[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 6/2/08
- Urgent need for reform
- How many monks must die before The UN moves?
- Suu Kyi's party invites pro-junta ethnic groups for talks
- Monastery stops free education service
- Implement reforms or "Prepare for the worst": activists
- Farmlands confiscated for tea plantation
- More Karen refugees flee to Thai border
- Activists call for Beijing Olympics boycott
- Dangers for journalists in Burma on the rise
- Naypyitaw paralyzed as an ailing Than Shwe clings to power
- It's Do-or-Die time for NLD
- Burma's censors are now also code-breakers
- Calls to reform exiled government grow
- Burma tourism down
Burma: Urgent need for reform
The latest weaseling actions of the ruling Burmese military dictators have been widely condemned, and rightly so. The regime specifically broke a solemn promise to the United Nations by secret arrests of people it considers to be dangerous dissidents, known in most countries as democrats. It further cut off a beaten-down population from the information and cross-border contacts of the internet. It has completely stalled the talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after promising they would lead to reconciliation. Any of these is a shameful act. Taken together, they show that the Burmese regime has no intention of reform.
All of this presents a difficult problem for the United Nations, the decent members of the world community and especially for Burma's neighbours.
There is only so much pressure that can be put on a brutal dictatorship without harming the innocent people it is repressing. US and European government sanctions have proved to be largely tokenism. The generals who rule Burma have little need for US bank accounts, and little taste for visiting Europe. Still, it is discouraging when governments openly aid the Burmese dictators in search of profits, influence or both.
China has long been a master at supporting Burma and providing aid, even as Beijing claims it does not interfere in any country's internal affairs. No other government has quite matched the hypocrisy of the Chinese, but several Asean neighbours have come close. Singapore has long provided financial services to highly questionable Burmese businessmen known to be close to the ruling regime.
The Thaksin government contracted to install satellite communications that benefited Shin Corporation, while supplying sweet loans to Burma to finance the deal.
Now New Zealand has joined the enablers of Burmese dictatorship. Prime Minister Helen Clark argued unpersuasively yesterday about a Thaksinesque cellphone project by state-owned Kordia. It may have been a small project, but the New Zealand firm installed mobile phone equipment for Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. Mrs Clark argued that the facilities would be used by democrats to get the news of anti-regime actions out to the world. It is difficult to believe Mrs Clark is so isolated from reality that she thinks a regime that closed down the entire system of internet blogs to stop one democratic writer, would allow others to send photos and images on their own cellphone system.
Daw Suu Kyi, who has long supported commercial boycotts even if they ultimately harm Burmese people, said her sham talks with government liaison minister Aung Kyi have gone nowhere. This should not surprise anyone, but it should serve as a warning. The word of the regime has little meaning.
As reported last Saturday in these pages, Burma "is playing hardball" with the United Nations. It has expelled a permanent representative, refused permission for UN officials to travel _ and of course it has lied to UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari about talks, about Daw Suu Kyi and about arresting dissidents.
The way forward is difficult. But it is increasingly hard to credit calls, such as that by Australia's ex-foreign minister Gareth Evans last week. In a report for the International Crisis Group (ICG), Mr Evans played down further sanctions, emphasising the need for incentives to the Burmese generals to reform.
Burma may hate megaphone diplomacy, but there is evidence it works. For example, the regime stopped killing monks when the murders attracted world attention last year. Deserving support is the ICG call to hold an international meeting in Indonesia, along the lines of the one that kick-started talks on Cambodia in 1988. Pro-democracy neighbours like Thailand have a responsibility to support diplomatic pressure on Burma. But democratic countries like Japan, the United States and members of the European Community have a duty to keep the pressure. Most especially, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon must use the bully pulpit to urge the dictators to change. Without all this, the generals simply will not reform.
'How many monks must die before The UN moves?' - Marwaan Macan-Markar
Inter Press Service: Tue 5 Feb 2008
Mae Sot, Thailand - For one Buddhist monk from Burma, the brutal crackdown of peaceful street protests in the country last September was anything but a victory for the military regime.
The force used by the junta exposed its true character to the world. "The international community really got to know how oppressive the Burmese military regime is," said the monk, leaning slightly forward on the chair he was seated on as if to emphasise the point. "That is one of the advantages of our struggle."
"There were many people who were killed monks, students, the public when the military brutally attacked the people who were demonstrating," he went on. "It also showed why the military regime is responsible for the way Burmese Buddhism has been treated. The history is ugly."
But the junta is not the only body that comes to mind as he reflects on what has happened over four months after the crackdown of street protests, the likes of which have not been seen in nearly two decades in that South-east Asian country. "I want to ask the U.N. Security Council how many monks and people have to be sacrificed before the U.N. Security Council intervenes," he continues.
And the Ven. Ashin Kovida is the ideal candidate to speak out against both entities. He was in Rangoon when the junta ordered its heavily armed troops to fire at the unarmed demonstrators. He was also the head of the committee of monks that helped shape the march of thousands through the streets of Rangoon during that brief September cry for economic relief and political freedom.
The march that the 15-member Buddhist Monks' Representative Committee led had over 100,000 people on to the streets of Rangoon, a large number of whom were monks from the former capital wearing deep maroon robes. According to the United Nations, 31 people were killed and hundreds were arrested during the crackdown. But opposition and human rights groups place a much higher casualty rate, with over 100 deaths and over a thousand protesters arrested.
The monks were among the victims, too, states one group, the All-Burma Monks Alliance. Three monks were killed, one of whom was beaten to death, while another died after being tortured, it revealed in late January. The fate of 44 monks and nuns who were arrested when the military raided 53 monasteries across Burma, also known as Myanmar, still remain unknown, it added.
Such oppression appears to have enraged an already beleaguered population. "The people have continued to suffer as they did before September," Kovida said through an interpreter during an interview with IPS. "The struggle against the military regime will continue this year. There is a strong desire among the people to do so."
Yet the likelihood of Kovida being in the forefront of new public protests against the junta appears remote. For after the September protests, he had to flee his country for the safety of Mae Sot, a Thai town on the Thai-Burma border, to evade arrest.
It was a flight from oppression that took over three weeks. The thin, 24-year-old monk had to hide in a house some 40 miles out of Rangoon to evade the Burmese forces searching for him, with copies of his photograph in their hand. For his trip to the Thai border, Kovida had to let the hair on his shaved head grow, then have it tinted gold, and to complete the disguise of a hip teenager, he shed his robes for street clothes. He even sported a bracelet for added affect during the bus-ride to the border.
Currently, there are 23 monks in this border town who have fled Burma following the crackdown. They, like Kovida, are all young, in their 20s, confirming a view that gained ground during the September protests that it were the young angry monks from among the country's 400,000-strong Buddhist clergy who led the way to challenge the junta. And 10 of them, including Kovida, have applied to the U.N. refugee agency to seek political asylum.
But there is more to Kovida's story than that of a young monk who dared to take on one of this region's brutal regimes. It is a tale of political enlightenment of a Burmese who grew up in poverty in a small village of 20 houses in the western region of the country. When he arrived in Rangoon in 2003 to further his studies as a monk his only route to education he was marginally aware of the military's notorious record since grabbing power in a 1962 coup.
"During my free time I began to learn English at the British Council and at the American Centre, and through some friends I was able to see videotapes of what happened in '88," said Kovida, referring to the bloody crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising in Burma in August 1988, where some 3,000 pro-democracy activists were killed by the military.
That political education beyond the walls of the monastery soon led to a new train of thought. "I started to ask why there was such a big difference between the poor people in my village and the rich in the city," he said. "I wanted to know why there were so many poor people when Burma has so much natural wealth."
Before long, his journey of inquiry had led him to the obvious answer. "I realised that the fault was with our military government," he revealed. "I felt very angry thereafter and felt I had to do something."
The junta's decision to raise the price of oil by 500 percent overnight with no warning, last August, added to Kovida's growing rage. "We began to see more people suffering, children who could not afford to go to school, more children begging for food on the streets," he said. "Many monks could not ignore this because these were the people who always gave the monks food in the mornings."
Then came the trigger that saw the transformation of Kovida from a Rangoon outsider to the protest leader in the city. In early September, Burmese soldiers clashed with monks who were protesting against the spike in oil prices in the central town of Pakokku. The soldiers dragged away 10 of the 300 monks who had been protesting and beat them with bamboo sticks.
"The military regime failed to apologise for what was done in Pakkoku by the deadline the monks set, Sep. 17," said Kovida. "We then start to organise for a protest in Rangoon but realised there was no leadership. A new committee had to be set up."
It was out of such an atmosphere of rage and uncertainty that the Buddhist Monks' Representative Committee was born. And young Kovida stepped forward when the monks in Rangoon called for a leader to head the committee. "Our plan was for the monks to start marching and lead the crowds," he said. "We agreed that we had to be systematic. And the march had to be peaceful."
Suu Kyi's party invites pro-junta ethnic groups for talks
Agence France Presse: Tue 5 Feb 2008
Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party on Tuesday invited ethnic minority groups that support Myanmar's ruling junta to meet at its headquarters for talks on resolving their differences.
The rare gesture by the National League for Democracy (NLD) came less than a week after party leaders were allowed to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi in November had released a statement through visiting UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, calling for national unity and saying she had a particular duty to consider the opinions of Myanmar's dozens of ethnic minority groups.
Many of the country's ethnic groups have waged armed struggles for decades against the junta, seeking autonomy for their peoples.
Some of the groups that have signed ceasefires and aligned themselves with the military government issued statements in state media saying that Aung San Suu Kyi had no right to speak on their behalf.
In a statement Tuesday, the NLD invited those groups to gather at the party's headquarters to work on resolving their differences.
"The NLD invites those ethnic national parties and organisations who had different views on the statement (by Aung San Suu Kyi) to come and discuss their opinions at the NLD headquarters in Yangon," it said.
Aung San Suu Kyi "has said dutifully and faithfully that the NLD is focused on the welfare of all ethnic nationalities and the union (of Myanmar) as a whole," the statement said.
"The NLD understands that their freely made opinions and denunciations are part of democratic practise. Likewise, bilateral discussion is the essence of democracy," it said.
Last week Aung San Suu Kyi also called for tripartite talks bringing together the NLD, the junta and the ethnic minorities.
The NLD won a landslide election victory in 1990, but the junta never allowed it to take office.
The military opened talks with Aung San Suu Kyi in the wake of a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in September, but so far little visible progress has been made.
Monastery stops free education service
Democratic Voice of Burma: Tue 5 Feb 2008
A free tuition service at Ngway Kyar Yan monastery in South Okkalapa township, Rangoon, that provided extra classes to students from 10 townships in the surrounding area, has been suspended.
Ngway Kyar Yan monastery has been inviting respected tutors to teach extra classes at the monastery every year for the past 14 years, and around 2,000 to 3,000 students have attended each year.
Burmese students often rely on outside tuition to supplement the low standard of teaching in schools, but many are unable to afford a private tutor.
The monastery was running its classes in the lead-up to the grade 10 exams, which are the level required for university entrance and take place in February each year, and monks were able to get popular teachers to provide their services to the monastery free of charge.
One student said that educational opportunities for poorer students would suffer without the free classes.
"This is very bad for students who cannot afford to pay private tutors, because the education programme at Ngway Kyar Yan monastery was taught by well-known tutors and the monastery also provided all the teaching materials, textbooks and notebooks," the student said.
A monk who was involved in running the service also believed that it would prevent some students from accessing a good education.
"This free education service is necessary for people who want to pursue an education but can't afford it," he said.
"These services are helping our nation by building the capacity of our students, and this is something the country should be happy about."
It is not clear why the classes have been stopped, but students speculated that it was due to the participation of monks from the monastery in last year's demonstrations.
Ngway Kyar Yan is a lecturing monastery, where over 1000 monks were studying before raids on the monastery following the monk-led protests in September last year.
Since the crackdown, only 40 monks have been left at the monastery.
Implement reforms or "Prepare for the worst": activists - Nay Thwin
Mizzima News: Tue 5 Feb 2008
An activist group in Burma today called on the ruling junta to begin a process of tripartite dialogue and warned the people of Burma "to prepare for the worst" if the generals fail to kick-start meaningful dialogue by Burma's upcoming Union Day.
The Rangoon division of the People's Movement, an alleged clandestine activist group, today urged the Burmese military junta to begin a process of tripartite dialogue, as demanded by the Burmese people and international community, including the United Nations, by Burma's Union Day, which falls on February 12.
The group, in a statement read out to Mizzima, said, "In order to avoid the people experiencing further bitterness and to prevent a people's movement, the ruling junta should begin a tripartite dialogue that includes participation by the military, the National League for Democracy and ethnic representatives, on the 61st anniversary of Burma's Unions Day."
The group, whose members do not wish to reveal their identities for security reasons, said it fully supports the NLD's Independence Day demand to make "2008 the year of national reconciliation", and urges the junta to respect the wishes of the people and the international community to implement reforms.
The group, citing a statement made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during her meeting with NLD leaders on January 30, urged the people to stand in unity and "hope for the best while preparing for the worst."
Similarly, on January 4, Burma's Independence Day, the Coordinating Committee of the Peoples Movement, an alleged umbrella group of all clandestine activist groups in Burma, called on the ruling junta to release all political prisoners and kick-start a dialogue process before Burma's Unions Day.
Following the Buddhist monk-led protests in September last year, which were brutally suppressed by the ruling junta, the number of underground activist groups in Rangoon and other parts of Burma has mushroomed, occasionally making statements demanding the government implement reforms.
The statement read out today is the fourth made by the group and is the first in 2008.
Farmlands confiscated for tea plantation
Khonumthung News: Tue 5 Feb 2008
For the Burmese military junta confiscation of land of the people is a by word. The landowners seem to have no rights and all land is up for grabs by the military. Over 1000 acres of farmland on the hill side in Chin state, Burma has been seized for tea plantation.
Farmlands confiscated for tea plantation
Zaw Win Htey, Chairman of the Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) of Falam Township in Chin state on January 5 issued an order confiscating over a thousand acres of farmland in Falam Township for tea plantation. No compensation has been paid.
The confiscated farmland located on the HakhaFalam road was owned by locals in Taal village, 20 miles from Falam town.
After the local authorities seized the farmland the villagers became unemployed and have no more land to cultivate the main crops such as maize and beans.
With no option left to eke out a livelihood the affected villagers are likely to move to neighbouring Mizoram state, northeast India in to search of means of survival, a villager said.
"It is a ruthless tactic adopted by the regime to drive out Chin people from their homeland," a villager from Chin state alleged his voice laced with bitterness.
"The act of the regime shows that it does not care for the livelihood of the people in Chin state," another villager complained.
The military regime in Burma initiated tea plantation projects under the motto "Chin state must be a Tea State" in 2003.
Since then, the authorities had reportedly confiscated farmlands of locals in Chin state and forcibly engaged the locals to spend most of their working hours in tea plantations.
The authorities have planted 14188 acres of tea in Chin state.
More Karen refugees flee to Thai border - Shah Paung
Irrawaddy: Tue 5 Feb 2008
Over 250 mostly Karen villagers from eastern Burma fled recently to the Thai-Burmese border to escape forced relocation, according to a Karen relief team leader.
Htoo Klei, secretary of the Karen Office of Relief and Development, based at the Thai-Burmese border, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that 255 people had arrived on February 1 at two villages about one day's walk from Ei Tu Hta camp on the Burmese side of the Salween River.
The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are now camped at the former villages of Per Ler Der and Lay Ther Koh. The relief team is not in a position to provide any food or other supplies for them at present, Htoo Klei said. However, on February 2 the relief team was able to transport some plastic sheets to the villagers to shelter them from the rains.
He said that the displaced villagers do not currently intend to seek refuge at Ei Tu Hta camp built in mid-2006 and currently housing some 4,000 refugees from northern Karen State and Pegu Divisionhowever they are not sure how long they can stay at their present locations because they believe the tatmadaw (Burmese army) are planning to cleanse the area of villagers.
"The main things that IDPs need are firstly security and secondly food," Htoo Klei said.
In late January, four IDP families arrived at the Salween River although the exact number of persons had not yet been reported to the Karen Office of Relief and Development, he added.
The four families are originally from Plaw Der Kee village in northern Karen State. They were forced to relocate to Thee Mu Hta village by Burmese government soldiers in early January, Htoo Klei said. However, instead of relocating, the villagers fled to the jungle as they feared the soldiers would use them as forced labor as there were no other villagers nearby.
The Burmese military government commenced offensives against civilians in northern Karen State and Pegu Division in late 2005. Since then, they have consistently burned down homes and killed dozens of villagers.
According to a January 29 report by the Free Burma Rangers relief team, more than 30,000 Karen villagers were violently displaced in 2006 and early 2007. Of those, over 6,000 have since fled to the Thai-Burmese border, it said. The other 24,000 villagers remain in hiding as they are continually under attack by Burmese troops.
Villagers in the targeted areas told the Free Burma Rangers: "If the Burmese army is not stopped or we do not get help, in the future when you come to Karen State, there will no longer be any Karen people. Please tell the rest of the world to help us."
Activists call for Beijing Olympics boycott - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Tue 5 Feb 2008
As the Beijing Summer Olympic Games 2008 nears its opening ceremony on August 8, human rights activists have launched a campaign to boycott the games; one of the main reasons being China's support for the Burmese military junta.
A Web site, beijingolympicsboycott.com, lists ten reasons to boycott the Beijing Olympics, including China's involvement in Darfur and its human rights record.
The Web site has cleverly remodeled the insignia of the Olympicsthe five interconnected ringsto read "NO" in each of the rings.
Regarding Burma, the Web site states: "China funds the Burmese regime, arms it and protests it from international pressure. China builds Burma's roads and buys its oil, gas and timber, but China won't prod the Burmese government to allow even basic reforms. China uses its veto power to block the UN Security Council from doing anything meaningful for the Burmese people."
A lobby group based in Washington, DC, the US Campaign for Burma recently said in a report titled "China's Support Blocks International Diplomacy and Keeps Burma's Regime in Power," that China is one of the largest arms suppliers to the Burmese military junta. Since 1989, China has provided the Burmese regime with weapons and military equipment valued at over US $2 billion. "Arms shipments continue to this day," said the group.
The group reported that in return for the Chinese government's protection, the Burmese regime discount natural gas from the world market rate of around $7.30 per million BTU (British Thermal Units), to just $4.28 per million BTU for the energy-hungry Chinese government.
"China is the only country with the ability to shield Burma's military junta from international intervention," said the group. "China vetoed a peaceful UN Security Council resolution that had garnered enough votes to passthat would have strengthened the [UN] Secretary-General's mandate to resolving the crisis in Burma."
Chinese intellectuals have also joined in the debate. A few days later after the brutal crackdown on Buddhist monk-led demonstrations in Burma, Chinese bloggers condemned their government's support for the junta.
A Chinese pro-democracy activist, Fang Jue, said in an article on Web site wenxuecity.com that "China is responsible for the Burmese dictatorshipChina is the only country who can speak to the Burmese military regime, but the Chinese government chose to hold back the UN Security Council's action to Burma."
Xia Ming, a professor of political science at the City University of New York said at the time that China does not want Burma's situation to get more intensified and does not want the Burmese military government to be overthrown by the protestors either.
On September 29, The Washington Post warned in its editorial of a potential Olympic boycott over Chinese foreign policy, particular the Burma issue. It noted that China must have realized that one unintended consequence of hosting the 2008 Olympics is unprecedented global scrutiny of Beijing's retrograde foreign policy.
"The failure of President Hu Jintao's leadership to forthrightly condemn the repression [in Burma] has had the effect of giving the junta a green light," said The Post, concluding: "Burma's saffron-robed monks will join Darfur's refugees in haunting the Beijing Olympicswhich are on their way to becoming a monument to an emerging superpower's immorality."
Dangers for journalists in Burma on the rise
Mizzima News: Tue 5 Feb 2008
An annual report on press freedom around the world by a leading watchdog organization concludes that there was no improvement in 2007 in the working conditions of journalists in Burma. In several respects, the report adds, the situation has worsened in the aftermath of last year's protests and subsequent government response.
Released yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalist's (CPJ) report, entitled Attacks on the Press in 2007, states that 2007 has the potential to be the deadliest year on record for journalists, with the death of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai on the streets of Rangoon in September contributing to the tally.
Though Nagai's death is the only journalist fatality chronicled in Burma in 2007, the report emphasizes that the pervading atmosphere of censorship, threats and arrests contribute to Burma being "one of the world's most repressive media environments".
"Censorship of the media was pervasive, with no improvement since CPJ ranked Burma as the world's second-most censored country, after North Korea, in a May 2006 special report," CPJ says of the situation in Burma.
According to CPJ, six journalists were arrested in Burma for their chronicling of September's protests and the military's response, with one of those detained still remaining in custody. However, inclusive of the continued detention of 77-year old U Win Tin, CPJ ranks Burma as the sixth leading jailer of journalists in the world.
During last year's turmoil, the report states that journalists were subjected to ever increasing forms of repression and intimidation by the state sector. These measures are said to include the cutting of phone lines, pulling the plug on the Internet, the closure of independent journals and news outlets and the arbitrary confiscation of photographic and recording equipment.
CPJ maps an expanding and darkening cloud for media freedom encompassing a large swath of Eurasia and extending from Russia in the west, covering much of South and Central Asia and culminating with China in the east.
The report is highly critical of China, with regard to both the domestic environment and China's influence abroad.
China is often viewed as the dominant foreign actor inside Burma, and several governments and activists are urging the international community to pressure China on foreign policy and human rights reforms or risk an embarrassment at this summer's Beijing Summer Olympics.
"If the Olympic Games occur while China is still the word's leading jailer of journalists, still censoring and controlling access to the Internet, still restricting the global media, then it will have demonstrated that it's possible to join, even lead, the international community without honoring the basic right to express ideas and circulate information freely," reads the report.
However a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. told reporters in October that "irrelevant issues should not be linked to the Beijing Olympic games."
The true number of those killed and detained in Burma last year, due to the lack of transparency inside the country, remains uncertain. The problem of an accurate estimate for journalists is further obfuscated by the role, and classification, of citizen journalists during and after the uprising.
Thus far CPJ recognizes the deaths of 64 journalists in 2007, with 22 additional cases still under investigation. The current high water mark was in 1994, which witnessed the confirmed killings of 66 journalists in the line of work.
The U.S. War on Terror is largely responsible for the spike in journalist deaths around the world since 2002, with CPJ documenting 31 deaths of journalists in Iraq alone for 2007. Somalia places a distant second, with seven journalists killed for their work last year.
Naypyitaw paralyzed as an ailing Than Shwe clings to power - Larry Jagan
Mizzima News: Tue 5 Feb 2008
Burma's junta is in trouble as it faces the future with an ailing general in charge. Senior General Than Shwe is sinking fast, according to sources close to him. "He's losing his mind forgetting who has been cashiered in the past, becoming increasingly reclusive and trusting no one around him," said a senior military source in Naypyitaw, Burma's new capital four hundred kilometers north of Rangoon.
At the same time tension within the army is beginning to show. Many officers are resentful that there have been no military promotions for more than eight months because the governing State Peace and Development Council has failed to meet due to Than Shwe's health and mood swings.
Continuous intelligence failures have also forced the senior general to reappoint Major General Kyaw Win, his former deputy intelligence chief under General Khin Nyunt, to a 500,000 kyat salary posting to run the training school. Several other former intelligence officers have also been reappointed, according to sources close to former intelligence officials.
Than Shwe is worried that current military intelligence operations, set up after Khin Nyunt and most of his military intelligence officers were sacked and many given stiff jail sentences, may not be up to the task. They have been unable to find those behind several recent bombings, including one in Naypyitaw. They also failed to predict and prevent last year's mass demonstrations.
But the senior general's woes don't stop there. The economy is continuing to deteriorate rapidly while the international community steps up pressure on the regime to reform. The European Union is expected to increase selective sanctions against the generals in the next few months while U.S. President George Bush vows to keep the Burma issue as a high priority in the dying days of his administration.
In the meantime a group of prominent lawyers in Europe and the United States are preparing in the coming months to lodge a petition against the junta at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, alleging the crackdown on the monks in September was a crime against humanity.
"There's total inertia in Naypyitaw, no one dares make a decision, even in regard to the smallest matters, without approval from the top, which is rarely forthcoming," a senior government official confided to a Western diplomat recently.
"Nothing is happening at all, everyone is waiting for Than Shwe to die," according to a senior Asian government minister, who recently met his Burmese counterpart at an ASEAN function outside the country.
Than Shwe's health is rapidly worsening, according to diplomats, who have seen him recently. "He may be getting Alzheimer's he periodically forgets things; he recently asked where several officers were, all of whom were sacked last year during the mass retirements of middle ranking officers," according to a government source in Naypyitaw.
"He's rapidly going senile, and now has increasing heart problems," according to another government source. He already suffers from chronic diabetes and has regular bouts of hypertension. Several years ago he also suffered a mild stroke. Now with heart coronary problems and dementia, he is becoming increasingly incapacitated.
Singapore doctors have been making regular visits to Than Shwe's residence in Naypyitaw over the last few months, according to Southeast Asian diplomatic sources.
"For almost a decade now Than Shwe has refused to have his annual medical check-up done by Burmese army doctors for fear that this would leave him vulnerable and in danger of being ousted as he did to General Saw Maung [some fifteen years ago, on the pretext of suffering a nervous break-down]," a former military doctor told Mizzima on the condition of anonymity.
Last month he had a minor cardiac operation, in Naypyitaw. Singapore doctors went to the capital to perform a balloon angioplasty. A major quadruple heart bypass operation though has been scheduled for later this month in Singapore as the facilities in Burma are too primitive.
This latest health problem has caused Than Shwe to postpone the quarterly meeting of the junta until the end of the month the first meeting they will have had since the brutal crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations last August and September in response to price rises.
"The generals have not met for more than eight months, since before the August and September protests, so during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions," a Chiang Mai-based Burmese analyst, Win Min, told Mizzima.
That is going to be the first order of the day. Than Shwe also realizes that most senior generals, including regional commanders, actually owe their personal allegiance to Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann and not him. This is beginning to trouble him as he fears that his immediate subordinates may be planning a putsch against him.
"For the past twelve months, Than Shwe has been preoccupied with sidelining Maung Aye," a military source told Mizzima. "He has been relatively successful in this, but Maung Aye constantly manages to harass him, block promotions, or disrupt decisions in a fit of spite," he added.
In the latest show of strength, he ordered the Mayor of Rangoon to take down billboards across town urging people to "oppose those pessimistic axe-handles who are relying on America" because he objected to the use of America, preferring instead not to distinguish between foreign enemies.
After the promotions Than Shwe plans a major cabinet reshuffle with many of the old guard being forced to retire, to allow the regional commanders to be appointed to some of these senior posts, and to allow younger officers their chance to become commanders in the field. Until that happens, government administration is at a standstill, according to diplomats in Rangoon.
To make matters worse, many Burmese astrologers are predicting black times for the senior general. The solar eclipse later this week is seen as a bad omen for Than Shwe's health and family fortunes. While the wily old general has survived previous astrological predictions of doom, his grip on power is being increasingly weakened by ill-health and inertia.
"Burma remains a social volcano about to erupt," a major Burmese businessman told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. "It's a cauldron boiling away underneath," according to a senior European diplomat based in Bangkok who has followed Burmese affairs for more than a decade. "Sooner or later it's going to explode," he predicted.
It's Do-or-Die time for NLD - Kyaw Zwa Moe
Irrawaddy: Tue 5 Feb 2008
My heart sank last week when I heard the words of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi: "Let's hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
It's a discouraging, inconvenient truth that Suu Kyi shared with her National League for Democracy colleagues when the regime allowed her to meet with them briefly last week.
The words of the detained opposition leader indicate that the political state of Burma is moving from bad to worse to the worst.
Her words came out of her frustration with the ongoing "talks" with the ruling military regime. The regime appointed a liaison officer to deal with Suu Kyi after it faced mounting internal pressure following its harsh crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations last September.
Since then, the liaison officer, ex-Maj-Gen Aung Kyi, has met with Suu Kyi four times, but the meetings haven't gone beyond trivial topics.
According to the NLD, Suu Kyi requested to meet with the head of the military junta, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, but she has received no response.
Suu Kyi also "is not pleased with the talks" mainly because of the lack of a time frame, NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said after he met with her last Wednesday. According to one NLD member, she does not want to give false hope to the people of Burma.
Yes, it's important for a leader not to give false hope to the people.
The Burmese people heard her statement, and they appreciate her candor. But they also have a right not to lower their expectations of her and the NLD leadership.
Specifically, the people have a right to hear what type of substantive strategy Suu Kyi and her colleagues have to break the current political stalemate with the stubborn generals. Most Burmese would support a more pro-active NLD policy with its own guidelines, strategy and deadlines for taking the struggle for democracy to a higher level.
Such expectations from the public are only fair. The NLD is the main opposition party. It received about 82 percent of the vote in the 1990 nationwide election. The party has a clear mandate to carry out its mission to implement democracy in Burma.
The NLD has tried, but it has failed to create a unified policy that the people can rally behind. The party has suffered from a sustained, brutal assault waged by the generals ever since the 88 uprising.
The senior NLD members are in their 70s and 80s. Many have served time in prison. They have earned the people's respect and sympathy. The leaders have a strong commitment to the movement.
However, to be frank, this does not of itself qualify them to be the leaders of the party and the democracy movement at this time. A large segment of the public is frustrated, searching for new ways to break the impasse that has gripped Burma for years.
In its 20-year-hisotry, the NLD has been more political than practical, especially during the years when Suu Kyi has been under house arrest; she has been detained for 12 years of the past 18 years.
Some observers believe many of the NLD's senior leaders regard themselves as "caretakers," rather than freedom fighters whose goal is to keep the party alive in the absence of its real leader.
Meanwhile, the junta has effectively destroyed or impeded the work of the broader pro-democracy movement to the point where the 2007 uprising occurred more or less without the active participation of the NLD leadership, although the party's rank and file membership took part in the demonstrations.
The NLD, despite the brutality of the generals, must work harder to formulate new, meaningful policies that can rally the Burmese people. Otherwise, despite its past accomplishments, it has failed.
NLD critics take the line: "Without Suu Kyi, the party is nothing." It should not, and must not, be like that. The party, its members and the public need a broad reliable leadership within an effective opposition party.
As an example, look at South Africa's apartheid struggle. When the head of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, was in prison, other leaders carried on the movement. So should the NLD.
Last week, Suu Kyi told her colleagues to move forward without her, according to a senior NLD member. He quoted her as saying: sometimes she will lead; sometimes she will follow others' leadership in the party.
Suu Kyi also said sometimes the party needs to push and sometimes it needs to pull, and if it is necessary, everyone needs to be ready to give up everything.
Golden words! It's time for the NLD leadership to take her words to heart. It's time for bold ideas and action. The party must be in the forefront of the pro-democracy movement. The party's mission is not to keep itself alive, but to keep the country alive.
It's a do-or-die time for the NLD leadership and the Burmese people.
Burma's censors are now also code-breakers - Saw Yan Naing
Irrawaddy: Mon 4 Feb 2008
Burma's censorship authorities have found new tools to monitor submitted written manuscripts before approvalmirrors and magnifying glasses.
Rangoon-based writers told The Irrawaddy that censors working in the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board office are now equipped with mirrors and magnifying glasses to help them seek out hidden messages in poems, novels, stories and advertisements.
The new tools were introduced following the discovery in a published poem of a clandestine message mocking junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
The first words of each line of the short poem, written by Saw Wai under the title "February 14" and published in the weekly "Love Journal," made up the message: "Senior General Than Shwe is foolish with power." Saw Wai was subsequently arrested.
The head of the censorship board, Maj Tint Swehimself a writer, with the penname Ye Yint Tint Swewas summoned to a meeting with high-ranking officials, where he had to explain the lapse. Sources say he may soon be fired.
Saw Wai's ruse was the second of its kind to mock Than Shwe in this way. In July 2007, an advertisement in the English-language semi-official The Myanmar Times newspaper contained a hidden message calling Than Shwe "a killer."
The advertisement was placed in the paper by a Danish satirical art group posing as "The Board of Islandic Travel Agencies Ewhsnahtrellik and the Danish Industry BesoegDanmark." When read backwards, the Danish-looking word "Ewhsnahtrellik" spelt out "Killer Than Shwe."
A Burmese editor living in Rangoon confirmed to The Irrawaddy on Monday that censors were now using mirrors and magnifying glasses to search for hidden messages in the texts they are required to check before publication.
Editors and publishers say the additional work is slowing up the censorship process. "The censors are even checking cover pages of magazines time and again."
One Rangoon writer said he now had to submit his manuscripts one month ahead of publication, compared to one week in the past.
Calls to reform exiled government grow - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Mon 4 Feb 2008
Debate over the need for Burma's government-in-exile to reform has become louder, as elected leaders living in exile prepare to meet for a conference of the Members of Parliament Union (MPU), scheduled to be held soon on the Thai-Burma border.
San Aung, of the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), told The Irrawaddy that some exiled politicians want the exiled government to reform, and especially to include more ethnic leaders.
The issue of NCGUB reform has come up repeatedly over the past year. Last December, delegates of the National Coalition of the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella organization of exiled politicians and leaders of ethnic groups based in Thailand, met in the US to discuss the need for reforms with members of the NCGUB.
"The NCGUB and NCUB met [in Thailand] last March, and at the time, the NCUB raised the issue of reform and expansion of the exiled government. We agreed to form a commission to investigate how to improve the exile movement," said San Aung.
The meeting between the NCGUB and the NCUB raised a number of issues for consideration, including the need for unity among exiled politicians. They also agreed that politicians operating outside of Burma should ensure that democracy forces inside the country do not object to their work. They also discussed the advantages of reforming the exiled government, according to San Aung.
Nyo Ohn Myint, head of the foreign affairs office of the National League for Democracy (Liberated Area), confirmed that reform of the NCGUB might be on agenda of the upcoming MPU conference. During the meeting, which will bring together parliamentary representatives elected in 1990, leaders will also discuss how to strengthen overseas political activism through reform of the exiled government.
"Some think the NCGUB reform is needed because it is like a ceremonial group," said Nyo Ohn Myint. "When the NCGUB was founded, they agreed to include ethnic leaders in the future. So some exiled politicians suggested the group encourage more ethnic participation."
Tint Swe, an elected official travelling to Thailand from India for the meeting on the Thai-Burma border, called the MPU "like a congress of the exiled government", and said debate over reform of the NCGUB would be on the agenda. "But whether there are calls for reform or expansion, the important thing is to create more unity among exile groups," he added. He also rejected criticism of the NCGUB's role as a lobby group, insisting that they were making "self sacrifices".
Calls for reform of the exiled government have intensified recently, led by the online Burma Digest, which said in an editorial, "Burma [needs] an all-inclusive government-in-exile to give support to the exile community, to develop a broad-based consensus on the way forward, to adapt to the times and work tirelessly in pursuit of the main goalliberation from tyranny."
Some exiled politicians have suggested that Maung Maung, secretary-general of the NCUB, was behind the push to force the exiled government to include more non-elected members, as he was leading the Thailand-based group when it held talks with the NCGUB in the US late last year. He was not available for comment when The Irrawaddy called to contact him.
The NCGUB is led by Sein Win, cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi, and consists entirely of members of parliament elected in Burma's last general elections in 1990. However, it currently has only five members. Critics say that the exiled government has done little to promote a stronger democracy movement in exile, and expect a reformed government-in-exile will have a similarly limited impact.
Burma tourism down - Aung Hla Tun
Reuters: Mon 4 Feb 2008
Tourist arrivals in Burma almost halved in the last three months of 2007 after the military junta crushed popular monk-led protests, killing at least 31 people, a weekly journal reported on Monday.
The English-language Myanmar Times said the number of foreign visitors fell 24 percent in October, immediately after the crackdown, and were down 44 percent in the last quarter of the year from the same period of 2006.
"Tourist arrivals during the whole year fell by 8.8 percent in 2007 from a year ago," Deputy Tourism Minister Aye Myint Kyu, a brigadier-general, was quoted as saying in an article which gave no further details.
According to the government-run Central Statistical Organisation, 349,877 tourists came to the former Burma in 2006 and arrivals in the first eight months of 2007 showed a slight increase.
However, the suppression of the monk-led protests, including the secretly filmed shooting of a Japanese journalist on Sule Pagoda Road in Rangoon, caused worldwide outrage and led to groups cancelling tours out of fear.
The junta blamed the foreign media and dissident reporters sneaking footage and pictures out via the Internet for causing the plunge in arrivals.
"Some foreigners attempted to tarnish the image of Myanmar [Burma] by posting in the Web sites the photos of the protest walks," Aye Myint Kyu wrote recently in state-run newspapers under a widely known pseudonym.
"The photos and news of the incidents on the Sule Pagoda Road had a strong negative impact on the nation's tourism industry," he said of protests in central Rangoon.
Hoteliers reported occupancy rates down by as much as 70 percent during the normal year-end high season and were forced to slash rates to attract visitors.
The monk-led protests in August and September were the biggest challenge to decades of military rule since a mass uprising in 1988.
The United Nations says at least 31 people were killed in the subsequent crackdown, in which the junta admits 2,927 people were arrested. Of those detained, 80 remain in prison, the junta says.