[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 11/2/08
- Plan to unite rebel groups a pipe dream, says SSA chief
- NCGUB Rejects 'So-called State Constitution', Military Proposed Referendum
- Myanmar junta to hold elections in 2010
- New campaign to boycott Burmese businesses
- Are sanctions the answer?
- Why sanctions fail
- Burmese ask if politics and Olympics mix
- Junta combats UNICEF data with dated government statistics
- UN as India, Myanmar matchmaker
- A limited time to play
- Don't shoot the messenger
Plan to unite rebel groups a pipe dream, says SSA chiefBangkokPost: 11/2/08SUBIN KHEUNKAEW
Mae Hong Son - A plan to unite Burmese minority rebel groups so they can pressure the junta for autonomy remains a pipe dream, Shan State Army (SSA) leader Yod Serk has admitted.He said in a recent interview that the efforts to bring together at least seven ethnic minority groups to mount resistance against the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in a struggle for autonomy may not be achievable any time soon. His statement came just days before the junta made the surprise announcement of a referendum on a constitution, scheduled for May, and a general election in 2010.Col Yod Serk said the ethnic groups faced internal strife and lacked strong leadership and understanding about a consolidated movement. He said the minority groups should join forces and set up a representative government if they wished to pressure the junta to come to the negotiating table."No conditions should be set for the talks until all sides agree to a dialogue."The goal is to get everyone on board, shake hands or clink glasses. That would be a hopeful beginning," the colonel said.The SSA would let politics lead the fight against the Burmese government, said Col Yod Serk, saying the military approach in pressing for independence was outdated.So far, he said, only the Karen National Union and the Karenni National Progressive Party appear to be most ready to embrace the non-military initiative.The SSA also wanted to ally with the powerful United Wa State Army, but the UWSA had to resolve its internal problems first, Col Yod Serk said.The UWSA has been accused of producing illicit drugs under the command of drugs kingpin Wei Sia Kang.However, Col Yod Serk, who made a pledge to help curb drug trafficking along the Thai-Burmese border, said many key figures of the UWSA have agreed to abandon the illegal business and join him in a fight for independence."We're getting old," said Col Yod Serk, 48. "We don't have much time. We have to join hands," he said.Relations between the UWSA and the SSA soured after UWSA troops attempted to invade Doi Tai Laeng, the military base of the SSA opposite Mae Hong Son's Pang Ma Pha district, in 2005.The failed Wa offensive was reportedly supported by the Burmese junta.The SSA currently has a force of more than 4,500 fighters, using weapons mostly produced in China.Col Yod Serk believes if China helps mediate the rift between the SSA and UWSA, the groups would set aside their differences and come to some kind of understanding.China could also play a major role in creating peace in Burma because the junta respects the Chinese government, he said.International pressure on the junta to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest may not be enough to create momentum for change in Burma, he said.
"All ethnic groups should join hands to make their voices heard and push for recognition of their identities and rights.
"We know the Burmese government would fear us if we were able to unite, as it would then give us more negotiating power," he said.
NCGUB Rejects 'So-called State Constitution', Military Proposed Referendum
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma: Sun 10 Feb 2008
The headlong decision by the military regime to hold a national referendum in April is a knee-jerk reaction to the growing problems the Burmese generals are facing.
The regime, as the Burmese would say, is "a mad man surrounded by fire" and since it is plagued by economic woes, increasing international pressure, and widening public discontent at home, it has impulsively decided to convene a national referendum to overcome the problems.
In fact, the so-called state constitution, which the people are supposed to endorse at the national convention, is yet to be seen by public until now. But, judging from reports carried by the state-run press during different sessions of the military-organized National Convention which compiled the so-called "objectives" and "principles" to be taken into consideration during the drafting process, the new constitution will do nothing for democracy and will merely legitimize the current rule of the Burmese generals.
Dr Sein Win, prime minister of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, said, "We do not endorse the state constitution in its present form and the people will never ratify it. But, the Burmese generals are probably already taking steps to ensure that they get the results they want from the referendum".
The NCGUB believes that it is imperative for the international community to oppose the military-sponsored constitution and the regime's referendum plan. It must continue to strive to bring about an inclusive process which will determine the political future of the country and which also include all political parties, including the National League for Democracy and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and other ethnic nationality forces.
It is also time for the international community to give through the UN Security Council a stronger mandate to the UN Secretary-General's Office and enable it to play an effective mediatory role in bringing about an equitable solution to the political deadlock in Burma.
Myanmar junta to hold elections in 2010 - Aung Hla Tun
Reuters: Sat 9 Feb 2008
Army-ruled Myanmar said on Saturday it will hold a referendum on a new constitution in May followed by elections in 2010, a move critics said was aimed at deflecting pressure after last year's crackdown on protesters.
"We have achieved success in economic, social and other sectors and in restoring peace and stability," the junta announced on state television four months after the army crushed monk led, pro-democracy protests, killing at least 31 people.
"So multi-party, democratic elections will be held in 2010," said the statement issued in the name of Secretary Number One Lieutenant-General Tin Aung Myint Oo, a top member of the junta.
The elections would be the first held in the former Burma since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won multi-party elections later rejected by the military, which has ruled in various guises since 1962.
The NLD, which boycotted a constitution-drafting convention while its leader, Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, called the announcement "erratic".
"They have now fixed a date for the election before knowing the results of the referendum. I can't help but wonder how the referendum will be conducted," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said.
The Burma Campaign UK, a London-based pro-democracy group, called the announcement "public relations spin".
"It is no coincidence that the announcement comes at a time when the regime is facing increasing economic sanctions following its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations," Campaign director Mark Farmaner said in a statement.
He said it was a "move away from democracy, not towards it," noting that the draft constitution would enshrine military rule by giving it veto power over decisions made by parliament.
In Bangkok, a spokesman for a group of exiled MPs elected in 1990 but who fled after the junta rejected the result, said the news meant nothing unless Suu Kyi was freed and took part.
"Without the participation of Suu Kyi, the NLD and ethnic parties the people will not accept this constitution," said Zin Linn of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
Saturday's announcement from the junta did not make clear whether the NLD would be allowed to take part, but the constitution is believed likely to disbar Suu Kyi from office by ruling out anyone married to a foreigner.
Suu Kyi's husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in March 1999.
The new constitution, now being drafted after the completion of a national convention first convened in the 1990s, will be finished soon, the statement added.
"In accord with the fourth step of the seven-step roadmap to democracy, a nationwide referendum will be held in May 2008 to ratify the newly drafted constitution," it said.
The government announced the seven-step roadmap in 2003 but had refused to set a firm timetable until now.
Some Southeast Asia neighbours have been increasingly critical of Myanmar's foot-dragging on reforms, while the West has tried to pressure China, one of Myanmar's few friends, to coax the generals to change.
Beijing, which has interests in Myanmar's resource wealth such as natural gas and timber, has refused to back sanctions against the regime. But last month it urged the regime to allow U.N. special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to return to Myanmar soon to promote a genuine dialogue between the junta and opposition.
"China may have put pressure on them to announce something acceptable. They may have used the Olympic Games as a bargaining chip," a Yangon-based Asian diplomat said of the junta's announcement.
Rights groups have seized upon the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as a chance to exert pressure on China for everything from the conflict in Darfur to Beijing's support of Myanmar's junta.
New campaign to boycott Burmese businesses - Min Lwin and Violet Cho
Irrawaddy: Fri 8 Feb 2008
Despite the fact the United States government imposed additional sanctions on the Burmese military junta and its cronies recently, underground activists have initiated a campaign to boycott any goods believed to be linked with the regime.
Anonymous leaflets were spread around Rangoon this week calling on Burmese citizens to boycott businesses belonging to cronies and supporters of the regime. The leaflets accused the military authorities of bullying the ordinary people of Burma and making them slaves of the junta.
The proposed items for boycott include Myanmar Beer, Dagon Beer, London Cigarettes and Vegas Cigarettes, the state-owned Aung Bar Lay Lottery and all donut shops believed to be owned by relatives of the military leaders.
Myanmar Beer, Dagon Beer, London Cigarettes and Vegas Cigarettes are monopolized by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company Limited (UMEH).
UMEH is a military conglomerate. Shares in the holding company are held by members of the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces. Its board of directors is comprised of senior military officers.
J' Donuts coffee shops are a popular chain in Rangoon and are believed to be owned by Kyaing San Shwe, the son of Snr-Gen Than Shwe.
The usual suspect on all sanctions targets, Htoo Trading Company Limited, is also on the boycott list. The Chief Executive Officer of Htoo Trading Company Limited is the notorious Burmese businessman, Tay Za. Three companies and two individuals that have close connections to Tay Za were also added to the list for targeted sanctions.
Other persons singled out for targeted sanctions include the spouses of senior officials of the military junta.
Interestingly, government newspapers The New Light of Myanmar, The Mirror and two privately run journals, Nan Myint and Snaphot, were on the boycott list. Snaphot is owned by publisher Myat Khaing who is a close associate of Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, the minister for information.
Despite the bold moves, reaction from people in Burma has been mixed.
The Irrawaddy spoke to residents in Rangoon, Arakan State, Kachin State, Sagaing Division and Mandalay to sound out their opinion on the fresh boycott call by an underground group in Burma.
A beer shop owner in Sagaing who had not seen the leaflets said: "Burmese people don't dare take part in this recent boycott campaign.
"We can't even boycott Chinese products because we depend on Chinese toothpaste every morning," he explained.
The general manager of an employment agency in Rangoon said, "It is not possible for Burmese people to boycott these products. If you don't want to smoke London cigarettes, do you have any other choice?"
"I don't think it will have any effect," said Ko Ye, a tourist guide from Rangoon. "We don't have anything to replace these products if we boycott them."
Speaking to The Irrawaddy by telephone on Friday, a businessman who runs an oil and diesel retailers in Rangoon said, "We have no other choice for beer and cigarettes in Burma. We have long been using these products to relax and release tension." He added that it would be impossible to boycott these products "if we are left with nothing."
A writer and critic in Rangoon said, "I don't think the boycott will be effective, because all the listed products are used by people around the country."
He also said that it was difficult to find business and companies that have no connections with the military authorities.
A senior editor who publishes a monthly magazine in Rangoon said, "It is a good idea as a people's movement, but it's not practical. I think more people will join the boycott movement if it is beneficial to the people."
However, a Kachin man living in Lai Zar, along the Kachin-Chinese border, backed the boycott campaign.
"I agree that we have to boycott these companies and firms that are close to the military regime," he said. "Supporting them keeps the regime in power.
Are sanctions the answer? - Stanley A. Weiss
International Herald Tribute: Fri 8 Feb 2008
In the often black and white, good-versus-evil debate over how to deal with the brutal military regime here, Ma Thanegi lives in a world of gray.
To her admirers, the feisty 61-year-old Burmese painter and writer is a voice of reason - a former assistant to opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who, after being jailed for three years herself, bravely opposed Suu Kyi's misguided call for Western economic sanctions to pressure the junta into relinquishing power.
To her critics in the democracy movement, Thanegi is a sellout who parrots government propaganda to foreign tourists and journalists. Meeting openly with me at a major hotel suggests that - with her writings on Burmese culture and cuisine, not politics - she has little to fear in the continuing crackdown on dissidents after the fall's protests led by Buddhist monks.
In reality, Thanegi seems an equal opportunity critic, which - with the world out of options for dealing with the junta - makes hers a voice worth hearing.
Expressing her hopes for "freedom of publication," she says that with a military government "it's a given that they are very controlling and rigid, not knowing anything about the running of the economy."
She slams "sycophants" in both government and the opposition who have created "so much mistrust" that any real dialogue is "a pipe dream."
"I am not a traitor or a turncoat," she insists. "I wish with all my heart that I had been wrong, that the strategy laid down by Suu Kyi, who we love so much, was the right one." But Western sanctions are "costing us jobs and hurting people, who need to eat on a daily basis."
In brief, nervous encounters, ordinary Burmese - street vendors, taxi drivers, tour guides, waiters - tell me much the same thing: "We love Suu Kyi. We hate the military. But please, get rid of the sanctions."
For Maung Zarni, it's an especially "bitter pill" to admit that sanctions have failed to moderate the regime. As a graduate student in the United States a decade ago, his Free Burma Coalition led the grassroots campaign for sanctions and divestment, which forced corporations like PepsiCo and Texaco to leave Burma.
But we "failed to account for China and India," he says, explaining why he began opposing sanctions. "We can't isolate a regime that's trading and buying arms from the fastest growing economies in the world."
He concedes that more foreign investment could further enrich the criminal regime he opposes. But Zarni - who first befriended Westerners as a young tourist guide in his native Mandalay - argues that "this is a small price to pay in the short term for the longer term benefit of creating jobs for farmers and workers."
"It's extremely politically incorrect to say it," he says, "but economics, perhaps even more than politics, is the key to progress." As in dictatorships-turned-democracies like Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile, "economic reform could lead to political reform."
Thant Myint-U also challenges anti-sanctions orthodoxy. An historian and grandson of former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, he argues that "if over the last 15 years there had been trade and investment, and not just increasing isolation from the West, there could have been real economic growth and the emergence of much better conditions for political change."
His thanks for speaking such common sense? A liberal U.S. magazine lashed out at him for espousing a view that "justifies the junta's policies" and "forestalls democracy."
Tragically, Myanmar now represents the worst of all possible worlds. Having crushed the biggest challenge to its rule in two decades, the junta - which sees itself as the only force able to prevent the Balkanization of multi-ethnic Burma - seems in no mood to compromise, if it ever was.
In a message this week, Suu Kyi, now under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, urged supporters to "hope for the best, and prepare for the worst."
The regime's worst enablers - neighbors and trade partners, especially China, the junta's biggest military supplier - show no interest in applying the economic pressure that might persuade the generals to change course.
The United States and European Union, having already sanctioned themselves out of influence over the junta, have imposed still more sanctions that will likely push the generals even closer to Beijing.
Meanwhile, 55 million Burmese - including an estimated one million ethnic refugees in the countryside - are trapped in a growing humanitarian catastrophe of ethnic cleansing, disease, drugs, malnutrition and forced labor, including as child soldiers.
"The landscape that's been created is exactly the landscape that will keep things just as they are for a very long time," says Myint-U.
"And branding people as 'pro-junta' for trying to suggest different ways forward only prevents the creative discussion we desperately need if we don't want to be facing the same situation 20 years from now."
After a decade of experience, it's clear: economic sanctions on Myanmar may feel right, but they have helped produce the wrong results. Encouraging Western investment, trade and tourism may feel wrong, but maybe - just maybe - could produce better results.
That might be politically incorrect, but at least it wouldn't be politically futile.
Stanley A. Weiss is Founding Chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.
Why sanctions fail - Bo Kyaw Nyein [Analysis]
Mizzima News: Fri 8 Feb 2008
Many wonder why American-led sanctions against the Burmese junta have not yielded any results after all these years. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is now trying a new approach called "targeted sanctions". In this author's opinion it doesn't matter what new approach the administration may decide to take, it will again fail. Former oilmen like Bush and Cheney are either ignoring obvious developments or pretending not to notice the facts.
Americans like to emphasize rhetoric and impose sanctions based on the news of the day, but they choose to ignore the most significant income for Burma's generals. A few years back, the topic was garment factories. The wise men in the U.S. Congress wrote a sanction law to shut down a few garment factories in Burma without studying the consequences it could or could not have on the Burmese junta. The target was the assumed $300 million income generated from the garment industry.
In reality just a portion of the income, in the form of briberies, actually reached the generals' pockets, and the loss of income neither hurt the government machinery nor stopped the junta from purchasing military hardware or a nuclear reactor. Worse yet, many Burmese workers lost their jobs when the factories were shut down and many female employees became sex workers. The junta's propaganda machine blamed Burma's main opposition party, National League for Democracy, and the U.S. Congress for these negative effects.
After the Saffron Revolution the SPDC held an annual gem show, which became the focus of the international media. Again the U.S. Congress danced to the tune of the media and wrote a new sanction law to ban the export of Burmese gems. It aimed to close loopholes which allow third countries to export gems originating from Burma.
But I would just like to shout at the top of my lungs: 'Mr. Bush, it is energy stupid!'
Human Rights Watch, in a report on Burma in November 2007, listed 27 companies based in 13 countries as having investment interests in Burma's oil and gas fields. According to this report, thirteen of those companies are entirely or partially owned by foreign governments, and these state-controlled companies are invested in 20 of the 30 projects currently underway.
Gas revenue in Burma in 2006 was up $1 billion from the prior year, in part due to higher prices globally. Revenues are likely to have further increased in 2007 as world prices have surged. Future gas revenues are anticipated to increase even further once gas production from a massive offshore gas project, the Shwe Project, goes online. A South Korean-led consortium discovered the gas in the Shwe fields and is preparing to produce it for export. Several buyers vied for the rights to purchase the gas, with India and China among the most active bidders. Estimates of the gas yield from the Shwe deposits range from $37 to $52 billion, and could lead to profits for the Burmese government of $12 to $17 billion over 20 years.
Another Human Rights Watch report, from October of last year, says that at present the SPDC receives the bulk of its gas money from the onshore Yadana and Yetagun gas fields. The Yadana consortium is led by Total of France and includes UNOCAL (now Chevron) of the United States and Thailand's state-controlled PTT Exploration and Production Co Ltd (PTTEP). The Yetagun consortium is led by Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, and includes Japan's Nippon Oil as well as PTTEP.
According to these reports, Burma's military government earned approximately $2.16 billion in 2006 from gas sales to Thailand, its single largest source of revenue. The Asian Development Bank says Burma's junta exported goods worth $4.3 billion and imported goods worth $3.9 billion in 2006. It is obvious that as long as the Burmese junta is getting cash from foreign-financed oil and gas projects; they can easily withstand sanctions imposed by U.S. and Western democracies.
Furthermore, Burma fits perfectly into China's energy security plan. Chinese politicians and policy makers are long-term thinkers and they are concerned that oil routes to China can be blocked in times of conflict at the Strait of Malacca by the U.S. 7th fleet. China's energy policy is thus to exploit any source that can be accessed regardless of politics.
Deals signed with Sudan, Nigeria and Iran are proof of this approach. China has just signed a contract to develop Iran's Yadavaran oil and gas field, which exceeds $2 billion in value. In addition China is working with Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to build gas and oil pipelines to eastern China.
From sources inside Burma and personal discussions with Chinese officials, it is clear that China's interest in Burmese gas alone is minuscule. China's main interest is to develop a deep sea port in Kyauk Phru, Arakan's second biggest port, and use it as a transfer point for Middle Eastern oil to China's inland provinces, thus eliminating the need to ship its oil through the Strait of Malacca.
Another player to watch is Saudi Arabia. According to Wang Hongjiang from Xinhuanet.com, Burma may receive interest-free loans from Saudi Arabia, which established diplomatic relations with Burma in August 2004 and opened an embassy in Yangon in December 2005.
According to Dr. Sein Myint, a Burmese expert with more than 25 years experience in the oil industry, Burmese oil officials entered discussions with Middle Eastern equity investors in 1995/1996 to build oil refineries in Burma and to export diesel to India. The negotiations fell through then, but Saudi Arabia is hungry to find new places to build refineries to process its oil, as more developed countries are resisting building new refineries due to environmental concerns. Burma would be a perfect place to build new Saudi refineries. Burmese generals could not care less about the environmental issue.
With Saudi money and clout, the income of Burma's generals could be significantly increased, and Americans would find it hard to pressure the Saudis.
The fall of the U.S. dollar is also helping the junta evade the full impact of U.S. sanctions. The Burmese junta uses the European SWIFT network to bypass currency and financial restrictions imposed upon the junta by U.S. sanctions and they are pressuring trading partners for Euro-based transactions rather than dollar-based transactions. With the value of the dollar declining, one of my sources inside Burma has reported that the Burmese generals are confident they could move to a Yuan-based transaction system to fight U.S. currency restrictions.
The Burmese generals are no fools. They have tightly integrated India, China, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Russia into their energy network. If Burma becomes the southern leg of China's energy security plan, Burma's generals will be further buttressed by a growing global power. If the junta can build strong relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia as well, it will become very hard for any U.S. administration to pressure all these global players to sacrifice national interest in the name of democracy.
I hope the incoming American administration and a new Congress will realize that rhetoric alone and patchwork sanctions will not solve Burma's crisis. We need to look deeply into the issues and develop a sound policy to effectively help the long suffering people of Burma. We may need a tough new sanction law like the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which penalized foreign companies daring to invest more than $20 million in Iran's oil and gas industry. Until and unless America blocks this energy revenue, the Burmese generals will laugh all the way to the bank.
This author supports economic sanctions, not for economic reasons but as a show of symbolic political support for Daw Suu. Daw Suu is the HOPE for Burma and it is important that Burma's iconic leader enjoys global support.
Sanctions have not met their original goal of forcing the SPDC to the negotiating table because Burma's generals and their partners work hard to find ways and means to bypass sanctions, while the U.S. and its partners are inclined to employ a patchwork approach without comprehensive plans for implementing sanctions and monitoring the effects.
I hope American policy makers will learn from failed Iraq and Iran policies, reevaluate, and formulate policies that will truly bring positive results for Burma. Closing the energy loophole may be the start.
Burmese ask if politics and Olympics mix - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Fri 8 Feb 2008
The debate over whether to join a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games, set to take place this summer, has begun among Burmese inside the country and abroad, even as their sports-loving compatriots seem to have other things on their minds.
Some Burmese democracy activists say they are waiting to see how the campaign against the Beijing Games will be conducted, while others see an immediate need to put pressure on China for its support of oppressive regimes from Burma to the Sudan.
Aung Moe Zaw, a secretary of the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), an umbrella group of exiled political organizations based in Thailand, said that for the boycott to succeed, campaigners would have to find common ground. He added that so far there has been little discussion about the Olympics within the NCUB.
He also took a soft line on the need to push China to take a more constructive role in resolving Burma's political impasse:
"China spoke openly about the Burmese political deadlock after the crackdown on the September uprising and has cooperated with the UN on the Burma issuewe welcome this kind of step," he told The Irrawaddy.
"As long as China doesn't oppose the Burmese democracy movement, I think [China's position on Burma] is OK," he added.
However, Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, also based in Thailand, argued that Beijing's disregard for human rights made it a fair target for international criticism.
"Even though the Beijing Olympics are just around the corner, China's communist government still shows that it has no respect for human rights, particularly freedom of expression," he said, referring to the recent arrest of Chinese bloggers.
"Defending repressive regimes around the world is bad foreign policy," he added.
Bo Win, a Burmese of Chinese descent living abroad, agreed that China needed to be taken to task for supporting Burma's oppressive regime: "Everybody knows the junta's brutal acts are unacceptable. But China continues to defend the Burmese generals," he said.
Maung Myint, a member of Rangoon's Chinese community, singled out China's arms sales to the Burmese junta and its defense of the regime before the United Nations Security Council as examples of Beijing's unwelcome interference in Burma's affairs.
"I support a boycott of the Beijing Olympics," he said, noting that the Games were scheduled to begin on August 8, the twentieth anniversary of a nationwide uprising that ended when the current regime seized power in a brutal crackdown.
In Burma's numerous sports publications, meanwhile, the Olympics have so far attracted precious little attentionnot so much because of the risks of discussing a boycott, but because of a simple lack of interest.
"Journals don't cover this issue because there's no market demand," said Zaw Thet Htwe, a journalist in Rangoon. "Burmese sport readers are more interested in the world's football matches than in the Beijing Olympics."
An editor with the "Forever Sports Journal" concurred: "The Burmese journals cannot cover the Beijing Olympics because they don't have the space. They are all busy with football stories."
Junta combats UNICEF data with dated government statistics
Mizzima News: Fri 8 Feb 2008
The Burmese government has questioned the accuracy of a recent international study which found a high child mortality rate inside the country.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) published a figure in their annual report, released two-weeks ago, of an estimated child mortality rate nearly 60 percent higher than a figure quoted Wednesday by Burma's Minister for Health, Dr. Kyaw Myint.
"Although UNICEF stated in the report that there were 104 deaths out of 1,000 under-five children in Myanmar, WHO (SEARO) issued that the mortality rate of Myanmar stood at 66.1 every 1,000," stated yesterday's New Light of Myanmar, referring to the Minister's address. "Hence, it can be seen that there were some discrepancies between the two UN organizations."
However, the discrepancy arises primarily as a result of procedural differences.
The WHO-SEARO statistic referenced in the government daily comes from a 2004 study that drew its figures solely from statistics compiled by Burma's Central Statistics Organization and Department of Health.
In contrast, UNICEF states its figures are "based on the work of the Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, which includes UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank and the United Nations Population Division."
On May 26, 2004, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights directly referenced the WHO-SEARO report, stating, "A recent survey by the Ministry of Health indicated that the under-five mortality rate was 66.1 per 1,000 live births."
The statistic given in the WHO-SEARO paper is for the year 2003, whereas UNICEF's latest estimates are based on 2006.
Additionally, the UNICEF figure is a projection as opposed to a historical statistic. The under-five child mortality rate, as calculated by UNICEF, estimates the number of fatalities to occur if the current situation and factors inside the country remain static over the ensuing five years.
The discrepancy in procedure can also partially be explained as resulting from the widely independent day-to-day operations of WHO's regional offices in relation to the overarching international body itself.
WHO's estimates concur almost exactly with those of UNICEF. WHO's estimated child mortality rate for Burma in 2005 differed by only one to that of UNICEF's, 104 per 1,000 live births as opposed to 105.
Despite questioning the accuracy of UNICEF's child mortality figure, the Minister for Health, speaking Wednesday, told an audience in Naypyitaw that the Burmese government looks forward to joining hands with United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations to confront the health needs of Burmese citizens.
UNICEF argues that the primary cause of the deplorable condition for children in Burma results from chronic economic and development failures.
The report goes on to note that diseases leading to the deaths of Burmese children are mostly curable, including respiratory infections, pneumonia and diarrhea.
UN as India, Myanmar matchmaker - Jyoti Malhotra
Asia Times: Fri 8 Feb 2008
India has quietly undertaken a charm offensive with Myanmar's ruling junta, just months after New Delhi had publicly joined hands with Western governments to chastise the military regime for cracking down brutally against protesting monks and pro-democracy agitators in the old capital of Yangon.
Despite widespread criticism of its diplomatic and commercial gambit, India's conciliatory approach now has the backing of the United Nations, which is leading so far unsuccessful mediation efforts between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
As the world watched in horror, saffron-robed monks, dressed in the color of sacrifice, marched through the streets with their begging bowls turned downwards. That gesture of self-denial and abnegation, on par with the fasts Mahatma Gandhi often undertook to purify himself, as well as the enemy, sent a collective shudder across major world capitals.
The September protests and the government's crackdown have now faded from international headlines. And in the coming days, the Indian government is set to send a high-level team to meet the top military establishment in Naypidaw, Myanmar's new secluded capital city.
Meanwhile, General Maung Aye, the number two ranking officer in the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), seems all set to visit India in April. So what accounts for Delhi's newfound diplomatic derring-do?
Indian officials confirm that the junta's decision in early January to allow India to develop the strategically-located port of Sittwe in Myanmar's western Arakan province, at a cool cost of US$120 million, has much to do with the turnaround.
To India, the Sittwe award comes at a time when New Delhi has been particularly rattled by China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy, that envisages a series of ports and bases built in friendly countries - such as Pakistan and Myanmar - to safeguard the country's energy shipments from the Middle East.
Towards that end, the Chinese in recent months completed the Gwadar warm water port off the Balochistan coast in Pakistan. In Myanmar, the Chinese have leveraged their friendly status with the ruling generals to variously build radar, refit and refueling facilities in the Coco Islands, Hianggyi and Khaukphyu.
As such, Myanmar's decision to allow New Delhi to develop Sittwe comes as a huge relief to India's strategic planners. In a recently revealed twist, New Delhi compromised with the junta by agreeing to change the terms of the project from "build, operate and transfer" to "build, operate and use".
What a world of difference one word can make. Once India agreed that control of the facility would remain solely with Myanmar and that it would only be able to "use" the port it developed - which includes making the Kaladan river in Myanmar navigable all the way up to adjoining the northeastern state of Mizoram, as well upgrading highways within the remote territory to connect with the rest of India's national network.
The deal was even sweeter for India because it took immediate pressure off New Delhi to succeed in negotiations with Bangladesh for transport rights of passage to India's insurgency-hit northeastern states. New Delhi's own diplomatic problems with Dhaka have meant that Bangladesh has consistently refused to provide India the trade and transit rights it has sought.
More significantly, perhaps, India's re-engagement with Myanmar seems to have been sanctioned by none other than UN special envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari, and thereby, presumably, also by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's chief benefactor, the US.
Last week in New Delhi, Gambari said he hoped that "India would do more than what it had been doing so far. [India] should work on Myanmar to make the diplomatic process more inclusive and dialogue with the opposition parties more dialogue-oriented." Adding that he was impressed with India's "growing influence" on Myanmar, Gambari said India should use its leverage to become a trustworthy and effective conduit to both source information as well as send messages to the Myanmar government.
Clearly, Gambari was telling New Delhi that although the Western world - namely, the US and the European Union - was in favor of taking a tougher line on Myanmar, including the imposition of new financial sanctions, it was also amenable to India taking a softer approach. It is apparently believed that India's influence could help to check and balance Myanmar's key ally China, which last year used its veto power to bar the UN Security Council from putting Myanmar's abysmal rights record on its agenda.
For the time being, India seems to have taken the bait. It rankled deeply in New Delhi in August last year when the Myanmar junta withdrew India's state-owned Gas Authority's "preferential buyer" status on certain offshore gas field blocks and declared it would instead sell them to rival PetroChina.
With China waiting to grab control of more of Myanmar's untapped natural gas resources and extend its sphere of strategic influence into the Bay of Bengal, India realizes it can hardly afford to play with a straight bat. And so a new great game, this time with Myanmar as the lucrative prize, is unfolding on South Asia's strategic chessboard.
For India, of course, the key question is how to strike the fine balance between close ties with Myanmar's military regime, the ever-circling Chinese, and its own domestic opinion, which favors a much greater political role for Myanmar's harassed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still being held under house arrest.
Few in New Delhi can forget that Suu Kyi studied at a local college here in the 1950s, when her mother was Myanmar's, then known as Burma, ambassador to India. When General Maung Aye arrives to India in April, a formal signature on Sittwe is expected and a new chapter in bilateral relations will have opened. Whether India is able or willing to leverage those ties into pushing for democratic change in Myanmar is a wildcard.
By then the UN's Gambari will have hopefully made a third visit to Myanmar, to press the regime to implement democratic reforms and move the country towards national reconciliation.
If the geostrategic map suddenly seems blurred and hardline Western positions not necessarily what they are advocating behind closed doors, then there could be more surprises ahead as India becomes more engaged in Myanmar's future.
Jyoti Malhotra is a political analyst based in New Delhi, India.
A limited time to play - Nyo Ohn Myint
Democratic Voice of Burma: Fri 8 Feb 2008
Naypyidaw, the jungle capital of Burma, has been very busy in past weeks with top advisers in greens and generals in charge of internal security responsibilities.
Senior general Than Shwe reportedly instructed them to find a short-term solution to appease the angry and hungry Burmese people and international players.
Before the Saffron Revolution, Than Shwe had tried to avoid a political solution, but regional and international pressures have made political engagement unavoidable.
The senior general has not given up, but is preparing better political, social, and diplomatic strategies to achieve his own aims; he has chosen general Ye Myint to approach and receive the support of ethnic ceasefire groups, while he has designated foreign minister Nyan Win and prime minister Thein Sein to neutralize the mounting international pressures and raise funds to combat the shortage of hard currency.
U Aung Thaung and general Htay Oo have been given outright power to control the domestic political and social turmoil, and U Aung Kyi has been tasked to perform various magic tricks with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Consequently, Nyan Win approached India for financial assistance, investments and bilateral cooperation in early January 2008. Along with other issues, the main purpose of the discussion for the SPDC was to seek financial assistance from India.
Perhaps China has indicated its unwillingness to provide financial and political support until it has successfully staged the Beijing Olympic in August 2008.
Sources say that Than Shwe has limited his public appearances since the Saffron Revolution last year. There is as hard-line an undercurrent as ever in Burma, but interestingly, the generals who oversee the military institutions have also disappeared from the public scene.
Rumours spread that general Thura Shwe Mann, the front runner to be the next SPDC leader, was even losing control over mid-level super hardliners, as was the junta's second-in-command vice-senior general Maung Aye.
It is crystal clear that Than Shwe and the hardliners tightly control all power and decision-making processes.
U Aung Kyi has had both international and local audiences to play with; providing false hope, diluting commitments, and most importantly trying to marginalize Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's role as much as he could.
Than Shwe knows she has no option of refusing to meet with U Aung Kyi if there is to be a political negotiation process.
Regardless of whether an agreement is reached, things will still be dangerous. Indeed, Than Shwe has bunch of cards in his hands but time may not allow him to play them, as a diplomat said.
In addition, there is no affinity between policy-making group of super hardliners backed by decision-maker Than Shwe and the implementation team or cabinet led by prime minister Thein Sein.
A few hardliners who are also cabinet ministers refuse to accept any suggestions from Thein Sein, according to a close associate of the regime. A para-SPDC cabinet and secondary security forces exist alongside the official institutions, and this has caused problems.
A recent major challenge has been allocating funds for government spending.
The army has made a request to replace two-decade-old Chinese-made military hardware with more modern alternatives, but internal security run by super hardliners has hesitated to approve the army's request, believing small arms to be good enough for suppression.
Than Shwe may withdraw from the UN-initiated dialogue process with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi if the international community fails to resume normal humanitarian assistance.
He has used her image to get aid, assistance and contain possible unrest; if this strategy is not working, why would he bother to send someone to meet her?
Reducing the strength of the opposition is a very important factor for Than Shwe in ruling Burma, and so security forces continue to make arrests, search activists door-to-door and put pressure on civilians.
The fabricated bombings in Burma over the last few weeks allowed the regime to set up roadblocks, search political activists in the local community and impose travel restrictions on opposition members.
Than Shwe's shadow cabinet and close associates are facing opposition from different sectors of society, challenges from monks, and the hostility of a new anti-government generation all within a limited timeframe.
The more battlefronts he and his men have to fight on, the lesser chance he has of winning each battle.
Even if they are successful, they will have to reshuffle the whole army and SPDC for their future destiny while the country remains at ground zero.
If not, and they fail to prove that a hard-line strategy is the most efficient, a new generation army will take over power and determine the role for the military to take in Burmese politics.
Don't shoot the messenger [Editorial]
Irrawaddy: Fri 8 Feb 2008
Since the bloody crackdown in September, the regime in Naypyidaw has become increasingly isolated. However, they are not sitting idly. They are buying time while ignoring the international community's calls to reconcile with the democratic opposition and initiate a genuine dialogue.
The Western governments have tightened sanctions on the junta, since constructive engagement is so obviously doomed to failure. This, we believe, is the correct approach.
In this respect, the United States government has led the way in punishing the generals and cutting them off from their aspirations. The US is also the main player in keeping the spotlight on Burma. Recently, the Bush administration increased targeted sanctions on the regime leaders, their families and cronies, and leading Burmese businessmen. We welcomed the decision and hope the sanctions are expanded to hurt all powerful businesspersons who have strong connections to the military leaders. They deserve no less.
But more needs to be done. The generals know that the world's attention is shifting and its attention span on Burma is short. The regime's wrath is unyielding and the crackdown on dissidents continues.
Recently, a young man named Nay Phone Latt was arrested for blogging. He could be charged under Burma's draconian Emergency Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.
The Burmese security forces have also stepped up surveillance on Internet cafés in Rangoon and those who visit them in the wake of hundreds of images and photos being sent out during the carnage in September.
The regime is fighting against a new enemycyber dissidents and citizen reporters, armed with cell phones, digital cameras and memory sticks.
Therefore, for the sake of change in Burma, it is vitally important that the lines of communication remain open at all times.
And so to New Zealand, where, last Monday, debate flared in parliament over the contracting of state-owned telecommunications company Kordia to install cell phone towers in Burma.
Kordia chief executive Geoff Hunt was quoted as saying that the firm had installed mobile base station equipment for Myanmar Post and Telecommunications.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who had denounced the Burmese regime in the past, was caught between a rock and a hard place. She defended her government's position saying the contract would probably help democracy.
The Green Party, with six members in New Zealand's 121-seat parliament, issued a press release criticizing the government for giving the green light for a public company to work in Burma.
The party's foreign affairs spokesman, Keith Locke, said, "It is shocking that our government should be encouraging a state-owned company to help the Burmese regime, one of the most ruthless in the world."
Clark countered by stating that there were no economic sanctions on Burma. The small contract that the state-owned Kordia signed was a joint venture with Thai firm ALT Inter Corporation, and was worth about NZ $80,000 (US $62,400).
"Quite frankly, I think that's probably an aid to democracy [in Burma], not a step backwards," she said. "Because one of the ways of getting news out to the world and photos and images out to the world is precisely through that technology."
In fact, she is not wrong. However, we've heard these lame excuses too often in the past.
Some years ago, the Australian government provided a series of human rights training courses to Burmese officials in the naïve assumption that the regime would see the light and start respecting the rights of its citizens.
A few years later, in May 2003, a gang of thugs trained by the regime attacked democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her motorcade. Where were the human rights trainees that day?
The junta is a lingering leopard that will never change its spots.
Nevertheless, we believe that the lines of communication between Burma and the outside world must remain open. It is essential that the citizens of Burma be able to purchase cell phones, SIM cards and other IT devices freely and at reasonable prices.
The state-controlled cost of US $1,500 for a SIM card alone is certainly not reasonable.
However, ultimately, more cell phones, cheaper Internet access, a higher computer literacy and unknown future gadgets will inspire a young generation who want to share stories and news with the rest of the world.
We look forward to seeing more and more ordinary folk in Burma chatting on mobile phones, exchanging photos by e-mail and researching news on the Internet. Burma should be flooded with cell phones and Internet cafés.
In the meantime, we must keep pressure on the regime to stop arresting cyber dissidents and citizen reporters who conform to Prime Minister Clark's image as messengers of news, photos and images to the world. But, she must also be ready to defend Nay Phone Latt and his fellow citizen reporters who languish in prison.