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850[Readingroom] News on Burma - 18/4/11

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Apr 18, 2011
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      1. China’s mining project put into operation in Myanmar
      2. Obama nominates special representative on Myanmar
      3. Ban Ki-moon learns to love regime change
      4. Lifting the veil on Burma’s military
      5. Govt outlines reform agenda
      6. EU lifts some travel sanctions on Burma
      7. Face facts
      8. ICG’s latest report is ill-informed, unsubstantiated and wrong-headed
      9. Rights groups caution about repatriation of Burmese refugees
      10. Is Burma’s strongman really retiring?
      11. Military plays a civilian-looking game
      12. EU maintains Burma sanctions
      13. Thein Sein urges ‘decentralization’
      14. Don’t buy into Burma’s cosmetic reforms
      15. Military junta still controls Burma
      16. President’s 30 unilateral powers revealed
      17. Than Shwe continues to control Burma’s military
      18. China’s sweetener to speed up pipeline through Myanmar
      19. Burma needs to erase the dictatorial traditions
      20. Still a pariah despite dogged declarations of change
      21. KNU calls on new government to negotiate cease-fire
      22. China promises assistance for Myanmar
      23. The role of the Third Force in the Junta’s diplomatic offensive
      24. On Aung San Suu Kyi and the Future of Democracy in Burma
      25. Departing strongman of Burma Than Shwe unlikely to fully relinquish power


      China’s mining project put into operation in Myanmar
      Xinhua: Fri 15 Apr 2011

      The Myanmar Taguang Taung Nickel Ore Project Mining System, with joint investment from China Nonferrous Group and Taiyuan Iron and Steel (Group) Co. Ltd. (TISCO), has been put into operation, authorities said Friday.

      The project’s smelting system will be put into operation within the year, said Yang Haigui, secretary of the Communist Party Committee of TISCO.

      The project is the biggest cooperative mining project between China and Myanmar and is expected to provide 85,000 tonnes of high grade ferro-nickel annually upon completion.

      “The construction of the project can help alleviate the shortage of nickel resources in China,” Yang said.

      Located on the bank of the Fenhe River in Taiyuan, a city in north China’s Shanxi Province, TISCO is the world’s largest stainless steel enterprise with an annual output of 10 million tonnes of steel. The company’s products include stainless steel, cold rolled silicon steel and high strength and toughness steel.



      Obama nominates special representative on Myanmar
      Agence France Presse: Fri 15 Apr 2011

      Washington — President Barack Obama Thursday nominated defense official Derek Mitchell as his special representative on Myanmar to shape US policy towards the country after its criticized political transition.Mitchell, a veteran Asia hand, will assume responsibility for the US approach to a nation with which Washington has a tense relationship due to the government’s suppression of Aung San Sui Kyi’s democracy movement.

      Obama officially announced the move in a White House statement. Mitchell’s appointment will need to be confirmed by the Senate, in a hearing likely to give voice to Myanmar’s fierce opponents on Capitol Hill.

      After Obama took office in January 2009, his administration concluded that Western efforts to isolate the military-led nation had been ineffective and initiated a dialogue with the junta.

      But the United States has since voiced disappointment over developments in Myanmar, including an election in November widely denounced as a sham, but has said that it sees no alternative to engagement at such a fluid time.

      Congress approved a wide-ranging law on Myanmar in 2008 that tightened sanctions and created the special envoy position. Then-president George W. Bush named Michael Green, formerly one of his top aides, but the nomination died in the Senate due to an unrelated political dispute.

      Myanmar’s ruling junta officially disbanded this month, giving the country a nominally civilian government for the first time in nearly a century.

      But many analysts dismissed the move as top junta figures remain firmly in leadership positions, albeit without their uniforms.

      Aung San Suu Kyi has no voice in Myanmar’s new parliament. Her National League for Democracy was disbanded after it chose to boycott the elections, which it suspected were designed to marginalize the opposition and ethnic minorities.



      Ban Ki-moon learns to love regime change – Colum Lynch
      Foreign Policy: Fri 15 Apr 2011

      At U.N. headquarters, regime change has long been viewed as a toxic phrase.

      Under former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the U.N. brass cringed when American politicians and diplomats, both Republican and Democratic, revealed that their true aim in pursuing U.N. arms inspections and sanctions in Iraq was the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

      But in the past two months, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon has reversed course, fully embracing the toppling of governments in Ivory Coast and Libya. On Monday, Ban authorized a U.N. military operation, backed by French military power, to strike at key military bases, and installations under the control of Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbabgo.

      The operation — which included helicopter gunship attacks against army camps by blue-helmeted Ukrainian pilots — was ostensibly aimed at preventing Gbagbo’s forces from using their heavy weapons against civilians and U.N. personnel. But its impact on the conflict was decisive: The U.N. and French attacks had degraded Gbagbo’s last line of defense, clearing the way for a final offensive by followers of Ivory Coast’s president-elect Alassane Ouattara.

      Within 24 hours, Gbagbo’s top generals had written to the United Nations with an offer to halt the fighting and surrender their weapons, together with a request that their fighters be protected. Gbagbo remained holed up in a bunker underneath the presidential residence, under attack by Ouattara’s forces.

      The U.N. chief’s action in Ivory Coast is all the more surprising given his readiness throughout most of his term to accommodate some of the world’s most noxious governments, notably Burma, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Ban had bet much of his political capital upon his capacity to use personal, quiet diplomacy, to nudge the likes of Burmese junta leader Than Shwe, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to moderate their mistreatment of their own people.

      Ban was lambasted by human rights advocates for providing political cover for those governments by engaging in long drawn out personal discussions with those leaders without delivering sufficient political results. “He has placed undue faith in his professed ability to convince by private persuasion,” Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch wrote in the introduction to his organization’s annual report in January. “Worse, far from condemning repression, Ban sometimes went out of his way to portray oppressive governments in a positive light.”

      Roth cited Ban’s handling of Burma during the run-up to elections last year. “In the days before Burma’s sham elections in November, Ban contended that it was ‘not too late’ to ‘make this election more inclusive and participatory’ by releasing political detainees — an unlikely eventuality that, even if realized, would not have leveled the severely uneven electoral playing field.”
      Critics say Ban has applied a double standard in applying the principle on human rights, reserving his toughest criticism for countries like Iran, while sparing his criticism of the permanent five members of the Security Council whose support he needs in his reelection campaign for secretary general. His first term expires at the end of 2011

      Ban failed to pres for the release of Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11- year sentence and his wife, who is under house arrest, during a meeting in Beijing with President Hu Jintao. In an official statement on the Nobel Award committee’s decision to honor Liu with its prestigious peace prize, Ban failed to congratulate Liu and praised China for improving its human rights record, a remark that seems increasingly discordant with the Chinese government currently intensifying crackdown on dissident writers, artists and human rights advocates in the wake of popular uprisings in the Arab world.

      A supporter of Gbagbo said it was clear that Ban was carrying out the wishes of France, Ivory Coast’s former colonial power, in deciding to escalate operations there. Zakaria Fellah, a special advisor to Gbagbo who was once accredited to the Ivory Coast mission to the United Nations, said Ban’s ultimate goal was to procure France’s vote for his re-election bid.

      “I have never seen the U.N. playing a role so far beyond the principles of neutrality and impartiality enshrined in the U.N. charter,” Fella told Turtle Bay. “I would say part of it is explained by the fact that Ban Ki-moon is in the midst of an election campaign. He would do anything to please the French.”

      But Ban’s outspoken advocacy of regime change carries risks. While most U.N. diplomats believe Ban has secured support for a second term, China, Russia and other influential council members have been unsettled by his promotion of democratic change in North Africa and the Middle East, where he has spoken out forcefully against some autocratic governments, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Bashar al-Asad’s Syria and Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya, for repressing civilian protesters.

      In Libya, Ban has echoed U.S. and European statements indicating that Qaddafi lost the legitimacy to rule when he launched a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. He has appointed a former Jordanian Foreign Minister to oversee the U.N. humanitarian response to the crisis, and, more significantly, to help lay the ground work for a political transition. Ban has also been a cheerleader for U.N. backed airstrikes. “Qaddafi has lost all legitimacy,” Ban told the Spanish daily El Mundo last month. “He cannot stay in power in Libya. Whatever happens, he has to go.”

      In an interview with journalist Raghida Dergham, Ban gave a biographical rationale for his tougher line on the Arab popular uprisings. “I believe this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he told her in an interview that ran in Huffington Post. “I was one of the students who went out to the streets in Korea when I was young, asking for more freedom and bold reforms and changes. Then Korea achieved democratic development as well economic prosperity.”



      Lifting the veil on Burma’s military – Nic Dunlop
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Fri 15 Apr 2011

      My first introduction to Burma’s crisis came when I sought refuge at the Jesuits in Bangkok. I was just starting out as a young photographer and had little money. The Jesuits kindly offered me a place to stay and it was there that I befriended Burmese students who had fled the Burma army crackdown of 1988. I remember thinking that, had I been born in Burma, I may well have been among them because we were the same generation. But the reasons for our respective exiles couldn’t have been more different; mine was voluntary – theirs was forced.

      All I knew about Burma was that it was ruled by a military dictatorship that crushed all dissent and waged a war against ethnic minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under her first term of house arrest, had just been awarded the Nobel peace prize for her principled stand against the military regime. When I visited the Thai-Burmese border I listened to the impassioned arguments of Western activists. Many believed that, with the right pressure, the regime would collapse and Aung San Suu Kyi would take her rightful position as leader.

      For the next 16 years I worked on my own photographic book about Burma’s dictatorship. I spent much time with the victims of the regime but, I wondered, how was it possible that such a reviled regime could hold onto power for so long? The regime had been vilified to such an extent that there was little room for understanding. It was as though they had descended from another planet. But what did we know of the military? The men that made up this monolithic army became the object of my interest.

      The Amish writer Gene Knudsen Hoffman once wrote that, “an enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” Six years ago, I was introduced to Myo Myint on the Thai-Burma border. Myo Myint had grown up in a military family in Rangoon, joined the Tatmadaw (Burma armed forces) at the age of 17 and served as a soldier on the frontline of the civil war. He had been terribly injured in battle and, after his discharge, took it upon himself to challenge received truths of the military. He educated himself about Burma’s history and became politically engaged, paying a heavy price for his activism.

      The oppression in central Burma and the civil war were usually reported as separate and unconnected issues. The truth is that the civil war runs central to Burma’s problems. As a former soldier and activist, I realised Myo Myint’s story had the potential to address both the civil war and the quest for democratic and human rights within a single narrative, and from someone who had experienced it first hand. And it was from that meeting that the idea for the film Burma Soldier was born.

      There has never been a film that looks at the Burmese army. What makes Burma Soldier unique is that it looks at the crisis from a totally new perspective. With directors Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern and producer Julie LeBrocquy we wanted to make a film that would take the audience on a journey where we actually learn something new, not just about Burma, but about ourselves.

      Perpetrators are always them and never us. We wanted to transcend that idea and enable people to reflect on what we might do were we to find ourselves in the place of a Burmese soldier. Can we say, with any certainty, how we would act if we were faced with atrocities committed by our comrades? By encouraging audiences to consider this, we hope that the film will stimulate debate and open new avenues for change both inside and outside the country.

      So few people in places like Burma have access to their own histories. This is why a Burmese version was made and why we are encouraging people to copy it and pass it along; what Julie LeBrocquy calls “reverse pirating”. The response has been extraordinary. Since it was posted on 24 March, there have been more than 27,700 plays on the internet. Activists in Rangoon have downloaded the film, burnt DVDs and left them on tables in internet cafés in Rangoon for people to take.

      If, as historian Thant Myint U wrote, “the answer [to Burma’s crisis] lies in part in seeing Burma differently”, it is our hope that Burma Soldier is seen as a constructive addition to the debate.



      Govt outlines reform agenda
      Myanmar Times: Thu 14 Apr 2011

      PRESIDENT U Thein Sein used his inaugural address last week to outline his government’s reform agenda, promising “to open doors” and “catch up” to the outside world.

      Outlining a 10-point “internal affairs” policy program, he vowed to improve the “socio-economic status of the people”, industrialise the economy, fight corruption, strengthen the judiciary and enact new health, education and media laws.

      Other focuses of his government include amending existing laws that are contrary to the constitution, “occasionally” increasing salaries and pensions, reviewing existing agriculture and employment laws and promulgating and amending laws on environmental conservation.

      He said a major priority would be the implementation of a market economy, promising to keep government interference to a “minimum” and introduce policies that ensure “the fruits [of development] will go down to the grassroots level”.

      “We will open doors, make reforms and invite investments as necessary for development of the nation and the people,” he said.

      “We will exercise … control over the market to a certain degree [so] capitalists, traders and privileged persons cannot monopolise the market.

      “In the process, we have to ensure [there is a] proper market economy designed to reduce the economic gap between the rich and the poor, and development gap between urban and rural areas.”

      Reflecting his military roots, U Thein Sein said national development under his government would be based not only on politics and economics but also military strength, cautioning that unnamed “neo-colonialists” were “anxious to interfere” in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

      “If we do not take national defence seriously, we will fall under the rule of neo-colonialists again. I am sure you understand well that neo-colonialists are anxious to interfere in the internal affairs of our country because our country occupies [a] strategic position geographically and economically,” he said.

      U Thein Sein also extended an olive branch to opposition groups, saying the new government would “keep [the] peace door open” to those who are yet to accept the 2008 constitution.

      He urged those “who have not accepted the constitution because [they are] sceptical about the seven-step Road Map” to “discard their suspicious and play a part in the nation-building tasks”.

      “The union government welcomes all the efforts within the framework of the constitution and will prevent those outside the constitution,” he said.

      “I promise that our government will cooperate with the political parties in the hluttaws, good-hearted political forces outside the hluttaws and all social organisations,” he said. “I would like to advise the political parties to work together … although they may have different outlooks and views.

      “I urge the hluttaw representatives of various political parties to follow the wishes of the majority and respect the wishes of the minority in accordance with democratic practices.”

      Similarly, he called on foreign governments “wishing to see democracy flourish and the people’s socioeconomy grow” to cooperate with the new government.

      “I invite and urge some nations … [to end] their various forms of pressure, assistance and encouragement to the anti-government groups and economic manipulations.”

      He said the government would “work more closely with international organisations”, including UN agencies and NGOs, particularly on health and education projects.



      EU lifts some travel sanctions on Burma – Elizabeth Hughes
      The Australian: Thu 14 Apr 2011

      THE European Union’s decision to relax certain restrictions on non-military members of Burma’s new, nominally civilian government has prompted a flurry of rebuttals from Burma lobbyists.

      An EU Council meeting on Tuesday suspended travel and financial restrictions on four ministers for one year.

      Those affected included Wunna Maung Lwin, the Foreign Minister, and 18 vice-ministers in Burma’s new government. The EU Council also decided to lift a ban on high-level official visits to Burma.

      The decisions have been interpreted as significant and are seen as the first easing of EU measures against Burma since sanctions were introduced in 1996. Yet groups such as Burma Campaign UK, which has a sister organisation in Australia, have denied the decisions can be seen as an easing of restrictions, noting that the council renewed its main tranche of restrictive economic sanctions for 12 months.

      Australia has not imposed trade sanctions on Burma, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website notes that Australia maintains an arms embargo, along with targeted financial and visa sanctions, against “members of the regime” and its supporters and associates.

      Non-humanitarian development assistance and government-to-government links have also been suspended.

      “We are watching closely Burma’s political process and will calibrate our sanctions accordingly,” a DFAT spokesperson said last night.

      “We will take into account the views of all relevant stakeholders, including (Nobel laureate and democracy advocate) Aung San Suu Kyi, to ensure the continued effectiveness of our approach.”

      Last year’s elections in Burma have been roundly condemned as a sham and the new civilian government as a front for military interests, but business interest has been sharpened by the changed nature of the new government.

      Sworn in on March 30, the putatively civilian administration ended almost five decades of military rule, but many of the government’s ministers are serving or recently retired military officers.

      In renewing restrictive measures for 12 months, the EU Council nevertheless repeated its “willingness to encourage and respond to improvements in governance and progress in the hope that the greater civilian nature of the government will help in developing much-needed new policies”.



      Face facts – Andrew Marshall
      TIME: Thu 14 Apr 2011

      Are western policies failing Burma? And is our veneration of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi partly to blame? These questions struck me at an exhibition in Bangkok by the Toronto-based photographer Anne Bayin. Amnesty International Canada called the show “a striking illustration of [Suu Kyi's] plight.” But it gave me the creeps.

      For some photos, Bayin asked famous people such as Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel to express solidarity by holding a half-mask of Suu Kyi over their faces. Other photos show someone wearing a full-face mask of Suu Kyi at apparently random locations: at a pro-Tibet rally in Toronto, for example, or swimming in the Mediterranean. Bayin says her goal was to “depict freedoms often taken for granted.” (Suu Kyi was released from her latest spell of house arrest last November.) Yet the masks suggest that our heroes are half-blinded by Suu Kyi’s image, while our own identities are subsumed into hers.

      Bayin is not alone in seeing Burma as, she says, “a David and Goliath story, one woman against an army and its brutal regime.” In our celebrity-obsessed age, it is perhaps inevitable that a nation’s struggle for democracy is recast as a one-woman reality show. Why, then, does Suu Kyi’s name appear just six times in a recent 21-page report on Burma’s future by the highly respected Brussels-based International Crisis Group? The report makes a seemingly unlikely proposition: that a new balance of power created by a flawed election presents the West with “a critical opportunity to encourage [Burma's] leaders down a path of greater openness and reform.”

      Staged a week before Suu Kyi’s release, the ballot was rigged so that the junta’s party won by a landslide. The election seemed custom-built to perpetuate military rule: a quarter of the parliamentary seats were already reserved for military appointees. But the primary function of the election, suggests the Crisis Group, is to facilitate “Than Shwe’s exit strategy.” With retirement looming, General Than Shwe, 78, Burma’s absolute ruler since 1992, wants to prevent the rise of another dictator who might threaten him and his family’s business interests. That’s why, says the Crisis Group, power in postelection Burma is now deliberately spread among four centers: military, presidency, parliament and party. All are still dominated by the military, of course, but their leaders “are neither feared in the same way [as Than Shwe] nor will they be able to wield power as capriciously,” argues the Crisis Group. “They are more likely to be given bad news … and will be more in touch with the realities of the country, which may lead to more rational policy-making.” Incremental reform could well follow.

      Realpolitik, though, is no match for romance. Concentrating solely on the Lady helps sustain two myths. First, that a popular protest will topple the regime. It won’t: the last uprising — the 2007 “saffron revolution” led by Buddhist monks — was efficiently crushed. Second, that the regime can be sanctioned into submission. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in 2009 that “imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta.” Yet Western nations still impose sweeping investment and trade bans on Burma.

      While Burma’s economic misery is due to the junta’s corruption, neglect and mismanagement, the Crisis Group says that the “failed policies of sanctions and isolation” have further impoverished ordinary Burmese. Western oil companies and giant Asian neighbors such as China and India do enough business with Burma to render any embargo ineffectual. But the E.U. and the U.S., which recently affirmed their commitment to sanctions, still take their cue from Suu Kyi. She believes sanctions have had little impact on ordinary Burmese and should only be lifted if human rights improve. I hope she’s right, since in this respect she effectively has a veto over Western foreign policy.

      The world has long campaigned for Suu Kyi’s release. She is free at last. Now what? Well, we must continue to demand that the Burmese government release all political prisoners, end the violent persecution of ethnic minorities and guarantee the liberty and safety of Suu Kyi and other democrats. But we must also put pressure on our own governments. They could start by dismantling the legal obstructions on delivering humanitarian aid to Burma — or explain why it gets less aid ($6 per capita) than communist Laos ($62).

      On April 12 the E.U. relaxed travel restrictions on 22 top Burmese officials, including the Foreign Minister, while the U.S. is appointing a new special envoy on Burma. These fresh attempts to engage an isolated regime are necessary and timely, although it’s unclear how or whether the regime might respond. Still, if there are opportunities to shape Burma’s postelectoral landscape and improve the lives of its people, let’s at least consider them. It’s time to take the masks off, and put the thinking caps on.



      Grasping at straws: ICG’s latest report is ill-informed, unsubstantiated and wrong-headed – Benedict Rogers
      Mizzima News: Thu 14 Apr 2011

      The latest report from International Crisis Group (ICG), Myanmar’s Post-Election Landscape, is one of the most extraordinary documents I have read in a long time. Rarely have I seen such naïve and ill-considered analysis from an otherwise highly-respected and intelligent organisation.

      Riddled with inconsistencies and with no substantiation, ICG has surpassed even its own previous Burma reports in levels of idiocy. Its recognition at the beginning that the November 2010 elections “were not free and fair and the country has not escaped authoritarian rule” is welcome, but it is what then follows that stretches the boundaries of credibility.

      ICG argues that “it would be a mistake to conclude that nothing has changed”. The top two leaders of the former military regime, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, have “stepped aside” and “a new generation has taken over”. Both points are wrong, as even ICG itself admits later in its report. Contradicting itself, ICG notes that Than Shwe “will continue to influence events from behind the scenes” and will “exert considerable influence”. His power of patronage, “accumulated wealth” and control of business cronies “will underwrite his ongoing influence”. Exactly – so he has not “stepped aside”.

      The suggestion that “a new generation has taken over”, this is “a key moment of political transition” and that “the changes will have a profound impact” is absurd. Thein Sein, the new President, was prime minister under the old regime and was hand-picked by Than Shwe. Tin Aung Myint Oo, one of the new Vice-Presidents, was the number four in the old regime. Shwe Mann, the number three in the old regime, is the Speaker of Lower House of Parliament. Again, ICG contradicts itself by later noting that “these leaders have been groomed by Than Shwe not because they are necessarily the brightest and the best, but because they were the least threatening to him and his legacy”. Exactly – so where is this “new generation”? As a military intelligence officer in Rangoon told me recently, there is “no change, no change”.

      Noting that “a number of technocrats have been brought into the cabinet,” ICG concludes that decision-making will be “less ad hoc, less idiosyncratic, potentially more coherent and possibly more effective”. Yet of the thirty members of the new cabinet, only four are genuine civilians – the cabinet is still dominated by military. And even if the regime will now be “more effective”, we need to ask ‘more effective at what’? Suppressing dissent and eliminating ethnic opposition, most likely. Coherency and effectiveness by themselves are no virtues if they increase the suffering of the people.

      In another example of breath-taking contradiction, ICG has the audacity to state that in the sham elections last November, “few polling irregularities were reported”. This is patently false. There were widespread reports of ballot rigging and intimidation – as ICG then admits in its next breath, acknowledging “massive manipulation of the vote count”. You can’t have it both ways, ICG.

      ICG’s core objective in policy terms is to argue for the lifting of sanctions. There is a legitimate debate to be had about the effectiveness of current sanctions measures, and the international community’s use of sanctions as a strategic tool. Yet as with so many critics of sanctions, ICG has framed the debate in the wrong terms.

      First, they point to the West’s “failed policies of sanctions and isolation”. This is a tired and false characterisation of the purpose of sanctions. It is not about “isolation”. I don’t know anyone who wants to “isolate” Burma. The objective of sanctions is the opposite: it is to force the regime to open up, because the only language this regime understands is the language of pressure.

      Second, ICG trots out the ancient myth about sanctions having “a negative impact on the population”. What is the evidence for this? Yes, the people of Burma are suffering economically – but it is more likely that their poverty is a result of the regime’s corruption, greed and mismanagement of the economy, than the impact of sanctions. When there has been foreign investment in Burma, particularly in the oil and gas sectors, the revenues have gone to line the Generals’ pockets and help them buy arms, not to help the people. The regime has stashed profits in offshore bank accounts in Singapore, spent almost half its budget on the military and less than a dollar per person per year on health and education combined.

      ICG’s argument on aid lacks common sense. There are two aspects to the aid debate: development aid, through international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asia Development Bank (ADB), and humanitarian aid, in-country and cross-border, for medical care, livelihood provision, education, emergency relief and poverty alleviation. Most people, including myself, are passionately in favour of increased humanitarian aid to the people of Burma, who are among the poorest in the world, provided such aid goes both in-country and to refugees and internally displaced peoples along the borders and cross-border into the ethnic areas. However, the idea that international financial institutions should start funding development projects, enabling the regime to build more roads on which to move its troops and more dams to generate electricity to sell to neighbours, resulting in more displacement and human rights violations, is highly questionable.

      The idea that sanctions impede humanitarian aid is nonsense. The United Kingdom has shown that it is perfectly possible to be pro-sanctions and pro-aid. The UK is among the strongest advocates of maintaining sanctions – yet it is the largest bilateral donor to Burma, having recently announced a significant increase in its aid. Over the next four years, the UK will give an average of £46 million ($75 million) a year in aid to Burma. So don’t say sanctions result in less aid.

      ICG argues that “a new approach urgently needs to be adopted”, and on this point I agree. However, the approach needed is one that combines more effectively all the tools at our disposal – economic pressure, diplomatic and political initiatives, high-level engagement, and aid to the most vulnerable and to pro-democracy civil society groups, in-country and along the borders. In particular, we need a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate the regime’s crimes against humanity, as recommended by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma and supported by 16 countries so far. We also need to end the badly-informed and polarised debate about sanctions, and recognise that sanctions can only be lifted when the regime shows meaningful signs of progress: the release of political prisoners, an end to military offensives against ethnic civilians, and the beginning of a dialogue with the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic nationalities. The ball is in the regime’s court. What we do not need is naïve and uninformed analyses and policies that amount to surrender and appeasement and grasp at straws. We do not need any more UN and EU bureaucrats telling us to “wait and see”. A senior EU official recently admitted to me: “I really don’t know. I just cross my fingers and hope for the best,” and it appears that is ICG’s approach too. Such an approach will only help the Generals. We need a well-informed, co-ordinated, creative and proactive international strategy that supports the desire of the people of Burma for change.



      Rights groups caution about repatriation of Burmese refugees – Ron Corben
      Voice of America: Tue 12 Apr 2011

      Bangkok – The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and human rights groups have raised concerns about reports that Thailand is planning to repatriate more than 100,000 Burmese refugees living in camps in Thailand. Rights groups say conflict and human rights abuses are still going on in Burma, in a region littered by land mines from decades of fighting.The UNHCR has greeted with caution reports Thailand plans to repatriate Burmese refugees living in camps along its western borderwith Burma.

      Rumors of plans to repatriate the refugees follow a meeting between Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his national security chief. The issue was also raised during informal talks between Thai Foreign Kasit Piromya and Burmese counterpart Wunna Muang Lwin.

      But Kitty McKinsey, a senior regional spokesperson for the UNHCR, says eventual repatriation of Burmese refugees should happen only when conditions of safety are met.

      “This is a very long term process and I note that even the Thai government official did not put any date, any time line, any deadline,” said McKinsey. “So closing refugee camps is an aim that we share. We’ve never said that these people should live in Thailand forever and ever. Nobody wants to be a refugee for their whole life.”

      McKinsey says the return of refugees should involve international monitoring and ensure that land mines are cleared and those returning do so voluntarily.

      There are around 140,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, in nine camps. They fled internal conflict after decades of fighting with the central government. Some people have lived in the camps for 20 years.

      Thai government officials have held talks with Burma’s new government on closing the camps.

      But rights groups say conditions inside Burma remain unsafe.

      Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, an aid organization which provides for refugees’ care, says fighting is on-going inside Burma and those returning face possible rights abuses.

      “We all hope that the refugees can go home in the future,” said Dunfold. “We all want to see the camps closed. But the evidence suggests that actually the situation in eastern Burma has not improved; that conflict and human rights abuses continue creating more refugees at the present time rather than the situation where the refugees can go home.”

      Debbie Stothardt, spokeswoman for human rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network, says the Association of South East Asian Nations – of which Burma is a member – has obligations under international law to avoid possible abuses of human rights.

      “The reality is that these people are being pushed back into situations where they will be subjected to more war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.”And, the international community, Especially ASEAN countries, need to understand their international obligations under international law. They are using the elections in Burma as an excuse to push back people into harm’s way is simply unjustified.”

      Rights groups say the Thai government is also coming under pressure from some international donors, who say Burma’s newly elected government marks a change in the political conditions inside Burma. But the rights groups say, despite Burma’s elected parliament, the country’s military remains the dominant power and is directing policy from behind the scenes.



      Is Burma’s strongman really retiring? – Robert Horn
      TIME: Tue 12 Apr 2011

      More often than not, dictators, like mafia dons, can never retire. It’s a rare strongman who can avoid an assassination, coup or revolution and fade into the sunset on his own terms rather than with a prison term. Yet according to members of Burma’s newly inaugurated government, Senior General Than Shwe, who ruled the impoverished Southeast Asian country since 1992, has hung up his epaulets and handed over power to chosen successors. Few Burma watchers, and few people in Burma, however, believe 78-year-old Than Shwe has truly called it quits.

      “The joke in Burma is that Than Shwe has transferred power — from his right hand to his left,” said Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, an online magazine published by Burmese exiles in Thailand. “He still goes to his office every day. He is still the ultimate authority.” After 19 years as head of the country’s military regime, last year Than Shwe allowed the first multi-party elections since 1990. He just didn’t allow anyone except his hand-picked protégés to win them. Leading opponents, such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, were barred from running, and her National League for Democracy party chose not to participate claiming the rules were rigged to ensure Than Shwe’s underlings in the military would emerge victorious. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the polls “neither free nor fair,” and marred by fraud, repression and intimidation.

      Though some who are more friendly to Burma’s rulers, such as Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary General of the regional bloc the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have described the elections as a “new beginning” for democracy, other critics have said the transition taking place under Than Shwe closely resembles the faux civilian rule perpetrated by his mentor, former dictator Gen. Ne Win, during the 1970s and ’80s. Ne Win had a constitution approved and a parliament of loyalists installed through sham elections. Although he resigned the presidency in 1981 and all political posts in 1988, he continued to pull the strings of power from behind the scenes. He still inspired so much fear that many Burmese would only refer to him as “Number One.”

      It wasn’t until Ne Win’s family, known for corruption and bullying behavior, allegedly began scheming against some in power that Than Shwe moved against his patron, sentencing his son-in-law and grandsons to prison terms for treason and condemning “Number One” to house arrest until he died in 2002. Few in Burma could have imagined such an end for a man who had wielded such absolute power.

      Such an end, however, isn’t beyond the imaginings of Than Shwe, considering his role those events. As time goes by, Than Shwe’s protégés will build their own power bases and may feel more emboldened. He “is aware of the risks,” said Benedict Rogers, author of the biography Than Shwe, Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. “If enough people in the military, especially at senior levels, decided they had had enough of him, they could turn on him and his family.”

      Than Shwe’s ordering of soldiers to shoot Buddhist monks during an uprising in 2007 was reported to have caused some dissension within the military, but he has seemingly managed to keep officers with misgivings in line. Despite widespread poverty among Burma’s people, Than Shwe and his family have a reputation for greed and flaunting their wealth. In 2006, a video of the lavish wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter, in which she allegedly received $50 million in gifts, circulated in Burma. “The public’s disrespect and hatred toward Than Shwe’s family members are much worse than for Ne Win’s family,” said Aung Zaw.

      Other authoritarian leaders, such as China’s Deng Xiaoping and Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, successfully maintained much of their power and influence long after stepping back from official leadership roles. Than Shwe, who once headed the military’s psychological warfare department, has the skills to do the same. “He is manipulative and cunning, and he makes his moves in secrecy,” Aung Zaw said. Rogers said that Than Shwe, who often makes public displays of his generous donations to Buddhist temples, keeps at least seven fortune tellers on his staff to help him ward off any ill fortune or plots against him. Yet even they can not predict with certainty what the general’s end will be. There is no doubt, however, that Than Shwe’s detractors are hoping one of Asia’s more enduring religious principles eventually catches up with him: karma. “You reap what you sow,” said Aung Zaw.



      Military plays a civilian-looking game – Larry Jagan
      Irrawaddy: Tue 12 Apr 2011

      Bangkok—A new quasi-civilian government has taken over in Burma, but diplomats, analysts and pro-democracy activists are dismissing it as nothing more than “old wine in a new bottle”.

      Burma analysts believe that strongman Than Shwe has only retreated to the backroom. Than Shwe recently stepped down as commander-in-chief of the Burmese army and relinquished day-to-day control of the country after nearly two decades as head of the military junta.

      “He is likely to be pulling the strings from behind the curtain,” said the Burmese academic Win Min, now based in the US. “He will use his influence behind the scenes, relying on personal patronage and connections.”

      “If anyone thinks this new government is a step towards democracy they are sadly mistaken,” said Maung Zarni, researcher at the London School of Economics.

      Yet there are those who see change coming to Burma, though not the sort that most Burmese people are yearning for.

      A new system of government has been unveiled, in which parliament will play a subsidiary part, and the executive, headed by newly elected president Thein Sein, will play the leading role.

      The new government was formed after elections last November, in which the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won by a landslide. Most western countries, and the pro-democracy movement led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, have rejected the results as a sham.

      But there has been a clear transfer of power to a new generation. Although mainly military men or former soldiers, most of Burma’s new leaders are under the age of 60 and have a technocratic background. Even the military officers turned politicians, who occupy part of the 25 percent of parliament seats reserved for serving soldiers, have a different outlook.

      The new army chief, 55-year-old Gen Min Aung Hlaing, is reported to be a professional soldier keen on restoring the prestigious image of the army tainted by the repression after the uprising of 1988, and the 22 years of authoritarian rule that followed.

      There are other signs of change. On his recent visit, senior Chinese leader Jia Qinglin, the fourth most important man in the Communist Party’s political bureau, did not meet Than Shwe. Jia was instead hosted by Thura Shwe Mann, speaker of the Lower House and vice-president of the ruling party USDP.

      But there are other signs that those who have resigned or retired from the army no longer have their military stripes. Soldiers no longer guard the homes of former top military officers, including Than Shwe and the former No. 2 leader Maung Aye, either in the capital Naypyidaw or Rangoon, according to residents in these cities. The police have taken over that duty, as they do in most countries that are regarded as civilian democracies.

      This is a sign that Burma is moving, albeit tentatively, towards becoming a civilian-governed society. Of course, what Burma is experiencing now is a transition; it is not yet democracy and it may not yet be significant change. It is something akin to Indonesia under Suharto’s Golkar-led government.

      This may not be the sort of democracy that most Burmese people want, but it could be a significant step towards an Asian-style democracy. Even in Thailand the military continues to play a significant political role behind the scenes, and in the recent past shown it was not averse to intervening with force as it did in September 2006, the last time the military staged a coup.

      This is the critical hope for Burma – a transition similar to what has happened in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand in the last 20 years.

      Of course, worrying signs still remain that Burma’s form of “disciplined democracy” as the military prefer to call it, may not match the minimum standards of civilian-military regimes in the rest of Asia. Too many military men and former soldiers dominate the country’s emerging political scene. Change is impossible as the military mind remains entrenched even in the new political system which pretends to be a civilian administration, according to Maung Zarni.

      Even if the top generals have retired to the back room, the new crops of officers are effectively clones. “The officer corps are a sub-class of society that has come to view themselves as the ruling class, feeling they are eternally entitled to rule,” Zarni said in an interview with IPS.

      “Whoever takes their places (Than Shwe and Maung Aye) will not be more enlightened or more progressive, simply because they have all been inculcated with thuggish, racist, sexist and neo-totalitarian leadership values, and only junior generals who are their mirror image have been promoted,” said Zarni.

      As yet there is still little room for discussion and dialogue – crucial elements of a democracy or an emerging civilian form of government. Parliament is yet to be a fully functioning legislature, though some questions that had been taboo before – ethnic education issues, land confiscation, the release of political prisoners – were put to the president.

      The parliament is now in recess and may not meet again for another year, the minimum set by the constitution.

      But above all there is no role as yet for Burma’s real opposition – Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) – though the opposition leader has asked to meet the new president and government, according to senior sources in the NLD.

      But there is good reason to remain skeptical. Change will not happen quickly.

      “The train has left the station, but we don’t know where it going or how long the journey will be,” said a Burmese academic on condition of anonymity.



      EU maintains Burma

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