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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 13/2/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. The junta s slow march to democracy 2.. Rethinking Beijing s Burma policy 3.. Little hope in Burmese junta s democratic bluster 4.. Aung San Suu Kyi s
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 12, 2008
      1. The junta's slow march to democracy
      2. Rethinking Beijing's Burma policy
      3. Little hope in Burmese junta's democratic bluster
      4. Aung San Suu Kyi's party calls for 'fair political climate' in Myanmar
      5. Swan Arr Shin members patrol Rangoon
      6. Veteran Chin politician criticizes junta's announcement
      7. Junta tightens passports for NGO staff
      8. Union Day protest in Rangoon
      9. Leading monk flees Burma for Thailand
      10. Asean Chief: Burma charter vote a first step
      11. Symbiotic ties bind India and Myanmar
      12. The junta's electoral gambit
      13. Resistance to constitutional referendum builds up
      14. Lawlessness, the stuff that binds in Burma
      15. Rejection of the Burmese military junta's announcement
      16. Announcement of the 61st anniversary of Union Day
      17. Statement of Union Day

      The junta's slow march to democracy
      BangkokPost: 12/2/08

      After four years mulling the roadmap to democracy, Burma's generals have now tentatively set elections for 2010


      Burma's military rulers are planning to hold democratic elections in two years' time, according to an official government announcement in the state-run media. A referendum on the new constitution will be held in May, and multi-party elections held before the end of 2010, the surprise announcement said.

      "We have achieved success in economic, social and other sectors and in restoring peace and stability," a top leader in the junta, Secretary One Lt-Gen Tin Aung Myint Oo, announced on television.

      "So it is now suitable to change the military administration to a democratic, civil administrative system, as good fundamentals have been established. The country's basic infrastructure has been built, although there is still more to do in striving for the welfare of the nation," he warned.

      According to the Chiang Mai-based Burmese academic, Win Min, "It seems that General Than Shwe [the junta leader] has changed his mind and is no longer using the seven-point roadmap to buy time, but instead it is now central to his efforts to overcome both internal and international pressures.

      "Internally the generals may be worried about further mass unrest, and are using the promise of elections to cool people down and encourage them not to do demonstrate, but to wait and see," he said. "The junta promised elections after cracking down on the 1988 mass movement for the same reason."

      The pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi who is under house arrest, immediately dismissed the plans. "The announcement is vague, incomplete and strange," NLD spokesman Nyan Win said.

      "They have now fixed a date for the election before knowing the results of the referendum. They obviously believe the constitution will be accepted by the people. I can't help but wonder how the referendum will be conducted," he added.

      Diplomats in Rangoon, the country's commercial centre and former capital, remain sceptical and fear that both the referendum and the elections will be neither free nor fair.

      "Than Shwe has been constantly considering all his options and examining all the possible scenarios in order to have a strategic plan which will ensure he retains power and protects his family's interests in the long run," said a senior source close to the Burmese leader. "For some time the roadmap was a back-up strategy, but after the crackdown on the protests last year, it became the main option to keep political control."

      The junta has been talking about a roadmap to democracy for more than four years now, but this is the first time a timetable has been set. In the past the top generals have avoided setting out a schedule or giving deadlines.

      "That would be like tying our hands behind our back," the former foreign minister, U Win Aung, now in prison on corruption charges, told the Bangkok Post several years ago. "Anyway the road to reform, especially involving political change, always takes more time than anticipated," he added. "But rest assured the seven-point roadmap will not take seven years to implement."

      The former intelligence chief, General Khin Nyunt, announced the roadmap shortly after he became prime minister in August 2003. Khin Nyunt and his supporters were ousted in a coup a year later, but the regime continued to insist that this did not affect Burma's commitment to the roadmap.

      "In accordance with the fourth step of the seven-step roadmap to democracy, a nation-wide referendum will be held in May 2008 to ratify the newly-drafted constitution," the junta spokesman said.

      The Burmese opposition abroad has already denounced the planned constitution as a sham and unrepresentative. More than 1,000 hand-picked delegates spent 14 years drawing up the guidelines for the constitution, from which the NLD was effectively excluded.

      Since December a special committee has been drafting the actual constitution, without representatives of the pro-democracy parties or the ethnic groups being involved.

      "Without the participation of Daw Suu Kyi, the NLD and ethnic parties, the people will not accept this constitution," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the exiled Burmese government, made up of MPs elected in the 1990 elections, which the NLD convincingly won but was never allowed to assume power.

      Few diplomats or analysts believe the referendum will be a free and fair process. "The ratification of the constitution will certainly not involve a secret ballot," suggested a Western diplomat in Rangoon. "It's most likely to be a series of mass meetings across the country, controlled by the [mass community organisation] the USDA [Union , Solidarity and Development Association] run by Than Shwe's henchmen."

      Australian constitutional lawyer, Janelle Saffin said, "It's almost certain to be either a process of affirmation through mass meetings, or a re-run of the 1974 constitutional referendum, when voters had a choice of putting their ballots either into a black box for 'No' and a white box for 'Yes' under the constant gaze of the soldiers guarding the polling stations."

      So far little is really known about the new constitution _ except that it essentially will preserve military rule under the guise of civilian government. Under the guidelines for the new charter, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees.

      The president will be a military man of stature, while key ministries, including defence, will be controlled by the military. The army would be allowed to set its own budget, without reference to the civilian government, and the army commanders would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power at any time it is seen as necessary.

      The country's charismatic opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than 12 of the past 18 years in detention, is effectively barred from holding any elected office because she is deemed to be a foreigner as she was married to the late British academic Michael Aris.

      Many analysts and diplomats believe the NLD will also not be allowed to run. And if they are, the regime will certainly harass their candidates, limit their funds and disrupt their campaign.

      "In no way will the next election be free and fair," said Zin Linn. "The generals learned their lesson from the last elections in 1990 which they lost; they will not repeat the same mistake twice, and this time they have two years after the referendum to make sure the results meet their plans."

      So far, few feel that the Burmese regime's announcement of an imminent referendum on the new constitution and planned elections in two years' time is little more than a publicity stunt aimed at deflecting international pressure.

      In recent months the Burmese military regime has come under increasing international pressure to introduce political reform and involve opposition leader Daw Suu Kyi in the process. The European Union and the United States have stepped up sanctions against the junta after the brutal crackdown on anti-inflation demonstrations throughout the country last August and September.

      Both the EU and US are threatening stiffer sanctions in the near future if there is no progress towards political reform in the next few months. In the meantime, the UN's special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has been trying to return to Burma to resume his mediation efforts between the opposition leader and the junta, but without success.

      "The announcement may also mean the end of the Gambari process," said Win Min. "In effect Than Shwe is saying to there is no role now for UN, the constitutional process has been laid out and will now take its course."

      This, of course, will please Burma's main supporter, China. Beijing has been urging the regime to make concessions to the international community for some time. "Behind the scenes, China 's leaders have pushed the regime to speed up the national reconciliation process," according to a Rangoon-based Asian diplomat.

      "China has been particularly worried that their support for Burma might affect the Olympic Games in Beijing on the 20th anniversary of the 1988 uprising if the junta continued to defy calls for reform. Now they seem to have got their way," he the diplomat said.

      While Chinese pressure may have been the key behind the Burmese junta's decision to announce a timetable for the roadmap _ especially its timing _ Gen Than Shwe will certainly only have moved because he feels it's his best option to preserve his power in the future.

      Rethinking Beijing's Burma policy
      BangkokPost: 12/2/08


      As a political ally and key economic partner of Burma's military government, China should not only continue to actively engage the Burma junta, but also delicately reach out to opposition groups. In recent years, China's use of peaceful diplomatic "soft power" has won it much applause around the world. But one risk is that such applause at times comes from the elites without a grassroots echo.

      In dealing with a country like Burma, China should consider how its own interests would be affected by a change in that neighbour's political landscape.

      China is cautiously taking initiatives to avoid potential setbacks. When China's special envoy Wang Yi visited Burma last November, he urged the government to resolve the political crisis through dialogue and to attain political stability soon.

      It was also reported that China maintains relations with several former rebel groups that now have made peace with the government, and that China is willing to listen to opposition groups.

      These are encouraging signs that China is shifting its Burma policy to be more flexible.

      China should stay in the driver's seat amid international efforts to spur change in Burma, using the United Nations at times as a forum to gauge international concerns, to nurture positive cohesion, and to measure steps to take.

      No country chooses to have its domestic issues internationalised. But Burma may accept UN intervention as a makeshift strategy to subdue international criticism. There is a risk to China that if it lets other countries take the initiative on Burma, it could end up being sandwiched between Burma and other major powers.

      China would want to avoid choosing sides in Burma, so as not to compromise its holistic interests. A more effective route is to manage relations with all to maximise common interest. To achieve this, the motto of "there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations" is the key.

      China is seen as see-sawing. On the one hand, it insists on non-interference in Burma's internal affairs. Last January, China used its veto power _ for the fifth time in history _ to defeat a UN Security Council resolution condemning Burma's human rights situation.

      On the other hand, China helped facilitate two visits to Burma by Ibrahim Gambari, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, after the crackdown late last year on the monks' demonstration. Ironically, the latter resulted from the former, because China's influence stems from its credibility in making friends and refraining from pointing fingers at other countries' domestic affairs.

      A "no-preaching" style only increased China's influence.

      A peaceful Burmese domestic situation and positive Sino-Burma relations are important for China's strategic and economic interests. China and Burma share a 2,100km border.

      As in the case of North Korea, China does not want the problems of a neighbour like Burma spilling over into its own territory. Burma is also part of China's strategic configuration with other regional and international players.

      Economically, China has become Burma's second-largest trading partner, and the two countries are collaborating on several major projects, including a 2,300km oil and gas pipeline that connects China's landlocked Yunnan province to Burma's coast.

      This pipeline will directly transport oil and gas from the Middle East and Africa into China, therefore circumventing the problems of passing the Malacca Strait. Such a strategic project is both a liability and an asset as China tries to leverage Burma, given China's thirst for energy and Burma's hunger for development.

      Because of the inter-locking interests, China sees Burma as more a problematic neighbour than a threat to international peace and security _ which explains China's aversion to UN Security Council actions.

      But this also underlines the importance of a more proactive policy by Beijing itself.

      China's Burma policy is facing a bigger challenge with the approach of the Olympic Games. China cannot afford another source of instability in its foreign affairs.

      Beijing should pursue an active diplomacy of "intervening without interfering", and try to steer Burmese authorities toward greater engagement with the opposition and the international community for the purpose of national reconciliation.

      Not the least of the advantages for China of such a policy is that it will keep a door slightly open to future alternative prospects in Burma.

      Jason Qian is a fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School. Anne Wu is an associate at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

      Little hope in Burmese junta's democratic bluster
      The Nation: February 12, 2008

      Imagining Thailand as a fully-fledged democratic state is difficult enough.

      The Burmese government's announcement that it plans to hold a referendum on the new constitution in May and general elections in 2010, paving the way for a transition from a totalitarian to a democratic regime, is even more unimaginable. Burma is a country where democracy has been alienated since 1962.

      On Saturday, Burmese state radio and television broadcast the surprising news of a proposed date for a nationwide referendum and announced a time frame for general elections, signalling the end of the military government that refused to hand over power to the winner of the 1990 election - the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then Suu Kyi has been in and out of house arrest and barred from the National Convention, which was first convened in 1993.

      Why has the international community reacted to Burma's announcement of a referendum and election with such indifference? Some of Burma's neighbours rushed to congratulate the country, regarding its decision as "a positive political development". Beyond the diplomatic niceties, however, the same neighbours also remarked on the dangers of Burma's ongoing political process, which has remained exclusive to certain power groups, especially those in the military.

      Therefore, the process of inclusiveness, whereby all political factions are supposed to partake in the move towards democracy, is still open to scepticism. Political camps, including the NLD and ethnic minority groups, are being left out. The Burmese military government has failed, deliberately or otherwise, to reconcile with the opposition. It has continued to disregard engaging in dialogue as being key to a political breakthrough.

      At the heart of this failure lies the state's reluctance to surrender its political power. As a result, Burma has slipped into a political and economic coma. The regime has been notorious for its appalling human-rights record. The national economy is on the verge of collapse, leaving most Burmese in deep poverty and some near starvation.

      This latest political move must also be viewed with suspicion because of the overflowing level of confidence within the Burmese leadership regarding a successful political transition. The military government is so confident of the constitution being approved in the referendum that it has already set a date for national elections in 2010.

      Nyan Win, spokesman of the NLD, said the party was astounded by the announcement. "I am surprised that they set a date for an election when no one has seen the final version of the proposed constitution."

      The government-appointed commission in charge of drafting the new constitution consists mainly of military men or those with connections to the junta. As Nyan Win emphasised, "This one-sided proposal means that the military junta will continue its rule in Burma".

      One of the main points in the constitution is the guarantee that the military's role in politics will continue. Having been a domineering force in national politics for almost 50 years, the military has made it known that it will not give up power easily. Moreover, the fact that certain segments of the international community have acknowledged the necessity of the military's involvement in the country's political transition has strengthened its political ambitions because it can now consider itself an indispensable factor in the political development process.

      But the reality is that the military is dispensable. Little attention is paid to the able men in the Burmese bureaucracy. These civil servants have been behind major administrative works involving infrastructure, transportation and education as well as foreign affairs while top military leaders are indulging themselves with power politics in the jungle of Naypyidaw.

      This explains why there are rumours that General Than Shwe, the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is badly informed on the real situation in his country. Apparently, he does not believe that the Burmese are living in the harsh conditions alleged by foreign governments. This ignorance of Than Shwe is, of course, highly debatable. He must at least have some idea of how much money from the sale of lucrative gas and oil has passed through his hands and how little has been left for the people.

      The junta's unexpected announcement on Saturday could signify an attempt to delay the political transition rather than to speed up the democratisation process even when the dates of the referendum and election have been fixed.

      The junta is using the new political timeline to prolong its political well-being, covering itself with the empty promise that the country's military era has come to an end. Unfortunately, this era will not end unless Suu Kyi and the ethnic minorities are part of the political change.

      The decision to announce early elections could also be linked to international politics. Burma has tried hard to alleviate intense sanctions from the global community, especially after its crackdown on street protesters in September last year. In the past few months, Western powers have called for harsher sanctions against cronies and supporters of the military regime. Economic punishments, which have long been a cause of severe hardship for ordinary Burmese, are now being felt by the top echelons in the military regime.

      China is also believed to be behind the sudden Burmese inclination towards democracy. But Beijing is not necessarily playing the good guy here. Acting in its own interests, it has recently embarked on a mission to eliminate negative publicity ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August, including the downplaying of the Burmese issue.

      A democratic Burma in 2010? It is still highly inconceivable. Pretentiously democratic states in the region, and in Burma's own neighbourhood, exemplify how democracy, no matter how precious, could be an unwanted asset for certain power-holders.

      Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The views expressed here are his own.

      Aung San Suu Kyi's party calls for 'fair political climate' in Myanmar
      AFP: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy on Tuesday urged the military government to create a "fair political climate," after the regime announced a constitutional referendum for May.

      The party did not directly mention the junta's plans for a referendum, which is meant to clear the way for elections in 2010, but repeated its long-standing call for a dialogue with the junta on national reconciliation.

      "The (junta) has the main responsibility to realise national reconciliation, which is essential for the country," the party said in a statement, read out by senior member Than Tun.

      "Moreover, it also has the responsibility to create a fair political climate and environment," the statement added.

      The party also repeated its call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, as well as her deputy Tin Oo and 1,800 other political prisoners believed held in the country.

      Tin Oo is also under house arrest, and the military is expected to announce an extension of his confinement this week.

      The party released the statement at its headquarters in Yangon to mark Union Day, which commemorates a declaration of unity among Myanmar's many ethnic groups during the struggle for independence from Britain.

      The military held a ceremony for the holiday at its remote capital Naypyidaw in central Myanmar, but junta leader Than Shwe did not attend.

      The 74-year-old military supremo, whose health is believed to be weakening, is rarely seen in public. He also missed celebrations last month marking the 60th anniversary of independence.

      A statement from Than Shwe was read out during the nationally televised ceremony, accusing western countries of using sanctions to derail the military's "road map" to democracy.

      The United States, which last week tightened sanctions against the regime, denounced the junta's election time table as a "sham" vote that makes a mockery of global calls for democratic reforms.

      "They are imposing sanctions against the nation to create a large-scale disruption to national progress," Than Shwe said in the statement.

      The regime's foes are "driving a wedge among national races, misleading the people, and aiding and abetting anti-government groups to weaken and break up the union," it said.

      Than Shwe's statement also said that the people of Myanmar were "pursuing the state's seven-step road map … for a transition to a modern, developed democratic nation with flourishing discipline."

      If held, the proposed elections would be the first since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory that was ignored by the junta.

      The regime announced its timetable for elections amid mounting international pressure over its crackdown on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September, when the United Nations says at least 31 were killed.

      But the generals have ignored calls to free Aung San Suu Kyi and open a political dialogue, instead sticking to their own "road map" plan, which critics say will enshrine the military's rule.

      Swan Arr Shin members patrol Rangoon
      Mizzima News: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      Local residents in Rangoon, Burma's former capital, say security has apparently tightened. They report seeing members of Swan Arr Shin, a junta-backed civil organization, patrolling the city.

      Soldiers, police and Swan Arr Shin members can be seen conducting security checks on vehicles entering Rangoon, according to local residents.

      "We don't know why, but the authorities have been checking licenses and recording the number plates of vehicles as they enter Rangoon. And in the city about three truckloads of soldiers, with red ribbons around their necks, are on patrol," a local resident of Kyuaktad Township told Mizzima.

      "And in Ahlone and Kyimyindine Townships authorities have taken young people and made them put on Swan Arr Shin uniforms and patrol the city at night. The kids are excited as they are given uniforms and taken in vehicles to go on patrol," he added.

      Veteran Chin politician criticizes junta's announcement
      Mizzima News: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      An ethnic member of parliament, elected in the 1990 election, today openly accused the Burmese junta of constantly striving to prolong its rule and neglecting the formation of a true federal system.

      Shing Pe Ling (Ghing Phai Ling), MP and Chairman of the Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD) in Mindat Township of Chin State, in a statement today criticized the junta's February 9 announcement that it plans to conduct a referendum over its draft constitution.

      "The military junta not only denied the ethnic nationalities' aspiration for a federalist system that will guarantee greater autonomy and equality, but the announcement also violates the Panglong agreement and the Panglong spirit," Shing Pe Ling said in his statement.

      The statement, on Tuesday, comes as Burma observes the 61st anniversary of Union Day. Burma's Union Day came into existence when ethnic leaders joined hands with General Aung San to sign the historic Panglong agreement on February 12, 1947.

      Under the Panglong Charter, ethnic leaders and General Aung San agreed to safeguard self-determination and autonomy, along with the essence of democracy, to ensure the peaceful co-existence of Burma's many ethnic groups.

      Junta tightens passports for NGO staff – Wai Moe
      Irrawaddy: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      The Burmese regime appears to be tightening access to passports for Burmese staff members of international nongovernmental organizations, according to Rangoon sources.

      Burmese staff members with UN organizations and international NGOs who have applied for a passport renewal at the passport office, which is under the Ministry of Home Affairs, report longer than usual delays and other problems, sources told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

      A Burmese passport is only valid for six months after the date of issue, according to information on the passport office Web site. If it is not used within six months, it must be renewed for another six months.

      If the bearer cannot depart within the second six-month period, they must apply for a new passport from the very beginning.

      The passport office has told some Burmese staff of international NGOs that their passports could be seized if they return home from a foreign trip. The passport office is also refusing to issue passports to some Burmese staffers, according to sources who asked for anonymity.

      "The office said that if a staffer wants to travel abroad, they should apply for a passport three months in advance," said one source.

      "Officials at the office said the restrictions were ordered by Maj-Gen Maung Oo, the minister of home affairs," she said.

      A Burmese staff member with a UN organization said many of his colleagues have been waiting for a passport renewal for months.

      "I think all Burmese working for UN organizations have been affected by the tighter regulations," he said.

      "They [the passport office] said 'if you want to go again, you have to apply for a passport again,'" he said. "I am not sure whether they will issue a new passport to me again or not."

      One source said a passport renewal usually took about ten days.

      "But now some staff at my NGO have waited for more than two months," she said. "But there's been no response. The passport office told us there is some problem. But they do not give any details."

      The passport of one NGO worker, the husband of a Burmese staff member at the US embassy, was recently seized by authorities at Rangoon's Mingaladon International Airport when he returned from abroad, said a source.

      The Myanmar Passport Issuing Office was not available for comment when contacted by The Irrawaddy. The office is run by the Police Special Branch, which handles intelligence.

      Meanwhile, since late 2007, the junta has also tightened visa regulations on Western diplomats, their family members and NGO employees working in Burma.

      In some cases, the regime has refused to renew or extend visas for some staff of Western embassies and their family members.

      Foreign NGO workers traveling to project sites in the country must have a special permit from authorities, according to a junta decree regulating NGOs.

      In 2005, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria cancelled its program in Burma, saying the travel regulations prevented it from accomplishing its mission.

      Union Day protest in Rangoon – Saw Yan Niang
      Irrawaddy: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      More than 30 protesters dressed in the blue uniforms worn by prison inmates staged a protest in Rangoon on Tuesday, demanding the release of political prisoners and respect for UN resolutions on Burma.

      The protesters gathered for about 40 minutes outside the Rangoon headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy, where Union Day ceremonies were being held. Riot police and plain clothes security officials were deployed outside the building and took pictures of the protesters on film and video, but no arrests were made.

      An eyewitness said the protesters held posters and flags of ethnic groups. They voiced dissatisfaction with the pace of national reconciliation and accused the regime of wasting time in arranging talks between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a government mediator, Aung Kyi.

      Hundreds of people, including NLD leaders and prominent ethnic leaders such as Cin Sian Thang and Aye Thar Aung took part in the Union Day celebrations, one of the participants reported.

      Union Day marks the date of the Panglong Agreement signed by Burma's central government and representatives of various ethnic groups, such as Shan, Kachin and Chin nationalities, on February 12, 1947. Burma subsequently gained independence from Britain on January 4, 1948.

      The Burmese regime's observance of Union Day took place in Naypyidaw, where junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe urged people to work for the emergence of a lasting State Constitution laid down by the National Convention.

      Than Shwe also urged people to supports implementation of the "seven-step road map." The third stage of the "road map"—drafting a state constitution—was under way, he said.

      In a Union Day statement issued by the 88 Generation Students group on Tuesday, the regime was accused of violating the fundamental rights of Burmese and ethnic people and civilians in Burma even though the country had won its independence from colonial rule more than 60 years ago.

      Soe Htun, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the military government had ignored the crisis affecting the Burmese people, who lacked democracy, equality, self-determination and a federal union.

      Soe Htun accused the regime of trying to implement a "one-sided constitution." He urged the Burmese people to "cooperate in order to gaining democracy, equality and a federal union."

      The 88 Generation Students group pointed out that a three-way dialogue was the best way to solve the Burma crisis.

      Last week, the Burmese military regime announced that general elections will be held in 2010 following a referendum this May on a new constitution being written under the junta's guidance and expected to entrench its role in government.

      Leading monk flees Burma for Thailand – Than Win Htut
      DVB: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      U Pyinya Zawta, a monk from Rangoon's Maggin monastery and a leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance, arrived at the Thai-Burma border recently after more than four months in hiding.

      U Pyinya Zawta, who is 48 years old, said that he stayed constantly on the move to evade government authorities seeking to arrest him.

      "I stayed hidden inside Burma by moving from place to place every four or five days with the assistance of my lay followers," U Pyinya Zawta explained.

      "All the other monks in my group were in the same situation as I was. I finally decided to come out after realizing I was putting my followers in more and more danger by hiding at their places."

      U Pyinya Zawta criticised the government's decision to close down Maggin monastery on 29 November last year.

      "Maggin monastery is a lecturing monastery which was teaching Buddhist wisdom to a lot of Sangha," he said.

      "It also provided food and shelter for HIV/AIDS victims from across the country. It was a great loss for both the Sasana and HIV patients when the government decided to close it down."

      Maggin monastery had been targeted for raids and arrests prior to its closure due to the involvement of its monks in the September protests last year.

      U Pyinya Zawta highlighted the regime's harassment of monks in the aftermath of the demonstrations, and said that the National Head Monks Association had failed in its responsibility to solve the dispute with the government and protect fellow monks.

      "A lot of monks were arrested after the 2007 September protests, and some were even sent to remote prison work camps in various locations afterwards," he said.

      "That makes the monks feel like the government is trying to wipe them out."

      U Pyinya Zawta was sceptical about the government's recently-stated plans for a referendum on the proposed constitution in May this year.

      "In 1974, general Ne Win's Burma Socialist Programme Party wrote a new constitution and forced a national referendum on it, resulting in the country sinking deep into poverty," he said.

      "Now the SPDC government is doing the same thing again and this is going to push the nation to rock bottom. All the people of Burma should play their part in opposing this referendum."

      Asean Chief: Burma charter vote a first step – Nopporn Wong-Anan
      Reuters: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      Burma's ruling generals should be given the benefit of the doubt if they are serious about moving the country toward democracy, Surin Pitsuwan, chief of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said on Tuesday.

      "It has to begin somewhere and now it has a clear, definite beginning," Surin said of the junta's planned May referendum on an army-written constitution, followed by elections in 2010.

      "I think it is a development in the right direction," the former Thai foreign minister told Reuters on the sidelines of a business seminar in Bangkok.

      The announcement by the military, which has ruled Burma in various guises since 1962, has been derided as a "sham" by the United States and pro-democracy activists who say the vote will be held in a "climate of fear."

      Surin said the international community's growing frustration at Burma's intransigent generals was understandable, but he said they should be given a chance to fulfill their pledges.

      "Everybody has their own agenda on the issue," said Surin, who leads one of the few international groupings that allow Burma into the club.

      "We have to wait and see how things are going to develop and unfold. Whether these steps are going to lead to true national reconciliation which is what people inside have been asking for and the international community has been waiting for," he said.

      The army held elections in 1990, but refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, which boycotted the constitution-drafting process while its leader remained under house arrest.

      Although not yet completed, snippets of the charter revealed in state-controlled media suggest the army commander-in-chief will be the most powerful figure in the country, able to appoint key ministers and assume power "in times of emergency."

      Surin said Burma's announcement would be discussed by Asean foreign ministers meeting in Singapore later this month.

      "I am sure they will be very keen to ask some questions and to consult among themselves how they can contribute or help," said Surin, who was critical of Burma when he served as Thailand's foreign minister from 1997-2000.

      Western governments have called on Burma's neighbors—Asean, India and China—to put pressure on the generals after they ordered the army to crush the biggest pro-democracy protests in 20 years last September.

      Despite rare expressions of discomfort at last September's crackdown, in which at least 31 people were killed, Burma's neighbors refuse to contemplate sanctions, saying words are more effective tools.

      Symbiotic ties bind India and Myanmar – Jyoti Malhotra
      Gulf News: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      As the rest of the world focuses on Pakistan's President General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf, undertake a new electoral journey at home, India is quietly preparing a new diplomatic offensive with the military junta in the east, in Myanmar.Over the past few days, India's Foreign Secretary Shivshanker Menon has been in Naypidaw, the new outpost doubling up as the nation's capital in the heart of Myanmar, within breathing distance of the ancient imperial capital of Pyinmana. Meanwhile, General Maung Aye, the number two military strongman, looks ready to visit India in April.

      Clearly, India and Myanmar are engaging in a new diplomatic dance that has some Western capitals biting their nails in nervousness. Or, are they? The UN Secretary-General's special envoy, Ebrahim Gambari's visit to Delhi last week indicates that the United Nations Secretary-General, and by proxy, his chief benefactor the US, are actually okay with India carving out a bigger role in Myanmar, especially if it balances the other influential power, China.

      Only a few weeks ago, Myanmar awarded India the right to "build, operate and use" the port of Sittwe, strategically located in the Bay of Bengal, at a cool $120 million.

      The money is not the point, of course. The reason Menon, also a consummate Sinologist, has kept his joy well under control these past days is because he knows it's far too easy to express happiness at the fact that India has won one over China.

      In fact, the journey to Myanmar is all about reiterating the symbolism of power and responsibility. When the monks came out in the streets of Yangon in September to protest the mindless brutality of the military regime, they had their begging bowls turned downwards. That was such a powerful symbol of self-denial and abnegation, the likes of which the world has rarely seen, on par with the fasts Mahatma Gandhi often undertook to purify himself as well as the enemy.

      In their saffron robes, the colour of sacrifice, and barefoot, the monks were doing exactly the same thing. Their gesture of protest sent a collective shudder through India. The government came out with more than one statement of criticism.

      Diplomatic billing

      So what does one make of the diplomatic billing and cooing that has since returned? In the new year, Myanmarese Foreign Minister Nyan Win turned up to meet the Indian establishment. Days later, India's Commerce Ministry exultantly announced it had won the right to develop the Sittwe port. By the end of January, Gambari was making a special trip to Delhi to meet the Indian establishment.

      In a conversation with this reporter, Gambari said he hoped "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 this leverage to become a trustworthy and effective conduit to both source information as well as send messages to the Myanmarese government.

      And so, the penny dropped. Like China, India would not support the imposition of sanctions against Myanmar, just as the US and the European Union wanted. Like the US and the EU, however, India would invoke its democratic credentials to put out that political reconciliation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi's party was the only alternative to pressure-cooker outbursts within a divided population.

      And so a new great game, with Myanmar as the lucrative prize this time, is unfolding on the Indochina chessboard.

      Above all, India must maintain a fine balance on Myanmar. With China unveiling its "string of pearls" strategy across the Indian Ocean, one which envisages a series of bases and ports in friendly countries such as Pakistan and Myanmar - Gwadar, off the Baluchistan coast, and the Coco Islands, Hianggyi, Khaukhphyu, respectively - so as to protect its energy flows, India knows it can hardly afford to play with a straight bat.

      After all, in August last year, the Myanmarese junta withdrew the state-owned Gas Authority of India's "preferential buyer" status on certain offshore gas field blocks and declared it would instead sell to PetroChina.

      The Sittwe award also indicates that Myanmar wanted to expand ties, beyond China. But Delhi also compromised by agreeing to change the terms of the project from "build, operate and transfer (BOT)" to "build, operate and use (BOU)."

      Once India agreed that control would rest with Myanmar and it would only be able to "use" the port - which includes making the Kaladan river in Myanmar navigable all the way upto adjoining Mizoram - it was well and truly on the way to making parts of the North-East "directly connect" with other parts of India. Especially since Bangladesh had steadfastly rejected Delhi's requests for transport rights of passage.

      When General Maung Aye comes to India in April, then, a formal signature on Sittwe is expected. By then, Gambari will have hopefully made a third visit to Myanmar, to press the regime to put the democratic reconciliation back on track.

      If the map suddenly seems blurred, and international allegiances confused, here's another nugget to confound the apparent illusion : All three countries, India, Myanmar and China, are deeply Buddhist in one way or another. Perhaps, with a little bit of help from the UN, they could all learn to strive towards the middle path.

      Jyoti Malhotra is the Diplomatic Editor of the NewsX TV channel

      The junta's electoral gambit – Dr. Sein Myint
      Mizzima News: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      The recent message Daw Aung San Suu Kyi delivered through National League for Democracy senior colleagues, "to prepare for the worst," could be a warning to the people of the government's decision to push through with their roadmap without the participation of the NLD and ethnic parties.

      There should be no surprise of the government's announcement. Their draft constitution has long been completed, and their proposed election date of 2010 can be changed if they feel unsure of the result.

      By setting the dates for a referendum and election, the junta has again employed their old trick of throwing the international community and the United Nations off-balance, as they have consistently been asking the generals to set a timetable for the implementation of their roadmap.

      Now, they have cleverly put the ball in the opposition democratic parties' court, as to whether or not they are prepared to participate in an election under the government's terms.

      If the NLD refuses to accept the May referendum and boycotts the 2010 election, the NLD will put their fate in the hands of the international community and United Nations, calculating that neither will endorse the outcome of the junta's roadmap.

      Certainly the United States and key European Union members would not recognize the results of May's referendum without the participation of the NLD. However regional superpowers China and India, along with Russia and ASEAN members, are likely to accept and recognize the referendum results if the process is monitored by the UN. A similar scenario played itself out in Cambodia in the 1990s, when despite accusations of foul play and voting irregularities, the international community approved of elections under UN supervision.

      Singapore is already calling the announced timetable a positive development. Likewise many pro-engagement proponents, such as the International Crisis Group, have been supportive, in their view hoping to establish political space that will eventually lead to reform.

      The junta seems confident of getting a majority of "YES" votes on the referendum in May, a timeline which also provides little opportunity for any verification, clarification or amendment of the draft constitution.

      Thus this referendum in May will likely be a repetition of the 1974 affair, which also rubberstamped a junta constitution, and it is only a question of whether the UN will be on hand or not to make it look legal.

      A last fact that could play a role in the dates of both the referendum and election is the health of Senior General Than Shwe. Succession within Burma's military has never been clearly outlined. It is thus uncertain what the future hierarchy of the military may look like, and how those in power would handle elections.

      But without sufficient international pressure on the question of the legality of the referendum and electoral processes, the junta may yet succeed with their roadmap.

      Resistance to constitutional referendum builds up – Marwaan Macan-Markar
      IPS: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      "This is the declaration of war by the military regime against the people of Burma," says Nilar Thein in a statement released Monday. They are strong words from a woman on the run and forced into hiding for over five months in the military-ruled country.

      "We are ready to stand up to intimidation. We are ready to confront the Burmese military junta and its violence and brutality," continues the statement by the 35-year-old pro-democracy activist. It was also signed by two others, Tun Myint Aung and Soe Htun, who, like Nilar, are taking refuge in a safehouse in Rangoon to avoid arrest by the junta.

      It is a statement that carries significant political weight in a nation that has been under the grip of successive military dictatorships for over 45 years. For the trio who issued it belong to the '88 Generation,' a highly respected group of former university student leaders who led a pro-democracy uprising that was brutally crushed by the military in August 1988. Nilar and the others paid a heavy price for their political beliefs after that. They were imprisoned for years in Burmese jails; nine years, in the case of Nilar.

      The ominous tone in the statement was the strongest reaction among Burmese pro-democracy groups and opposition parties to a sudden announcement over the weekend by the junta that it plans to conduct a referendum in May to approve a new constitution. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known, also announced plans to have "multi-party democracy elections" in 2010.

      "The upcoming constitutional referendum will be a major battle field between the military regime, which wants to rule the country forever, and the people of Burma, who want to be free from military rule," warned the two-page statement by the '88 Generation Students'. "We urge the people of Burma to reject the military junta's sponsored constitution in the upcoming referendum."

      And the Burmese junta will not be able to take such words lightly, since this group of former university students have demonstrated their capacity — even in the face of harsh restrictions — to galvanise public support challenging the junta. It was the '88 Generation that first took to the streets to protest the 500 percent spike in oil prices in mid-August, triggering a peaceful demonstration of thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians in September, which was brutally crushed by the junta.

      Such a repetition of force leading up to the May referendum may not be easy, say analysts, since the regime is hoping to use the plebiscite as a way of reducing the international pressure it is under following the September crackdown. "The statement shows how frustrated the people are, and any attempt to silence this public anger will not help the junta," says Win Min, a Burmese expert on national security at Payap University, based in Thailand's northern town of Chiang Mai. "The junta needs to hold the referendum to get the heat from the international community off its back."

      The strong words by the '88 Generation only confirm what the junta will be up against in the coming weeks, a "period of unease and tension," he added during an interview. "The junta may have hoped otherwise, trying to rush through the referendum before the opposition gets organised."

      The junta's quest to introduce the country's third constitution is rooted in an effort to marginalise the pro-democracy groups and to perpetuate the power of the military. The process began in 1993, when the junta set up a national convention to draft the constitution. That came after the generals refused to recognise the results of a 1990 parliamentary election, where the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 81 percent of the 485 seats up for grabs.

      This 14-year exercise to draft the charter, which ended last year, was marked by the harsh restrictions imposed on the over 1,000 members to the convention who had been hand-picked by the junta. Notorious among them was law No 5/96, which prohibited participants from criticising the draft of the charter that had been written by the SPDC. Violators were threatened with a 20-year prison term.

      The NLD, led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had refused to participate under such threatening conditions. It also had reservations about some key features of the constitution, one of which was a clause to reserve 25 percent of all seats in the new parliament to military officers appointed by the commander-in-chief.

      The prospect of Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, emerging as the democratically elected leader of the country during the proposed 2010 election is also remote. For the junta, fearing her universal popularity, has a clause in the constitution that forbids a Burmese married to a foreigner — Suu Kyi was married to a British academic, who died in 1999 — from running for the post of president.

      "Even now, very few people know what the new constitution guarantees, since the public have been denied access to the draft document in the same way they were shut out from the national convention," Zaw Min, spokesman for the Democratic Party for a New Society, a political party banned by the junta, told IPS. "The climate today is worse than when Burma had its last referendum in 1974 to approve our second constitution. There was a little more openness then."

      International support for such an oppressive political exercise will further inflame feelings inside Burma, says Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN, a regional human rights lobby campaigning for political freedom in Burma. "If the international community sits back and welcomes this referendum without knowing how the constitution was drafted and the prevailing restrictions, it will reinforce the feeling among the Burmese that they have been let down again."

      The '88 Generation's warning to the junta is more than a hint of the rage from a people who have had enough of the junta's oppression and deception to stay in power, she explained in an interview. "This is a do or die time for them."

      Lawlessness, the stuff that binds in Burma – Basil Fernando
      DVB: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      Last week, the Asian Human Rights Commission issued three appeals on cases of concern from Burma which illustrate the "un-rule of law" that pervades in the country.

      The first described how Paing Hpyo Aung, a boy of less than 14, was recruited into the armed forces. He was 15 when in 2005 a military tribunal sentenced him to ten years for desertion.

      He is still in jail in Arakan State, where he has just spent his 18th birthday. His parents have died, but his aunty, who only learnt of his fate recently through a former inmate, has appealed for his release.

      The second revealed that Htun Htun Naing, a convicted gambler, was taken from Insein Prison in June 2006 and sent to work as an army porter in Karenni State.

      At the end of the year a military officer came and told his family that he had died from malaria.

      They were not given death or medical certificates, but in January the next year were sent a notice that they would be paid compensation for his death: to the grand total of 7200 Kyat, which these days is worth less than six US dollars. They have requested more, so far to no avail.

      The third recounted the imprisonment of Khin Sanda Win, a young woman detained after the protests of last September and accused of carrying illegal arms.

      Although she was released from the Kyaikkasan interrogation camp in October after signing a pledge, she was rearrested in November and charged with endangering human life.

      Inexplicably, Judge U Thaung Lwin in the Kyauktada Township Court initially granted bail at an amount far beyond what should have been set then unilaterally retracted it.

      Each of these cases falls into a different conventional category of human rights discourse: child soldiers; forced labour; political prisoners. But in fact, each is bound to the other by a common cause: the utter lawlessness which pervades all aspects of Burma's judicial and political administration.

      Last December, a unique study took up this feature of life in Burma. Describing the country as suffering from "political psychosis and legal dementia", it approached lawlessness as the symptom of an administrative and judicial system gone mad; a condition that impinges daily not only on the lives of those persons that are the subjects of typical human rights interventions and media interest, such as political leaders and prisoners of conscience, but of all persons everywhere within its borders.

      Yet despite the extent to which in Burma transactions and abuses alike are characterised by what has been described as the "un-rule of law", this hallmark attracts relatively little interest.

      We know that the courts are not independent, but we don't properly understand how. We know that the police are militarised and the fire brigade has policing functions, but we have not sought to understand these things in detail.

      We know that all types of rights violations are linked to the lack of avenues for complaint and redress yet we divide them into classes that emphasise their differences rather than draw upon their similarities.

      Neither Paing Hpyo Aung's aunty nor Htun Htun Naing's wife are known to have received replies to their written requests for relief. Khin Sanda Win's lawyer keeps pushing her bail petition from one court to the next with a predictable lack of success. Whether struggling to deal with a jailed boy, a dead husband or an irrational judge, the consequences are the same.

      Naturally, no one accepts such things happily. Out of sheer frustration and necessity, people take to protest in even the most adverse circumstances. Discontent wells up and spills out, as it did last year; and as the causes for such dissatisfaction persist, so too will its consequences.

      Those who challenge abuse and protest wrongdoing will find the ways and means to continue to do so, as they must. For the rest of us, the task is to understand properly why it is that they must.

      This depends first upon us acknowledging that widespread unease is born of common grievances, and second, upon our ability to comprehend and further the struggle for change not primarily in terms of discrete categories of rights but in terms of their universality.

      Basil Fernando is Executive Director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, based in Hong Kong, China.

      Rejection of the Burmese military junta's announcement 1/2008 and 2/2008
      All Burma Monks' Alliance: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      (A) In 1974, then-dictator General Ne Win and his regime had redrawn the 1947 State Constitution and forced the people to endorse it. Therefore, rule of the one-party dictatorship was stronger and the people of Burma were poorer. Then Burma became the world least developing country (LCD).

      (B) Under the one-party dictatorship, national economy had been deteriorated and as general population were not able to tolerate the situation, they came to the streets to launch the 1988 popular democracy uprising.

      (C) After the current military regime took over power from the previous regime, it held the multi-party generations in 1990. As this military regime fails to keep its own promise that it would hand over the power to the election winning party in 1990, we believe that its recent announcement of schedule to hold a general election in 2010 is not necessary.

      (D) As did by the previous dictator Ne Win, planning to hold the referendum without respecting the real desire of the people of Burma is another insult to the people and will worsen the situation of the country.

      (E) Current situation of the people of Burma under the social, economic and political crises as well as severe oppression, imprisonment, torture and killing by the regime is mush worse than before 1988.

      (F) We believe that a tripartite dialogue between the election winning party National League for Democracy, the military regime and ethnic representatives will be the only way to solve the national crises and lead the country towards to democracy.

      (G) As per above-mentioned facts, we denounce the military regime's announcement 1/2008 and 2/2008 as these statements are unable to realize the real desire of the people and just intend to perpetuate the military dictatorship.

      (H) We, All Burma Monks' Alliance (ABMA), announce that we, along with all democracy forces and grassroots people, will continue our struggle to help the people of Burma to be free from general difficulties.

      Announcement of the 61st anniversary of Union Day
      Ethnic Youths' Network Group: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      1. 61 years ago, on 12 February 1947, General Aung San and ethnic national leaders signed on the historic "Pinglon Treaty" and consequently the Union of Burma was established beginning from 4 January 1948.
      2. Major essence of the Union, political equality and self determination, are not realized yet in practice and actually lost under the rule of current military dictatorship.
      3. According to the constitution, which will be the third in Burma and is drawn and proposed by the military regime, we are now facing the trouble of losing not only rights of ethnic nationalities but also democratic rights.
      4. After 61 years when General Aung San bravely promised to promote the ethnic nationalities' rights in 1947, His daughter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi courageously and clearly assured to give constant and serious considerations to the interests and opinions of our ethnic nationality races. We are encouraged by her assurance and we hope to regain the rights we have been missing for many years soon.
      5. As we consistently believe that the true Union should be with equality among all ethnic nationalities and self-determination, we announce that we will not bow to the military dictatorship who is trying to rule the country forever.

      Statement of Union Day
      The 88 Generation Students: Tue 12 Feb 2008

      Today marks the 61st anniversary of the Panglong Agreement, which was signed without any discrimination between the central government and ethnic frontiers, and with union spirit. However, the essence and meaning of the Union has been deteriorating so far.

      Under the military dictatorship not only the ethnic rights, but for basic rights of all citizens have been brazenly violated.

      The true Union should not be even a dream under the military dominated rules. Only with the state government and the national constitution which respect and guarantee for human rights and democracy, the union principles such as equality, self determination and ethnic minority rights can be realized and existed.

      With the common interest of Anti-Colonialism and National Independence, Gen Aung San and ethnic leaders could get the national solidarity. With this effort, Burma gained national independence from colonial rules.

      Currently, all ethnic nationalities of the Union are fully responsible to overcome the general crisis what all nationalities are now facing and to bring the democracy, human rights and to emerge a genuine Union.

      It is important to bring genuine peace and long-term interest of all nationalities rather than the short-term remedies/opportunities. So, the best and only way to solve all problems is Triple-type dialogue amongst the military government/SPDC, democracy groups and ethnic forces. But, the SPDC is forcibly moving on the path of their own political road map without any consent of other groups.

      Therefore, with the historical lesson of Union leaders in national independence movement, we sincerely and respectfully urged our ethnic nationalities to work together with democracy groups led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for anti-military dictatorship, national freedom and bringing the genuine Union, while we all should avoid both the chauvinism and narrow-minded nationalism.

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