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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 8/2/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Blogger charged with Emergency Provision Act 2.. S pore resident targeted in US Myanmar sanctions 3.. Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma 4.. No change
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 11, 2008
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      1. Blogger charged with Emergency Provision Act
      2. S'pore resident targeted in US Myanmar sanctions
      3. Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma
      4. No change in Myanmar policy for new Thai government
      5. Will Thailand create a friendly Burma policy?
      6. Impact of Burma sanctions
      7. The golden alternative, not abrupt regime change but negotiated settlement
      8. New rumors of ill health in Burma's top family
      9. NLD seeks talks with junta's ethnic allies
      10. Doing business with Myanmar
      11. Karen state civilians appeals to international community to save them from Burmese army before being decimated

      Blogger charged with Emergency Provision Act - Nem Davies
      Mizzima News: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      Police in Rangoon have charged a Burmese blogger, Nay Phone Latt, who is believed to be in detention, under an emergency act, according to a close friend.

      Nay Phone Latt, age 28, who went missing on January 29, has been charged with article 5 (J), Emergency Provision Act, at the Dagon Police station in Rangoon, said the close friend, who wished not to be named.

      The Burmese military junta has widely used Article 5 (J), which could land an offender up to seven years of imprisonment, as a tool in suppressing dissidents and political activists.

      "He was charged on February 3 at Dagon police station. We knew of the charges through police officer Soe Thein, who was among those that arrested him," the friend said.

      Though Nay Phone Latt is reportedly charged and being detained at the Ministry of Home Affairs, so far there is no date for a trial. Family and friends told Mizzima they are preparing to confront the charges through legal avenues once the trial starts.

      "We are still waiting and we will wait for about a month, and if necessary we will seek legal aid from lawyers," a family friend of Nay Phone Latt told Mizzima.

      Meanwhile, a close friend of Nay Phone Latt's family said, the police have reportedly returned the Jeep, which Nay Phone Latt was reportedly driving when he was arrested, on Thursday afternoon.

      S'pore resident targeted in US Myanmar sanctions
      Agence France Presse: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      A Singapore resident is among those targeted under new US sanctions aimed at an alleged 'henchman' and arms dealer for the Myanmar junta.

      U Kyaw Thein, 60, was named on Tuesday as the United States imposed sanctions against individuals and businesses linked to Tay Za, citing continuing human rights violations and political repression by the Myanmar regime.

      A Singaporean company, Pavo Aircraft Leasing Pte Ltd, was also named.

      'We are tightening financial sanctions against Tay Za, an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma's repressive junta,' said Adam Szubin, director of the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

      An OFAC notice identifies U Kyaw Thein as a citizen of Burma who is a permanent resident of Singapore with an identity card issued in 2005.

      A resident of U Kyaw Thein's Singapore apartment told AFP by phone Thursday that he had gone overseas and could not be reached.

      'He's gone for some trip,' said the man, who would not give his name.

      Pavo Aircraft Leasing is the latest Singapore firm to be hit by the US sanctions.

      After Myanmar's deadly suppression of Buddhist-led protests in September, President George W. Bush named three firms with offices in Singapore as among those targeted.

      They were Pavo Trading Pte Ltd, Air Bagan Holdings Pte Ltd and Htoo Wood Products Pte Ltd, which is also listed as being from Myanmar's main city, Yangon.

      Pavo Aircraft Leasing is listed at the same office where the other three blacklisted firms were based.

      The US action freezes any assets they may have under US jurisdiction and bars Americans from conducting business with them at the risk of heavy fines and prison sentences.

      Singapore led regional criticism of the junta's September crackdown, but rights activists have accused the city-state of not taking economic action against the regime.

      Singapore strongly denies allegations that it allows banks based here to keep illicit funds on behalf of Myanmar's secretive generals.

      Six bucks, the value of a life in Burma – Awzar Thi
      UPI Asia Online: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      For anyone grappling with the thorny problem of assigning a financial value to human life, help is at hand. Insurance companies of the world, rejoice: Burma's Defense Ministry has definitively established that one life is worth a bit less than six US dollars.

      In November 2006 a low-ranking army officer came to the suburban Rangoon home of a young mother. He told her that her husband had died of malaria in a mountainous border region some three months before, while serving an infantry battalion.

      How Htun Htun Naing got there in the first place is unclear. He was not a soldier. The 31-year-old had been arrested and imprisoned for gambling. Apparently he had been taken from jail and sent to carry materials for the military in the rugged war-ravaged east.

      The government of Burma openly uses prisoners on labor projects. Home Ministry publications include accounts and photographs of farms and quarries where the workforce consists of inmates. Corrections Department signboards dot roads around the countryside and criminal sentences are typically for rigorous imprisonment.

      However, the government has persistently denied that it uses convicts as army porters, despite numerous reports to the contrary. Human rights defenders claim that the number of prisoners used to carry supplies has increased in recent years as the number of local villagers forcibly conscripted to work has decreased. The videotaped testimonies and wounds of escaped inmates are compelling evidence.

      In any event, the officer visiting Htun Htun Naing's family advised them that they should go to the concerned battalion's headquarters to look into the matter. He collected some personal documents with which to process the case but left them with nothing: neither a doctor's report nor a medical certificate to verify his account.

      Htun Htun Naing's wife, struggling to raise her three small children, was in no position to travel to an army camp halfway across the country. She continued her work as usual and waited to hear more.

      So it was until the following year, when the family received a letter. The form inside, dated Jan. 30 and issued by the ministry accounts office, acknowledged the death/injury of U Htun Htun Naing, son of U Myint Shwe, in the service of Infantry Battalion 250 based at Loikaw. It informed the family that in accordance with an instruction from operation headquarters, the amount of 7,200 kyat had been cleared for payment as compensation by the Myanmar Economic Bank within the financial year.

      How did the ministry do its math? No criteria were given, nor supporting documents affixed. The family still has not received anything to prove that Htun Htun Naing really died as they have been told, let alone details of how he ended up working for IB 250 in the first place. All they have is this scrap of paper granting them a miserable 7,200 kyat.

      Their experience is very far removed from the global standards on satisfactory redress for victims of rights abuses.

      According to the United Nations principles on remedies and reparations, adopted by the General Assembly in 2005, these should be "adequate, effective, prompt and appropriate." Compensation should be "proportional to the gravity of the … harm suffered."

      Gabriela Echeverria, a legal adviser to the group REDRESS, has written that the principles "have been used as the basis for new remedies in national and international fora" and have become "a standard for governments when implementing administrative measures."

      While this may be true of some countries in Europe, and perhaps increasingly in the Americas, the notion that persons who have suffered some wrongdoing at the hands of the state deserve appropriate recompense, in addition to other remedies, is still remote to most parts of Asia.

      The government of Thailand offered the equivalent of around US$7,500 to each of the families of 92 dead and missing at the hands of the army after the infamous Tak Bai incident of 2004; not one officer has ever been prosecuted, despite overwhelming evidence of systemic negligence.

      In Nepal, the maximum amount that can be awarded to a torture victim is a bit over US$1,000, no matter how serious the injuries suffered. And whereas the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka had previously ordered that victims of torture there be paid highly, in recent years it has reduced the sums ordered to barely a few hundred dollars.

      There are of course many opinions about the meaning of words like "adequate" and "appropriate" when it comes to the pecuniary losses of human rights abuse victims, but by any standards the payments to those in Asia are paltry at best, and the payments to those in Burma, if forthcoming at all, are evidently intended only to add insult to injury.

      Htun Htun Naing's family has made a complaint anyhow. They have not dared to ask for justice or even more details of how he died. Just for a review of the case and a little more money, please. So far they have heard nothing. There seems little chance that they will. They may not have proof of his death, but they have ample proof that in Burma life really is cheap; perhaps even more so than anyone had imagined.

      (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)

      No change in Myanmar policy for new Thai government
      Reuters: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      Thailand's new government will not change the country's policy on Myanmar of non-interference and working with Southeast Asia to push the junta towards democracy, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said on Thursday.

      "Non-interference in others' internal affairs remains the thrust of our diplomacy," said Noppadon, a former lawyer and spokesman for ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

      Noppadon, an Oxford graduate, said democracy and human rights were internal affairs of the former Burma, ruled by the military since 1962 and the focus of international opprobrium since crushing pro-democracy protests in September.

      Thailand would rely on the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, one of the few international groups willing to have Myanmar as a member, to bring change about, Noppadon told a news conference.

      "We will work under the ASEAN framework to make democracy in Myanmar prosper and a bring better standard of living to the people," said Noppadon of a country now one of the poorest in the region. The United States and the European Union have intensified sanctions on Myanmar after the junta crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years in September, killing at least 31 people.

      Will Thailand create a friendly Burma policy? – Wai Moe
      Irrawaddy: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      Does the appointment of Thaksin Shinawatra's former lawyer, Noppadon Pattama, as the new foreign minister of Thailand mean a new foreign policy that favors the generals in Naypyidaw?

      Thailand's new foreign minister Noppadon Pattama (Photo: Reuters)

      Before he joined the Thai Rak Thai Party, Nappadon, a member of the Democrat Party, served as secretary to former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan from 1997 to 2001.

      He later joined the Thai Rak Thai Party and served as an assistant minister in the ministry of natural resources and environment for 89 days before the coup that toppled Thaksin in September 2006.

      Noppadon told reporters on Thursday that democracy in Burma was "an internal affair."

      "We are not a headmaster who can tell Myanmar [Burma] what they should do. We have to respect their sovereignty," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

      Kavi Chongkittavorn, an editor with The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, wrote in a commentary article on February 4: "For Noppadon, his top priority is very clear. He must show in sustained and tangible ways that he is the spokesman of Thai foreign policy, not Thaksin's personal policy."

      A spokesperson for Burma's opposition party, the National League for Democracy, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday the NLD hopes Thailand's newly elected government will work jointly with the international community to strengthen Burma's democracy movement.

      "The establishment of an elected government is important in democratization," said Nyan Win.

      Nyo Ohn Myint, the NLD (Liberated Area) head of foreign affairs in exile, said a new Thai foreign policy should follow the international community's position on Burma, particularly the UN.

      He said the new government may follow Thaksin's so-called "business-based diplomacy" and other people-based internal policies, but Thailand's Burma policy should not be the same as before, because of the Burmese government's lack of democracy and its abuse of human rights.

      "Based on what I hear from the diplomatic community, the Thai new foreign ministry will not be proactive in relations with the Burmese junta," he said.

      After the 2006 coup, Noppadon was well-known as the Shinawatra family's legal adviser who defended Thaksin and his family against corruption charges.

      Shortly his appointment as foreign minister, Noppadon said Thaksin's diplomatic passport should be returned. The passport was cancelled last year after a Thai court charged Thaksin with misusing the power of his office.

      "Due to the rule of law and as long as other former prime ministers can keep their diplomatic passports, Khun Thaksin should get back his diplomatic passport," Noppadon said on Thursday.

      Columnist Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote that a new Thai foreign policy team is crucial to restoring the country's international standing and any attempt to revive Thaksin's "bruising diplomatic style of leadership," especially towards Asean and Burma, could spell disaster from the beginning.

      "While the international community has welcomed the newly elected government, it is also closely monitoring Thailand's policy towards Burma," he wrote. "If Bangkok chooses to follow the same shameful Burmese policy of the Thaksin years, Thailand's recovery from the long years of condemnation and despair will be fruitless."

      Thailand's new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said during the election campaign in December that Thailand should host an international summit to try to resolve the Burma crisis. He suggested a conference modeled after the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear crisis.

      "Let's talk," Samak said. "Let them [the Burmese junta] know that they can't live like that in the world."

      Impact of Burma sanctions – Lee Berthiaume
      Canada's Foreign Policy Newsweekly: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      The government's tougher sanctions against Burma last fall will have some impact on existing Canadian investments in the Southeast Asian country, senior Foreign Affairs officials told the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on Jan. 30.

      "I can say that the measure that is in place does address new investments, but that can't be taken only in isolation," Randolph Mank, director general of DFAIT's Asia and Pacific Bureau, said to NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar. "There is also the ban on provision of financial services and on certain transactions, which will obviously have bearing on ongoing investment, just to put it in some context how the measure operates as it now stands.

      "If one is to extract profit from investment, and that's what investment is intended for, then, presumably, this aspect of the new economic measures will have some effect in that area. This is something that was certainly thought through and considered, and we are as concerned about ongoing investments as you are."

      However, Mr. Dewar worried some firms could exploit loopholes in the restrictions.

      "There are concerns about Total Oil, and you'll know that there's Canadian companies, Power Corporation, to be specific, who have investments in Total Oil," Mr. Dewar said. "Would they be captured… by the measures that have been brought forward by the government?"

      "It's hard to discuss this specific instance, but what I can say is that you're right," said John Hannaford, director general and deputy legal adviser at DFAIT. "The way the measure works, it is a ban on indirect investment which amounts to a controlling interest in an entity that then would be operating in Burma. That is intended to be the trigger. It's partially for practical reasons that it becomes extremely challenging to have a look at situations where you're looking at Burma."

      Mr. Mank also said that Canada has been working with the UN and Association of Southeast Asian Nations to push for reform in Burma, which is controlled by a military junta.

      However, he said Canada does not have a dedicated aid program to the country.

      He added that the government is "always looking for new things to do and we will continue on Burma to see what next we can do to increase the pressure and I'm sure the government will be considering other options in the future."

      The golden alternative, not abrupt regime change but negotiated settlement - Gamanii
      Asian Tribune: Thu 7 Feb 2008

      As Burma gets into world spotlight with the Saffron Revolution, lots of arguments against democratization are surprisingly heard from many quarter-politicians, statesmen, scholars, so-called Burma experts and even some Burmese in exile who have never set foot on the native soil or who have been out of touch with reality for decades¬ absurdly claiming that the substitute for the military junta will be, out of all things, the devil's alternative. One argument is the likelihood of lawlessness, chaos and 'Balkanization' if the junta is gone. So what's the situation now? Isn't there lawlessness already in Burma? There has to be a negotiated settlement and no quick fixes.

      The killing of the highest spiritual leaders of the society is the expression of most severe form of lawlessness. On the other hand, the leaders of the Saffron Revolution, the monks, have shown the highest and unrivalled form of discipline and order in the world. Buddhism is renowned for its peace-loving and love-radiating attributes and Burmese monks and the demonstrating people led by them have again proved it. Drug cartels and crime syndicates flourish most under egomaniac despotism. There is no rule of law in Burma; only the words of selfish generals. This is the best culture for crime and chaos.

      The self-seeking military junta is the sole cause of chaos and civil war. Incompetent junta's militarization of the country has brought it to 'Least Developed Country' Status in 1987 and, twenty years later, unprecedented chaos, mismanagement and social conflict matched only by few failed states on earth. Now it is trying to implement a so-called Road Map which will without doubt further the degeneration and polarization, producing a military dynasty like Duvalier's Haiti, Kim Il-Sung's North Korea or Assad's Syria after Than Shwe's demise or when the present generation of generals have gone.

      On the opposition side, all the main groups have more or less the same major demands or visions. Democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic forces led by the Union Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD) or United Nationalities Alliance (UNA) are united in the Committee Representing People's Parliament (CRPP) formed in 1998 by major parties elected in 1990. The bond was first brought about through Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration in 1990 August. The ceasefire groups are also linked to the UNA and through it to the CRPP which was openly supported by four armed ceasefire groups in 1998. One of the reasons behind the detentions of Khun Tun Oo, leader of the strongest legal Shan political party, and Gen. Hso Ten, leader of the strongest armed Shan (ceasefire) force, in 2005 is that they are the principal influential links between the ethnic ceasefire groups and the CRPP.

      In 1990 elections the NLD and the UNLD won 95% of parliamentary seats. The NLD also won in many ethnic areas. During Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's tours in 2003 the largest turnout of support occurred in ethnic states. This is one reason behind the junta's infamous Depayin attack on her. The NLD had also won in military cantonment areas in 1990. The president and vice-president of the NLD are former military generals in addition to many 'enlightened' ex-commanders and soldiers who are now serving in the country's biggest opposition party. So it is evident that democratization will unify rather than balkanize the country.

      Underground opposition groups have also achieved important accords in 1992 July through Manerplaw Agreement and in 1997 January through Maethrawhta Agreement which was hailed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a right step towards peace and harmony in future Burma. These pacts are also significant for their agreement to solve any differences among democratic or armed ethnic groups by means of peaceful negotiations and concept of equality.

      Almost all the underground ethnic and democratic forces are united inside the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB) which comprises of 10 armed ethnic groups, 5 unarmed ethnic or minority groups and 13 democratic or civil society groups (including the exiled-NLD and Students' Army) as well as 34 exiled parliamentarians from the NLD, the pro-military National Unity Party (NUP) and seven ethnic parties elected in 1990. Ethnic groups and democratic or civil society groups outside the NCUB are linked to or interrelated with the latter through exiled-UNLD, Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), Five-Party Military Alliance and Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB).

      To bring order during the transitional period the National League for Democracy has a provisional Constitution based to some extent on 1947 Constitution in addition to plans for a second Panglong Conference of all ethnic groups including the Burman majority. The first Panglong Agreement of 1947 had brought understanding among ethnic nationalities of Burma and founded the present Union though not much in essence. The opposition forces in exile are also working on future constitutions through a highly inclusive and broad-based Federal Constitution Drafting and Co-ordination Committee (FCDCC) and various State Constitutions Drafting Committees (SCDCs), extensively smoothing out potential divergences and conflicts.

      Unlike Yugoslavia or African countries, more than 2000-year old civilized Burma's history bore no precedence of Balkanization. Bloody religious or racial conflicts common to Yugoslavia or African countries were unheard of. Past wars were caused mainly by feudal monarchs annexing adjacent territories just like feudal rulers of any country in ancient times. Pre- and Post-Independence communal riots were the hangover of colonialist era 'divide and rule' policy. The junta's disinformation on the meaning of federalism has failed among the Burmese people. Burmans who usually turned out victors through military might have now realized the futility of denying other ethnic peoples their rights in accordance with universal norms; the only remaining obstacle being the military junta.

      The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in September 2007 will give a great boost to democratic and ethnic issue in Burma. Another thing to take note is that there are no 135 races in Burma as the junta claims; the true figure is around sixty with most of them less than 50,000 each.

      Of course, as in Quebec, Scotland or Flanders, there is and will always be a few who desire secession but majority of each ethnic population only cares for equal rights. Besides, there are no practical means or situation to carry out secession by those who desire it. Even under Prime Minister U Nu in 1958, when ethnics could utilize the Article 140 of the 1947 Constitution to secede legally, no attempt was made but only demands for more rights within the Union framework were presented peacefully and democratically that were but turned down by Ne Win's military junta using brute force.

      Armed ethnic groups, particularly ceasefire armies and the people in their territories are basically war-weary. That's why the SPDC is able to coerce and manipulate them. In 1998 September, when some ceasefire groups backed the CRPP in defiance of the junta, local civilian pressure and senior ethnic officers' war-fatigue prompted the groups to back down from war. The concept of non-violence and effects of media which have dominated the world since the end of Cold War have been influencing the armed ethnic groups more than its worth. In Burma, (tripartite) dialogue and non-violence rather than warring are the buzz words.

      Balkanization is not the only option in the world; Czechoslovakia had experienced a peaceful 'velvet separation'. Balkanization and anarchy can only be brought about by a freely failing junta which could break apart into multiple rivaling fiefdoms controlled separately by warlord-turned junta generals or Burma army's regional commanders as in post-Siad Barre Somalia, post-Najibullah Afghanistan or post-Mobutu Congo. Unlike them, Burma fortunately has a legitimate and popular democratic leadership well-prepared and highly competent to take over.

      Burma's opposition leaders both democratic and ethnic are undoubtedly more competent, qualified and broad-minded than the junta chiefs. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, all the atrocities and terror in Burma are work of the SPDC. Tthere are no extremists or terrorists among the opposition. Hence merely checking and removing the SPDC will prevent any further bloodshed.

      Presently, junta's senseless or paranoid economic policies are making everyone broke except the generals. Even Singapore's senior statesman Mr. Lee Kuan-yew has dubbed them 'dumb' with regard to economics. No globalization beneficial to the country's people, local businessmen or foreign investors could take hold in Burma. In contrast, the National League for Democracy has been upgrading its leaders and rank-and-file with world level capacity in all issues, anticipating to ride the globalization surf like China and Vietnam. Exiled democratic and ethnic forces are also versed in international efficiencies of peaceful nature after years of training and studying abroad.

      The important thing is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are not calling for abrupt 'regime change' but rather a negotiated settlement taking into account the Burmese military's role, and finally replacing it definitely in not too distant future. In 2006 February, the NLD offered a transition plan which would recognize the military junta as a de jure government for a transition period that would be legitimized by the parliament elected in 1990. Also in August, 2007, ninety-two elected members of parliament proposed an alternative Road Map offering the SPDC a considerable role in Constitution-drafting and transition processes along with elected NLD and ethnic members of parliament. "Everything is negotiable," Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said.

      The army is to be retained but the military dictatorship must go, this is the opposition's consensus. The pigheaded generals simply turned down all the proposals. These meaningful proposals are far from those clamors for pointless 'gradual change' advocated by unwitting apologists of the obstinate military junta who has been claiming they are executing gradual change for nineteen years which has only resulted in the massacre of Buddhist monks. The junta's gradual change is in fact no change at all but more bloodshed only.

      Engagement with the junta has also been called or initiated by many countries including ASEAN, China and Japan who only got its reporter Mr. Nagai killed from close range gunshot during the Saffron Revolution. There has been the Chilston Park seminar in the UK favoring engagement as well. All these has resulted in more deadly militarization with more refugees and more migrants to neighboring countries not to say of diseases, forced labor, rape and more IDPs in the country.

      So what can you expect from shoring up a junta that is prepared to kill the most revered section of the nation at the country's holiest shrine on a full-moon day which is regarded as a holy day in Buddhism? Will it be moral or feasible to maintain the status quo or engage with this kind of junta to prevent an imaginary and improbable Balkanization and chaos? To prevent such a scenario there is no other way rather than to replace the regime with the opposition who has people's mandate, through the road map initiated by the latter.

      Gamanii is a former student activist and political prisoner of 1974-1975 and then joined ethnic armed groups and spent twenty years in the jungle fighting the military regime. Now, he is working for Burma's exiled government (NCGUB). He has written many articles on Burma. He is an Inthar, an ethnic minority group in Shan State of Burma.

      New rumors of ill health in Burma's top family - Min Lwin
      Irrawaddy: Wed 6 Feb 2008

      Reports that relatives of Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his wife have been taken to the regime's remote capital of Naypyidaw have fueled rumors of serious health problems within the family of Burma's top general.

      For weeks, there has been persistent speculation about the health of Burma's military supremo and his spouse, both of whom are in their seventies. Than Shwe is known to suffer from hypertension, diabetes and other chronic ailments.

      Sources in Singapore have suggested that he may have cancer, although there has been no independent confirmation of this.

      A year ago, Than Shwe traveled to Singapore to receive medical treatment. When he failed to attend a state dinner to mark Burma's Independence Day last January, rumors were rife that his health had taken a serious turn for the worse.

      More recently, however, observers have noted that he seems to be in reasonably good health for his age. One Western diplomat who has seen him in public described his condition as "disappointingly healthy."

      According to a Burmese journalist in Rangoon, however, Than Shwe's wife, Kyaing Kyaing, may not be doing so well. This year, it was her turn to miss the Independence Day dinner, lending credence to reports that she may have suffered a stroke recently.

      Rumors of serious health problems within the ruling clan were given fresh impetus last December, when Dr Mi Mi Cho, a famous neurological specialist from Rangoon, was taken to Naypyidaw to treat an unspecified relative of one of the top generals.

      Since Than Shwe ordered a bloody crackdown on protesting monks in September, many Burmese have been looking for signs of ill health in the ruling family. Some Burmese Buddhists regard such health problems to be a natural karmic consequence of attacks on the revered clergy.

      A similar fate supposedly befell Snr-Gen Saw Maung, former chairman of the ruling junta, who suffered a mental breakdown in 1990, shortly after his regime arrested several leading monks and raided 130 monasteries in Mandalay. He stepped down due to illness in 1992, and died of a heart attack five years later.

      NLD seeks talks with junta's ethnic allies
      Associated Press: Wed 6 Feb 2008

      The political party of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reached out to its opponents among Burma's ethnic minority groups, inviting them for discussions on their political differences.

      The invitation was directed at political parties and other ethnic minority organizations that back the ruling junta, which has been in power since crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, the National League for Democracy said Tuesday in a statement.

      Suu Kyi's party won a 1990 general election but the military refused to hand over power, putting the country into a long and bitter political stalemate.

      Many but not all of the country's fractious ethnic groups—which have for decades sought autonomy from the central government—have signed cease-fire pacts with the junta, implicitly accepting its legitimacy.

      Others are in a de facto alliance with Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement but have little power to influence the junta.

      "The NLD understands expressing one's opinions and dissenting freely are the practice of democracy. We also understand that having discussions among parties is also an essence of democracy," the party's statement said.

      To that end the party invited "ethnic political parties and organizations that have different views and opinions" to its headquarters in Rangoon, the country's biggest city.

      The unexpected appeal came less than a week after Suu Kyi, in remarks released through her party, expressed dissatisfaction and pessimism about the prospects for reconciliation talks with the military government.

      Under international pressure after violently suppressing massive pro-democracy protests in September last year, the junta appointed a Minister for Relations to coordinate with Suu Kyi. But the minister, Aung Kyi, has had just a handful of meetings with Suu Kyi, who has complained that they seemed to be accomplishing very little.

      In a statement last week, Suu Kyi said Burma's ethnic minorities must participate in any reconciliation talks if there is to be progress in restoring political stability.

      Tuesday's entreaty from the NLD statement reiterated Suu Kyi's position, stated prominently last November in a statement released through the UN, supporting inclusion of the ethnic groups in seeking a solution for the country's problems.

      The state-controlled media at that time printed numerous statements from the "cease-fire groups"—ethnic organizations backing the government—rejecting her position as an unwanted attempt to speak on their behalf and vowing allegiance to the junta's seven-step "road map to democracy," which is supposed to lead to free elections.

      Doing business with Myanmar
      The Nelson Mail: Wed 6 Feb 2008

      Most of the time, Myanmar is a tiny mole on the back of the world's conscience: we're aware that the country formerly known as Burma exists, but plenty of weightier issues clamour for attention, says the Nelson Mail in an editorial.

      Every now and then, however, something happens and the public gaze returns. Five months ago, the country's biggest employer, the army, ordered that heads be cracked to suppress an uprising led by Myanmar's revered Buddhist monks. Condemnation was resolute and surprisingly universal - even China expressed alarm.

      New British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned that the whole world was watching the country's "illegitimate and repressive regime" and would hold it to account. The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights was over, he declared. For the new leader of a country with a lingering interest in the affairs of the former colony it administered initially as a province of India, Mr Brown was talking tough. But, another day, another crisis, and the preoccupation with Myanmar soon waned.

      Now, it is back in focus, in a very small way - at least in this country - after revelations that a state-owned business has enterprisingly landed a deal helping to build cellphone towers. Government broadcast and telecommunications business Kordia has almost completed an $80,000 deal with the pariah state's military rulers.

      National's foreign affairs spokesman Murray McCully suggests inconsistencies, given the Government's "tantrum" over Air New Zealand planes being chartered by Australia to carry Iraq-bound troops, and its imposing of some sanctions on Fiji after the latest military crackdown there.

      However, business has no conscience, and Mr McCully would know well that New Zealand has no economic or trade sanctions with either Fiji or Myanmar. As someone who no doubt fancies his chances of becoming foreign affairs minister this year, is that what he will be pressing for? Would he draw up his own list of countries that New Zealand businesses, state-owned or otherwise, will be barred from trading with, outside of any United Nations hit-list?

      Prime Minister Helen Clark says the contract is "probably" a positive force for democracy in Myanmar, because communication with the outside world can have an important role in ending repression. That assumes the use of the cellphone towers will be generally available to the public, which requires quite a stretch.

      In last September's uprising, the military contained most of the damaging coverage within its borders, although some notable exceptions seeped through. In "normal" times, as Myanmar is supposed to be enjoying again now, the technology is unlikely to be used for much more than furthering communications among the military and its lackeys.

      Backed as it is by China, Myanmar is cockily punching above its weight among Asean nations and has reputedly been the sole blocker of efforts to set up an European Union-style trading bloc among member states. There is some value in a position of relative neutrality in international affairs, even if this means dealing with some countries with abysmal human rights records.

      Like it or not, New Zealand is no longer the conscience of the world, and its relationships with countries like Myanmar, North Korea and even China are likely to continue to be driven by pragmatism, whatever the colour of our next foreign affairs minister's tie.

      Karen state civilians appeals to international community to save them from Burmese army before being decimated
      Asian Tribune: Wed 6 Feb 2008

      Karen civilians facing continuing attacks from the Burma Army are urgently appealing to the world for assistance, telling the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) that "If the Burma Army is not stopped, or we do not get help, when you come to Karen State in the future, there will no longer be Karen people. Please tell the rest of the world to help us."

      According to a report from the FBR, a humanitarian aid organisation working in the conflict zones of eastern Burma, "much of the population of northern Karen State is now displaced". Over 24,000 civilians are in hiding close to their old villages, and at least 6,000 have fled to the Thai-Burmese border. "For those remaining, continual attacks, patrols, and the close proximity of new Burma Army camps has made returning to villages and fields impossible," the Free Burma Rangers report claims.

      On 29 January, the Burma Army attacked a valley near Saw Wa Der, Toungoo District, with mortars and machine-gun fire, causing internally displaced people (IDPs) in the area to flee again.

      Burma Army patrols "shoot on sight", according to the Free Burma Rangers. On 24 January, troops from Burma Army Infantry Battalion 231 arrested and killed Maung Ga Shwey, the headman of Na Shwe Mo village, in Dooplaya District, central Karen State.

      On 1 January, soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 704 shot and killed a 53 year-old man, Saw Bo La Gyi, and shot and wounded Saw Bo Wa, aged 32, in Yaw Kee village in Nyaunglebin District. Yaw Kee has been attacked multiple times in recent months, and was mortared and destroyed in October.

      "The displaced people here remain steadfast in their hope for a better future and their struggle for freedom against Burma's dictators," the Free Burma Rangers report states. "At the same time they ask us for help and ask us to tell our friends around the world that they need help … The dictators of Burma have no interest in stopping the oppression of the ethnic peoples or relinquishing their power, and until the dictators are stopped, no amount of food or medical relief is enough to solve the human crisis now existing in northern Karen State, eastern Burma. The people here need protection from the Burma Army."

      Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert, said: "The Karen people are struggling for their very survival. For too long their cries have fallen on deaf ears around the world. It is time for that to change. The world must act to bring an end to the dictators' reign of terror in Burma – before it is too late."

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