[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 16/1/08
- Japanese aid snub to Burma
- Overseas monks urge meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and junta leader
- Explosion on Myanmar bus kills 1
- Over 40,000 villagers internally displaced in Karen state
- Pro-democracy political prisoners in poor health condition
- Myanmar to auction some 1,600 lots of precious stones
- Trade Union leaders call for tourism boycott of Burma
- Nudge the junta towards change
Japanese aid snub to Burma
The Nation: January 17, 2008
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam get assistance
Sanction-hit Burma got nothing yesterday as Japan pledged approximately US$20 million (Bt662 million) for development projects in the Mekong basin.
Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win together with his counterparts from the Mekong region - Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - were in Tokyo for the first Mekong-Japan foreign ministers' meeting.
Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Koumura signed a memorandum of understanding with his Laotian counterpart, Thongloun Sisoulith, Cambodia's Hor Namhong and Vietnam's Pham Gia Khiem. It provides financial assistance through the Japan-Asean Integration Fund to those countries.
Japan cancelled nearly $5 million in development assistance to junta-ruled Burma in October last year in response to the military crackdown on street protests in late September. At least 31 were killed, including Japanese news photographer Kenji Nagai.
Some 40 Burmese activists in Japan staged a protest yesterday in front of the meeting venue, and the hotel where Nyan Win is staying.
They are demanding an end to international assistance for the military-ruled country.
They displayed portraits of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and posters reading "stop killing in Burma".
The $20-million fund will be spent improving transport and freight along the East-West Economic Corridor, the link from Thailand, via Laos, to Vietnam as well as the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle.
Japan and the three countries decided on a list of projects, which included a feasibility study of road improvements in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Thailand is not a recipient, but joined the meeting as a partner with Japan.
Koumura praised Thailand's role in the Mekong-basin development.
The region's countries appreciate Japan and Thailand's continued support for the development of the region, he said.
Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram said Thailand had contributed some $55 million to neighbours in the region between 1995 and 2006, plus some $200 million for 16 infrastructure projects.
Nitya linked Thailand's brainchild project the Ayeyawady-Chao Phya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) with Japan's role in developing the region. ACMECS consists of Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. That was the reason Burma's minister was in Tokyo.
In ACMECS, Thailand is ready to play a role with Japan in undertaking study of development of Laos's Savanakhet Airport, he said.
"Thailand looks forward to working with Japan and cooperation with Mekong countries to identify other projects and areas where trilateral cooperation can be applied," Nitya said.
* Supalak G Khundee
Overseas monks urge meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and junta leader
Thai News Service: Wed 16 Jan 2008
Burmese monks living abroad on January 15 called on international leaders to back their demand for an immediate meeting between Myanmar's (Burma's) military junta and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Bangkok Post reports.
They said the United Nations-led reconciliation effort was too slow in its efforts to bring about such a desired meeting.
"We cannot just keep hoping for a dialogue between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi to bear fruit and just wait for the slow process led by the UN to shed some results," Uttara, a member of the International Burmese Monks Organisation, said in Bangkok.
Change in Burma could not wait for the UN process, which was hampered by bureaucracy and diplomatic manoeuvring.
"Ibrahim Gambari, the UN special envoy for Burma, has to wait for visa approval before entering Burma," Uttara said. "To get any desirable and quick result out of the Security Council, member countries have to agree with one another, which is not easy.
"The chance has come to us and we have to accept our role to bring peace to Burma."
Uttara, who is based in London, and Pannya Vamsa, from Penang, are on a global tour, which includes Indonesia, Japan, India, Europe and the United States to garner support for their mission.
They helped set up the International Burmese Monks Organisation in Los Angeles in October after monks in Burma were killed in street protests last year.
The two monks are setting up a chapter in Thailand this week after meeting several monks who fled Burma during the bloody crackdown and are now living in exile in Thailand.
Pannya Vamsa, 80, said support from neighbouring countries was vital if democracy was to be restored in his country.
Uttara, 58, expressed concern for the safety of monks and nuns, saying he had learned over 2,000 of them went missing during the junta's suppression drive. The figures could not be confirmed because of the difficulty in accessing the monasteries. He said there were only a few dozen monks still in temples there.
Explosion on Myanmar bus kills 1
Associated Press: Wed 16 Jan 2008
An explosion on a bus in Myanmar killed the driver on Wednesday, a government official said. Three bombings in different parts of Myanmar since Friday have killed two people and injured five.
The official said the explosion occurred about 65 miles north of Yangon in Pyinbonegyi. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media.
Terrorism is rare but not unknown in Myanmar, which has been under military rule almost continuously since 1962.
The official said the device exploded when the bus was stopped to allow passengers to eat at a roadside shop, and the driver stayed on board. The bus was traveling to Yangon from Kyaukyi, a town about 105 miles to the north.
No one has claimed responsibility. But state media linked at least one of the bombings in the past week to ethnic Karen rebels, and the bus that was hit by an explosion Wednesday originated in an ethnic Karen area.
The ruling junta blamed the recent bombings on an unspecified foreign organization and called on the public to report any sightings of terrorists, a state-run newspaper said Monday.
"Information has been received that a foreign organization has sent terrorist saboteurs with explosives across the border to perpetrate destructive acts inside the country," the Myanma Ahlin newspaper said.
Myanmar borders India, China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh, but the report did not specify where the alleged saboteurs had crossed into the country from.
Most of the major groups opposed to the military are based along the border with Thailand.
The junta routinely blames acts of violence on foreigners, including street rallies last year led by Buddhist monks that the government suppressed with a violent crackdown. After troops fired on peaceful protesters in September, the junta accused Western powers and the foreign media of fomenting the protests.
The Karen National Union has been fighting for half a century for greater autonomy from Myanmar's military government. It is the only major ethnic rebel group that has not agreed to a cease-fire with the junta. But they and other government opponents deny carrying out attacks targeting civilians.
The first of the recent explosions occurred Friday morning at the railway station serving the country's new administrative capital of Naypyitaw, killing a 40-year-old ethnic Karen woman whom the government later said was the bomber.
The second blast occurred Friday night at a circus in the northern town of Pyu, injuring four civilians and killing a man said to be a Karen rebel who allegedly planted the explosive.
The third blast on Sunday near a public bathroom at the ticketing office of Yangon's main railway station injured a 73-year-old woman.
Over 40,000 villagers internally displaced in Karen state - Than Htike Oo & Nay Thwin
Mizzima News: Wed 16 Jan 2008
At least 10 villagers in eastern Burma's Karen state have been killed and thousands rendered homeless due to increased Burmese Army occupation over the past two months, a humanitarian assistance group said.
In a new report, the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian assistance group working in eastern Burma, said in the past two months the Burmese Army's presence in Karen state has gone up to over 90 battalions.
With the number of soldiers ranging between 11,000 to 14,000 operating in three Karen districts Papun, Nyaunglebin, and Taungoo the number of internally displaced persons in the three districts have gone up to 25,000, the report said.
The FBR said with the increase of Burmese Army battalions in Karen state since 2006, human rights violations have escalated and landmines have filled the area, causing uncalled for destruction in the villages and killing local residents.
According to Saw Hla Henry, secretary of the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP), over the last two months the number of internally displaced people has increased to 10,000.
"There are at least 10,000 internally displaced people due to the fresh offensive launched by the Burmese Army in the last two to three months," Saw Hla Henry said.
The IDPs, since they have to flee their farm lands and leave their daily occupation, are faced with severe shortage of food and shelter in the jungles hideouts, he added.
According to the FBR report, there are at least 4,500 Burmese soldiers in Nyaunglebin district, 34 battalions in Papun district and 27 battalions in Taungoo districts.
The increase in the number of Burmese soldiers has seen to at least 12,900 IDPs in Nyaunglebin, 3,000 4,000 IDPs in Papun and 7,000 in Taungoo districts, the FBR said.
The Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London based Human Rights group, in a statement released on Tuesday, said the Burmese Army's attacks on ethnic groups have been going on for the past 60 years. It condemned the military junta's onslaught against innocent civilians.
"The world was shocked by the killings of demonstrators in the cities of Burma in September 2007. However, the ongoing horrific attacks against the ethnic groups of Burma are less well known despite the fact that they have ensued for almost 60 years," Tina Lambert, CSW's Advocacy Director said.
"We condemn the onslaught of the Burma Army against its innocent civilians and urge the international community to assist ethnic groups like the Karen people through direct aid and diplomatic action," Lambert added in the statement.
Hla Ngwe, information officer of the Karen National Union (KNU), Karen ethnic rebel group, said according to statistics that the KNU has compiled currently there are 187 Burmese Army battalions in Karen state including the three districts.
With at least 120 to 150 soldiers in each battalion, there are an estimated 25,000 soldiers currently deployed in Karen State, he added.
According to statistics released by the KNU information department in December 2007, there have been at least 1,391 clashes between the KNU and a combined force of the Burmese Army and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a ceasefire Karen armed group.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), there are 1, 24,300 Burmese refugees, who are registered with the agency, living in nine camps along the Thai-Burmese border.
Pro-democracy political prisoners in poor health condition - Shah Paung
Irrawaddy: Wed 16 Jan 2008
At least four detained political prisoners in Burmese prisons are in poor health and need medical attention, according to their family members.
The four political prisoners are Hla Myo Naung and Kyaw Soe of the 88 Generation Students group, who are both in Insein Prison in Rangoon; Win Maw, a pro-democracy activist, also in Insein Prison; and Myint Oo, a committee member of the Magwe Division of the National League for Democracy, who is in Mandalay Prison.
Hla Myo Naung has eye problems and is nearly blind in both eyes, according to a family member. He has had eye problems since October 2007, and was arrested while he was enroute to a Rangoon clinic to have an operation on the left side of one eye.
After he was arrested, authorities performed an operation on one of his eyes, but it was not successful and an eye nerve was damaged.
Family members of both Win Maw and Kyaw Soe said they received medical treatment in prison after they were tortured by the authorities in an interrogation center.
However, Win Maw has now contracted pneumonia. Kyaw Soe suffers from fainting spells. Both men were victims of water torture, according to sources.
A family member of Win Maw said they have not been allowed to visit him for nearly three weeks.
Myint Oo, who also suffers from pneumonia, began receiving medical treatment in a Mandalay prison hospital three days ago, according to family members.
Tate Naing, the secretary of the exiled-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said that since August 2007, the military government has arrested more than 7,000 people, including pro-democracy activists. Prisoners are not allowed to receive outside medical treatment.
88 Generation Students leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi also have health problems, say their family members. They were arrested by authorities in August 2007.
According to the AAPP, there are more than 1,850 political prisoners in Burmese prisons.
Myanmar to auction some 1,600 lots of precious stones: report
Agence France Presse: Wed 16 Jan 2008
Military-run Myanmar has opened another major auction of gems and jade in the nation's economic hub Yangon, despite international efforts to cut off the junta's sales, state media said Wednesday.
Nearly 400 lots of precious stones and about 1,200 lots of jade are up for sale at the auction that opened Tuesday, the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
About 100 foreigners were among the 637 merchants attending the event, the paper said, despite international efforts to end sales of stones from Myanmar.
The paper gave no details about the sale, but said that another auction would be held in March.
Myanmar, one of the poorest countries, is the source of up to 90 percent of the world's rubies, and each auction of precious stones rakes in more than 100 million dollars, making it a key source of revenue for the military regime.
The junta sold gems worth 150 million dollars during its previous auction in November, defying US and European calls for a boycott.
The sales also came despite tightening sanctions against the ruling generals in the wake of a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September.
The United Nations said at least 31 people were killed in Myanmar after troops opened fire on the peaceful demonstrations, twice as many as the regime's official death toll of 15.
The UN also said 74 were missing after the crackdown, with more than 600 dissidents still in detention.
Following the violence in September, US First Lady Laura Bush urged companies to shun the auctions, while top jewellers Tiffany, Cartier and Bulgari said they would refuse to sell Myanmar gems.
But robust demand from jade-crazed China, Thailand and Singapore has continued to boost gem trading.
Trade Union leaders call for tourism boycott of Burma
Mizzima News: Wed 16 Jan 2008
Britain's trade union leaders today urged all tourists and tour operators to stop visiting Burma, as the ruling military regime, infamous for its human rights violation against its own people, maintain their rule from income generated by tourism.
United Kingdom based Tourism Concern and Trades Union Congress (TUC) on Wednesday urged all tour operators, tour guidebook publishers and tourists to drop Burma from their itinerary until democracy is restored in the country.
Rachel Noble, spokesperson of the TUC said, the Burmese military junta's brutal reign has been sponsored partly by the income generated from tourism business and that every sensible tourist and tour operator should avoid contributing to sufferings of the Burmese people.
"A lot of money from tourism goes directly to military regime's fund and all business and hotels directly linked to the junta but there are very limited benefit for the people of Burma from the tourism industry and only few people are involved in this industry," Noble told Mizzima.
"We are calling for the boycott because tourism is directly linked to the mass human rights abuses. We request the people not to visit the country until the time democracy is restored" she added.
According to the joint statement released today by the TUC and tourism concern, a non-profit charitable organization, US$1.1 billion has been invested in the tourism industry in Burma since it opened in 1998 and the junta annually earns up to US$100 million.
Brendan Barber, TUC General Secretary in the statement said, "Trade unions have been at the forefront of campaigns for longer holidays, but Burmese unions have asked us not to take those holidays in Burma."
"We're urging the travel industry to drop Burma from their list of destinations because of forced and child labour involved in Burmese tourist attractions and facilities, because of the money and endorsement tourism goes to the bloody dictatorship that runs Burma. It is simply immoral to holiday in a country-wide prison camp," added Barber.
Noble added that at least eight million Burmese people, particularly in remote areas have been displaced by the authorities to make way for tourism development.
Tourism boycott was first called for by Burma's elected government in exile and their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Rangoon, in the early 1990s.
However, today, the opposition call remains the same and a boycott on tourism is seen as part of a broader strategy of economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts by the international community to exert pressure on the Burmese military regime to implement political reforms.
Nudge the junta towards change Morton Abramowitz and Jonathan Kolieb
The Australian: Wed 16 Jan 2008
A few months ago, the courage of Burmese monks enlightened the world. But a brutal military crackdown ended their protest marches and, despite evoking a strong reaction initially, international outrage has since mostly quieted, failing to elicit the desired political change. Burma continues its downward spiral.
In the wake of the crackdown, US President George W. Bush imposed tighter sanctions on Burma's rulers, and Britain and the European Union followed suit.
Australia put a diplomatic ban on the junta when it ruled out accepting a member of the military as an ambassador in Canberra.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations publicly castigated the junta and openly urged rapprochement with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition, but subsequently backed off. Indian and Chinese leaders have softened that stance, with China willing to approve a UN Security Council non-binding statement that deplores the military's crackdown. India apparently has limited or stopped arms sales.
The UN's special envoy Ibrahim Gambari continues to shuttle between New York, Rangoon and regional capitals, trying to generate momentum towards political reconciliation within Burma. His offices have produced a few rounds of talks between the regime and Suu Kyi, including one this week, the first time in nearly two months.
Burma's isolated military leadership remains firmly in power even as the people decline further, suffering from negligible government spending on health and education and a stagnant economy. The hike in fuel prices - the initial cause of the protests - remains in place, making the cost of cooking, heating and travel too expensive for many.
The fearful regime has clamped down on access to free media, raising the fee on satellite television by a whopping 16,000 per cent, to three times the average annual Burmese salary.
While public animosity seethes and further unrest cannot be precluded, the aftermath of last year's clashes indicates yet again that Burma is not a short-term proposition, nor has anyone figured out a quick fix. Eastern engagement, Western pressures: neither has helped to loosen the military's grip on power. Nor has military dissatisfaction with the leadership apparently bubbled up.
Western efforts to support democracy groups in and around the country will continue (as they should), but a practical approach that might effect internal change, one that can win substantial international unity, is needed. No easy task.
It is hard to see the slightest political change in Burma without the involvement of the military. Even the regime's most vehement critics, including Suu Kyi, accept that the military has a major role in Burma's future.
The military, remember, is the only institution with national reach and resources, enmeshed in Burma's economy and deeply involved, for good or ill, in keeping the ethnically diverse country together.
So, how to move the Burmese military towards internal change? Most countries could coalesce around the goal of seeking government reorganisation and allowing the opposition a role in national decision-making and freedom to operate politically. Reaching even that stage will require a difficult international juggling effort to find ways to make the military feel the costs of its policies and at the same time provide incentives to reduce its stranglehold on power.
At this point, any combination of dialogue and pressure is best developed and implemented by Gambari. A multinational support group could help his task. Such a group, consisting of representatives of the EU, China, India, Japan, Indonesia and Australia, would try to reinforce Gambari's discussions with the regime and get other governments to act in support.
Dialogue with the military on political reform, most practically, should be based on the regime's own Seven Steps to Democracy, which it claims to be carrying out. This document is patently deficient, and the initial scope for change depressingly small. But basing negotiations on the military's work is probably indispensable for starting a dialogue.
Second, the contact group must be willing to maintain pressure on the regime if talks founder. Worldwide sanctions remain politically impossible. Other means must be pursued. One would be to work with China to limit arms sales to the regime. The Indian example obviously offers an opportunity for persuading China to do the same, and a willingness to explore negotiations with the junta on the basis of its road map should reinforce that.
In addition, targeted financial sanctions on Asian regional banks could be implemented as necessary to squeeze the military and its businesses of much-needed capital, as the US has done with Singaporean banks.
Finally, Gambari should be authorised to offer greater humanitarian assistance in the health and education fields, and pursue ways to better deliver humanitarian aid to communities that are at risk.
The world's policy options for Burma are not promising. And as is so often the case in other problem countries, the desire for change among outsiders outstrips their willingness and capacity to effect it.
The world has failed over many decades to help bring any political change to Burma, and the modest proposals outlined above may go nowhere. But incessant public rhetoric and divergent policies will most assuredly not facilitate evolution in Burma, and we must search for common means to do so.
Morton Abramowitz, a former US ambassador to Thailand, is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, where Jonathan Kolieb is a research associate.