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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 31/1/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Think tank urges Indonesian initiative on Burma 2.. Activists to celebrate bad day of Junta leader 3.. Aung San Suu Kyi dissatisfied over talks with
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 31, 2008
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      1. Think tank urges Indonesian initiative on Burma
      2. Activists to celebrate ‘bad day' of Junta leader
      3. Aung San Suu Kyi 'dissatisfied' over talks with junta
      4. Burma's Suu Kyi meets colleagues
      5. "Prepare for worst," Suu Kyi tells Myanmar
      6. Myanmar monks remain defiant
      7. U Gambira charged under Unlawful Associations Act
      8. Forced Labor Used in Lake Construction in Southern Arakan
      9. UN Report Accuses Regime, Armed Ethnic Groups of Recruiting Children
      10. The China Factor...
      11. Army Offensive in Eastern Burma Creates Growing Humanitarian Crisis
      12. Gambari: We Don't Do 'Regime Change'
      13. Burma's haves and have-nothings

      Think tank urges Indonesian initiative on Burma
      The Nation: 31/1/08

      Indonesia should take a lead in hosting a regional meeting on Burma's political crisis, similar to the role in played in kick-starting the Cambodia peace-process in 1988, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group urged Thursday.

      "Indonesia could play a particularly important role, perhaps by hosting a regional meeting along the lines of the Jakarta Informal Meetings (JIM) which kick-started the Cambodia peace process in 1988 to 1989," said ICG president Gareth Evans, in the think tank's latest report on Burma titled Burma/Burma: After the Crisis.

      The report, a copy of which was made available in Bangkok, urges Asian governments to push for multi-party talks on how to solve Burma's political impasse in the wake of the ruling junta's brutal crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, that left at least 31 people dead and outraged the international community.

      The proposal was immediately welcomed by longtime Burma watchers.

      "I think it's a good idea, because Indonesia is one of the members of the United Nations Security Council at the moment and is also the most suitable in Asean to lead the process," said Win Min, a lecturer on Burma affairs at Chiang Mai University.

      Win Min noted that Indonesia is now led by President Susilo Bambang Yodoyono, a former army general who has a better chance of dealing with Burma's junta. Burma's military supremo Senior General Than Shwe last year tentatively agreed to start a political dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but the process has proven typically slow and reflective of the junta's resistance to any threat to their stranglehold on power, which they have held in Burma, also called Burma, since 1962.

      Suu Kyi in a rare meeting with her National League for Democracy (NLD) party leaders on Thursday expressed her pessimism with the dialogue process, advising her people "to hope for the best but prepare for the worst."

      The international community, led by United Nations special envoy for Burma Ibrahim Gambari, backed by European Union special envoy Piero Fussino, have been stepping up pressure on Asian governments to hasten and broaden the dialogue process.

      ICG has now also called on Asia to take the initiative.

      "Burma's neighbours, especially China and members of Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations), need to seize the moment," said John Virgoe, ICG's South East Asia Project Director.

      "Regional multi-party talks, coordinated with the UN Secretary General's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and backed by the wider international community, hold out the best hope for launching a meaningful process of national reconciliation and broader reform," said Virgoe.

      Of course, it would ultimately be up to Burma's ruling generals to agree to such a process, but observers opined that the time was ripe to pressure them.

      "They won't like it, but if Asean takes an initiative then China and India may follow," said Win Min.

      Thailand pushed for similar regional talks on Burma, dubbed the Bangkok Process, in 2004 when the country was still under the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra.

      "Thaksin did not coordinate well with China, India and the other Asean members so it was a failure, but the region might be more open to such a process now," said Win Min.//dpa


      Activists to celebrate ‘bad day' of Junta leader
      SHAN: 2008-01-31 07:01

      The 75th birthday of Burma Senior General Than Shwe will fall on the 2nd February 2008 and the celebration is being organized by Lanna Action for Burma (LAB) on the 1st of February, 2008 to wish him an ‘Un-happy Bad Day', from 10:30 to 11:30 at Chiang Mai University's Social Science Building 4.

      "Today, thousands of Burma supporters all over the world are holding events against Than Shwe" and this event is "to make sure Than Shwe has an Unhappy Bad Day, rather than a Happy Birthday", wrote the leaflet released by LAB.

      LAB encourages supporters to sing "Unhappy Bad Day", sign petition to ask Thai government to withdraw Thai support for Than Shwe, send Bad Day wishes to Than Shwe and support democracy in Burma.

      A previous campaign event organized by LAB last year was in December named "Panty Power Campaign" where participants were urged to throw women panties or send them to their nearest Burmese embassies around the world. It is believed that Burma's generals hold a superstitious belief that their power can be removed through contact with articles used by women below the navel.


      Aung San Suu Kyi 'dissatisfied' over talks with junta
      Mizzima News 30 January 2008

      Written by Mungpi

      Noble peace laureate opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under detention has expressed her dissatisfaction with the current pace of talks for political reforms in Burma, spokesmen of her party the National League for Democracy said on Wednesday.

      The Burmese democracy icon told her party leaders in no uncertain terms during a rare meeting today, that she is frustrated over the lack of progress on talks for political reforms in the country with the ruling junta. The meetings with the military junta's Liaison Minister have not been fruitful.

      Nyan Win, NLD spokesperson, who was among the seven NLD leaders who met detained the party secretary today, said, "She is not satisfied with the current pace of talks. She would like to see concrete progress."

      For the second time in three months, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed a rare meeting with her party leaders for 90 minutes in the military guest house in Rangoon.

      In the wake of the meeting, the junta's Liaison Minister Aung Kyi was said to have met Aung San Suu Kyi for the fifth time, since he was appointed mediator between Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta Supremo Snr. Gen. Than Shwe.

      Aung San Suu Kyi said, while the meetings, both with the NLD leaders and Aung Kyi, do not show any sign of progress, "Let's hope for the best and prepare for the worst," Nyan Win quoted her as saying.

      In the course of the meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi briefed them about the details of her fourth meeting with Aung Kyi but expressed concern that the meetings, including the second meeting with party leaders, might give rise to "false hope", Nyan Win said.

      Aung San Suu Kyi told Aung Kyi that the talks must include representatives of Burma's many ethnic groups, who are fighting for autonomy or independence for the last five decades.

      "She also said talks should not be delayed for too long," said Nyan Win adding that NLD had asked the regime to allow party leaders to have frequent meetings with her to discuss party affairs as well as the current status of the talks.

      The talks, which began in the aftermath of the bloody crackdown on protesters in September, have not yielded any meaningful dividend, Nyan Win said.

      The monk-led protest in September, which was the biggest threat to the Burmese junta in nearly two decades, was brutally suppressed by the iron fisted regime. The UN said at least 31 people died and 74 went missing during the crackdown, but activists believe the number to be higher.

      In a bid to counter international outrage, the Burmese junta, allowed visits by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and UN rights expert Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to the strife torn country.

      Following the visits by the UN envoys, the junta assured that it will stop arresting and detaining dissidents, a promise it did not live up to.

      The police on Tuesday arrested a Burmese blogger, Nay Phone Latt, from an internet café in Rangoon, his friends and colleagues said. Similarly, a Burmese poet, Saw Wai, was arrested last week for publishing a Valentine's Day poem, which had the words "Power Crazy Than Shwe" when the initial words of the lines were put together.


      Burma's Suu Kyi meets colleagues
      BBC: 30/1/08

      Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been allowed to meet political allies for the second time since last year's bloody crackdown.

      Officials took Ms Suu Kyi to a military guest house to meet seven top members of her National League for Democracy.

      She last left house arrest to meet colleagues in November 2007.

      That meeting followed sustained international pressure on Burma's leaders after troops used violence to end anti-government protests.

      At least 31 people died in the crackdown and thousands were detained. Hundreds of people are thought to remain in custody.

      After the violence, the United Nations called for greater dialogue between the ruling military junta and the Suu Kyi-led pro-democracy movement.

      A government liaison, Aung Kyi, was appointed to negotiate with Ms Suu Kyi.

      The two have since held four meetings, but it remains unclear whether they are yielding any progress.

      Ms Suu Kyi was also meeting Aung Kyi, reports from Burma said.

      The NLD won elections in 1990 but has never been allowed to take power. Ms Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest in Burma's commercial capital, Rangoon.

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7216990.stm


      "Prepare for worst," Suu Kyi tells Myanmar – Aung Hla Tun
      Reuters: Wed 30 Jan 2008

      Detained Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is frustrated at a lack of talks on political reform with the ruling military junta since last year's bloody crackdown on dissent, her party said on Wednesday.

      After a rare meeting between the Nobel peace laureate and leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD), spokesman Nyan Win said Suu Kyi held out little hope that unprecedented international pressure on the generals would bear fruit.

      "Let's hope for the best and prepare for the worst," he quoted her as saying, adding she worried that Wednesday's 90-minute meeting, and another immediately afterwards with junta liaison minister Aung Kyi, might give rise to "false hope."

      Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for more than 12 of the last 18 years, also passed on details of her fourth and last encounter with Aung Kyi on January 11.

      Nyan Win said she had told Aung Kyi, appointed as go-between after the September crackdown, that talks must include representatives of Myanmar's many ethnic groups, which have been struggling for autonomy or independence for five decades.

      Suu Kyi also told her colleagues she feared she was being strung along by the junta, a group of generals who have turned promise-breaking into an art form, not least by ignoring their humiliating 1990 election defeat.

      "She is not satisfied with meetings with Aung Kyi and with the lack of any time frame," Nyan Win said.

      In another sign of junta intransigence, NLD number two Tin Oo, who like Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since May 2003, was barred from attending the meeting, held at a government guest house under heavy armed guard.

      Ever since the crackdown, in which the United Nations says at least 31 people were killed, diplomats from Beijing to London to Washington have been pushing the junta to hold talks with Suu Kyi about moving towards civilian rule.

      Despite admitting U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari twice, the generals have failed to embark on any sort of program of negotiations, and human rights groups say they are continuing to arrest dissidents and democracy activists.

      Police arrested a popular political blogger, Nay Phone Latt, at a Yangon Internet cafe on Tuesday, a local journalist who asked not to be named told Reuters.

      The U.N.'s Gambari, who wanted to return to Myanmar before the end of 2007, is still waiting for a visa.

      Suu Kyi and the NLD won an election landslide in 1990 but were denied power by the military, which has ruled in one form or another since a 1962 coup. During that time, the once-promising economy has collapsed.


      Myanmar monks remain defiant
      Al-Jazeera.net: Wed 30 Jan 2008

      The crackdown by Myanmar's military rulers has left few monks in the monasteries of Sittwe. The monasteries in Sittwe are half empty, only the children remain.

      Last August it was in this coastal city in the northwest of Myanmar that the monks led the first protests against the military government.

      The protests quickly spread to across the country and to Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, before the military turned its guns on the demonstrators.

      Now those who took part in last year's anti-government protests are scattered and on the run. But despite the crackdown, the dissident monks are preparing for another showdown.

      At a secret location Al Jazeera met the 24-year-old monk who organised the first protest.

      "There will be another demonstration," he says. "Monks became men after the demonstration and they are angry and depressed after the arrests."

      He says the monks hopes had been buoyed by the international attention last year's protests received and he is ready to spread the word again once the protests resume.

      "I had a small generator in my village and I sold it to buy a second-hand camera," he told Al Jazeera. "If the chance comes again, I can record what happens."

      "Eventually, our own people will have to decide our own future"

      For now though, he is in hiding. When he went to his village after the protests were crushed by the military the local authorities already had his picture and an arrest warrant.

      His friends who tried to escape across the border to Bangladesh were arrested on the way. Footage obtained by Al Jazeera shows some of those arrested being paraded in front senior clergy who support the government.

      Activists allege some prisoners were abused and where they are now remains unclear.

      "Those who were arrested were tortured in prison," one activist told Al Jazeera.

      "Political prisoners are beaten and killed, and we heard that even though they provided rice it was mixed with lead. It's a kind of torture, isn't it?"

      Hundreds of protesters have been rounded up and tortured, activists say. Other dissident leaders believe that the monks' actions last year have already weakened the government.

      As a result a loose alliance has developed between different groups opposed to the military regime - among them, members of the student-led uprising in 1988 when Myanmar was known by its former name, Burma.

      Al Jazeera met the acting leader of the "88 Generation" group of activists, known by his code name Phoenix.

      "The problem here is not that the government are strong but that we the opposition are not strong enough," he says.

      "Eventually, our own people will have to decide our own future. There will be time when all people, all the citizens of Burma, will stand up and say something against the government. There will be time, I believe."

      The challenges confronting Phoenix and his colleagues are enormous.

      There are different types of surveillance – government informers in every street and people fear that the walls have ears.

      Even inside their families, people cannot talk aloud because of the fear of informers, members of the government militia and other forms of surveillance.

      On the surface life seems normal, but you can feel the constant fear everywhere.

      Many people that Al Jazeera spoke to seemed deeply depressed by the brutal suppression of what has been called "the saffron revolution".

      Now Myanmar's democrats must rebuild and start again.


      U Gambira charged under Unlawful Associations Act – Aye Nai
      DVB: Wed 30 Jan 2008

      U Gambira, the leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance who is currently being held in Insein prison, has been charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, according to family members.

      U Gambira was arrested on 4 November in Sintgaing township, Magwe division, for his role in instigating the monk-led protests in September last year.

      He has been charged with violating section 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment for membership of an unlawful association, attending meetings or fundraising.

      A member of U Gambira's family said she had found out about the charge on 28 January when she visited him in prison.

      U Gambira's younger brother Ko Aung Kyaw Kyaw, who is secretary of the National League for Democracy in Pauk township, Magwe division, was arrested on 17 October and will face the same charge.

      Ko Aung Kyaw Kyaw's wife Ma Thandar said that the two brothers were being held separately.

      "U Gambira is now in a special detention area of Insein prison and Ko Aung Kyaw Kyaw has been in the main ward," Ma Thandar said.

      "They have both been given court appointments on 4 February, but we don't know yet whether this will be at Insein prison court or outside."


      Forced Labor Used in Lake Construction in Southern Arakan
      Narinjara News: Wed 30 Jan 2008

      People in two villages in Thandwe Township of Arakan State have been forced by township authorities to work on the construction of lakes if they are unable to contribute financially to the project, reports a social worker from Thandwe.

      He said, "The authority ordered two villages to contribute 3.5 million kyat to dig two lakes for drinking water reservoirs, but people are unable to comply with this demand due to poverty. So authorities have forced villagers to work on the lakes' construction."

      A source from Thanwe said that the government had allocated 3.5 million kyat from state revenues to construct two lakes at two villages - Greataw and Kauk Kyi - and also ordered the two villages to contribute 3.5 million kyat for the construction.

      However the villagers are unable to comply with the government's demanded money, so the authority has used instead used them as forced labor to make up the difference.

      All villagers from the two villages, located 20 miles away from Thandwe district town, are now working on the lake construction, with the lakes scheduled to be finished before this forthcoming rainy season.

      In Arakanese traditions, people strongly believe that if they contribute their wages and souls to public works such as reservoir and bridge or road construction, they will gain great merit for their lives.

      The authorities have now taken advantage of this belief in forcing people to work on the construction of the lake reservoirs without compensation, said the social worker.


      UN Report Accuses Regime, Armed Ethnic Groups of Recruiting Children – Lalit K Jha/United Nations
      Irrawaddy: Wed 30 Jan 2008

      A United Nations report released on Tuesday accused the Burmese armed forces, the country's Tatmadaw, and armed ethnic groups of recruiting children to serve as soldiers.

      The groups named in the report are the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Karen National Union-Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council; Kachin Independence Army (KIA); Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), Karenni Army (KA), Karenni National People's Liberation Front (KNPLF), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).

      This is more than double the number of armed ethnic groups named in last year's "Children and Armed Conflict" report, which listed only three—the KNLA, KA and United Wa State Army.

      In the 45-page report, submitted to the UN Security Council and General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon alleged that the Burmese armed forces have also been responsible for killing and maiming children and denying humanitarian access.

      Besides Burma, the report said child soldiers were being recruited in recruitment in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Uganda.

      The report recommended the use of a range of measures, including bans on military aid and travel restrictions, against parties to armed conflict who continued to systematically commit grave violations against children.

      It also urged the Security Council to refer violations against children in armed conflict to the International Criminal Court.

      The report said that, despite regime denials, reliable reports from UN partners indicate that attempts to recruit children forcibly for Tatmadaw service were still occurring. "It is difficult to systematically verify the extent of recruitment or the number of children in military camps owing to access limitations," it added.

      The report said the UN had not received any reports of new recruitment of children by the KNLA, KA or KNPP in the period under review.

      However, the limitations imposed by the junta on UN access to areas of operations and on dialogue with the KNLA and KA hampered efforts to verify whether those groups had in fact stopped recruiting children.

      Reports had been received indicating that a breakaway faction of the KNU, the KNU-KNLA Peace Council, had recruited children from the Mae La refugee camp and villages in the border areas.

      "Sources suggest that several boys were deceived into crossing the border by promises of pay and participation in celebrations but were subsequently coerced into joining the armed group," the report said. "While most of the children have returned, four boys are reportedly still missing. It is not known whether the KNU-KNLA Peace Council continues recruitment, and the UN has not been able to verify the reports of recruitment."

      Reports had been received of a "one child per family" recruitment policy by the KIA. In early 2007, the UN verified a report of a 15-year-old girl recruited by the KIA when she returned to her home village from school in Myitkyina, Kachin State. "To date, the girl remains with KIA," the report said.

      Eyewitness accounts had been received of children serving with the United Wa State Army in northern Shan State, despite the UWSA's recent statement to the UN special representative that no children had been recruited since the ceasefire agreement reached by the group with the Burmese regime.

      "There are reports of Shan State Army-South recruiting children as part of a new mandatory recruitment policy," the report said. "Children are also recruited and used by Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang) in northern Shan State."

      Information had also been received that children were serving with the KNPLF and DKBA. "However, in-depth monitoring is hampered by access limitations to areas of operations of these groups," the report said.

      Meanwhile Maj-Gen Thura Myint Aung, who heads a panel charged with ending the practice of forcing minors into the army, told that from 2002 to 2007, officials had returned 792 children from the military to their parents.

      The junta's mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar quoted him as saying the authorities had "taken action" against 43 military personnel, including some officers. The paper, however, gave no details on the punishments.


      The China Factor...
      The Financial Times, UK: 01.29.2008

      A few weeks after the protests last year in Burma, a Chinese diplomat approached an influential Burmese advocate in New York and asked why the Burmese dubbed their protest the "Saffron Revolution."

      "The diplomat was obviously quite uncomfortable with this particular name, which he whispered to me," said the Burmese advocate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Chinese are very sensitive to the 'colour revolutions'," she added.

      In the wake of successful "colour revolutions" such as Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution - victories of nonviolent democracy movements in post-communist countries - Beijing is anxious to prevent similar occurrences at home or among its neighbours.

      Then a country in its own backyard triggered the "Saffron Revolution", and the military's subsequent crackdown captured the world's attention. Along with the crisis in Burma, China was drawn into the spotlight with unflattering coverage in international media, and diplomatic pressure increased to withdraw its support of one of the world's most odious regimes. Public outcry across the globe called on China to assume a larger role in helping to resolve the crisis.

      However, contrary to common perceptions, China is not a patron that pulls the strings, and the self-isolated, delusive Burmese regime is not a puppet. In fact, China has limited sway with the junta's generals. The relationship runs in both directions. This complicates Burma's problems and their resolution.

      Of course, China has more power and influence on the generals than any other country. It also intends to use that leverage to its own benefit.

      According to Chinese diplomats, Beijing has been gradually changing its Burma policy since the removal of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004, and this has accelerated since the recent deadly crackdown in Burma. However, the diplomats warn that the policy shift should not be expected to be quick or dramatic. It will be slow and well-calculated.

      "Than Shwe and Maung Aye are more intransigent than former dictator Ne Win, and they often do incredibly silly things," said a Chinese official during a meeting with a Burmese opposition activist. "China knows that Burma will not prosper under their leadership."

      China's special envoy, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, was sent to Burma in November. He met with the junta's top leader, Senior-General Than Shwe, and asked the military "to resolve the pending issues through consultation, so as to speed up the democratisation process."

      However, the regime responded that it will go at its own pace in the unilateral implementation of its "Seven-Step Road Map," according to a Western diplomat.

      "The Chinese keep telling us that the international community is overstating their influence with the Burmese generals," said the diplomat. "Beijing says they don't have ability to tell the regime what to do."

      Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese analyst living on the China-Burma border, disagrees with that interpretation.

      "Persuasion, without power backup, will not work. The soft-soft approach should be changed. China must show the stick part of its diplomacy," said Aung Kyaw Zaw.

      Tipping Toward Responsibility

      At the present time, Beijing is clearly not ready to apply real pressure to the junta. It still believes that working to resolve Burma's problems is secondary to pursuing its principal economic and strategic interests.

      But simultaneously, China would like to solidify an international role as "a responsible stakeholder."

      The time has come for concerted international diplomatic pressure on China to tip the balance toward responsibility. China must consider the sentiments of Thucydides: An amoral foreign policy is neither practical nor prudent.

      At the same time, it should be obvious that the United States and the European Union cannot outsource Burma's transition to democracy to China, which itself lacks democracy.

      The West's most powerful countries should coordinate with China to facilitate a real transition in conflict-ridden Burma.

      However, diplomacy alone is not enough to compel China to play an effective role. Public action on a global scale is needed.

      "China was very annoyed to see the wave of protests taking place outside its embassies in major cities around the world in the wake of the September protests," said Aung Kyaw Zaw. "More importantly, they were really worried when demonstrators linked Burma's cause with a 2008 Olympic boycott."

      China is very anxious to prevent any negative effect on the Olympic games. The vice mayor of Beijing warned in October 2007 that any move to link China's role in Burma to a boycott of the 2008 Olympics would be "inappropriate and unpopular."

      China's leadership might even accommodate its Burma policy and give more support to the UN's Burma mediation role if they sensed a possibility of real damage to the much-hyped gala this summer, even though it might be a tactical and temporal accommodation.

      However, the Burmese opposition has so far failed to seize and exploit this opportunity effectively. During the peak of Burma 's "Saffron Revolution", The Washington Post labelled one of its editorials the "Saffron Olympics", highlighting the dynamics of an international campaign against the summer Olympics. But that effort has run out of steam.

      "The Burmese opposition in exile cannot accelerate the campaign in a consistent manner," said Nyo Ohn Myint, the head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area). "Our campaigners are going after ad hoc protests without a focus. We fail to form a wider coalition with other Olympic detractors. Unless we can launch a coordinated international grassroots action, China will not be swayed to our direction."

      Beijing plans to start its Olympic festivities on 8/8/08, a date that is surprisingly similar to the 20th anniversary of Burma's "Four Eight ( 8/8/88 ) Democracy Movement."

      Whether or not the heirs to the movement can make the most out of this coincidence remains to be seen.

      * Min Zin (The Financial Times, UK) is a freelance journalist.)


      Army Offensive in Eastern Burma Creates Growing Humanitarian Crisis
      VOA: 01.29.2008

      Reports from Karen State in eastern Burma say that the army's annual dry season offensive against the Karen National Union is under way. The KNU has been fighting for freedom from the military government for almost 60 years. In the past two years, rights groups say the Burmese army has intensified a scorched earth campaign in Karen State, resulting in a growing humanitarian crisis.

      The war between the Burmese army and the Karen ethnic minority in Burma is thought to be the world's longest running civil war. War broke out shortly after independence from Britain in 1949 when the Karen were denied autonomy from the government in Rangoon, dominated by ethnic Burmese.

      Burma's military government justifies its harsh rule in part by saying it is necessary to keep different ethnic groups from trying to split the country. Over the years, more than 17 ethnic groups have fought the government, although in the past decade several signed peace agreements. But in Karen State the fighting continues and villagers are caught in the middle.

      Human rights groups say the Burmese army uses scorched-earth tactics to deny Karen guerrillas a support base. Villagers are killed or forced to flee, livestock are shot, homes are burned and landmines are laid to prevent people from returning.

      Aid groups say that about 370 villagers have been killed since late 2006. About 30,000 have been displaced.

      Debbie Stothard is the coordinator for the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. She told us, "In the past two and a half years we have seen no let up in the attack – it's no longer a seasonal offensive, it's an on-going intense offensive and that has meant that people – many, many communities – have not been able to grow rice for two years. Twenty-five thousand people are facing imminent starvation."

      Human rights groups say that the army often uses captured civilians as forced labor. The Karen say they want peace but, without a peace agreement, they will keep fighting.

      Johnny is the commander of the KNU's seventh brigade based on the Thai-Burma border. "Even though we are less in number, what we need is sacrifice, perseverance and unity, so then one day we will certainly obtain our victory and surely achieve our goal," he says.

      Sann Aung is a cabinet minister with Burma's government-in-exile, based in Bangkok. He tells VOA, "They would like to negotiate a ceasefire. They have had many talks with the military regime, but the military regime demands their total surrender. That is not acceptable to the KNU [Karen National Union]. That is the situation."

      Aid groups expect that in the coming months, thousands more Karen will be forced to flee and more lives will be lost.


      Gambari: We Don't Do 'Regime Change'
      Author: Newsweek - Date: 01.26.2008

      Ibrahim Gambari is the U.N. point man on one of the world's toughest regimes to charm, Burma. Since taking the job in May, Gambari has visited Rangoon several times, urging the junta to respect human rights and recognize the opposition led by Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. His last two visits came after the bloody September crackdown on monks protesting the rising price of fuel. Gambari is one of few outsiders to meet the secretive and isolated junta supremo, Than Shwe. He spoke with NEWSWEEK'S Patrick Falby on the state of Burma. Excerpts:

      FALBY: You briefed the U.N. Security Council before it issued its first condemnation of the junta, then met Than Shwe. How'd it go?

      GAMBARI: Um, I was received. [ Laughs] The secretary-general [Ban Ki-moon] asked me to deliver some very tough messages to the senior general. In the very hierarchical system that they have, it was important for Than Shwe to hear them: demands for a stop to the killings; a removal of the curfew; removal of the military from the streets of major cities Yangon [Rangoon] and Mandalay; release of persons detained as a result of the crisis, but also release of political detainees, including especially, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was, of course, taken aback because they're pretty isolated. They were somewhat surprised about how the world thinks of them. From their point of view, this was a small minority of monks instigated from outside.

      FALBY: You've gone to Burma twice since the crackdown. How have negotiations gone?

      GAMBARI: We suggested a commencement of dialogue—the appointment of a government liaison officer to talk with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We suggested appointment of a review commission to look at the Constitution. The other suggestion was to establish a poverty-alleviation commission to address the root causes of socioeconomic discontent because, after all, it was the increase in fuel prices that triggered the crisis. They did some of the things; others are still pending.

      FALBY: Many people say these half steps show the regime is not cooperating.

      GAMBARI: I don't get involved with that. I just want to judge it by what they commit to do and what they do and what we want to do.

      FALBY: They haven't lived up to their commitments.

      GAMBARI: No, no they haven't but …

      FALBY: You're still optimistic?

      GAMBARI: I refuse to say whether I'm optimistic or pessimistic. We told them, "These are the things you need to do. I will come back, I will check it on my checklist." There are not many checks yet. But the curfew has ended, the military has been removed from the streets, a large number of detained people have been released—although I was unhappy with the fact that some of them were rearrested or new people were arrested. So far, they've taken some steps—not as far as we want and not on all fronts—but they have taken some steps.

      FALBY: Aren't you worried about looking soft on an international pariah?

      GAMBARI: No. Either you change the regime or you change the behavior of the regime. I don't have the instruments to change the regime. So if you want to change the behavior of a regime, what do you do? You have to talk.

      FALBY: So are you setting any deadlines for talks?

      GAMBARI: The talks are long overdue. The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners is long overdue. Those are also the best way to avoid more sanctions.

      FALBY: Have sanctions worked at all?

      GAMBARI: Maybe so, maybe not. But if they are combined with real engagement and with some incentives at the appropriate time, they could work.

      FALBY: The junta argues that it is progressing with its "Seven-Point Roadmap." Do you agree?

      GAMBARI: You can't have a roadmap to democracy that excludes the [opposition's National League for Democracy]. The first step was the national convention, which took 14 years, but they're finished. The next is the constitutional drafting committee, which they have established. The people of Myanmar [Burma], the neighboring countries and the world can't wait another 14 years for the next step.

      FALBY: Many activists say that's not enough.

      GAMBARI: I was designated special envoy working on this matter only last May. May! This thing's been going on for decades. My predecessor was not allowed in the country for two and a half years. The special rapporteur for human rights was not allowed in for four and a half years. So we're not celebrating, but even if you're not satisfied, what is the alternative? The U.N. is not in the business of changing regimes. What we have the capacity for and the mandate for is to change the behavior of the regime. That's why we have consultations with all the key actors: China, India, ASEAN countries, the United States, the European Union, Japan, Australia.

      FALBY: What are the attitudes of those actors?

      GAMBARI: If there's any unanimity, it's in support of the secretary-general's office. All of them.

      FALBY: Even China, with all its interests in Burma?

      GAMBARI: Especially China. They don't want the situation to get out of hand. They have 2,400 kilometers of border and a substantial economic relationship. As a matter of fact, each time I've had difficulty getting the visas, China has been very helpful persuading the authorities to issue visas.


      Burma's haves and have-nothings
      United Press International (Asia), China: 01.25.2008

      Within the last decade, the cost of a bus trip across Rangoon, a cup of tea, or a bottle of peanut oil has risen tenfold. One sack of the lowest quality rice in Burma today sells for around US$12: half a month's wages for a construction worker; an unimaginable amount for the children picking over rubbish heaps in search of a cabbage leaf or some discarded grains.

      Persistent acute increases in the cost of living across Burma have been spurred on by the rise in fuel prices of last August, which precipitated nationwide protests the following month.

      But while the spreading poverty has been documented and raised by international groups working in the country, the contrasting displays of extravagant riches by its small elite have attracted less attention abroad. In the country, they are increasingly hard to ignore.

      Small fleets of luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles and sedans now navigate Burma's pockmarked highways and byways alongside the ubiquitous battered Japanese busses and decades-old passenger vehicles.

      In parts of Rangoon, up-market boutiques full of the latest electrical products and European cosmetics huddle close together against a backdrop of dimly-lit general stores and market stalls.

      The property pages of the Myanmar Times buzz with excited chatter about the size and cost of mansions that are filling empty spaces or taking over from older, less ostentatious houses in the few parts of the city with a regular supply of electricity. Much of the paper's remaining contents consist of features on the people who occupy these columned monoliths, whereas no mention is made of those who build them or the conditions under which they live.

      This gap between the haves and have-nots has grown so wide in the last few years that there are now said to be only two classes in Burma: "htarsaya mashitelu" and "sarsaya mashitelu"; those who have so much stuff they have nowhere to put it, and those who don't eat.

      Around the world, statisticians and social scientists have debated the extent to which relative financial inequality undermines the effective working of a country. Some have argued that whereas a wealth gap has a strongly detrimental effect in some it makes little difference in others.

      Burma seems very far removed from all this. The reason is that the wealth gap there is not relative at all. It is a gap between those who switch on the lights at night and those who cannot, those whose children study and those whose children work, those who get medical treatment -- preferably in Bangkok -- and those who stay sick; those who eat and those who do not. It is a radical division between haves and have-nothings. There are no grounds for talk of relative difference.

      It is important to bear in mind that this gap also exists within the army. Historian Mary Callahan has observed that whereas the difference in living conditions between higher and lower military personnel was a decade or so ago quite modest, it is now both dramatic and highly problematic. And although it has not yet caused a split within the armed forces of the sort that may threaten the junta's hold on power, it is exacerbating tensions and undermining the ability of senior officers to manage their subordinates.

      Extreme poverty and extreme luxury together make a heady mix. So far, the protests against worsening economic conditions in Burma have been concentrated on the former, and have been admirably restrained, even in the face of uncompromising violence. But if the regime persists in denying legitimate complaint about its abject impoverishing of millions while at the same time blatantly enriching itself and its minions, then public displays of resentment may soon become more vociferous and less tolerant, more pointed and less generous.

      In that event, the regime will have only itself to blame.

      AWZAR THI [United Press International (Asia), China]
      (Awzar Thi is the pen name of a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission with over 15 years of experience as an advocate of human rights and the rule of law in Thailand and Burma. His Rule of Lords blog can be read at http://ratchasima.net )


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