[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 18/1/08
- Security forces break up attempted demonstration in Western Burma
- Myanmar Times banned for one week by censors
- Myanmar telecom blocks bloggers
- Junta achieves food shortages amidst plenty
- Authorities demand cheap rice from farmers
- Police force villagers to grow sunflower plants
- Burmese economic reform requires political change
- Canadian sanctions having an effect in Burma
- Chinese military trucks for Burma Army arrive on border
- India, China urged to pressure Burma to release lawmakers
- Japan urges Myanmar to speed up democratic reforms, hold talks with Suu Kyi
- Security Council meets to discuss lack of progress in Myanmar
Security forces break up attempted demonstration in Western Burma - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Thu 17 Jan 2008
About 200 people in Taunggot Township in Arakan State in western Burma were prevented from staging a demonstration on Thursday by soldiers and security forces, according to local sources.
A witness told The Irrawaddy that a crowd gathered around the Taunggot Market, including Buddhist monks, at about 7 am.
The security forces included members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association.
"A number of security force people prevented the protest," said a local source. "Authorities used the same techniques they used in Rangoon."
He said security forces formed a line and pushed back the protesters with metal shields and truncheons.
No one was arrested or injured, said the source.
Fearing a possible demonstration, the authorities closed the market on Wednesday without notice after interrogating two local members of the opposition National League for Democracy.
"This morning [Thursday] all the shops on streets around the market were doing business so it was very crowded," said a witness. "An angry crowd was ready to demonstrate."
Nyan Win, a NLD spokesperson, said NLD members in the township were closely watched and are now under surveillance.
Residents in Taunggot also demonstrated during the pro-democracy protests in August and September 2007.
Two men, Sithu and Than Lwin, staged a two-hour demonstration on August 31 and were arrested. The two carried sign boards declaring, "People Are Starving!" as a protest against fuel and commodity prices.
On September 4, about 1,000 people in the township staged a peaceful protest demanding the release of Sithu and Than Lwin, led by 15 local NLD members.
Myanmar Times banned for one week by censors
Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 17 Jan 2008
The Burmese government censor board has imposed a one-week ban on the weekly Myanmar Times newspaper after it published a story about the postponement of new satellite license fees.
An editor from Rangoon, speaking on condition of anonymity, said newspaper is being punished for publishing a sensitive story despite a government warning not to write anything about it until they gave permission.
"The government doesn't feel comfortable with news being reported on the new satellite fees and they told the press not to write about it," said the editor.
"But the Myanmar Times published a story on it, and now they have been banned for a week by the censor board."
Issue 346 of volume 18 of the Myanmar Times, published on 11 January, included an article about Myanmar Post and Telecommunications postponing acceptance of the new satellite license fees, which had recently been raised from 6000 to one million kyat.
"The government is angry about the Myanmar Times story because they were still at the stage of testing out whether the public would give in and agree to pay satellite fees at this ridiculous price," said the editor.
San Moe Wai, secretary of the Burma Media Association said that the government's action against the newspaper showed how the military regime is increasing restriction on press freedom in the country.
"Their attitude towards the press is getting worse and worse," said San Moe Wai.
"This story about the new satellite fees has already been acknowledged by everyone and the press wrote an article about it," he said.
"Because of that, they decided to impose a ban on publishing, and this is not acceptable."
The Myanmar Times was unavailable for comment on the case.
Myanmar telecom blocks bloggers
Mizzima News: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Rangoon In a bid to stop the flow of information outside Burma one of the most popular blog sites www.blogger.com has been banned by the Myanmar Post and Telecomm Ministry as of Thursday morning, according to bloggers in the former capital.
In the wake of 'Saffron Revolution', another Internet Service Provider 'Bagan Teleport' has blocked this blog website. And now the remaining ISP under the MPT has blocked this website which bars computers in Burma from accessing the blogs.
Both the ISPs are under the control of the military regime but under two different administrations.
However, an official from MPT in Rangoon denied the report and said that she didn't know why surfers can't visit these blogs when a Mizzima desk reporter contacted her.
Similarly an official from the telecom office said that there was no official instruction given to them to block these blogs sites, but he declined to give further details.
Bloggers played an important role in exposing the secretive and isolated military-ruled country for its crackdown against demonstrators during the people's uprising last September.
Junta achieves food shortages amidst plenty - Marwaan Macan-Markar
Inter Press Service: Thu 17 Jan 2008
By announcing a new programme to expand its work in military-ruled Burma, a U.N. food agency has shed more light on the dire economic realities faced by that country's impoverished people.
The World Food Programme (WFP) plans to feed 1.6 million people living in remote, rural areas over a three-year period, beginning this year. It is a marked increase from the 500,000 people the agency has catered to so far in helping "vulnerable communities to overcome chronic food shortages."
Most of the communities due to benefit belong to ethnic minorities in the South-east Asian nation. These regions were plagued by conflict for years, where Burmese troops fought ethnic rebels. Peace deals signed between the warring parties through the 1990s saw an end to the separatist struggles.
According to the WFP, a steady supply of rice will feature in the basket of food due to the minorities living in, among other places, the Kachin State, in north-eastern Burma, near the Chinese border. The other items include pulses, vegetable oil, salt and high-protein blended food.
But such a U.N. intervention comes despite Burma, also called Myanmar, being a substantial producer of rice. "Myanmar produces large amounts of rice, much of it grown in the central delta region," Paul Risley, spokesman for the WFP's Asia office in Bangkok, said in an interview. "All the rice for our programmes is domestically purchased."
Yet what has come in the way of the home-grown grain getting to the needy is a vast network of security checkpoints set up by the military and, in some areas, by ethnic militias. Such roadblocks have forced the movement of food by local traders to a trickle, at times. Clearance to move food in trucks from one state to another requires the approval of the military's local area commander, for which bribes have become mandatory.
Even the country's majority Burmans are not immune to these military-imposed hurdles, consequently increasing the number of people enduring food shortages. The WFP estimates that in all nearly five million people, just under 10 percent of the country's 54 million population, suffer from food insecurity. The impact of the restrictions on transporting food and the poverty rates has resulted in nearly 36 percent of children under five years being underweight and malnourished, according to some studies.
Such limits placed on the movement of food have little to do with security concerns of the notoriously oppressive Burmese junta. They are a military solution to control the price of food commodities, including rice, across the country. "The junta has very little understanding of economics. These roadblocks have been around for decades," says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert teaching at Payap University in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai.
"They have little security value for the junta. They were introduced to keep a check on the price of rice going up," he explained in an interview. "But the situation has become worse today. More checkpoints have come up. So the price of rice in one state is different to the price in the next."
The junta's mishandling of the domestic rice trade is just one in a litany errors it has committed that has dismantled a once promising economy. When British colonisation ended in Burma 60 years ago, the country was known as a one of the world's major rice exporters. "(At) independence, in 1948, Burma was regarded as the South-east Asian nation 'most likely to succeed'," states ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby on Burma, in a recent report.
The decay set in after the military grabbed power in a 1962 coup. The strongman at the time, Gen. Ne Win, opted for a socialist agenda, titled the 'Burmese Way to Socialism.' It led to the nationalisation of all the major industries, banks and the international trading sector. Ne Win's successors, including the current military leaders, opted for a more open economic agenda once they came to power, including a bow to more private sector activity.
The shift, however, produced little difference. "The economic mismanagement of the current military junta, the State Peace and Development Council, is causing the collapse of social infrastructure and perpetuating serious threats to human security," states ALTSEAN, which stands for the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. "The military regimes that have ruled the country since 1962 have dragged the country into disgrace and economic ruin through gross economic mismanagement (and) corruption."
"The U.N. estimates that households are (currently) spending 70 percent of their incomes on food, with more than 90 percent of the population already living on less than one US dollar a day," it adds.
Such dismal figures have brought into relief the paradox in the country, since Burma is awash with natural wealth, ranging from extensive oil and gas reserves to the world-renowned pigeon-blood rubies. The rewards from such wealth, however, have been denied to the public.
The pro-democracy protests on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere in August and September last year revealed the public anger towards unbearable economic woes. The protests, which were brutally crushed, were triggered after the junta raised the price of oil by 500 percent in mid-August with no warning.
Thailand's estimated two million registered and unregistered migrant workers from Burma also echo a tale of economic hardship. What began as a trickle in the 1980s, largely involving workers from ethnic communities along the border, turned into a flood by the end of the 1990s, with more Burmans from the centre of the country crossing the border in search of jobs.
"They have left because of unemployment and a lack of money to buy food and other items for their daily needs," says Moe Swe, secretary-general of Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, a Burmese labour rights group based along the Thai-Burma border. "The economy has deteriorated and the people have to leave Burma if they want to survive."
The profile of Burmese who have entered Thailand in search of work to feed themselves illustrates the current predicament. "Some of the migrant workers here used to be teachers, nurses, government sector employees, factory workers and farmers," he told IPS.
Authorities demand cheap rice from farmers
Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Local authorities in Arakan state and Bago division are demanding cheap rice from farmers for military rations, despite the junta's claims they would no longer buy rice direct from farmers.
In Taunggok township, Arakan state, township authorities are buying 2 tin (about 8 litres) of rice per acre of farmland from farmers in four village groups in Ywa Ma province.
The current price of the rice at local markets is between 4800 and 5000 kyat for each tin, but officials are only paying 2800 kyats, claiming that the rice is for military rations, and farmers complain they are losing hundreds of thousands of kyat from the sales.
Locals have assumed that the authorities' demands are intended as punishment for their political activism and enthusiastic support of the September 2007 protests.
Farmers in the affected area are now collecting signatures for a petition and preparing to file a complaint against the township Peace and Development Council chief.
In Bago division, where the current market price for rice paddy is 385,000 kyat for 100 tin (about 400 litres), local officials are only paying 300,000 kyats.
The farmers are also expected to cover the cost of delivering and hulling the rice.
Police force villagers to grow sunflower plants
By: Hseng Khio Fah
Police authorities have been forcing villagers in Mong Ngaw Township, Kyaukme District, northern Shan State to grow sunflower plants for cooking oil after harvest of their monsoon paddy.
Since October last year, villages in Mong Ngaw Township have been forced to grow sunflower plants and each village was ordered to grow at least 5 to 6 acres. In order to grow the plants, villagers need to buy sowing seeds with their own money. A can of the seeds is K1,200 (about US $ 1) and they need to spend at least K 1 million (US $ 800) per 5 - 6 acres per village.
"Currently, people are using their village funds to buy the seeds. But it is not enough, so each household have to pay another K 40,000 (US $ 32). If the money is not enough, then the village headmen will recollect again," said Nang Hsa, a villager from Manpint in the township.
Another villager, Sai Zing complained and said," I don't know why the junta always wants to oppress us. We always have to do as we are told. When they ask for money, we must pay, even we don't have money to buy food for us. I had no money to pay. That's the reason I came to Thailand. I came to ask for help from my relatives here. If I can't pay, the authorities will double amount of the fine."
Mong Ngaw Township is the home to many different religions and ethnic nationalities such as Lisu, Kachin, Shan, Palaung and Wa. Many of them are tea planters.
Burmese economic reform requires political change: expert
Mizzima News: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Only a change in the political system will usher in economic reforms because the economy is in the vice like grip of the Burmese military, said a Burmese economic expert.
According to the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal's economic freedom listing, Burma, which has been ruled by successive military governments for decades, is ranked near the bottom.
In the 2008 index of economic freedom, which is based on the assessment of 10 areas of the economy, Burma is listed as the 153rd country that enjoys 39.5 percent economic freedom.
Dr. Khin Maung Kyi, a retired Burmese economic expert based in Singapore, said the Burmese economy is largely controlled by the military junta and that accounts for the failure and instability of the economy.
He added that in order to improve the economy, greater freedom is needed, and that requires a change in the political system.
"There is no way to improve the economy of Burma, except by changing the political system. Unless that is done we will see more unpredictable problems as the economy is unstable," Khin Maung Kyi said.
According to the index report, Burma's economy is defined by severely low economic freedoms, with five of 10 areas, at least 35 points below the world average.
"Burma will not develop effectively without serious economic reforms," added the report.
Another factor that the Burmese economy suffers from is the lack of rule of law that can guarantee investment freedom, financial freedom, property rights, and freedom from corruption, the report said.
"The almost complete lack of a judicial system forces domestic and foreign companies to negotiate directly with the government to resolve disputes. Foreign investment is adjudicated in each instance with no clear guidelines for investors," added the report.
Khin Maung Kyi said the Burmese military junta, however, would be reluctant to implement any type of reforms in fear that it might endanger their political power.
"We all know this government [military junta] will never want to usher in any reforms, not even by negotiation or pressure because they do not want to lose their power," Khin Maung Kyi said.
Canadian sanctions having an effect in Burma - Sharda Vaidyanath
Epoch Times: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Burma's ruling military junta is definitely feeling some pressure from Canada's economic and trade sanctions, while foreign investments are stalling the restoration of democracy in the country, says Liberal MP Larry Bagnell.
Just back after a week-long fact-finding mission to the Thai-Burmese border, Bagnell, chair of Parliamentary Friends of Burma (PFOB) says the Burmese people want Canada to continue with sanctions.
"Burmese resistance leaders are very happy with the sanctions," he said.
"There's a good chance because of the instability put on Burma" that some Chinese and Singaporean investments in the country have slowed down, says Bagnell.
But he warns the situation is much worse than the world knows because rural and ethnic atrocities don't get world media attention.
While Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy leader who was made an honourary citizen of Canada last year, remains under house arrest, the main obstacle to restoring democracy in Burma may lie externally: foreign investments propping up the military junta.
Foreign money is funding planned trans-national pipelines and huge dams on the Salween and other rivers, providing a windfall for the dictatorship. This allows for the purchase of more weapons "to further oppress the people, and lead to massive displacements, forced labour, and other human rights abuses," Bagnell said in a news release.
The release made it clear that contrary to the international community's belief that the worst may be over in Burma, "atrocities in the ethnic states including rape, forced displacement, forced labour and extrajudicial killings are going on daily."
Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB) says it is the first time in about a decade that a Canadian politician has visited the region. He agrees with Bagnell's take on the situation.
"There's no sign of any progress in the political front."
In anticipation of an upcoming visit to Burma by Ibrahim Gambri, the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, representatives of the military junta did meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, but that was "just a political game to diffuse the situation," says Maung Htoo.
"We don't know the content of their talks."
The crisis in Burma escalated last September with the brutal crackdown of thousands of pro-democracy activists that included a large number of Buddhist monks. Many were beaten, tortured and jailed. It is estimated that hundreds were killed.
"I did get a sense that some prisoners were released but not necessarily out of goodwill, they had become a burden no one knows how many are missing or where they are," says Bagnell.
Maung Htoo says that while some activists held in city detention centers may have been released, many have gone into hiding and there's virtually no change to the oppression of people in rural areas.
While the international community and the UN sent a Security Council Presidential letter condemning the Burmese regime last fall, Canada imposed the strongest possible economic/trade and diplomatic sanctions yet on the Burmese military dictatorship in December.
Maxime Bernier, Minister of Foreign Affairs said at the time that Canada's economic sanctions against Burma are the toughest in the world.
"We believe that sanctions are the means by which we can best exert pressure on the military junta," he said.
With the exception of export of goods for humanitarian reasons to Burma, there is currently a ban on all exports and imports between Canada and Burma. The assets of Burmese nationals in Canada are frozen and there's a prohibition on Canadian financial services to and from Burma.
In addition, there's a prohibition on ships and aircraft docking and landing rights in Canada and Burma. There will also be no export of technical data and a ban on new investments.
While the total trade between Canada and Burma has fallen from an estimated $47 million in 2002 to just $8.5 million last year, there are still approximately seventeen companies investing or doing business directly or indirectly in Burma, says Maung Htoo.
"We are quite satisfied with the Canadian government's sanctions but there are lots of loopholes and the sanctions don't impact on existing investments which are still extensive."
CFOB and Foreign Affairs websites list many Canadian companies still doing business in Burma, but a lesser known fact is investments of Canadian Pension Plan funds in non-Canadian companies in Burma and endowment funds from Canadian universities.
"The government should do something about this," says Maung Htoo.
"We have been lobbying the government to remove these investments too," says Bagnell, adding that Ivanhoe Mining operations have shut down in Burma.
Bagnell says the Burmese people want UN efforts to intensify to enable a dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Burmese Opposition is also looking for "much more concrete support from ASEAN and nations of the region."
He says he discovered a lot on his trip "because I could talk to the people on the ground and find out exactly where things stood by asking different groups the same questions." The consistency mattered, and he is more clear and confident about the course of action that should be taken, he says.
As for neighboring countries, Bagnell says India is an example of where a lot of NGOs are supportive of pro-democracy groups in Burma and that grassroots pressure on the Indian government will be effective.
As word on the atrocities gets out in the international media, China, which supports the military junta, will also face international embarrassment and pressure, he says.
"I will be convening a meeting of the PFOB when Parliament returns, to discuss the various suggestions by the Burmese people and their organizations as to how we can do more to help this tragic situation."
An entire generation of youth in Burma is now passionately engaged in opposing their unelected military junta and that is very inspiring, adds Bagnell.
PFOB is not a Parliamentary committee but a non-partisan, multiparty group of 35 members including Senators and MPs (and associate members who need to apply or be invited to become members) with a mandate to support the Burmese democratic movement.
Chinese military trucks for Burma Army arrive on border - Myo Gyi
Mizzima News: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Shweli: About 100 Chinese manufactured military trucks have been arriving on the Sino-Burma border, Jie Gao since yesterday. These 'First Automobile Works' (FAW) trucks are to be handed over to the Burma Army.
This is the second batch of such truck transfer now stopping by at Jie Gao, opposite Muse. Burmese military analyst U Aung Kyaw Zaw based on the Sino-Burma border said that total number of FAW trucks to be handed over to the Burma Army is over 1,000. These vehicles are being given to Burma as a gift in batches.
Experts estimate that each truck costs around USD 9,000 (RMB 60,000) in the open market. The 'First Automobile Works' (FAW) is producing cars in collaboration with Japan's Toyota Company and Germany's Volkswagen Company.
India, China urged to pressure Burma to release lawmakers - Lisa Schlein
Voice of America: Thu 17 Jan 2008
The Inter-Parliamentary Union is calling for India and China to apply pressure on the Burmese government to release 26 imprisoned parliamentarians. The Inter-Parliamentary Union says India and China should follow the example of Venezuela and Brazil, which recently helped gain the release of two hostages held by rebels in Colombia. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.
The Inter-Parliamentary Union says it is delighted with the recent release of two Colombian hostages kidnapped by the FARC guerrilla group.
Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo, a member of the Colombian National Congress, was kidnapped in 2001 and Clara Rojas, assistant to former senator Ingrid Betancourt, was kidnapped in 2002 along with Betancourt.
But IPU Human Rights Committee chairwoman, Canadian Senator Sharon Carstairs, notes that five other parliamentarians along with hundreds of other people are still being held by the guerillas.
She says she hopes the same kind of good offices used by Venezuela and Brazil to obtain the freedom of the two hostages will result in the release of others. She says engagement by other governments is needed to achieve similar results in countries where parliamentarian rights are being violated.
"That is why we would put in a plea to both India and China to become more engaged and more involved in Myanmar," said Carstairs. "Now Myanmar has 13 parliamentarians who are still serving sentences for participation in the 1990 election. An additional 13 parliamentarians were arrested during the crackdown in the fall of 2007 and are still in custody. An additional six have died in custody and two were assassinated."
Carstairs says India, China and to some extent Thailand, who are major trading partners with Myanmar, are in a strong position to exert pressure on that country's military government to release imprisoned parliamentarians.
Philippines Senator Aquilino Pimentel says ASEAN countries also are in a position to help. He says there is a growing clamor among ASEAN members to pressure Burma to ease up on the repression suffered by their people.
"I would like to mention that our President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, our Foreign Minister, Alberto Romulo and the Indonesian members of the IPU particularly have strongly come out for a more effective sanction against the ruling junta in Myanmar unless they go back to the roadmap of democracy that should include all the key players for democratization in Burma including Aung San Suu Kyi," said Pimentel.
The parliamentarian group notes it has no legal power to force the Burmese government to release the imprisoned members of parliament. It only has moral authority. That is why, they say, it is essential that countries such as India and China use their power to persuade Burma to change its course.
Japan urges Myanmar to speed up democratic reforms, hold talks with Suu Kyi
Associated Press: Thu 17 Jan 2008
Japan urged Myanmar's junta on Thursday to hold talks with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and work harder to implement democratic reforms.
In a meeting Thursday, Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura also urged Nyan Win, his Myanmar counterpart, to cooperate with the United Nations on improving human rights conditions in the military-ruled nation, the Foreign Ministry said.
Nyan Win was in Japan to attend the first meeting of the foreign ministers of Japan and five countries along Southeast Asia's Mekong river Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to promote trade and investment.
"Myanmar's transition to a stable democratic nation is crucial for the development of the Mekong region as a whole," Komura told Nyan Win, the ministry said in a statement. "Myanmar's government should begin dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi to make concrete progress toward democracy."
Komura said Myanmar should allow the special U.N. envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, to revisit the country as soon as possible.
Suu Kyi's political party has called for her freedom and for the release of prisoners seized during a military crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests last year.
Nyan Win replied that the junta had made efforts to achieve national reconciliation and tried to hold "constructive" talks with Suu Kyi, the ministry said. He said Myanmar will continue cooperating with the U.N. and that Gambari, who last traveled to Myanmar in November, would be able to make another visit after mid-April, it said.
Security Council meets to discuss lack of progress in Myanmar
Agence France Presse: Thu 17 Jan 2008
The Security Council on Thursday huddled behind closed doors with UN troubleshooter Ibrahim Gambari to discuss what several diplomats described as "the lack of progress" toward democratic reform in Myanmar.
US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said that the 15-member body also wanted to discuss reports that Gambari, the UN's pointman in efforts to foster a dialogue betweeen Myanmar's ruling junta and the opposition, "has not been allowed this month to come back" to the country.
"We want to hear from him about that and talk about what we can do to incentivize the (military) regime to cooperate," he told reporters on his way to the meeting.
Gambari has visited Myanmar twice since September when the military junta crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years.
At least 15 people were killed and 3,000 arrested in the September violence, which sparked global outrage against the regime with the United States and the European Union tightening sanctions against the country's top rulers.
Thursday, several UN diplomats decried "the lack of progress" in Myanmar since the council in November pressed the ruling junta to "create conditions for dialogue and reconciliation by relaxing, as a first step, the conditions of detention of (opposition leader) Aung San Suu Kyi and by pursuing the release of political prisoners and detainees."
"The situation in Myanmar has been deteriorating since late last year," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We want to assist Gambari's mediation and see what we can do" to persuade the military regime to ease restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and start a genuine dialogue with the opposition, he added.