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392[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 14/11/07

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Nov 15, 2007
      1. UN envoy positive on Burma trip, West doubtful
      2. Dialogue only way forward in resolving Myanmar crisis, says UN envoy
      3. Military presence swept under carpet before UN rights probe
      4. Thai energy giant to invest billion dollars in Myanmar gas project
      5. Foreigners flock to Myanmar gems auction despite calls for a boycott
      6. FM George Yeo in India to discuss situation in Myanmar
      7. Myanmar should agree on timetable for political change, UN Says
      8. India stands by Myanmar status quo
      9. The role of Muslims in Burma’s democracy movement

      UN envoy positive on Burma trip, West doubtful
      Reuters: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari has given an upbeat report on his recent trip to promote democracy in Burma but Western ambassadors voiced doubts about the junta’s will to cooperate with him.

      Gambari told the UN Security Council today the situation was “qualitatively different” from a few weeks ago and he believed the government could respond to international pressure for change following its crackdown on protests led by monks.

      Gambari said his trip did not produce all the results he had hoped for but there had been some positive steps.

      He noted that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been allowed to issue a statement for the first time in over four years and to meet members of her party. He urged the government to release Suu Kyi as a demonstration of its commitment.

      Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister, also said the government had assured him it would make no more arrests.

      Earlier today, however, activist Su Su Nway was arrested in Rangoon after being on the run since the army crushed protests in September, an opposition source said.

      “On balance, the positive outcomes of this latest mission show that the government of Burma … can be responsive to the concerns of the international community,” Gambari said, adding that a process had been started that he hoped would lead to “substantive dialogue.”

      But British Ambassador John Sawers said restrictions on Gambari’s movements showed that the government had not met the Security Council’s expectations.

      Sawers said he welcomed the “small steps forward” reported by the envoy, but warned that without sustained international pressure, signs of progress “could also be a false dawn.”

      US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Burma should show its commitment by releasing Suu Kyi and other detainees.

      “These steps … do not yet constitute a fundamental shift,” he said of the positive signs highlighted by Gambari.

      Burma Ambassador Kyaw Tint Swe said his government was cooperating fully with the United Nations and making progress.

      “It’s disappointing that, notwithstanding the positive developments, some continue to express skepticism,” he said.

      It was Gambari’s second visit to the country formerly known as Burma since at least 10 people, and probably more, were killed in September’s ruthless suppression of the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years.

      The day before he landed, the junta summoned the UN’s top resident diplomat to tell him he would be kicked out for a statement linking the protests to poverty.

      Gambari then failed to secure a meeting with junta supremo Than Shwe and had a proposal for three-way talks including himself, Suu Kyi and the military rejected as premature.

      Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said the situation was improving in Burma and was an internal matter that did not require sanctions or other international interference. Russia said sanctions and external pressure were counterproductive.

      UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, was facing restrictions in his investigations into rights abuses on his first visit to Burma in four years.

      Pinheiro met junta officials today but the meeting was overshadowed by the arrest of Su Su Nway. Sawers said her arrest “raises question marks” about the Burma government’s commitments to Gambari.

      Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 1990 elections by a landslide, but was denied power by the military, which has ruled in one form or another since a 1962 coup.

      Dialogue only way forward in resolving Myanmar crisis, says UN envoy
      UN News Service: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      The United Nations Special Envoy to Myanmar today urged the South-East Asian nation to immediately begin talks between the Government and the opposition, stressing that dialogue was the only way forward to address the country’s ongoing crisis.

      “In today’s world, no country can afford to stay outside the irreversible trends towards stability, prosperity and democracy, and it is the responsibility of every government to listen to its people, respond to legitimate popular demands and respect in full the human rights of its citizens,” Ibrahim Gambari told the Security Council today.

      Briefing the 15-member body on his latest mission to the country, he said that “in the case of Myanmar, this implies starting a dialogue without delay between the Government and the opposition as a necessary part of any reconciliation process, and addressing the humanitarian and socio-economic factors underlying popular grievances.”

      He stated that a process is now in motion that will hopefully lead to a substantive dialogue with concrete outcomes within an agreed time frame between the leadership of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. “In order to succeed, dialogue will require flexibility on all sides, but I am convinced that it is the only way forward for Myanmar.”

      Mr. Gambari, who visited Myanmar from 3 to 8 November, told the Council it is important to note the initial positive steps taken by the Government since his last visit, including the lifting of curfews put in place during the demonstrations, the withdrawal of a visible military presence from the streets and the release of over 2,700 people detained during the course of the protests.

      In addition, the Government has appointed a liaison officer to pursue dialogue with Ms. Suu Kyi, set up a constitutional drafting committee and agreed to receive the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro.

      At the same time, he reported that the Government has yet to provide any assurance that it will lift restrictions on Ms. Suu Kyi. “I have stressed to the Government that the best way to make real their commitment to dialogue with Daw Aung Suu Kyi is to release her without delay so that she can become a full partner in dialogue.”

      Mr. Gambari said that although his mission did not produce all the results he had hoped for, there were a number of positive outcomes.

      Among them was the fact that, for the first time since she was last put under house arrest in May 2003, Ms. Suu Kyi was allowed to pronounce herself publicly through a statement read by the Special Adviser on 8 November. Following that statement, she was also allowed for the first time in four years to meet with members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

      In addition, the Government assured the Special Adviser that it would release more detainees and that no more arrests would be carried out, and it agreed in principle to consider establishing a broad-based poverty alleviation commission.

      With regard to the UN Country Team in Myanmar, Mr. Gambari reported that an agreement was reached with the authorities, whereby an acting Resident Coordinator would take over until a new Resident Coordinator was appointed. The government had informed the UN that it did not want the current Resident Coordinator Charles Petrie to continue working in the country.

      “The positive outcomes of this latest mission show that the Government of Myanmar, while stressing its sovereignty and independence, can be responsive to the concerns of the international community,” Mr. Gambari stated.

      He added that “although high expectations continue to be borne out of the recent crisis, the situation today is qualitatively different from what it was a few weeks ago.”

      Mr. Gambari, who has been invited to return to Myanmar by the Government, also informed the Council about the consultations he carried out in key regional capitals prior to visiting Myanmar.

      Meanwhile, Mr. Pinheiro continued his mission to Myanmar today with a visit to the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, where he met the Home Minister Maj.-Gen. Maung Oo, who assured him that he will be able to interview detainees before the end of his mission, as requested.

      The Special Rapporteur also met with 20 members of the newly-established human rights body within the government, and engaged in a dialogue on issues of mutual concern.

      Later in the afternoon, he held a meeting with representatives of international non-governmental organizations, as well as with government officials dealing with religion and economic development.

      Mr. Pinheiro has said he intends to use the 11 to 15 November visit to verify allegations of abuses during the Government’s crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, determine the numbers and whereabouts of those detained or killed, and collect testimony about what happened.

      Military presence swept under carpet before UN rights probe - Mungpi
      Mizzima News: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      Troops of the Burma Army were conspicuous by their absence in Rangoon on the eve of the arrival of the UN rights expert, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. The Burmese military junta took pains to see that there is no military presence in the former capital, a source close to the military establishment said.

      Pinheiro, expected to travel to Burma’s new jungle capital of Naypyitaw on Sunday arrived in the country and kick-started his investigations into the crackdown on protesters by visiting the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, two Buddhist monasteries and met several officials at a government ministry office on Monday.

      The Burmese authorities had swept under the carpet its military presence in Rangoon prior to the arrival of the UN rights expert so as to show case the situation in Rangoon as normal, said the source, who wished to remain unidentified.

      About 20 truck loads of soldiers were seen leaving Rangoon on Sunday morning before the UN envoy’s arrival in the former capital, the source said.

      “They [the trucks] headed to undisclosed locations, passed Pegu and was expected to head to Naypyidaw or their bases,” the source added.

      Pinheiro, who arrived in Burma on Sunday to probe the government’s use of violence on protesters in September, is accompanied by Major Hla Soe (retired), secretary of Rangoon division Peace and Development Council, the source said.

      The regime has adopted a new policy of letting civilian officials receive state guests and many military officials including the Rangoon division commander are maintaining a low profile during Pinheiro’s visit, the source added.

      “All military [officials] are to be out of sight during the UN [envoy’s] visit. They [are] worried [that there might be] demonstrations during his [Pinheiro’s] visit,” added the source.

      However, the UN envoy is being closely watched by plainclothes police, junta-backed civilian organization Swan Are Shin and USDA, and Township chairmen, added the source.

      Meanwhile, the UN Chief in New York on Monday expressed hope that the process initiated by his special envoy to Burma , Ibrahim Gambari, will lead to a meaningful dialogue within an agreed time-frame.

      Mr. Ban Ki-moon issued a press statement on Monday, after he was briefed by his envoy on telephone.

      Mr. Gambari, who visited Burma twice following the September crackdown on protesters in Rangoon, is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council on his latest trip to the Southeast Asian country on Tuesday, according to the Security Council report.

      “The meeting will be a public debate that will include participation of selected parties such as Myanmar and Singapore, as ASEAN chair, and will be followed by closed consultations,” the Council report said.

      “A presidential statement to be adopted within next week is a probable outcome,” added the report.

      Following Gambari’s latest visit to Burma, from November 3 to 8, detained Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to meet her party – National League for Democracy – leaders for the first time in more than three years.

      The Noble Peace Laureate, who after meeting her party leaders and meeting the government’s Liaison Minister Aung Kyi twice, said she has decided to cooperate with the ruling junta for a process of dialogue.

      Thai energy giant to invest billion dollars in Myanmar gas project
      Agence France Presse: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      Thailand’s largest oil exploration firm, PTT Exploration and Production, said Tuesday it would invest at least one billion dollars over the next five years to develop its offshore gas project in Myanmar.

      PTTEP this year began exploration of the M-9 block in the southwestern Gulf of Martaban by working with Myanmar’s top state-run oil enterprise, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

      The company plans to drill a more exploration wells this year and start installing production equipment in 2008, said PTTEP spokesman Sitthichai Jayant.

      “Our activities in the M-9 project so far have confirmed that the gas reserve of this block is promising,” Sitthichai told AFP.

      “PTTEP has already laid down a development plan for M-9 which calls for an investment of at least one billion dollars starting next year onward. It usually takes five years for developing a gas project until it starts production.”

      The M-9 project is not included in PTTEP’s five-year investment plans for 2007-2011, which require 281 billion baht (8.3 billion dollars), Sitthichai said.

      The block has been the focus of PTTEP’s ongoing offshore gas projects in Myanmar’s Martaban Gulf.

      Hungry for energy, Thailand imports about 20 percent of its gas from military-ruled Myanmar, which is under US and European sanctions, and is vying for a bigger share of its impoverished neighbour’s vast natural resources.

      State media in Myanmar previously estimated the M-9 block contained 8.0 trillion cubic feet of gas.

      Sitthichai said the company aimed to start initial production by 2011 for both local use and export.

      PTTEP wholly owns the M-9 block but Sitthichai said it was looking for potential investment partners.

      “We have been in talks with a state-owned oil company from Oman which are interested to co-invest in the project. We are likely to give them a minority stake of less than 10 percent,” Sitthichai said.

      Myanmar, one of the world’s poorest nations, is under a series of US and European economic sanctions imposed over the junta’s human rights abuses and its recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

      But the impact of the sanctions has been weakened as energy-hungry neighbours such as China, India and Thailand spend billions of dollars for a share of Myanmar’s vast energy resources to solve power problems at home.

      According to 2006 official figures, 13 foreign oil companies are working on 33 projects in Myanmar.

      Foreigners flock to Myanmar gems auction despite calls for a boycott
      Associated Press: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      More than 1,500 people from over 20 countries have registered for a major gems auction in Myanmar opening Wednesday, despite calls from human rights groups to block the purchase of precious stones from the military ruled country.

      Myanmar is one of the biggest jade and gem-producing countries in the world, and international auctions are a major revenue earner for the regime.

      Myanmar has held gem emporiums since 1964. The sale that runs from Wednesday through Nov. 26 is the first since the junta’s bloody September crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that sparked international outcry.

      “The trade in these stones supports human rights abuses,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “The sale of these gems gives Burma’s military rulers quick cash to stay in power.” Myanmar is also called Burma.

      The state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise said it generated sales of nearly US$300 million (euro206 million) in fiscal year 2006-2007, Human Rights Watch said.

      Merchants from China and Hong Kong usually constitute the largest contingent of buyers at the auctions.

      This auction includes 5,140 lots of jade, 274 lots of gems and 259 lots of pearls that will be sold both by the government and private dealers, said the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which has organized the event.

      So far, 1,500 merchants from more than 20 countries have registered for the sale, but more than 3,000 people were expected to attend overall, the state-run body said.

      Due to U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar in July 2003, which froze all U.S. dollar remittances into the country, international business transactions are done in euros.

      FM George Yeo in India to discuss situation in Myanmar
      Channel NewsAsia: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo has met the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Pranab Mukherjee, in New Delhi.
      The ministers reaffirmed the strong and growing relations between Singapore and India, and discussed ways to forge closer cooperation between the two countries.

      During the meeting, they also reviewed the situation in Myanmar, including UN envoy Dr Ibrahim Gambari’s recent visit there.

      They noted the progress made so far and affirmed the need for a genuine dialogue between Myanmar’s military government, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), as well as other groups in the country.

      Mr Yeo said: “I think all of us in the region share a common interest in there being a peaceful transition to democracy in Myanmar one which involves genuine national reconciliation, which means the involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and the various ethnic groups in the country, and the recognition that the military must be a part of the solution.”

      The Singapore foreign minister also emphasised the important role of ASEAN, together with China, Japan and India, in helping the people of Myanmar achieve national reconciliation.

      Mr Yeo said: “If we, within the family, can arrive at a common position supporting Myanmar in this process of national reconciliation, working with Gambari, and involving all parties in the country, then when the leaders meet with the leaders of China, Japan and India at the East Asia Summit on 21 November, there will be an important alignment. This will be very helpful to Myanmar and to the stability of the region.”

      Myanmar should agree on timetable for political change, UN Says - Michael Heath
      Bloomberg: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      Myanmar’s military rulers should agree on a timetable for political change, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, after his envoy returned from meetings with government and opposition leaders in the Southeast Asian nation.

      “A process has been launched that will hopefully lead to a meaningful and substantive dialogue with concrete outcomes within an agreed timeframe,'’ Ban said yesterday, according to the UN Web site. Ibrahim Gambari arrived in New York after a week in Myanmar, his second visit to the country in two months.

      Ban spoke as UN human rights envoy Sergio Pinheiro was in Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon, to investigate the junta’s suppression in September of the biggest anti-government demonstrations in almost 20 years.

      The crackdown, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 110 people, prompted global condemnation of the military that has ruled the country formerly known as Burma for the past 45 years.

      Pinheiro yesterday visited Insein prison, where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was held after being detained in 2003. Journalist Win Tin, an adviser to Suu Kyi, and Min Ko Naing, who led pro-democracy protests in 1988 and was arrested in August, are held there, Agence France-Presse reported.

      Pinheiro “is expecting to interview detainees before the end of his mission,'’ the UN said in a statement.

      The envoy also traveled to monasteries yesterday to talk with Buddhist monks who led the anti-government demonstrations. The protests were sparked in mid-August by the doubling of some fuel prices in the country.

      Electronic Device

      Pinheiro, who was barred from Myanmar in 2003 after he accused the regime of eavesdropping on an interview with a detainee, visits the capital, Naypyidaw, today.

      The military has been under international sanctions since it rejected the results of elections in 1990 won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. Suu Kyi, 62, has spent 12 years detention since then.

      International demands for the junta to start talks with the opposition after September’s crackdown resulted in Labor Minister U Aung Kyi being put in charge of discussions. He met with Suu Kyi last month.

      Gambari, who had talks with Suu Kyi last week, said after leaving Myanmar that the opposition leader will work with the junta to seek a path toward political reconciliation. She remains under house arrest at her home in Yangon.

      “In the interest of the nation, I stand ready to cooperate with the government in order to make this process of dialogue a success,'’ Suu Kyi said in a statement read by Gambari in Singapore on Nov. 9.

      In the message read by Gambari, Suu Kyi said the Oct. 25 meeting with the labor minister was “constructive.'’

      Gem Trade

      China, Thailand, the U.S. and other countries should block the purchase of gems from Myanmar because their sale helps finance abuses in the country, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

      The New York-based group called for sanctions on Myanmar’s gem trade before an auction in Yangon this week. More than 90 percent of the world’s rubies originate in Myanmar, it said.

      “Burma’s rubies and jade are prized for their beauty but the ugly truth is that the trade in these stones supports human rights abuses,'’ said Arvind Ganesan, director of the group’s Business and Human Rights Program. “The sale of these gems gives Burma’s military rulers quick cash to stay in power.'’

      The junta controls most mining activity in the country, according to the group. The gem auction is the first since the junta crushed the protests.

      “It was twice postponed, purportedly due to weather conditions,'’ Human Rights Watch said in the statement. “Ongoing unrest and strong international condemnation of the regime may have raised fears that few traders would attend.'’

      To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Heath in Sydney at mheath1@...

      India stands by Myanmar status quo - Bertil Lintner
      Asian Times: Tue 13 Nov 2007 

      Myanmar’s principal foreign ally China has shown in the wake of the military junta’s recent armed crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that Beijing is more interested in maintaining stability than pushing for democratic regime change. So then could India, Myanmar’s other key regional ally, be persuaded to use its influence to facilitate political change?

      The United States, the European Union and even Myanmar exiles in New Delhi, who have recently demonstrated outside the Indian Parliament, have all appealed to what Indian politicians proudly proclaim is the world’s largest democracy to live up to those ideals and push for change in Myanmar.

      India and Myanmar share a complicated and delicate history, one marked as much by mistrust as amity. In recent years India has shifted its diplomatic support from Myanmar’s hamstrung pro-democracy movement towards the ruling military junta, driven by realpolitik imperatives including greater access to Myanmar’s untapped energy resources and its support in putting down ethnic insurgent groups active in remote border territories.

      India’s still delicate rapprochement with Myanmar means that New Delhi will no time soon answer the West’s call to take a more assertive policy position with regard to the military junta. Indeed, India’s foreign policy has never been guided by promoting democracy in other countries.

      On the contrary, “democratic” India was the Soviet Union’s main ally in Asia during the Cold War, because it suited the regional security interests of both countries. India has not even pushed for democracy in one of its closest neighbors and allies, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.

      India’s relations with Myanmar are even more troubled and delicate than China’s. During the British colonial era, Myanmar, then known as Burma, was made into a province of British India, which it remained until 1937 when it became a separate colony. During that time, large numbers of Indians migrated or were brought in by the British as laborers. The railways, post and telegraph, the police and the civil service were also staffed with people of Indian origin.

      Just before World War II, the Indians numbered over 1 million of a total population of about 16 million at the time and 45% of the former capital Yangon’s population was of South Asian origin - Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. Their numbers were reduced when the Japanese invaded in 1941 and many of them fled to India. But many also remained until the war was over, and even after independence in 1948.

      The role Indians played as intermediaries between the colonial British and the native population gave rise to sometimes fierce anti-Indian sentiments. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Myanmar nationalist movement had strong undertones of communal tension. Even today, people of South Asian origin are often looked down on in Myanmar, popularly referred to as kala a Burmese language pejorative meaning “foreigner” or “Indian”. Curiously, Caucasians are still called kala pyu, which translates from the Burmese to “white Indians”.

      Still, Myanmar’s relations with India were in the main cordial after independence. Myanmar’s first prime minister, U Nu, was known to be a close friend to his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru and both leaders were prominent figures in the Cold War-inspired Non-Aligned Movement. Indeed, India helped Myanmar survive its first difficult years as an independent state, including crucially when various political and ethnic insurgent groups threatened to break the new country apart. Without India’s massive military and economic aid, U Nu’s government would most probably have collapsed.

      Xenophobic backlash
      However, Indo-Myanmar relations chilled after General Ne Win’s military coup and seizure of power in March 1962. After a few years in power, his revolutionary council moved to nationalize privately owned businesses and factories, of which an estimated 60% were owned by people of Indian origin. Thousands lost their property and livelihood and during the four-year period spanning 1964-68 some 150,000 Indo-Burmese left the country.

      Many leaders of the formerly democratic Myanmar also fled, among them U Nu, who went into exile in India. The Indian government put him up in a stately residence in Bhopal, where he remained for well over a decade before returning to Myanmar under a general amnesty in 1980. Bilateral relations between India and Myanmar remained more or less stagnant until Myanmar’s 1988 uprising for democracy, which was brutally crushed by the military.

      In an official statement issued in the wake of the violence, India expressed its support for the “undaunted resolve of the Burmese [Myanmar] people to achieve their democracy”. The Burmese language service of the state-sponsored radio station All-India Radio (AIR) became even more outspoken in its criticism of Myanmar’s military government, which made it immensely popular with the population at large.

      In response, Myanmar’s state-run Working People’s Daily newspaper began publishing outright racist articles and cartoons against AIR and ethnic Indians in general, attempting to revive the anti-kala xenophobia of the 1930s. But even then it was clear that India’s hard diplomatic stand was not driven by illusions of serving as a regional guardian or promoter of democracy.

      India shares a 1,371-kilometer frontier with Myanmar and ethnic insurgents fighting against New Delhi have long used under-administered territories in Myanmar as sanctuaries to conduct cross-border raids into India’s sensitive northeastern areas. Myanmar’s only reaction to this situation had been to mount half-hearted and essentially futile military operations against the insurgents, mainly ethnic Nagas.

      It was widely believed in New Delhi in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a new democratic government in Myanmar would likely take a more tactful approach. India’s sympathy for Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement was further strengthened by the fact that until December 1989 its prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was a personal friend of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

      Their acquaintance dated to the early 1960s, when her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, served as Myanmar’s ambassador to India. Suu Kyi’s father, national independence hero Aung San, had also known Rajiv’s grandfather, Nehru personally. But at the time it was also clear that India’s support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces was also guided by an Indian desire to counter its main regional rival China’s growing influence with Myanmar’s internationally isolated generals.

      About 1993 India began to re-evaluate its strategy due to concerns that its policies had achieved little except to push Myanmar closer to Beijing. The result was a dramatic policy shift aimed at improving relations with Myanmar’s generals, as it was also becoming clear that the pro-democracy movement would not achieve power within the foreseeable future.

      At that time, Myanmar’s military government had effectively cowed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party into submission and the exile community seemed to have little to no impact on political developments inside the country - even as some of them actually stayed in the personal residence in New Delhi of senior Indian politician George Fernandes, who served as defense minister from 1988 through 2004.

      By January 2000, Indian army chief General Ved Prakash Malik paid a two-day visit to Myanmar, which was followed with a reciprocal visit by his Myanmar counterpart, General Maung Aye, to the northeast Indian city of Shillong. The unusual nature of this visit, by a foreign leader to a provincial capital, was accentuated by the arrival of a group of senior Indian officials from the Trade, Energy, Defense, Home and Foreign Affairs ministries to hold talks with the Myanmar general.

      In the aftermath of those meetings, India began to provide non-lethal military support to Myanmar troops along their common border. Most of the Myanmar troops’ uniforms and some other combat gear now originate from India, as do the leased helicopters Myanmar uses to combat the ethnic insurgents who operate from sanctuaries along the two sides’ common border. In November 2000, the Indian government felt confident enough about the improvement in bilateral relations to invite Maung Aye to New Delhi, where he headed a delegation that included several other high-ranking junta members and cabinet ministers.

      In 2004, junta chief General Than Shwe also visited India, followed in December 2006 by the third-highest ranking officer in Myanmar’s military hierarchy, General Thura Shwe Mann, who toured the National Defense Academy in Khadakvasla, India’s premier officer-training school, as well as the Tata Motors plant in Pune, which manufactures vehicles for the Indian military.

      Leveraged cultural heritage
      About the mid-1990s, AIR’s Burmese language service conspicuously ceased broadcasting its anti-junta rhetoric; it is still on air today, but programming consists almost exclusively of Myanmar pop music. A strange kind of “cultural diplomacy” followed.

      In the early 2000s, the Indian right-wing Hindu organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) , renewed its presence in Myanmar. The RSS first came to Myanmar in the 1940s to provide social and religious services to the country’s ethnic Indian minority, but it lay dormant after the military took over in 1962 and commenced nationalizing Indian private companies.

      The renewed effort to build up the RSS’s Yangon branch was made apparently with the blessings of Maung Aye, a staunch Myanmar nationalist who has been reported to frown on the country’s recent economic and military reliance on China. The RSS, which in Myanmar is referred to as the Sanatan Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh, appears to have convinced some of the Myanmar generals that Hinduism and Buddhism are “branches of the same tree” - and that “the best guard against China is culture”, to quote a Kolkata-based RSS official.

      Although the RSS is the parent organization of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which in alliance with several other parties led the Indian coalition government from between 1998 and 2004. It is not certain that the Hindu fundamentalists’ new mission in Myanmar had the blessings of the Indian government, but cultural ties between the two countries have definitely strengthened in recent years.

      So, too, has cross-border trade. Before 1988 there was scant commercial activity along the two countries’ shared border, apart from smuggling activities. In February, Sanjay Budhia, vice president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industries, said in a speech in Kolkata that India and Myanmar “have set a US$1 billion trade target in 2006-07, up from $557 million in 2004-05″.

      He noted that principal exports from Myanmar to India include “rice, maize, pulses, beans, sesame seeds, fish and prawns, timber, plywood and raw rubber, base metals and castor seeds”. In return, India exports machinery and industrial equipment, dairy products, textiles, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods. India-Myanmar trade now rivals that of the booming cross-border trade with China, which has been brisk for almost two decades.

      India has also shown a competitive interest in purchasing natural gas from Myanmar and to build a 1,200 megawatt hydroelectric power station on the Chindwin River across from India’s underdeveloped northeastern region. New Delhi is also actively involved in several infrastructure projects inside Myanmar, including major road construction projects. Myanmar is viewed from India’s perspective as a “land bridge” to Southeast Asia and as such a vital link in its new business-driven “Look East” policy.

      In January, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee became the first senior leader from a major democracy to visit Myanmar’s new capital Naypyitaw, where the junta moved its administrative offices in November 2005. Even in the midst of the recent tumultuous anti-government demonstrations in Myanmar, where soldiers fired on protesters, senior officials from the Indian state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, led by Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora, flew to Naypyitaw to sign an agreement to explore for gas in three new blocks in the Bay of Bengal off Myanmar’s southwestern Arakan coast.

      To be sure, India has successfully weaned Myanmar away from its near-total dependence on China for economic and military support. And the strong position the US, the European Union and Myanmar dissidents are now calling on New Delhi to take would risk - to China’s benefit - the precious foothold it has achieved in Myanmar over the past decade.

      Like China, India is unlikely to go beyond statements of tacit support for the United Nations’ latest - and likely futile - mission to push the military junta towards national reconciliation with the pro-democracy opposition. In essence, New Delhi’s interests are also in the preservation of Myanmar’s political status quo.

      * Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

      The role of Muslims in Burma’s democracy movement - Shah Paung
      Irrawaddy: Mon 12 Nov 2007 

      Although the September protests in Rangoon were led by Buddhist monks, Burmese Muslims were among the first to offer water to the monks as a means of showing support for the peaceful demonstrations.

      “I saw some Muslims kneel down and pay respect to the Buddhist monks,” said Pan Cha, a Burmese Sikh businessman who arrived at the Thai-Burmese border in early October after being involved in the September demonstrations.

      Over a month since the junta cracked down violently on the monks and their supporters in the streets of Burma, Pan Cha forcefully said in an interview with The Irrawaddy that “The Burmese people are not afraid—nationwide demonstrations are coming back again soon!”

      “I came here [to the border] just to escape for a while and tell the truth about what happened in Burma to the international media,” he said. “After, I will go back to Burma.”

      In the context of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, it is important to remember the role of Burmese Muslims.

      According to residents and journalists who were at the demonstrations, many Muslims supported and participated in the protests and were badly beaten by Burmese security forces.

      In a video clip seen around the world, soldiers beat and kick a young Muslim man who is huddled on the ground. They club him with batons and kick him brutally.

      Pan Cha, who helped organize security for the demonstrations, said that a top Burmese minister ordered pro-junta group, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, to beat any Muslim in sight at the demonstrations, because Muslims were never USDA members.

      He went on to say that when they first saw Buddhist monks demonstrating on September 18, many Muslims wanted to support the monks, but were worried about repercussions against the Muslim community as a whole. They feared it would cause more Kala Burma Adigayone (Muslim - Buddhist riots) and create problems for all Muslims in Burma (Kala is a derogatory name for Muslims and Indians in Burmese).

      Inspired by the resilience of many Muslims in Rangoon, Pan Cha began encouraging them not to fear the government, telling them that they were standing up for the rights of all the people of Burma. On September 19, many Muslims joined in the demonstrations after their prayers and supported the monks by offering water, betel nut and fresh towels.

      Some wealthy Muslims supported demonstrators by providing mobile phones to make communications between the protesters easier. Some who were car owners blocked the military trucks that were carrying arrested demonstrators and tried to help them escape when the army convoys stopped. They risked their own lives on behalf of others.

      According to the 88 Generation Students group, at least seven Muslims in Rangoon were charged with inciting state unrest by supporting the monk-led demonstrations. They are currently being detained in Pabedan Township in Rangoon.

      Pan Cha also confirmed that before he left Burma on October 4, he knew of about 30 Muslims who had been hospitalized from being beaten during the street protests. More than 100 Muslims were still being detained, he said.

      Muslims have long played a leading role in Burma’s democracy movement, even dating back to before Burmese independence.

      All scholars of Burmese history know the story of Abdul Razak. Better known as U Razak, he was the Muslim headmaster of Mandalay Central National High School and became Minister of Education and National Planning in Burma’s pre-independence government. He was also a leader of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League in Mandalay.

      He lost his life at aged 49, when he was gunned down by assassins on July 19, 1947, together with Burmese independence leader Gen Aung San and seven other cabinet members and colleagues. The day is now commemorated annually in the country as “Martyrs’ Day.”

      As a minority group, Muslims in Burma regularly suffer from social and religion discrimination. The Burmese government regularly encourages ultra-nationalism and uses religion as a political tool. The Burmese government will not grant citizenship to Muslims and, to all intensive purposes, do not recognize Muslims as being Burmese.

      The junta’s top leader, Snr Gen Than Shwe, is known to despise Muslims and Chinese people who live in Burma. However, most Chinese in Burma are business people and were not directly involved in the September uprising. In Mandalay, home to thousands of Chinese immigrants, most doors remained closed during the protests, a sign that the ethnic Chinese were not in support of the demonstrators. The Muslim minority, on the other hand, played an active part in the pro-democracy demonstrations, just as they have throughout the country’s troubled recent history.

      “We cannot say that the demonstrations were not related to Muslims just because they were led by Buddhist monks,” Pan Cha concludes. “We were all born and live in Burma and should not discriminate among each other. We must work together toward democracy.”