This may come back to haunt the junta, as it has with previous governments,” he added.

If the junta proceeds with its military build-up in Shan State, close to the well-armed UWSA, it may be revisited by the ghosts of insurgencies past very soon. The prospect of renewed ethnic civil war in Burma’s borderlands has caused concern in neighboring countries, particularly China, which remains a key ally of the regime.

The Burmese generals issued an apology to Beijing after being reprimanded over the fighting in Kokang, which saw an estimated 30,000 refugees from this ethnically Chinese region cross into China’s Yunnan Province. The junta risks undermining its relationship with Beijing, as instability is perceived to be contrary to China’s interests.

As K. Yhome, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in India, put it: “Political stability in Myanmar [Burma] is a major concern for Beijing, particularly in the border regions.”

China’s port and pipeline plan linking the Burmese coast with Yunnan is due to get underway this month, and Beijing doubtless does not want the timeframe jeopardized by the junta’s domestic concerns. The pipeline will extend 1,200 km and allow Beijing to bypass the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea when bringing oil imports from Africa and the Middle East into China.

Given that China has “run interference for the junta at the UN Security Council”—in the words of Walter Lohman, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation—sending refugees streaming into China seems a bitter payback. Only three weeks ago, Beijing told critics that the August 11 decision to return Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest was an internal Burmese matter.

Ironically, the junta’s offensive along the Sino-Burmese border may have been intended to send the same message—that the regime manages its internal affairs autonomously—to Beijing. It could also be a hint that there are other options available, should the junta want to diversify its networks of foreign partners.

The regime certainly has reason to believe that Beijing is not its only friend. While China’s tally of oil blocks in Burma is 16, India has seven and Thailand five. Meanwhile, India, South Korea and half of Burma’s fellow members in the Association of Southeast Nations are investing in the country’s vast natural resources and competing with China for trade links with the generals.

According to Turnell, the regime may even be paying China back for entering into a series of gas contracts with Bangladesh over offshore fields in disputed seas between Burma and Bangladesh.

However, it remains to be seen how far the junta could push this attempt to needle China, or to diversify its foreign trade and investment relations. “Myanmar needs to remain focused on Chinese concerns,” said Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

If the regime seeks to pick a fight with the UWSA or any of the other larger ethnic militias, it could be stirring a hornet’s nest. This type of political instability could threaten Chinese investments in Burma, and Beijing’s growing economy cannot afford that.

Just as it does not want an unstable Burma, Beijing is almost certainly on the alert for any rapprochement between the US and the junta. It is not clear whether the Kokang offensive is linked to the recent visit by Senator Jim Webb to Burma, but the growing military presence in Shan State has taken place while international attention has been focused on Webb’s visit, and the Suu Kyi trial circus that preceded it.

“In the long term, if the US improves its ties with Myanmar, it will have strategic implications for Beijing, which wants to reach the Indian Ocean through Myanmar and the oil and gas pipeline projects that it plans through Myanmar,” said K. Yhome.

3 September 2009
Burma Newscasts - Junta Continues its Campaign against Burmese Diversity

READ MORE---> Junta Continues its Campaign against Burmese Diversity...

Kokang Conflict Highlights Tatmadaw Xenophobia

The Irrawaddy News

The Tatmadaw of Burma, one of the most nationalistic armies in the world, demonstrated its xenophobia during the past two weeks following its capture of Kokang-Chinese territory.

According to reports from the region on the northeastern frontier of Burma, following the seizure of Laogai, the Kokang capital, on August 24, government soldiers questioned civilians about whether they were Burma-born Chinese or immigrants from China.

“After answering, Chinese from mainland China were beaten by soldiers,” said a source in Laogai.

Refugees who fled to China told reporters that shops, stores and other properties owned by Chinese had been looted in various towns in the Kokang region where an estimate 90 percent of businesses are owned by Chinese businessmen.

Anti-Chinese elements among government soldiers are not new. In 1967, an anti-Chinese riot in Rangoon and other cities led to dozens of deaths. Observers said late dictator Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party used the Chinese as a scapegoat to deflect public anger at the government over a rice shortage in the country.

Anti-Chinese sentiment among Burmese has increased after the Chinese and Burmese governments signed border trading agreements in 1988, and the military junta signed ceasefire agreements with ethnic militias on the Sino-Burmese border in 1989.

After the opening of border trade and the ceasefire agreements, Chinese business interests and immigrants moved into Burma in large numbers, observers said. From the northern Shan State capital of Lashio to Madalay, the second largest city, to Rangoon, Chinese migrants and businesses along with the ethnic ceasefire groups, such as the Kokang and Wa, have taken on a higher profile among Burmese.

“They say they are Wa or Kokang, but we know they are actually Chinese,” said a businessman in Mandalay, citing his experience.

During two decades, Chinese have taken over businesses owned by Burmese in northern Shan State and Mandalay. Signs on many department stores, restaurants and shops in Mandalay and Lashio are printed in the Chinese language.

Intentionally or unintentionally, the special favors granted ethnic groups by Gen Khin Nyunt, the former Burma spy chief, produced a backlash against Kokang-Chinese and other ceasefire groups among the Tatmadaw’s soldiers.

From 1989 to 2004— before Khin Nyunt’s downfall—the Kokang and Wa were allowed to take their weapons to Rangoon and Mandalay. Kokang and Wa soldiers were untouchable under Khin Nyunt’s instructions even though they committed crimes.

When vehicles from Wa and Kokang groups passed army and police checkpoints, they were not searched.

In one incident in 1999, a member of the Wa army killed a businessman in downtown Rangoon after a business conflict. The police arrested the man but he was not charged, and later Wa officials took the man from police custody.

According to Mandalay residents, members of ceasefire groups such as the Wa and Kokang were known to use pistols in personal conflicts with local people in the early 2000s.

Chan Tun, a former Burmese ambassador to China, said that after ceasefire agreements were signed, the Wa and Kokang caused many problems in cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, and many officers and soldiers in the regime’s army have developed a negative image of the two groups as a result.

The recent military conflict between the government and ethnic groups has divided public opinion in Rangoon and Mandalay, according to journalists.

“Some people here say it is the government bullying the Kokang-Chinese. But most people support the government,” said an editor of a Rangoon-based private journal.

READ MORE---> Kokang Conflict Highlights Tatmadaw Xenophobia...

A Childhood Spent Scavenging

The Irrawaddy News

RANGOON —Twelve-year-old Maung Chan Thar has only known poverty despite having a name that means “master of wealth.”

His parents gave him the name in the belief that it would bring good fortune to their eldest son.

With a meager household income, Maung Chan Thar's family of eight has to struggle to put enough food on the table each day, let alone buy clothes or things needed for school by his three younger brothers and two younger sisters.

The piles of rubbish in Rangoon are children’s sources of income. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Four years ago, when Maung Chan Thar was just eight, his parents sent him onto the streets to earn money because they could no longer afford to keep him at school.

Carrying a sack on his back, he has been working in the streets ever since, looking through the piles of rubbish on the streets, roaming the railway tracks, collecting empty water bottles, plastic bags—whatever he can resell.

The piles of rubbish at the markets and railway stations are his sources of income. On a good day, he can make the equivalent of more than US $1, but normally Maung Chan Thar only earns about 70 or 80 cents.

“I am so happy to see my mother smile when I put cash in her hands,” he said.

Maung Chan Thar is the second income earner in his family after his father, who makes about $1.50 a day pedaling a trishaw.

Though he is an important source of income for his family, his parents cannot take care of him.

Like tens of thousands of other street children in big cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay, Maung Chan Thar’s clothes are filthy and in tatters. His hair has not been washed for months, and his nails are long and dirty.

Maung Chan Thar thinks things are alright, however. He knows that in his job what matters is collecting as much recyclable material as possible.

"I hate seeing my younger brothers and sisters crying in hunger, so I work hard," he said, sifting through a pile of garbage near Kyimyindaing Railway Station. “I don’t want them to ever do work like this. I want them to keep going to school.”

When he started on the street, he was often bullied by stronger street children, who would sometimes steal what he made.

"I will never forget when three larger boys beat me up and took all my money,” Maung Chan Thar said. “When I got back home, my father beat me up again for being so weak."

Maung Chan Thar has learned how to avoid such incidents, and he has many friends who will come to his help him if someone picks on him.

His worries are far from over, however. The municipal police and staff from the Yangon [Rangoon] City Development Committee are constantly making arrests.

The risk of arrest is higher when he sleeps at railway stations or bus stops in the downtown area, he said. Since his home is located in Shwepyithar in the outskirts of Rangoon, he often sleeps downtown with his friends if it is too late to go back.

“I’ve never been arrested,” he said. “I’m good at avoiding the police.

“People look down on street children like us, thinking we are thieves,” he said. “When we go around below large buildings picking up plastic bags, residents sometimes threaten us. We have to switch collecting sites quickly when that happens.

“I don’t understand why they look down on us like that,” Maung Chan Thar said, adding that he always followed his mother’s advice.

“My mother always told me never to steal or beg, but to work hard and be honest,” he said.

Though Maung Chan Thar seems destined to keep doing his lowly job, he firmly believes he will be rich one day.

“Every night my mother has this dream in which I am a rich man,” he said, squatting on the rubbish.

“Perhaps I will find something very precious in this rubbish one day,” he said. “Who is to say that I won’t?”

READ MORE---> A Childhood Spent Scavenging...

UWSA will be in a spot if Wei sides with junta

by Brian McCartan

Mizzima - Much has been made of the junta’s ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics, but often overlooked is the fact that Burma’s military rulers do not create many of these situations, but exploit existing divisions. One that could have potentially serious consequences to follow-on moves against the ceasefire groups is that between the northern and southern Wa under Wei Xuegang.

The territory under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is split between a northern region along the Sino-Burma border and a southern region on the Thai border. The northern region is the former operating area of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) from which the Wa mutinied in April 1989 before signing a ceasefire with the government later in the year.

The southern area was originally the operating area of a non-communist Wa group that eventually joined northern Wa after the mutiny. The southern Wa was led by Maha Sang, a former Wa prince and his lieutenant, an ethnic Chinese from the Sino-Burma border area, Wei Xuegang. Designated the 171st Military Region, the area eventually came under the firm leadership of Wei and his brothers Wei Xueyin and Wei Xuelong.

In addition to the leadership of the southern Wa, Wei and his brothers are considered by many Burma watchers as the bankrollers of the UWSA. Appointed a central committee member of the group’s political wing, the United Wa State Party, in 1996, Wei was also the UWSA’s finance head from July 2006 until December 2007.

Wei’s financial standing in the UWSA comes largely from his control of heroin and methamphetamine production facilities along the Thai border and international trafficking connections. The huge profits made by Wei and his associates enabled the UWSA to greatly expand its control over areas of Shan State as well as increase its number of soldiers and quality of equipment and weapons.

Further reinforcing Wei’s position was the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Wa villagers from the China border to the southern Wa area in 1999. The Wa came to dominate the area, establishing new villages and towns and largely forcing the original Shan inhabitants out. Many of the old strongholds of former opium warlord Khun Sa, which the Wa had fought against for years, were absorbed by Wei’s group after his surrender in 1996. Many of those areas were along the Thai border giving the organization increased opportunities for trade in various forms of contraband including narcotics.

Where Wei and the rest of the UWSA leadership differ is in their political outlook. While many of the ethnic Wa leaders of the UWSA have definite nationalist interests as well as business, Wei is known to be dismissive of politics and interested more in ensuring the continued expansion of his business interests.

An outbreak of fighting with the Burmese Army would certainly not be good for business from Wei’s standpoint. Most of his more legitimate businesses are in central Burma and he would stand to lose them. Hostilities could also potentially disrupt narcotics production and trafficking, particularly if Thai security forces support Burmese moves on their side of the border.

The junta certainly understands this as well and has made several attempts to persuade Wei to make his own peace and transform his forces into a government-backed militia. Although details are sketchy, it can be assumed any arrangement would include a provision wherein Wei would be granted non-interference in his narcotics production and trafficking.

Should Wei cast his lot with the junta, it would put the UWSA in serious financial difficulty. Lost would be access to Thailand and the large amounts of cash generated by Wei’s narcotics business. Cross-border trade to China would not be able to make up for the shortfall and a prohibition on narcotics trafficking to China is reportedly a condition for Chinese assistance on development projects and other forms of cross-border aid as well as political support against Burma’s generals. While victory would by no means be as swift as against the Kokang last week, without Wei’s forces and financial backing, the UWSA would find it all the harder to resist the Burmese Army.

So far, the southern Wa have resisted the junta’s overtures saying that all negotiations must be with Panghsang and Wa troops are reportedly on standby for any outbreak of hostilities. The rapid fall of the Kokang last week and the replacement of Peng Jiasheng with a rival backed by the government, however, may give Wei reason to rethink his options. After all, a precedent has already been set by the retirement of Khun Sa in 1996. The old warlord went on to live very comfortably in Rangoon until his death in 2007.

READ MORE---> UWSA will be in a spot if Wei sides with junta...

Monk accused of suicide produced in court

by Phanida

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Ashin Sanda Dika, who was charged with attempted suicide by setting himself on fire, was produced in court on Thursday, sources in the court and opposition said.

The monk Ashin Sanda Dika (36) was disrobed and had to face trial in court inside the Insein prison. Sub-Inspector of Police Zaw Phone Win acted as prosecutor at the Bahan Township court in the case under section 295(a) of the Penal Code (insulting religion). The monk sojourned at Laykyun Mannaing monastery, Daesun pagoda in Pegu Division.

“The four witnesses were called and three of them were examined. The prosecutor also testified,” the High Court source told Mizzima. According to another source, all the witnesses were police personnel.

Nyi Nyi Lwin-turned-Ahsin Sanda Dika defended himself.

“Restriction of movement of a monk in this place is not in accordance with the Canon Law of Buddhism. The Sayadaw (abbot) came here with permission during Buddhist lent. He did not insult the religion. He asked these questions and raised these issues in the court himself,” a person close to the accused said.

The Bahan police station personnel arrested him on August 11, after he visited places near the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters and the Insein prison to find about the court’s judgment on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial on that day.

The three men took Ashin Sanda Dika to the police station in Rangoon North District and at least two policemen beat him up with bamboo poles, the Asia Human Right Commission (AHRC) said.

According to the examination by both prosecution and defence lawyers in court, there was no material evidence such as kerosene found at the scene of the crime. And there were no independent witnesses, the AHRC said.

Meanwhile other monk-related incidents have taken place in Chauk, Yenanchaung and Pakokku townships in Magwe Division on August 27 and August 31. These places were searched and some arrests were made, the All Burma Monks Organization said.

“In fact, the SPDC (junta) is insulting the religion. Our monks are living under the order of Dhama. Arresting monks and charging them with various sections of various laws make us suffer from inferiority complex in comparison to other religions. We are losing face in the world,” U Dhama Wuntha from the monk organization said.

According to War Office sources in Naypyidaw, the junta is expecting another uprising led by monks and it has ordered tightening of security and is closely watch monasteries.

READ MORE---> Monk accused of suicide produced in court...

Burmese Army might be targeting UWSA: Observer

by Mungpi

New Delhi (Mizzima) - After having overrun and occupied the Kokang area in north-eastern Shan State and driving away its leader, the Burmese military junta might have initiated its move against one of the largest ceasefire groups, the United Wa State Army, an observer said.

Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), who is close to UWSA, said Wa leaders in Panghsang in eastern Shan state have received a letter from the Burmese Army demanding the extradition of Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng and three others. The junta had issued arrest warrants against them.

“Nobody is sure where Peng and his group are staying right now. It is absurd that the Burmese Army has demanded that the Wa hand over Peng. It seems to me that the junta is starting to pick on the Wa,” Khuensai said.

The letter dated September 1, 2009 was received by Wa leaders in Panghsang on September 2. Worried over the issue, the Wa leaders sat at a meeting on Thursday morning and decided not to respond to the letter, he added.

“The Wa leaders believe that the demand could be a point to pick by the junta and so decided to remain silent without replying to it,” said Khuensai.

He said, whichever way the Wa replies, the junta could find fault. Even by remaining silent, the junta could still find fault and find reasons to launch an attack.

Peng Jiasheng, the once supreme leader of the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), also known as the Kokang Army, was forced to flee Loa Kai, capital of Kokang region, after the Burmese junta issued an arrest warrant for him along with three others including his brother on charges of running an arms and ammunition factory and trafficking.

Peng’s flight left his deputy Bai Suoqing and a few other MNDAA soldiers, who support the junta. The MNDAA was later reformed with the help of the Burmese Army and Bai was appointed the new leader.

“When I asked Wa leaders about the whereabouts of Peng, they told me that he would most probably be with his son-in-law but did not deny or agree that Peng might be in Wa controlled area,” Khuensai said.

According to the Wa leader’s response, Peng and his troops are most likely to be with the Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or Mongla, whose leader Sai Leun is Peng’s son-in-law.

While the information on the junta’s demand to the Wa to extradite Peng cannot be independently verified, a Sino-Burma border based military analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw said, he does not believe any such demand has been made.

“I have not heard of the demand but I think it is unlikely and Brig Gen Win Maung commander of the Regional Operations Command (ROC) in Lao Kai has no such power to make the demand as the case is to be handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs,” he added.

But he said, in connection with the conflicts last week in Kokang region, Burmese Deputy Home Minister Phone Shwe and a team of delegates, earlier this week, visited Kun Ming, capital of China’s North-western province of Yunnan, and met regional Chinese officials.

Aung Kyaw Zaw said, while the junta is determined to neutralise ethnic armed groups, particularly the ceasefire groups, in eastern Shan State, the UWSA might not be the first target to choose.

Observers agreed that the junta is unlikely to declare war on the UWSA, which is believed to have up to 20,000 soldiers, but use different tactics including ‘divide and conquer’ by exploiting the differences between the leaders, Wei Hsueh-kang and Bao You-Xiang.

READ MORE---> Burmese Army might be targeting UWSA: Observer...

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