[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 11/3/08
- Burmese junta rules out Aung San Suu Kyi participation in polls
- No progress in UN Envoy's mission to Burma
- Junta's snub signals failure of Gambari's mission
- Burma's last Royal laments a crumbling nation
- In Myanmar, dissidents beat junta gags with gags
- Political prisoner dies in Bago prison
- Junta forcing migrants home for Referendum
- DVB under fire for independent stance
- China-Myanmar oil pipeline still under discussion
- India and Myanmar to institutionalise security cooperation
- Concrete action needed on Burma
- Why an independent media matters in Burma
- Myanmar junta refuses to amend charter barring Suu Kyi from polls
- Junta canvases ceasefire groups for referendum support
- Weekly business roundup
Burmese junta rules out Aung San Suu Kyi participation in polls
Rangoon - Burma's ruling junta informed visiting United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari that they will not amend a draft constitution to allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to contest the planned 2010 polls, media reports said Saturday.
The military regime on Friday turned down a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that the regime amend the new constitution to "ensure inclusiveness," Information Minister Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan told Gambari in a long lecture to the visiting envoy that was printed in all state-controlled media Saturday.
"The Constitution has already been drafted and it should not be amended again," Kyaw Hsan said.
In a letter dated February 19 to Burma's military supreme Senior General Than Shwe, the UN secretary general called for an amendment to the current draft constitution that would drop a clause excluding all Burma nationals married to foreigners from running for election.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize laureate who has been under house arrest since May, 2003, was married to the late Michael Aris, a British professor at Oxford University.
The new constitution, drafted by a military-appointed forum, will be voted on in a referendum in May, this year.
It is widely expected that the constitution will be approved by the referendum, which is expected to be manipulated.
The referendum is part of the regime's so-called "seven-step road map" to democracy that will culminate in a general election now scheduled in 2010.
Critics have faulted the constitution-drafting process for failing to include input from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by Suu Kyi and other opponents to the regime, leading the UN to call the document a "sham."
Kyaw Hsan faulted the UN for being biased against the regime, which only last September cracked down on anti-military protests led by Buddhist monks, leaving at least 31 people led.
The information minister noted that the world community has not objected to Thailand's new constitution, passed last year, despite the lack of participation by Thai opposition parties in the drafting process, nor the recent constitutions passed in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the lack of participation by their opponents, including Muslim militants with al-Qaeda links and the Taliban, respectively.
"We haven't heard any objection to these events by those persons and organizations who are objecting to us," said Kyaw Hsan. "It is not fair. The United Nations should stand fair and square without bias.
He also criticized Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, for turning down the regime's request that she openly oppose western sanctions on Burma as a precondition for holding talks with her.
"Although we have opened the door for 'win-win' situation, NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are refusing to join hands," Kyaw Hsan said.
He urged the visiting envoy to support the junta's "seven step" roadmap and stop pursuing alternatives suggested by western democracies.
"We shall not accept any attempt to hinder or reverse the process of the seven-step Road Map. However, we will heartily welcome the positive suggestions of the UN to help implement the seven-step Road Map," Kyaw Hsan concluded.
Gambari reportedly promised to onpass the minister's "clarification" to the UN the Secretary-General.
Gambari, who arrived in Rangoon on Thursday, was scheduled to meet with NLD members Saturday morning. It is anticipated that he will soon hold talks with Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest in her Rangoon home for almost four years.
No progress in UN Envoy's mission to Burma
Associated Press: Mon 10 Mar 2008
The UN's special envoy to Burma resumed meetings with the military government on Sunday despite the junta's rejection of his efforts to speed up the country's return to democracy.
But the meetings appeared not to be directly concerned with the political reconciliation efforts being promoted by the envoy, Ibrahim Gambari.
According to the UN Information Center in Burma's largest city, Rangoon, Gambari met with the ministers of health and national planning as well as the chairman of the civil service board and a deputy foreign minister.
Gambari apparently failed, however, to secure more talks with Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, who heads a team set up to discuss democratization.
Last week the junta rejected UN suggestions for reconciliation, such as letting independent observers monitor the upcoming national referendum on a new constitution.
Gambari also sought to have the process for adopting a new constitution made more open to incorporate the views of the country's pro-democracy movement, led by detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The draft constitution's text has not yet been made public. The guidelines on which it is based were drawn up by a military-guided convention and include clauses that would bar Suu Kyi from public office and perpetuate the army's leading role in politics.
Kyaw Hsan said it would be "impossible" to rewrite the draft constitution, which will be submitted to a referendum in May.
Asked by Gambari to consider releasing political prisonersestimated by the UN and human rights groups to total more than 1,100he said Burma has no political prisoners and that Suu Kyi was detained because she tried to disrupt the country's stability.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo condemned the junta's rejection of independent poll monitors, calling it "a sad day for democracy and our region."
"Outside observers are not a threat to any nation's sovereignty," she said in a statement issued on Sunday in Manila. "Rather, the participation of outside election observers is a sign of strength. These observers help show the world the credibility of the election process itself as we had long done in the Philippines."
The Philippines has been a major promoter of democratization among its fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Burma is a member of the 10-country bloc.
The junta announced last month that it would hold the constitutional referendum, followed by a general election in 2010the first specific dates for steps in its previously announced "roadmap to democracy."
The country has been military-ruled since 1962. The current junta seized power in 1988 and refused to honor the results of a 1990 general election won by Suu Kyi's party.
The junta's rejections of Gambari's suggestions were the latest setback for the envoy who arrived on Thursday on his third trip to Burma since the junta's deadly crackdown on nonviolent pro-democracy protesters in September triggered an international outcry.
His visit came amid growing concerns that the government is tightening its grip on power.
Junta's snub signals failure of Gambari's mission - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Burma's military junta has spoken: there will be no role for the United Nations in determining the course of the country's political transition to what it calls a "disciplined democracy."
This is the message that the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) sent to the international community and the Burmese people through its treatment of the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.
The Nigerian diplomat, who has just completed his fifth visit to Burma, proposed a more inclusive process of political change in the country, and offered to send monitors to ensure that the outcome of the junta's planned referendum on a draft constitution is accepted as legitimate. The junta said no to both suggestions.
Gambari met with National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice during his five-day trip, but was denied a meeting with the junta's supreme leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Instead, he met with members of the regime's "Spokes Authoritative Team," consisting of Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Culture Minister Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint.
There were also brief meetings with other NLD leaders, representatives of ethnic groups, and officials from the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and National Unity Party (NUP).
As he did during Gambari's last visit to Burma in November 2007, Kyaw Hsan used the occasion of his latest meeting with the UN representative to send a clear message that the junta does not appreciate international interference in its affairs.
The state-run mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, published the full text of Kyaw Hsan's indignant reaction to Gambari's role in releasing a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi following his last visit.
"Sadly, you went beyond your mandate," said the information minister in his carefully worded reproach. "Some even believe that that you prepared the statement in advance and released it after coordinating with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi," he added.
He went on to accuse the UN envoy of trying to "frame a pattern desired by western countries."
Kyaw Hsan also took issue with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's calls for a more inclusive constitution-drafting process, pointing out that the NLD walked out of the National Convention two years after it first convened in 1993.
The constitution, finally completed last year, is in no further need of revision, insisted Kyaw Hsan. "The majority of the people do not demand to amend it," he told Gambari.
But analysts say that most of delegates at the convention were handpicked by the junta and only a few representatives from political parties were allowed to attend the convention. Before the NLD walked out of the National Convention in November 2005, only 99 of the 702 delegates were elected officials.
After meeting with Kyaw Hsan's team, Gambari met with a member of the commission responsible for holding the referendum, Thaung Nyunt, who flatly rejected a proposal for international monitoring of the forthcoming referendum in May.
"U Thaung Nyunt replied that holding the referendum for the constitution is within the State sovereignty. Besides, there were no instances of foreign observers monitoring events like a referendum," said a report in The New Light of Myanmar.
U Lwin, secretary of the NLD, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that Gambari explained to his party that he came to Burma with a mandate from the UN Security Council.
"He also told us about his meetings with the regime officials on previous days," said U Lwin, who declined to provide any further details.
Meanwhile, observers in Burma said that the junta's snub of Gambari showed that the generals were not interested in listening to the international community.
"It is very clear that they [the junta] will do everything their own way. No matter what the international community says, they negate all voices," said a Burmese political observer in Rangoon, adding that the chances of a national reconciliation talks taking place now are non-existent. "It is time for Burma's people to decide how to react to the junta," he added.
Other observers said it was time for the international community to send a stronger message to the junta through a UN Security Council resolution.
Aye Thar Aung, an Arakan leader, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that the military junta will only cooperate with proposals which support their stands. "Dialogues between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta official, Aung Kyi, were just a kind of cosmetic approach under pressure from Burmese people and the international community," he said.
"The UN Security Council should really do something," he added.
Larry Jagan, a British journalist who specializes in reporting on Burmese issues, also said that the junta has clearly demonstrated its indifference to international opinion.
"It is clear from Kyaw Hsan's lecture that the regime is little interested in the international community's concerns," Jagan told The Irrawaddy on Saturday. "The UN is not being imaginative enough to try and expand a UN role around Mr Gambari. So I think the UN role in Burma in the area of mediation is effectively finished," he said.
"What they would be worried about is the Burma issue will be raised again in the United Nations Security Council," Jagan added.
Burma's last Royal laments a crumbling nation - Ed Cropley
Reuters: Mon 10 Mar 2008
With a twinkle in his eye and the cheeky grin of a man half his age, 84-year-old Taw Paya does what few in Burma are prepared to do: speak out openly against the ruling military junta.
But this is no gung-ho dissident, courting the wrath of one of the world's most repressive governments.
Taw Paya, the sole surviving grandson of Burma's last king, stands outside his house in Maymyo, 80 km (50 miles) east of Mandalay. The royal blood in his veins still gives Taw Paya elevated status in the former Burma, allowing him to speak openly against the ruling military regime and its handling of the economy. (Photo: Reuters)
Taw Paya is the sole surviving grandson of the former Burma's last monarch, King Thibaw, exiled to India by the British in 1885. The blue blood flowing in his veins does not make him immune to recrimination, but it certainly helps.
"People are still respectful of the royal blood," he told Reuters in the sitting room of his red-brick colonial-style villa, built in 1947, the year before Burma claimed its independence from Britain.
A woolly hat is pulled low over his forehead and his jacket is buttoned up to the neck to ward off the early morning chill of Maymyo (known as Pyin U Lwin), a hill-station popular with British officers seeking escape from the sweat and dust of Burma's central plains.
There is little else to cover his disdain for the 46 years of unbroken army rule that have transformed Burma from the rice bowl of Asia into a deeply impoverished international pariah. "There's nothing good in Burma any more," he said, recalling the apparent Golden Age of early independence in which food was cheap and plentiful - in stark contrast to the galloping inflation and deepening poverty that sparked September's monk-led protests.
"How will it change? That's the big question," he said. "Nobody knows how to unravel the trouble we're in. There's no answer as long as these chaps are in power. We have to hope for change, but I don't think it'll be realized while we're alive."
Taw Paya's mother was allowed back to Burma in 1919, but kept under close watch by British imperial rulers fearful of the lingering respect accorded to the royal line. The military, which seized power in a 1962 coup, has been no less restrictive.
"I'd be mad to want to become a king now. With these chaps, I don't think I'd get very far," he said in understated Victorian English learnt at a mission school in 1930s Rangoon, long since renamed Yangon and superseded as the capital city.
Since 2005, the generals who replaced dictator Ne Win after a brutally crushed 1988 pro-democracy uprising have shut themselves away in a remote new capital, Naypyidaw, carved out of the bush.
The so-called "Royal City" is a clear sign of junta supremo Than Shwe's regal pretensions, Taw Paya said, but it is also indicative of a regime which does not understand, and does not want to understand, the outside world.
"Even compared to Ne Win, they are burglars," he said. "At least he had some general knowledge from traveling around countries overseas. He could see how the rest of the world and democracies worked. Than Shwe hasn't even been to England."
Despite international outrage at September's crackdown in which at least 31 people died, the generals would kill again to put down any repeat, said Taw Paya, who likes to pass his days watching European soccer via a cheap Chinese satellite dish.
"If there is upheaval, it will be put down very drastically," he said. "They don't give a damn for anybody so long as their own skin is safe. They don't give a damn about what others say. For them, any change is bad, so they try to cover it."
Nor has there been any sign of the called-for relaxation of the junta's grip on the lives of Burma's 53 million people.
"If somebody farts in a house, they know who it is," he said with a smile.
In Myanmar, dissidents beat junta gags with gags - Ed Cropley
Reuters: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Sagaing, Myanmar There is an old joke in Myanmar about the man with chronic toothache who travels to neighboring Thailand to see a dentist.
Bemused, the Thai dentist asks him: "But surely you have dentists in Myanmar?"
"Of course," the man replies. "We have some of the best dentists in the world. It's just that in our country nobody can open their mouth."
With scores, possibly hundreds, of Buddhist monks and leading dissidents still behind bars six months after last year's democracy protests, the joke is truer than it has been at almost any time in 46 years of unbroken army rule in the former Burma.
But despite the threat from one of the world's most repressive regimes and its virtually all-seeing network of spies and informants, dissent and criticism -albeit heavily couched in innuendo and allegory - bubble away.
A case in point is the Most Venerable Ashin Nyanissara, the 71-year-old head of the International Buddhist Academy in Sagaing, a sleepy town but major centre of religious scholarship 20 km (12 miles) west of Mandalay, Myanmar's second city.
Although he took no part in September's marches, the abbot's teachings are now hot property on the underground DVD scene - alongside, in a bizarre quirk of fate, the latest Rambo movie featuring an ageing Sylvester Stallone taking on the Burmese army.
In one disc, the respected monk expounds on the murderous excesses and subsequent conversion to Buddhism of the third century BC Indian emperor Ashoka the Great.
In another, he tells the tale of a group of ignorant monkeys who pull up a plantation of saplings to find out why some grow faster than others. Even though they are all replanted, the trees, of course, quickly wither and die.
It is not hard to divine the message given the junta's well-founded reputation for brutality. At least 31 people died in the September crackdown, according to the United Nations.
Inevitably, agents from the feared Military Intelligence (MI) came knocking and confiscated the DVDs, which were deemed of sufficient importance to warrant a screening at a junta cabinet meeting in Naypyidaw, the new capital.
Thankfully for the abbot, the generals didn't get the joke, one senior monk in Sagaing told Reuters.
"They all thought We're not foolish people. We are wise people, so it can't be referring to us," he said with a chuckle. "But the moment people heard MI had seized the recordings, they started selling like hot cakes."
It is not just monks who raise their voices against the regime and its disastrous handling of an economy that ranked as one of Asia's brightest prospects at independence from Britain in 1948.
Besides the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, all number of underground groups circulate, unified mainly by a loathing for the military and a reliance on the Internet to communicate.
"We don't need code names. We just use e-mail," one leading activist told Reuters at a meeting in a safe house in Yangon, the former capital. "They're not smart enough to be able to read it."
The most potent such group remains the "88 Generation Students," named after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising.
When the junta unveiled an election timetable last month, the group managed to come up with an official response - a denouncement of the plan - within 24 hours even though its leaders are all in jail, hiding or exile.
The frequent arrest and imprisonment of actors and comedians in the last 20 years is also testament to the central role they play in giving voice to the frustrations of the country's 53 million people.
Notable among the 3,000 people rounded up in the September crackdown were Zarganar, one of Yangon's hottest comedy acts and author of the dentist joke, and Par Par Lay, lead member of Mandalay's famous "Moustache Brothers" troupe.
Between them, the trio have spent more than 12 years behind bars for cracking jokes about the junta. At the moment they are being allowed to stage their nightly shows, a ribald mixture of slapstick, political satire and classical dance.
Significantly, however, the act is limited to English and the stage is the living room of the brothers' run-down home. Members of the audience are only ever tourists or spies.
"We're allowed to keep going because we're dead meat already," said Lu Maw, the only one of the brothers to have evaded jail time. "I'm just a comedian, but the only time I can open my mouth is inside my own home."
(Editing by Michael Battye and Megan Goldin)
Political prisoner dies in Bago prison
Democratic Voice of Burma: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Political prisoner and National League for Democracy member Ko Win Tin died on 6 March aged 35 while serving a 27-year prison term in Tharawaddy prison, Bago division.
Ko Win Tin, also known as Anue, was sentenced to 27 years' imprisonment in 1999 under article 5(j) of the emergency law, among other charges, for planning to incite nationwide mass protests on 9 September 1999.
U Myat Hla, a member of Bago NLD and elected representative of the people's parliament, said he was informed about Win Tin's death by his wife on Thursday.
"We had been hearing news about him being in bad health for quite a while before we heard about his death today," said Myat Hla.
"We were told the sad news by his wife who went to the prison."
Myat Hla said Win Tin had been an enthusiastic member of the NLD in Bago township since it was formed when he was about 14 years old.
"He and his sister were with us since the beginning and they participated enthusiastically in our party's activities," he said.
"We loved him so much and we regard his death as the loss of a family member."
Junta forcing migrants home for Referendum - Min Lwin
Irrawaddy: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Burma's military government is organizing a census of Burmese families in southern Shan State with a view to forcing migrant workers to return to their hometowns to vote in May, say family members of workers employed in Thailand.
Earlier this month, according to sources form southern Shan State, local authorities and the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) drew up a plan to register all Burmese citizens for voting in the constitutional referendum in May.
Residents in southern Shan State said the authorities were demanding that family members contact migrant workers and tell them to come back and vote in the referendum. "The USDA and the local authorities are forcing the families to call back their relatives," said a resident from Ponpakyin, southern Shan State.
"If the worker can't come and fails to vote in May, the authorities will take them off the census list," said another source from Ponpakyin.
"The local authorities are collecting the names of people who need temporary identity cards, which they will then use as a supporting list for the referendum," said a resident in Mong Pan, southern Shan State.
A migrant worker in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, said that she and her friends will not return to their hometowns to vote in the referendum. "My mother was asked by the local authorities to call me to go back, but I can't," she said on condition of anonymity.
"My trip home isn't easy," the woman said. "The cost of returning to my hometown is 6,000 to 10,000 baht (US $188 to $313), which is three months salary.
Everyone over 18 is being issued a temporary national identity card, a doctor from Tachilek in Shan State said. "The temporary national identity cards issued by the immigration office are mainly for citizens to vote in the upcoming referendum."
According to a resident of Ponpakyin, many young people who live near the Thai border go to work in Thailand after they finish their education. "Most youths, like me, come and work in Thailand because there are not enough jobs for us in Burma," she said.
Hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens live in Thailand. According to MAP foundation in Chiang Mai, 95 percent of the 121,488 workers who are registering for work permits in Chiang Mai are ethnic Shan.
DVB under fire for independent stance Violent Cho
Irrawaddy: Mon 10 Mar 2008
As the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma matures into a seasoned news organization, serving audiences in Burma and abroad, some exiled politicians criticized its "independence" last week, calling for more advocacy views and opinions representing political opposition groups.
During a panel discussion on exiled media organized by the Democratic Voice of Burma in Bangkok last week, a lively debate emerged around DVB's independent radio and television broadcast stations.
DVB was founded in 1992 by Burmese opposition groups and leading politicians in exile.
It became independent in 2003, with a commitment to become a professional news broadcast organization. Opposition group members no longer serve on its board of directors.
A non-profit organization based in Norway, it is operated by a Burmese staff. Its television station, created in 2005, was an influential source of news and information during the 2007 uprising.
Maung Maung, the general secretary of the National Council of Union of Burma, in a prepared speech, said Burmese opposition groups need a media outlet that clearly represents their views and visions.
"The democratic movement needs media that will spell out our political stands, priorities and actions to the people of Burma and the international community in a consistent way," he said.
Maung Maung's views found some support among some exiled politicians during the debate.
Maung Maung said he had been told many times that DVB donors insist on an independent media' operation at board meetings, but when the DVB was founded it clearly represented opposition political views. "Why has it changed?" he asked.
The DVB is "our radio station [opposition groups]," he said, adding, "It was accepted and acknowledged within Burma as the voice of democracy."
"Daw Suu (Aung San Suu Kyi) supported the DVB for being the leading exiled broadcast media for democracy in Burma," he said.
Responding to Maung Maung's views, Aye Chan Naing, one of the founders of the DVB, said, "We are not going anywhere," meaning that DVB is committed to the democracy movement, but he said it can best serve the movement by operating independently from opposition groups.
Khin Maung Win, a DVB manager, said that in the past, news and editorial content were heavily censored by the exiled Burmese government and some DVB operations were overly dependent on outside groups.
"We had to wait for a signature from a minister before we could buy batteries to operate the broadcasting equipment," he said. "We have to be honest to our audience."
One foreign observer said he believed the Burmese exiled media has "grown up," but some exiled politicians continue to live in the Stone Age.
A number of Western diplomats and donors at the conference expressed dismay at Maung Maung's views.
"It is worrying for Burma's future [if exiled politicians come into power]," said one Western diplomat.
If the DVB doesn't serve the needs of the opposition political groups, Maung Maung said he will set up a broadcast facility to advocate the views of opposition groups.
China-Myanmar oil pipeline still under discussion
Kuwait News Agency: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Construction of the oil pipeline from Myanmar to southwest China's Yunnan Province is still under discussion, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported Monday, citing a top provincial official. The long-awaited pipeline is expected to provide an alternative route for China's crude imports from the Middle East and Africa and ease the country's worries of its over-dependence on energy transportation through the Strait of Malacca.
"Whether, when and how to build it are yet to be decided," Bai Enpei, secretary of the Yunnan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, said. "We are still studying the plan and discussing it with Myanmar, but many technical problems remain to be solved, which requires time," said Bai, who is attending the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, in Beijing. The plan of the oil pipeline, linking Myanmar's deep-water port of Sittwe with Yunnan provincial capital Kunming, was approved last April by China's National Development and Reform Commission, the nation's top economic planning agency.
China, the world's second-biggest oil consumer after the US, imported a new record at 163.17 million tons of crude oil last year, up 12.4 percent from the previous year, according to the customs data. Saudi Arabia was China's biggest supplier of crude oil, with shipments from the kingdom reaching 26.33 million tons in 2007, followed by Angola 25 million tons and Iran with 20.54 million tons, respectively.
India and Myanmar to institutionalise security cooperation
Frontier India: Mon 10 Mar 2008
India and Myanmar have expressed strong desire that the common border between the two countries should be a region and symbol of peace and harmony so that the benefits out of various infrastructure projects and economic cooperation between the two countries can be fully realized. Both sides have agreed to work closely for achieving these objectives and, in this context, discussed various institutional mechanisms to strengthen security cooperation.
The understanding was reached at the 14th National Level Meeting between India and Myanmar which began here last Friday and concluded today. The Indian delegation was led by the Union Home Secretary, Shri Madhukar Gupta, and the Myanmar delegation by their Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, Brig. General Phone Swe. At this meeting, various issues of mutual concern including those related to security, drug trafficking and border management were discussed.
Later, the leader of the Myanmar delegation called on the Indian Home Minister, Shri Shivraj Patil. The Indian Home Minister emphasized the importance of strengthening cooperation in the areas of security and border management as well as in the context of India's Look East' policy.
Myanmar and India share a border of around 1650 kms. India-Myanmar bilateral relations are reflective of the multi- dimensional and traditional linkages between the two countries.
Concrete action needed on Burma
The Nation (Thailand): Mon 10 Mar 2008
It should not come as a surprise that Burmese military rulers gave the cold shoulder to UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who arrived in Rangoon on Thursday hoping to change the mindset of the ruling junta.
Gambari's latest mission was to convince the ruling junta to change the new constitution - dubbed a "sham" by the UN and the international community - to ensure inclusiveness. This would mean pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be permitted to stand in the 2010 poll.
Gambari was permitted a brief meeting with Suu Kyi. The lady has spent the better part of the past two decades locked up under house arrest. But that was all he was going to get. The junta was not in the mood to give much more than that. Rangoon greeted Gambari with a press statement saying the government has rejected a request by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the regime to amend the new constitution.
It should come as no surprise to the world's people that the Burmese junta is not going to give in easily, especially to hollow words from the UN or any agency that doesn't have anything concrete to back up their demands.
The UN and the international community have to think outside the box and explore other options, like an exit strategy for the junta or some sort of mechanism that would ensure their place in the country's political arena. The orthodox diplomatic approach hasn't worked, so perhaps it's time that the world community thinks afresh and creatively.
After all this is a country that doesn't seem to heed the advice and concerns of the international community, whether they are friends or critics.
Incidentally, Burmese information minister Kyaw Hsan even took a jab at neighbouring Thailand, saying that the world community has not objected to the country's new constitution despite the lack of participation by its opponents.
Why an independent media matters in Burma - Aung Zaw
Irrawaddy: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Burma's rulers and democratic opposition forces have limited experience with a free and independent media. This is definitely worrying for a future democratic Burma.
King Mindon, Burma's penultimate monarch, knew the value of a free press. During his reign, he introduced a new press law which read in part: "If I do wrong, write about me. If the queens do wrong, write about them. If my sons and my daughters do wrong, write about them. If the judges and mayors do wrong, write about them. No one shall take action against the journals for writing the truth. They shall go in and out of the palace freely."
The king and his ministers read newspapers published in Lower Burma, which had already been colonized by the British, and were quite sensitive to criticism. When newspapers like the Rangoon Gazette reported the poor state of roads in Mandalay, Mindon's seat of power, the ministers immediately ordered that the roads be repaired.
However, despite the king's embrace of a free media, criticism of palace scandals in the royal court of Mandalay never made its way into the Yadanabon Naypyidaw, launched with Mindon's blessings in March 1875.
The Yadanabon Naypyidaw, or Mandalay Gazette, as it was also known, is recognized as one of the first indigenous newspapers in Southeast Asia, and the law which led to its creation was also among the first of its kind in the region.
Burmese are justifiably proud of this accomplishment, and to this day, advocates of press freedom in Burma cite Mindon's example as evidence that truly enlightened leadership is indeed possible in the country, despite the reputation of its current rulers, who are regarded by the international community as enemies of the press.
As Burma's military regime prepares for a referendum in May and an election in 2010, the exiled media continues to play a key role in ensuring that Burmese people and the rest of the world remain informed about developments inside the country.
If sudden or gradual change comes to Burma, exiled journalists must be prepared to safeguard their independence. There is no guarantee that change at the top will bring democratic values, good governance or the rule of law, so the press must be vigilant and work to hold the government accountable.
If new government ministers and opposition politicians embraced a free and independent press, it would be welcome news, indeed. But this is not something that can be taken for granted. Even if democratic opposition forces and the winners of the 1990 elections came into power, it would be naive to expect a friction-free relationship between politicians and the press beyond an initial honeymoon period.
The independent media must act like a watchdog, not a lapdog. This means that exiled media groups founded by former activists and students may find themselves at odds with a future democratic government of Burma.
At this critical juncture, dissidents and Burma's independent press agree on the urgent need for political change. But when change comes to Burma and democratic opposition groups come into power, a new dynamic will evolve. The question is: will "democratic forces" respect press freedom?
Burma's opposition groups and politicians see the media as a tool to counter the regime. But the role of the media is much greater than this, and in the event of a democratic transition, the press will play an even more important part than it does now. In a future democratic Burma, the need for newspapers and broadcasters will grow as the country seeks to ensure its stability and prosperity.
Media projects are not merely an "add on" to development projects: they are integral to the success of any effort to improve the lives of ordinary people. For instance, on the issue of HIV/AIDS - the regime's biggest crime in the past was not acknowledging this devastating health crisis in the media. If the people of Burma had been properly informed about the virus, many lives could have been saved.
The media can play a very important role in providing information to citizens. The press can make government more accountable, expose corruption and abuse of power, and even improve the performance of both government and opposition groups. At the same time, it can empower people to make their own decisions. Access to information makes societies more open and more transparent.
With a healthy and professional independent media, it is difficult for any government to resist the forces of public opinion. An independent press can make a nascent democracy more democratic.
Media freedom is both a means of achieving democracy and the surest way of fostering its future survival. King Mindon was ahead of his time - and ahead of many in our own time - in recognizing the vital role of press freedom. Burma would be a much better place today if its ruling regime and the democratic opposition shared his appreciation of the importance of a free and independent media.
This opinion was originally presented at a conference on "Burmese Media: Present and Future," organized by the Democratic Voice of Burma and held in Bangkok March 6-7.
Myanmar junta refuses to amend charter barring Suu Kyi from polls
AFP: Fri 7 Mar 2008
Myanmar's ruling junta Friday flatly refused to amend its proposed constitution, which bars democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from elections, while accusing a UN envoy of "bias" against the regime.
The information minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, made the remarks during his meeting with visiting UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, according to state television.
Gambari arrived here Thursday on a mission to press the regime to include Aung San Suu Kyi in its plans to hold a constitutional referendum in May and multiparty elections in 2010.
Any hopes for progress in his talks appeared dashed by the information minister, who gave no indication that the regime would waver from its own plan to build what it calls a "discipline-flourishing democracy."
"It is impossible to draft the constitution again," Kyaw Hsan flatly told Gambari, according to state television.
The minister also made a scathing criticism of Gambari's performance as a mediator, accusing him of "bias" in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi for releasing a letter from her after his last visit here.
In the letter, she had declared her willingness to enter into a dialogue with the regime aimed at national reconciliation.
"You have acted outside your role as a mediator" by releasing the letter, Kyaw Hsan said.
"Most people have criticised you for showing a bias. Some also believe that you wrote this letter in advance and released it after negotiations with Ms Aung San Suu Kyi," the minister said.
"The statement you released was a danger that could have harmed the recent peace and stability of the country," he said.
"It is important for the mediator using good offices not to have any intention of orchestrating events," he added.
"There is no justice in attacking us with pressure from all sides," he said. "The United Nations should stand honestly, without any discrimination on anything."
Gambari is on his third visit to the country since the regime launched a deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests last September, killing at least 31 people according to the United Nations.
But the political landscape has shifted enormously since his last visit in November, following the surprise announcement one month ago of the regime's election plans.
If held, the planned polls would be the first in the country formerly known as Burma since Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in 1990, a result the junta never recognised.
Western countries have criticised the regime for limiting the role of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD in the polls.
The junta has brought in a law criminalising public speeches and leaflets about the referendum and announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be barred from running in elections because of her marriage to a foreigner, Briton Michael Aris, who is now dead.
The NLD has warned that the public would not accept the junta's new charter, but has stopped short of calling for a boycott or urging a "No" vote.
Gambari has tried to open a dialogue between the Nobel peace prize winner, who has been kept under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years, and the regime.
His initial efforts seemed promising. After his first mission in the aftermath of the crackdown, the junta appointed a liaison officer to meet Aung San Suu Kyi while military supremo Senior General Than Shwe made a heavily conditioned offer to meet her himself.
But Than Shwe shunned Gambari on his last visit here, and no meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi has taken place.
Even the talks with the liaison officer have dragged, with Aung San Suu Kyi saying in January that she was "not satisfied" with their progress.
The junta has so far not scheduled any talks between Gambari and Aung San Suu Kyi for this trip. Even his departure date has not been settled, although diplomats expect him to leave Sunday.
Junta canvases ceasefire groups for referendum support
Mizzima News: Fri 7 Mar 2008
With an eye to May's referendum, the Burmese junta is distributing temporary identity cards to ceasefire groups, a Sino-Burma border-based analyst says.
The junta started issuing the cards among ceasefire groups, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Kachin Independent Organization (KIO), the last week of February. They are temporary identity cards and are white, as opposed to the usual red.
Political observer Aung Kyaw Zaw remarked, "The main goals of this action are to garner support for the referendum as well more control over them [ceasefire groups] in the future."
Whether the referendum will be a success or not, issuing white identity cards to ceasefire groups will make it easier for the junta to identity them in the future, Kyaw Zaw noted.
Both the UWSA and KIO have refused to sign counter-statements against Aung San Suu Kyi's statement of last year and have been under increased pressure from the junta ever since.
A UWSA spokesperson told Mizzima on Monday that: "Two days ago they [junta immigration officers] arrived at our place and started organizing white temporary identity cards for us."
"At least six groups of immigration officers came here including their Chief Maung Maung Swe and Culture Minister Khing Aung Myint," he added.
According to the UWSA's spokesperson the main purpose for urgently providing temporary citizen cards is to lay the groundwork for May's referendum.
"They said the distribution of temporary cards to us will be concluded by the end of March," the spokesperson elaborated.
However UWSA members want the temporary citizen cards not for the referendum but because it will prove that they belong to the country and are real citizens of Burma.
Further, accepting the white card will allow them to travel and move around the country freely which was never previously possible due to not having an identity card.
The KIO has also accepted the distribution of temporary cards by the junta.
An officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most KIO personnel and their family members are starting to register for the white cards.
He said, "Around five to six officers from the Immigration Department came the last week of February to Laiza [a KIO controlled area] and collected a list of people eligible for white identity cards."
"Most of us have done it but not for the referendum. The junta is doing this in pursuit of achieving their goals, but we have our own plans," he added.
Weekly business roundup - William Boot
Irrawaddy: Mon 10 Mar 2008
Burma Authorizes Singapore Dollar Accounts at Banks
The Burmese junta's approval of Singapore dollar bank accounts in at least two state-controlled banks is seen in some quarters as a reaction to recent stepped-up international sanctions aimed at the regime's pocketbook.
Just two weeks ago the United States' Office of Foreign Assets Control named several key Burmese and Singaporean business figures and their companies on an extended sanctions list.
The names were in addition to 13 junta-linked people and companies blacklisted in early February by the US.
Hong Kong money laundering expert and risk analyst Peter Gallo said the sanctions were aimed primarily at embarrassing Singapore, which has long been one of the junta's favored banking sites.
The sanctions affect not only the Burmese individuals and companies named, but also banks which deal with them and with the US.
The junta has approved the opening of Singapore dollar currency accounts at the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank and Myanma [Burma] Investment and Commercial Bank.
The MFTB in particular deals with foreign currency transactions.
The changes will "certainly help those people and businesses linked with Singapore who are now on the US sanctions lists," said an economics official at a European Union embassy in Bangkok who asked to remain anonymous.
Samak Green Lights the Salween Hydro-dam
The new Thai government of Samak Sundaravej has given the green light to large-scale infrastructure projects such as hydro dams on Burma's Salween River, which had appeared less certain following the coup that ousted pro-Burma Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawara.
Samak's first visit to Burma as prime minister, scheduled for next week, is expected to not only offer reassurances on existing agreementsbut will positively encourage more business deals between the two countries.
Thailand is not only the largest importer from Burma - mainly in the form of gas - it is also increasing exports to its poorer neighbor.
The increased two-way traffic comes in spite of Western calls for greater pressure on the Burmese military regime through trade curbs and boycotts of regime-linked businesses.
"There was some breath holding in recent months, during the Bangkok-installed military government phase, on projects such as the hydroelectric dam on the Salween at Tasang," said Bangkok-based power industries consultant Collin Reynolds.
"But I think the China link on this project has to keep it afloat, even though it is highly expensive and of questionable value given the environmental problems almost certain to ensue on both sides of the border."
Full Steam Ahead for Trans-asia Trains?
The Indian government has approved plans for the development of its section the Trans Asian Railway Network, which international organizations including the UN and Asia Development Bank are promoting.
The network, known as TARN, will one day link south and East Asia with Europe via the Middle East.
But India's railway minister Lalu Prasad acknowledged this week that for the route to work for India as a trade link with Southeast Asia, New Delhi would likely have to spend more than US $300 million.
This is the estimated cost of building new or upgrading track through its northeast state and Burma, said a report by The Times of India.
New Delhi has previously expressed support for helping Burma to upgrade a line linking northeast India with Thailand and Malaysia and Singapore.
The last time this dream was pursued was during World War II when thousands of forced laborers died working on the route for the Japanese army of occupation.
It's not clear what the Burmese regime may think of the idea of a transnational line, described by Indian Railway Board chairman K.C. Jena, as "benefiting people in a major way as it will enable them to visit by trains at moderate charges."
Diesel Fuel Smuggled to Burma from Bangladesh
Even as the Burmese regime tries to shut down domestic black market fuel sales, diesel is reportedly being smuggled into the country from a most unlikely source - Bangladesh.
The cyclone-ravaged country is virtually as poor as Burma and certainly has fewer known oil and gas resources than its neighbor.
But diesel is reportedly being moved across the border clandestinely by a syndicate which has links to local army officers.
Burma has to import virtually all its diesel - which drives everything from buses and trains to backyard electricity generators - because it lacks crude oil refining facilities.
Officially, Burma imports on average about 50,000 barrels of diesel per day.
The bad news about the Bangladesh smuggling, according to the local Kaladan Press, is that amphetamine tablets are traded among other clandestine goods in return.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh's desperate need for energy has led to approval of the French oil giant Total to carry out undersea seismic exploration for oil and gas close to disputed territorial waters with Burma.