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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 15/2/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Karen rebel leader assassinated 2.. KNU chief s killing a blow for Burma s democracy movement 3.. Nine Burmese journalists remain behind bars 4.. Burmese
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 15, 2008
      1. Karen rebel leader assassinated
      2. KNU chief's killing a blow for Burma's democracy movement
      3. Nine Burmese journalists remain behind bars
      4. Burmese Junta Warns INGOs
      5. Myanmar, S. Korea step up cooperation in education, technical sectors
      6. Tay Za buys ships in Korea
      7. China pledges to support UN special envoy on Myanmar
      8. UN Chief convenes Burma meeting
      9. Elections, generals and broken hearts
      10. Stakes high for Burma's 'roadmap'
      11. Make the most of the Junta's "Democracy"
      12. Referendum is the SPDC's latest con, regional human rights group says
      13. US Senators to grant Aung San Suu Kyi Congress' Most Prestigious Honor, Congressional Gold Medal

      Karen rebel leader assassinated - Saw Yan Naing
      Irrawaddy: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Mahn Sha, the general secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU) was shot dead on Thursday afternoon at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand, according to KNU sources.

      David Takapaw, the joint-secretary of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that Mahn Sha was shot by two unknown gunmen on Thursday at about 4:30 p.m. in his home near the center of Mae sot.

      The only eye witness, a Karen girl, said, "Two men climbed the stairs of his home and said 'good evening' (in Karen language) to Mahn Sha. Then they shot him twice in the left side of his chest. He died immediately."

      The two men arrived in front of the house in a black car, while the other people were downstairs.

      Mahn Sha was general secretary of the KNU, which has faced serious internal conflicts since the death of its charismatic leader, Gen Saw Bo Mya, in December 2006.

      Majoring in history at Rangoon University in 1962, Mahn Sha joined the Karen movement in the jungle at the Thai-Burmese border as soon as he finished his studies. He was seen as one of the leading lights in the KNU and was being groomed to take over the troubled KNU leadership. He was 64.

      The KNU has been plagued with recent conflicts. Last year, Maj Gen Htain Maung, former leader of the KNU's 7th Brigade, signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military regime. This was seen as yet another blow to KNU leaders who lost their fortified headquarters at Manerplaw to the Burmese army in 1995.

      There have recently been several attacks and assassination attempts between mainstream KNU members and the breakaway 7th Brigade, now known as KNU/KNLA Peace Council.

      Last month, Colonel Ler Moo, the son-in-law of breakaway leader Htain Maung, was killed in a bomb attack while sleeping at a communications office near the group's headquarters. He had earlier survived an assassination attempt in April 2007 while crossing the Moei River by boat.

      Mahn Sha was involved in ceasefire talks with the Burmese military regime in the past. He was highly respected among both ethnic and Burman allies. The Burmese regime saw him as a strong leader in the KNU who repeatedly called for genuine political dialogue.

      He is survived by two daughters and a son.

      KNU chief's killing a blow for Burma's democracy movement
      The Nation: 15/2/08

      Bangkok - The assassination of a senior Karen rebel leader on the Thai-Burma border has dealt a severe blow not only to the Karen insurgency but also for the country's pro-democracy movement, observers said Friday.

      Karen National Union (KNU) general secretary Mahn Sha was gunned down in his home in Mae Sot, Thailand, Thursday afternoon by unknown assailants.

      "A black-coloured vehicle parked in front of his house at about 4:00 pm and one man came out with a bouquet of flowers," said Blooming Night Zan, secretary for the Karen Women's Organization.

      "He greeted Mahn Sha in Karen, saying 'good evening uncle,' and then shot him," Zan told Deutsche Presse Agentur dpa from Mae Sot, 380 kilometres north of Bangkok.

      A second assassin from the car, which had a Thai licence plate, then shot Mahn Sha twice in the body, leaving him dead.

      Thai police found the car parked near the Moei River, which defines the Thai-Burma border, but have yet to identify the assailants.

      Karen sources suspect the gunmen were members of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a Karen splinter group that broke with the KNU in 1995 and is now allied with the Burmese army.

      The slaying of Mahn Sha was seen as a great blow for the KNU, an insurgency that has been fighting for the autonomy of the Karen State for the past six decades, and for Burma's pro-democracy movement.

      "For the Burmese audience Mahn Sha was the second most popular Karen leader after Bo Mya," said Win Min, a Thailand-based Burmese scholar.

      "His death is a loss for the Burmese pro-democracy movement as a whole, since Mahn Sha was one of the few Karen leaders who was accepted by the various groups within the movement, especially those acting in exile," said Win Min.

      But more specifically, his murder was another blow for the KNU. Bo Mya, the military leader of the Karen National Liberation Army, died in December 24, 2006, from illness. His demise was a major blow for the insurgency and a source of further splits within the remaining forces.

      In February 2007, the KNU's 7th Brigade split off from the main force and entered into peace negotations with Burma's junta.

      The 7th Brigade is one faction of the more active forces within the KNU, which has been waging a guerrilla struggle against the central government for the independence of the Karen State since 1949.

      There are an estimated 4,000 KNU troops still in the field against the junta.

      The KNU is one of the last ethnic minority insurgencies that has refused to enter into a peace agreements with the ruling junta, which has monopolized politcal power in the country since 1962.

      Mahn Sha's murder has at least highlighted the plight of the Karen, whose struggle has often been overlooked by the international community, Win Min noted.

      In Washington DC, US Congressman Joe Pitts, in a statement on Mahn Sha's death, said the assassination should draw world attention to the ongoing persecution of the Karen and other ethnic minorities by the Myanmar regime.

      "For too long, the plight of the people of Burma has either been ignored or discussed ad nauseam with little or no action on behalf of the people," said Pitts

      "With over 1.5 million internally displaced persons and refugees as a result of the brutal attacks by the dictatorship's army, it is time for change. The international community must ensure that what happened to Mahn Sha does not happen to any other ethnic, democracy, or religious leader in Burma," he added.

      Burma's junta has been carrying out a large-scale offensive against the KNU for the past two years, forcing about 30,000 Karens to flee their homes and seek shelter in camps for "displaced persons" along the Thai border, while thousands of others continue to lead a precarious existence in their homeland.//dpa

      Nine Burmese journalists remain behind bars
      Mizzima News: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Imploring Western governments and international organizations to increase their support for freedom of the press, a rights group says nine Burmese journalists remain incarcerated.

      "The spinelessness of some Western countries and major international bodies is harming press freedom," are the strong words of Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Robert Menard.

      Reporters Without Borders yesterday released its 2008 Annual Report, in which systematic abuses of freedom of the press inside Burma are chronicled.

      According to the group, the working conditions for journalists in Burma significantly deteriorated from mid-August of last year, when the first protests materialized in response to unannounced energy price hikes.

      The report notes that 15 journalists were arrested as a result of covering the protests, while Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was killed and other foreign correspondents closely monitored.

      Raising the cost of a satellite license from five to 800 dollars, pulling the plug on the Internet and restricting the sale of foreign periodicals in the days and months following the protests are all listed in the year's summary as examples of infringements against media rights.

      Additionally, Reporters Without Borders is concerned as to restrictions on mobile phones, used during the protests and subsequent crackdown to take pictures and video.

      Nine journalists are listed as remaining in detention, including the 77-year old Win Tin, who has languished in a cell since 1989.

      Others still behind bars include Ko Aung Gyi, former editorial head of 90 minutes, along with Ko Win Maw and Ko Aung Aung, all of whom are being held on suspicion of distributing pictures and information to international media sources during the 2007 uprising.

      Burmese Junta Warns INGOs – Wai Moe
      Irrawaddy: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      The relationship between the Burmese government and international health NGOs (INGOs) is like a doctor and "a patient with a tumor," a government health official told INGOs during a meeting in Naypyidaw.

      According to a document obtained by The Irrawaddy recently, the meeting on January 11, chaired by Dr San Shwe Win, the deputy director general of the public heath department, involved the ministry of health and INGOs.

      San Shwe Win said that INGOs have to follow four basic principles: "non-political, non-religion, nonprofit and nongovernmental."

      Ministry officials and 14 INGO representatives based in Burma attended the meeting. Three INGO health groups, including Medecins Sans Frontieres—Switzerland, were absent.

      One of the central issues was the INGOs use of junta-backed "coordination committees" to channel aid and services into the country.

      During the meeting, the government distributed copies of the national planning ministry guidelines on INGOs, which was issued in February 2006.

      Members of coordination committees are to be drawn from junta-backed social organizations such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the Myanmar National Working Committee for Women Affairs and, at the township level, the Auxiliary Fire Brigades and Veterans Association.

      The Burmese language version of the guidelines say that one of the duties of a township coordination committee is to monitor project teams and ensure that their activities don't go beyond the stated scope of their mission.

      Ministry officials said NGO staffers can only travel to a field mission with a "travel authorization" from the Ministry of Defense—Army. Applications involve various steps and take time. No permission, no travel, said the guidelines document.

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

      INGO workers have to apply for travel authorization two weeks in advance and if a trip is cancelled, it must be reported in advance as well.

      No travel permits can be issued for short-term consultants or trainers from abroad, said officials.

      INGOs also have to provide specific plans, purposes and the location of activities. Activities such as observation or monitoring will not to be accepted, said ministry officials.

      The document said INGO projects in Burma will be reduced from five years to one year, and INGOs must renew their projects 3 to 6 months in advance because agreements between INGOs and Burmese officials must be approved by the ministry of national planning, ministry of revenue and attorney general of Burma.

      All INGOs foreign staff who apply for a visa must indicate the period of time they will stay in the country and a reason.

      Ministry officials cautioned INGOs about conducting surveys and research and advised them to keep such work to a minimum, calling it a "very sensitive issue."

      "Encourage utilization of the existing information from other NGOs," said the document.

      San Shwe Win chided some INGOs for what he called a double standard between foreign NGO staffers and ministry liaison officers. He said foreigners sometimes stayed in expensive hotels while liaison officers stayed at more moderate hotels.

      "We do not request special facilities for them," said San Shwe Win, but everyone should stay in the same hotel.

      Myanmar, S. Korea step up cooperation in education, technical sectors
      Xinhua General News Service: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Myanmar and South Korea are stepping up cooperation in the education and technical sectors, outlining more areas of such cooperation, official media reported Thursday.

      The two countries' move was proposed at a recent meeting between a South Korean delegation representing the Department of Education of Chonnam National University and officials of Myanmar' s biggest business organization — the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).

      The areas of cooperation covers conducting Korean language course, testing of the language, compilation and distribution of Myanmar-Korean language dictionary, production of bio-fertilizer and opportunities for providing educative course to new-generation farmers, said the New Light of Myanmar.

      Aimed at promoting the development of Myanmar's education sector, a technology, culture and business education center was established in 2006 by the UMFCCI and the Chonnam National University, according to earlier local report.

      Under a memorandum of understanding on the set-up, the Korean university offers certificate courses, trainers and equipment such as computer, while the UMFCCI provides the infrastructure.

      In the initial stage, the center offers Korean language and business management courses taught by Korean instructors. Graduate students from the center are arranged to further study in South Korea to acquire master degrees, advance diplomas and higher certifications.

      Myanmar and South Korea have maintained cooperative relations in various areas including economic and technical cooperation since decades ago.

      In 2006 also, a South Korean consortium comprising the Daewoo International Corporation and the KCOMS reached a 12-million-U.S.- dollar contract with the Myanmar communications authorities to help build a basic e-government system for the country.

      Under the project, the Korean consortium was to provide information and communication technology infrastructure for the Myanmar government to link its 38 ministries to a high-speed internet network and computerize its personnel management system.

      As a follow-up, in 2007, another S. Korean company — the Daewoo International Corporation — continued to undertake an e-citizens project for Myanmar after completion of the basic e- government project under another memorandum of understanding signed between the Daewoo and the state-run Myanmar Posts and telecommunications.

      Besides the education and telecommunication sectors, Myanmar and South Korea are also cooperating in developing Myanmar's electric power network. According to South Korea's International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), which is South Korean government's overseas aid agency, it will work with the state-run Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise in dealing with management and operation under a three-year project worth 1.4 million dollars.

      Moreover, the KOICA is helping Myanmar upgrade its medical research capabilities by providing more medical equipment to the medical research department of the Myanmar Health Ministry, according to another official report.

      Meanwhile, under a volunteer program, the KOICA has sent about 80 volunteers to Myanmar working together with the country's departmental staff of various ministries since 1988 and currently 18 such South Korean volunteers are serving the fields of Korean language, computer education, agriculture, sports, health, and information and communication technology (ICT), according to the report.

      The KOICA said it funded Myanmar's development programs with 2 million dollars during 2006 covering projects in the sectors of health, agriculture, ICT, electric power and rail transportation.

      Official statistics reveal that South Korea's investment in Myanmar has reached 231.3 million dollars in 36 projects as of 2007 since the country opened to foreign investment in late 1988.

      The Central Statistical Organization's figures further show that in the first five months (April to August) of the fiscal year 2007-08, Myanmar absorbed 12 million dollars' foreign investment coming from South Korea in the fisheries sector.

      Tay Za buys ships in Korea - Min Lwin
      Irrawaddy: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Business sources in Rangoon have reported that Tay Za, head of the Htoo Trading Company and a prominent target of US sanctions, has recently traveled to Pusan, South Korea's largest port, to purchase a freight ship and a tanker.

      "Tay Za bought the ships from [South] Korea," said a businessman based in Rangoon.

      "He plans to open the shipping business to the private sector in Burma," the source added, indicating that Tay Za, a crony of Burma's junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe, was acting in cooperation with the government.

      Htoo Trading is Burma's leading private teak exporter and is also active in the tourism, logging, real estate and housing development industries.

      A source close to the company confirmed that Tay Za recently went on a business trip to South Korea, but would provide no further details.

      "Tay Za went to Korea recently for business with his bodyguards," the source said.

      He is believed to have procured a loan of US $10 million from the military government to purchase the freight ship and tanker, reportedly as part of a plan to create the country's first private international shipping line.

      The state-owned Five Star Line, founded in 1959, operates 26 vessels and is currently the o¬nly international shipping line in the country.

      Tay Za's plans for a private shipping line emerged after a meeting with the minister of transport, Maj-Gen Thein Swe, and top business leaders in Naypyidaw o¬n June 29 last year, according to the state-run The New Light of Myanmar.

      Close ties to the Burmese junta have made Tay Za a prominent target of US sanctions.

      Even after Washington put Air Bagan, an airline owned by Tay Za, on its blacklist last October, the private carrier announced a new route from Rangoon to Incheon, South Korea, on December 27, 2007. According to a report in the Yangon Times, this is the airline's third international route.

      Air Bagan's introduction of the Incheon flight came three months after the inauguration of its second international route, to Singapore, on September 7. However, due to US financial sanctions imposed on the airline on October 19, flights to Singapore were suspended.

      "Air Bagan flies from Rangoon to Incheon every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday," said a businessman in Rangoon.

      Tay Za's companies, which are either based in Burma or linked to Singapore, include Pavo Trading Pte Ltd, Air Bagan Holdings Pte Ltd and Htoo Wood Products Pte Ltd. Pavo Trading is a sister company of the Htoo Group of Companies.

      China pledges to support UN special envoy on Myanmar
      Associated Press: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Beijing: China supports the efforts of the United Nations to help bring reconciliation to Myanmar, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday, ahead of a visit by the U.N. special envoy.

      Ibrahim Gambari's visit to China, which does considerable trade with Myanmar, comes after Myanmar's main opposition party staged a street protest this week to complain that the ruling junta's recent moves toward democracy were not enough.

      The junta last week announced plans for a referendum this May on a proposed new constitution, to be followed by a general election in 2010. The plans were made without consulting the country's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and its detained leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

      "China is going to support the mediation efforts of Gambari and the secretary general of the United Nations," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a news conference Thursday.

      "We have taken note that the Myanmar government has taken steps toward the right direction. We hope that Myanmar can continue to proceed to promote democracy so as to achieve democratic reconciliation in Myanmar," he said.

      Gambari is scheduled to visit Beijing on Monday and Tuesday, before flying to Jakarta and Singapore, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

      China objects to Western criticisms of the Myanmar's military regime, saying that conditions in the country have improved dramatically since a violent crackdown on peaceful protests in September.

      Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962 and has not had a constitution since 1988, when the army brutally suppressed pro-democracy protests and the current junta took power.

      On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the junta to hold substantive talks with Suu Kyi without delay to ensure that the constitution represents all citizens.

      He also urged the government to grant a visa to Gambari to allow him to visit Myanmar again soon. Gambari has made two visits to promote reconciliation after last year's crackdown on protesters.

      Ban has made it clear the United Nations is highly critical of the constitution-drafting process.

      UN Chief convenes Burma meeting - Lalit K Jha
      Irrawaddy: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday convened a meeting of his "Group of Friends" on Burma to discuss the situation arising out of the Burmese military government's unilateral decision to hold a referendum on its draft constitution followed by general elections.

      This was the second meeting of the Secretary-General's "Group of Friends" on Burma, the first being in December.

      The group comprises 14 members, including Burma's neighbors India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. The permanent members of the Security Council—China, the US, Britain, Russia and France—were also involved, as was Slovenia, in its capacity as European Union president, as well as Australia, Norway and Japan, the largest donor country to Burma.

      While details of the meeting held at the UN headquarters were not immediately available, it is understood that some of the key international players, such as the US, France and Britain, observed that such an announcement coming from the Burmese military regime is in "open defiance" to the view of the international community.

      In October, in a presidential statement, the UN Security Council urged the Burmese junta to initiate dialogue toward the restoration of democracy in the country with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League of Democracy and the ethnic groups. The statement also called for the immediate release of all political prisoners and an all-inclusive and transparent process toward a new democratic constitution and the protection of human rights.

      The US, Britain and France are believed to have argued the case for stronger UN intervention and a binding Security Council resolution in this regard. They also urged countries like India and China, which hold a considerable degree of influence over the military regime, to play a more assertive role.

      On the other hand, countries like China, India and Thailand are understood to have taken the stance that the Burmese junta's announcement must be respected and that this is the first step toward the restoration of democracy in the country.

      Addressing the representatives of the 14 countries, Ban Ki-moon is believed to have said that, at this juncture, it is important that UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visits the country as soon as possible.

      According to the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday exchanged views by telephone regarding a planned visit to China by Gambari.

      Ban informed the "Group of Friends" that the special envoy is scheduled to visit Beijing from February 18 to 19, followed by trips to Jakarta and Singapore.

      Elections, generals and broken hearts - Kyaw Zwa Moe
      Bangkok Post: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      About 15 million Burmese votes vanished like water in the desert when the military junta on Saturday announced a referendum on the constitution in May and a general election in 2010. On May 27, 1990, I cast my vote with about one-third of the country's population. The majority voted for detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

      The NLD won more than 80% of the vote, a total of 392 of the 485 seats contested in the 492-member assembly.

      The junta's surprise election announcement is the first semi-official declaration that the 1990 election results have been nullified _ forever gone.

      We voted with our hearts, and our hearts were crushed by the generals.

      Now we face a new reality, and we must focus on the present situation.

      From the election announcement, I have gained three significant political insights: No real dialogue between the government and Daw Suu Kyi will take place; the junta clearly rejects any role for the United Nations; and it will rigidly follow its own road map to a "disciplined" democracy.

      The announcement exposes the five meetings between Daw Suu Kyi and the junta's liaison officer in recent months to have been mere propaganda ploys.

      Daw Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years, herself expressed deep frustration with the ongoing "talks" when she was allowed to meet with her colleagues on Jan 30.

      So we can forget anything coming out of the talks.

      On the UN's role, in a recent interview UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari said: "We suggested the appointment of a review commission to look at the constitution."

      But clearly the regime has rejected inclusion of any opposition parties in the constitutional review process.

      The junta never had any intention of forming an inclusive group to review the draft constitution, written by handpicked delegates after the 14-year-long National Convention. A clause in the draft constitution's guidelines guarantees the military 25% of the seats in the country's parliament, with representatives to be nominated by the commander-in-chief.

      The guidelines also allow the military to declare a "state of emergency" to suspend parliament and impose other restrictions.

      There is little more the UN can say about the reconciliation process. Reconciliation is not going to happen.

      Next, there is the junta's final charade, the "seven-step road map" to democracy, signified by the general election in 2010.

      The 1990 election was free and fair. The generals' National Unity Party, a reincarnation of late dictator Ne Win's Burma Socialist Programme Party which ruled the country with an iron fist until 1988, was soundly defeated.

      In 2010, the junta-backed party will be the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a civilian organisation like Golkar in Indonesia.

      The USDA is notorious for its attacks on Daw Suu Kyi and her supporters, especially the Depayin attack in 2003 and the 2007 uprising.

      The USDA is now organising local commissions to oversee the referendum voting and the general election process. Sources in Rangoon have told The Irrawaddy the USDA will also select candidates to run in the 2010 elections.

      The USDA will control the local election commissions and presumably the voting process itself, while also naming candidates to represent its party. It's unbelievable.

      Meanwhile, the junta has done nothing to inform people about the contents of the proposed constitution. It confirms the junta isn't interested in the people's participation in the process.

      How about the general election? Will the NLD, other opposition and ethnic parties be allowed to take part in the elections?

      It's anybody's guess, and there are no guarantees in Burma.

      What final insights can we draw from the junta's recent announcements?

      Well, for one: Burmese politics resembles a railway track. One rail is the military government, and the other is the democracy movement _ never to join together, never to become one within a strong Burmese nation.

      Will the voters whose ballots were simply ignored in 1990 vote in the 2010 elections?

      If the elections happen as scheduled, the Burmese people will come out and vote again from the bottom of their hearts.

      But they will go to the ballot boxes this time knowing that the generals will not accept defeat in an election, the core principle _ after all _ of democracy in action.

      Their votes might again be like pouring water in the desert.

      * The author is managing editor of The Irrawaddy magazine based in Chiang Mai.

      Stakes high for Burma's 'roadmap' - Andrew Harding
      BBC News: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      It was an astute and unexpected gamble.

      Last Saturday, Burmese state radio abruptly declared that it was "a suitable time to change from a military government to a democratic civilian administration".

      This dramatic announcement came out of the blue - a reminder that Burma is ruled by the whims of an isolated general who once decided to move the country's capital virtually overnight on the advice of his astrologers.

      In fact, Senior General Than Shwe has been talking about his "roadmap" towards "disciplined democracy" for so long that many had assumed it was simply another delaying tactic by a junta which has clung ruthlessly to power for decades.

      But on Saturday, a reasonably precise timetable was suddenly produced.

      A referendum, the radio announcer declared, would be held in May on a new constitution. Democratic multi-party elections would follow smoothly two years later.

      We shall probably never know exactly what prompted Than Shwe to make this brusque move. Perhaps he had been planning it all along.

      More likely he was prodded by China, and saw it as a useful way to undercut international pressure on his government.

      He may also have been motivated by concerns about his own failing health and the security of his family in a notoriously unforgiving political system.

      Either way, the result is that Burma is now moving towards what may well prove to be a defining political moment.

      The stakes are very high.

      Will the junta manage to control the process, sideline the UN, outsmart its western critics and emerge in full control of a sham democracy?

      Or will opposition forces finally find a way - either by fighting or joining the roadmap process - to push Burma towards genuine democratic reform?

      Right now, the odds seem to be stacked in the junta's favour.

      Tight control

      Let us start with the new constitution.

      The drafting process could have been an opportunity (even at this late stage) to bring Burma's feuding political factions together.

      Instead the document was drawn up by a handpicked assembly, without the participation of the country's main democratic opposition and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

      It was finalised in secrecy, and has yet to be revealed in full.

      However it is already clear that the constitution will ensure the military retains a stranglehold on power in Burma, with a large share of seats in government and parliament, and the right to sweep aside civilian rule whenever required.

      The constitution is also almost certain to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from power (because she was married to a foreigner) and it may well find an excuse to do the same for her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

      Of course the constitution could be rejected in May's referendum. But that seems unlikely - criticism of the constitution is a criminal offence.

      The authorities are bound to keep a tight control over any voting process - a secret ballot may not be deemed necessary - and will have an army of well-rewarded, and often thuggish, loyalists from the mass organisation, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, to "encourage" participation.

      After years of political stagnation, many weary Burmese may choose to vote for a flawed document in the hope that it will at least be an improvement on the status quo.

      And what of Aung San Suu Kyi? Still under house arrest, she faces a difficult choice.

      Should she endorse the broad aims of the roadmap and use her considerable moral authority try to find a way to nudge the process in a more democratic direction?

      Or should she and the NLD boycott it, and hope that their supporters can frustrate the military as they did when the NLD won the, quickly overruled, election of 1990?

      Both options carry substantial risks, and after experiencing years of repression, the NLD is not the force it once was.

      Climate of fear

      There is, of course, the strong possibility of more street protests. Those who led the demonstrations last August and September are without doubt preparing more of the same. The Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks and the 88 Generation Students have described the roadmap as a "declaration of war" and May's referendum as "a battlefield".

      That could spell real trouble for the junta. The economy remains in dire straits and the hardships which prompted last year's protests are now even more acute.

      In that sense, time is not on the generals' side. They need to move promptly to fix a new political system before popular anger boils over.

      But the military authorities showed in September that they are ready to crush all opposition - even if that means violently confronting the country's revered monks.

      Given the pervasive atmosphere of fear in Burma, it seems unlikely, though of course not impossible, that tens of thousands of civilians will once again dare to take to the streets.

      It is hard to judge the real impact of international pressure on such an insular regime. But for what it is worth, China and the South East Asian regional grouping Asean will probably be keen to give the roadmap the benefit of the doubt, at least in the short term.

      The UN has been effectively sidelined - its envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, is being kept out of the country, presumably until the new constitution is already a fait accompli.

      Western countries will no doubt continue to call for a more inclusive, democratic reform process, and perhaps tighten their financial sanctions against the junta.

      But as one Western diplomat privately admitted, "It's going to be tough… Than Shwe has muddied the waters… It's a clever plan," which leaves the West with few options but to "work with the grain" of the roadmap.

      Make the most of the Junta's "Democracy" – Zaw Moe
      Irrawaddy: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      The September 2007 protests against Burma's military regime gave the country's opposition a major psychological boost and exposed the ruling generals to renewed international opprobrium for their indiscriminate crackdown on peaceful demonstrations. In a show of sympathy with the victims of the junta's deadly actions, Western leaders voiced their condemnation, while the US government imposed new economic and political sanctions.

      Faced with the threat of another outbreak of civil unrest and under mounting international pressure, the Burmese regime has accelerated implementation of its slow-going "road map" to political reform. On February 9, it officially announced that elections would be held in 2010, following a referendum this May on a junta-crafted constitution that was many years in the making. How much longer it will take to complete the transition to democratic rule under this process is anybody's guess. Even the generals themselves may have no idea, beyond a vague expectation that it may not come before they have reached the end of their natural lives.

      In the meantime, it seems likely that the regime will get its way, forcing the country to take an undemocratic route to democracy. If elections are held as planned, the winners will in all probability be the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a junta-backed civic organization currently being groomed for a future political role. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), with its aging leadership and restricted freedom of movement, will have a hard time mounting a serious challenge. Opposition forces in exile, meanwhile, will have no place in the process at all.

      This leaves the opposition with a stark choice: If the military-backed party does win, should the opposition accept the results of the elections or carry on with its struggle for a more legitimate government?

      Suppose the USDA wins a majority of votes and forms a coalition with some lesser parties, excluding the NLD. If the new government acts in the best interests of the country and wins the acceptance of the people, will the opposition be forced to recognize it as legitimate despite the tainted process that put it in power? If so, perhaps the opposition will be able to influence the new government through more cooperative means.

      Most opponents of the current regime could never conceive of such a scenario, however, because the generals have not demonstrated much good faith in their dealings with the opposition. Dissidents responded to the announcement of a timeline for a referendum and elections with skepticism, and soon followed this with calls for a campaign to boycott the referendum. The regime needs to take a more inclusive approach, involving all major parties and stakeholders, including the NLD, ethnic minority groups and exiled opposition groups, if it wants to turn its forced electoral victory into a genuine political triumph.

      Of course, the regime can always point to the opposition's internal disunity as an excuse for excluding them from their carefully stage-managed "national reconciliation" process. They may argue that the installation of a "democratic" government under the auspices of the military regime is a necessary precondition for a genuinely inclusive political process.

      Whatever one may think of these arguments, the fact remains that, at this stage, only the regime is in a position to make any changes. Opposition groups may reject the regime's latest move as yet another cynical maneuver to outflank its opponents, but they can also respond more constructively, by using the generals' flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution. And they can also use this opportunity to build greater unity among themselves, so that the next time the junta stumbles, they are ready to step in for the good of the people.

      * Zaw Moe is a former resident of the Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. He is currently doing graduate studies in education at a Canadian university.

      Referendum is the SPDC's latest con, regional human rights group says
      Altsean-Burma (the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma): Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Altsean-Burma (the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma), a regional human rights group, has condemned the Burmese regime's announced referendum on its illegitimate draft constitution as a last-ditch attempt to stave off growing domestic and international pressure for genuine democratic reforms.

      Debbie Stothard, Coordinator for Altsean-Burma, said: "The international community should not be conned into giving the regime another two years to cause more suffering. The regime is notorious for its history of empty promises. Anyone who believes the referendum will be free and fair probably believes in the tooth fairy."

      On 9 February, Burma's military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced that it will hold a constitutional referendum in May 2008, followed by general elections to be held at an unspecified date in 2010.

      The announcement comes as the military regime continues its crack down on political activists and peaceful dissent. Since the beginning of 2008, the SPDC has detained 12 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and two 88 Generation Students. The regime also increased its military strength in Eastern Burma in preparation for renewed offensives against civilians and ethnic opposition groups. To date, military operations in Eastern Burma have displaced more than a half a million people in the world's longest-running war; 76,000 people were displaced in the past year. 25,000 men, women, and children face starvation as a result of the current offensive.

      Meanwhile, key ethnic and pro-democracy leaders have been detained, excluded from or gagged during the protracted constitution-drafting process. Jail terms of up to 20 years can still be imposed under Order 5/96 on those who criticize the draft constitution.

      Altsean-Burma believes a referendum held in such an oppressive environment would result in more problems than solutions. "If the SPDC is serious about promoting a democratic reform, it must stop arresting activists, cease mass atrocities in ethnic areas, and release all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders, and restart this process through tripartite dialogue," said Ms. Stothard.

      Altsean-Burma condemns the SPDCs move to force its people at gunpoint to approve a constitution that is the result of an illegitimate, unrepresentative, and non participatory process.

      "The regime wants to impose a constitution that will create more instability and prolong military rule. After more than four decades of military misrule, why should the Burmese want a constitution that gives unfettered power to a President who must come from the military and where 25% of parliamentary seats are allocated to the military?" added Ms. Stothard.

      Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD, and ethnic groups have repeatedly called for immediate, time-bound and inclusive dialogue with the SPDC. The people of Burma cannot afford two more years of repression and economic mismanagement. The international community, including ASEAN, China, India, and the UN Security Council, should intensify pressure to convince the regime to change.

      Enquiries: Debbie Stothard, cellphone +6681 686 1652

      US Senators introduce Bill to grant Burma's Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Congress' Most Prestigious Honor, Congressional Gold Medal
      US Campaign for Burma: Thu 14 Feb 2008

      Weeks after the House of Representatives voted 400 - 0 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the leader of Burma's democracy movement Aung San Suu Kyi, 75 US Senators have introduced an identical measure today in the US Senate.

      The effort is spearheaded in the US Senate by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The measure is supported by Presidential front-runners Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

      "Thousands of our members across the United States have worked very hard to ensure that this great honor is bestowed on Aung San Suu Kyi," said Aung Din, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma and a former political prisoner in Burma. "Aung San Suu Kyi is a giant for human rights and democracy, and we hope this award will strengthen her efforts even further."

      Added Jack Healey, Director of the Human Rights Action Center, "We also want this award to send a strong signal to China. China has paralyzed United Nations efforts on Burma while providing billions in arms to Burma's military regime. There should be no 'business as usual' between China and the US as long as China continues to prop up this brutal regime."

      The Congressional Gold Medal, launched in 1776, is considered the most prominent award given by the United States government. The first medal was awarded by the Second Continental Congress to then-General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. Recipients include Thomas Edison, Sir Winston Churchill, Robert Kennedy, Elie Wiesel, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

      Since the Gold Medal's inception 232 years ago, only 19 foreigners have received the award, and Aung San Suu Kyi would be the 20th. Under Congressional rules, 2/3 of both the House and Senate must co-sponsor and pass resolutions authorizing the award. The 75 Senators introducing the bill exceed the required number of co-sponsors.

      In the House, the effort was led by Representatives Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Donald Manzullo (R-IL).

      Reads the legislation: "[Aung San Suu Kyi] is the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient, spending more than 12 of the past 17 years under house arrest." The bill further states that "Despite an assassination attempt against her life, her prolonged illegal imprisonment, the constant public vilification of her character, and her inability to see her children or to see her husband before his death, Ms. Suu Kyi remains committed to peaceful dialogue with her captors, Burma's military regime, and Burma's ethnic minorities towards bringing democracy, human rights, and national reconciliation to Burma."

      Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of Burma's democracy movement, rising to national prominence in 1988 after the country's military regime gunned down up to 10,000 civilians during nationwide nonviolent marches calling for an end to military rule. Subsequently, she led her political party the National League for Democracy to win 82% of the seats in parliament in Burma's last democratic election in 1990. The military annulled the results of the election and locked up hundreds of her supporters. She has been held under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years while her supporters wage a peaceful struggle for human rights and democracy. Burma was catapulted onto the front pages of newspaper in September and October 2007 when Buddhist monks and students led nationwide peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to military rule.

      Suu Kyi's admirers around the world include Nobel Peace laureates Desmond Tutu, Jody Williams, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel, musicians R.E.M., Damien Rice, and Ani DiFranco, and Hollywood stars Jim Carrey, Anjelica Huston, Julie Benz, Jennifer Aniston, Eric Szmanda, Walter Koenig, and many more. Successive US administrations under Presidents Clinton and Bush have stood strongly in support of Suu Kyi, while 60 former Presidents and Prime Ministers signed a united call for her release in June 2007.

      Progress in Burma has been mainly blocked by China, which serves as the Burmese military regime's chief supplier of military hardware. China also vetoed a peaceful resolution at the UN Security Council that would have required Burma's military regime to participate in negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi. China scheduled the opening of the 2008 Olympics on the anniversary of a major democracy uprising in Burma, and activists plan to use the occasion to focus attention on how China is unilaterally paralyzing UN and international efforts to support peaceful change in Burma.

      Contact: Jeremy Woodrum (202) 234-8022

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