[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 25/3/08
- Students paste "No" vote posters on referendum in Northern Burma
- KIO likely to boycott referendum
- Monks will have no right to vote
- Life beyond Referendum
- Futile Diplomacy
- Self-immolation in Myanmar against military dictatorship
- Burmese balk at immutable constitution
- Junta increases security at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon
- Splits emerge in Burma's army over country's roadmap
- Monks in exile urge people to boycott and rise against junta
- Myanmar, Brunei to promote trade ties
- Thailand to use 'quiet diplomacy' to make Myanmar democratic
- Revelations in the absurd
Students paste "No" vote posters on referendum in Northern Burma
Kachin News Group : Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Myitkyina University students pasted hundreds of posters exhorting people to vote "No" in Burma's referendum to approve the constitution in May in two major townships of Kachin State in Northern Burma this morning, students activists said.
Naw Awng, a student activist in Kachin State's capital Myitkyina Township told KNG today that the A-4 sized anti-constitutional referendum posters were pasted in the most crowded areas inside and outside Myitkyina and Waingmaw Townships, before 9 a.m. local time.
Over 500 posters were pasted in different areas of Myitkyina whereas more than a 100 posters were pasted at six major quarters in Waingmaw, according to students' activists who are involved in the movement.
"We pasted 100 posters in Myitkyina University alone. The other posters were pasted in the main crowded places in the township including markets and near the Police Station No. (1)," Naw Awng said.
Today's poster movement was organized by the All Kachin Students Union (AKSYU) inside Burma. The poster is aimed at mobilizing the public to vote "No" in the ruling junta's constitutional referendum in May, Naw Awng told KNG.
According to local eyewitnesses, several Burmese soldiers and policemen were seen today inside and outside the campus of Myitkyina University.
Early this month, Brig-Gen Thein Zaw, Minister of Communication, Post and Telegraph of the ruling junta visited Myitkyina and mobilised several Kachin Christian churches as part of the referendum campaign.
KIO likely to boycott referendum
Mizzima News: Monday, 24 March 2008
Written by Solomon
New Delhi - The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic ceasefire group, has instructed its members to boycott the upcoming constitutional referendum, sources in the organization said.
A source in the KIO said the group, in an internal meeting, decided not to take part in the upcoming constitutional referendum and has notified its members that they should abstain from casting ballots in May's poll. The decision came despite the KIO having agreed to authorities registering its members and the distribution of Burmese identity cards
The Burmese military junta, in preparation for its announced May referendum and 2010 election, has reportedly begun issuing identity cards to armed ceasefire groups, including the KIO and United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The identity cards, which are widely called 'White cards', will enable the holders to cast votes in both the referendum and election, according to the source.
KIO leadership, from its headquarters in Laiza along the China-Burma border, were unable to be reached for comment, and the group's Foreign Affairs spokesperson based in Thailand, James Lumdau, declined to comment on the group's decision.
Instead he remarked, "In my personal view and experience, the junta will go ahead with its plans and the referendum in May and election in 2010 will be held no matter the amount of protest from inside and outside the country."
He further urged the Kachin people to carefully analyze the consequences of their actions and choose whether to vote or to stay out of the referendum.
Lumdau told Mizzima he believes that the people should vote as there will be no "result from abstaining but possibly some result could come from casting votes."
However, he declined to suggest whether the people should cast a 'Yes' or 'No' vote.
While Lumdau wished not to comment on the KIO's decision, Naw Din, Editor of the Thailand-based Kachin News Group said he has learned from KIO officials that the group has decided not to participate in the upcoming referendum.
"Yes it is right, I have been talking with the vice-president of the KIO, Gauri Zau Seng and he told me that they will not participate in the upcoming referendum."
But Naw Din did not rule out the possibility that members of the KIO will participate individually, as opposed to a group, in the referendum.
Naw Din, however, said the KIO has not made any public statement on its decision, except that they have ordered their members to register and get the identity cards.
The KIO, an armed ethnic group which has waged a war for independence for over 40 years, is one of the largest armed groups having signed a ceasefire deal with the ruling junta and are among the 17 ceasefire groups that participated in the junta's 14-year long National Convention.
The National Convention, which is the first step of the junta's seven step road-map, was dubbed a sham by pro-democracy activists and Western nations, including the United States and European Union.
The KIO, in collaboration with several other groups in the National Convention, have demanded rights for Burma's ethnic minorities, a call which, however, has to this point fallen on deaf ears.
In July 2007, about a month and a half before the conclusion of the National Convention, the KIO again put forward a 19-point proposal outlining their demands.
The KIO's proposal, which included the demarcation of governmental powers between the states and the central government based on federalist principles, was ignored by the junta.
Monks will have no right to vote
The Buddhist Channel : March 24, 2008
Rangoon, Burma - Burma's 400,000 Buddhist monks and nuns have been categorised along with the country's convicted criminals and mentally ill so that they are barred from voting in the upcoming national referendum on the regime's draft of a new constitution, writes Edward Loxton for The First Post. Representatives of the country's Christian and Hindu communities are also excluded from casting ballots in the referendum, due to be held in May.
The exclusion clause is contained in new legislation signed by junta leader General Than Shwe. The legislation also threatens imprisonment or heavy fines for anybody who publicly opposes the referendum or interferes with its planning. Any such public criticism of the referendum - including the distribution of critical posters and pamphlets - is punishable by up to three years' jail.
A commission of 45 officials with close ties to the junta is to be given the task of organising and supervising the referendum. It will be assisted by members of a paramilitary organisation that played a big role in breaking up last September's demonstrations, which were led by the country's monks.
The referendum is to be followed in 2010 by a general election, although the regime is working hard to make sure the electoral roll excludes known opponents of the regime - including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Rangoon.
The 88 Generation Students group, one of Burma's most active anti-regime movements, and the All Burma Association of Buddhist Monks have called for a boycott of the referendum and the election. "If the authorities force people to go to the polling stations to vote in the referendum we will call on them to vote No," Soe Tun, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students group, told the exile magazine Irrawaddy.
Life beyond Referendum
_ by Thuria Tayza
The referendum is coming. Regardless of political opposition's denunciation of it as a sham, a sham referendum for a pro-military constitution drafted by a convention of much compliant delegates hand-picked by the military; and despite United Nations' request to the junta to formulate a more inclusive and more transparent process, the de facto military rulers of Burma are going ahead with their planned referendum where existing and newly crafted laws threaten any body who dares to speak anything against it will face long prison sentences, which in Burma usually comes with an automatic bonus of tortures and ill-treatments. The military junta has rejected United Nations' proposal to send UN monitors for the referendum. Notwithstanding the plan to hold constitutional referendum in May, majority of people in Burma haven't seen the draft constitution; actually they don't even know yet when exactly the referendum will be. Electoral registers are not yet complete, virtually non existent in many remote places of Burma where at least half of the country is either covered by jungles or on difficult terrains of steep hills and tall mountains. In spite of all these it is quite certain, at least for the junta, that the result of the referendum will be a "Yes", that is even if people actually vote "No" in an overwhelming majority. The referendum is just a formality for the junta to enable them to announce that Burma has been given a new constitution, whether people like it or loathe it. That's why junta has already declared that general elections will be held in 2010 under the new constitution which is yet to be approved by referendum!
Even though people loathe it and international community denounce it, the new constitution is going to be a very useful tool for the junta. After brutally killing dozens of Buddhist monks in a peaceful demonstration for better living conditions and improved human rights in Burma last year, the military junta came under immense pressure from United Nations and wide ranging sanctions from all self-respecting democratic governments around the world. Even junta's main sponsor, communist Chinese government, felt embarrassed by Burmese Generals' blatant breach of human rights. And there is a personal need for Senior General Than Shwe, the supreme leader of junta, who is alleged to be suffering from severe hypertension, diabetes and some intestinal tumours, to get a safe way out before he dies to leave a secure future for his family and a powerful legacy for his loyal followers in the military. A new civilian government, controlled by the military from behind the scene, under the new constitution will give Gen. Than Shwe a chance to claim that he has given a disciplined democracy to Burma. He has already time and again emphasized that Burma's democracy will be in Burmese style, not American style. And junta's big brothers China and Russia, and neighbouring countries like India and Thailand who want to get natural gas at a cheap price from Burmese generals will endorse junta's claims of achieving disciplined democracy in Burma. So, although every self-respecting politician in the democratic hemisphere knows that Burmese people have been given a very bad deal for a fake democracy by their military government, the establishing of a so called disciplined democracy will buy Burmese generals some credibility in other hemisphere influenced by China, Russia and India.
As it is, the political opposition inside Burma and in exile know the fate awaiting them beyond the referendum. But, as terribly weak they are, as dreadfully disunited they are, and as woefully disorganized they are, the political opposition have no ways and means, i.e. no political institution or influence, to stop the referendum, or even to disrupt it. Since all brave and bold activists have been put behind bars during the Saffron Revolution last year, only a few elderly politicians are remaining outside jail, and they are these days just acting as care takers of the apparently exhausted main opposition party, looking forward with their weary eyes to a day in the dim future when the party will be revived by some miracle.
Some exile activists are suggesting boycotting the referendum. Perhaps, they may be able to persuade people in Burma not to vote in the referendum. The low turn out at the referendum may discredit it; but as the latest referendum law does not mention the minimum level of turn out for its validity, low turn out will not stop junta from declaring victory. On the other hand, it's a certainty that junta will force its soldiers, soldiers' families and civil servants to cast a "Yes" vote. And, junta lackey militant Kyant-phut and Swan-arr-shin organizations will mobilize their members to intimidate people to go to voting stations and vote "Yes". Eventually, junta will just count what ever "Yes" votes they can garner and declare that more than 99.99% has voted Yes!
So, alternatively, some suggest making a "No" campaign, to urge people to go and vote No. There's no question about people's loathing of corrupt military rulers, and in all possibilities people will take "No" vote as their natural revenge on the brutal military junta. So "No" vote is the natural outcome for the referendum, provided it be genuinely free and fair with real secret voting system. "No" vote will teach a tough lesson to the military and seriously damage their ambition for a perpetual dominance in Burma's politics. That's why the all powerful military will not allow "No" campaign to win. Even now, to dishearten "No" campaigners, military is spreading rumours that if "No" campaign wins, another national convention will be convened again which will take another fifteen years like the previous one, effectively giving the military another fifteen years at least to go on ruling as transitional de facto government.
No one knows exactly how the military will respond to a victory of "No" vote. But, nonetheless, people will just have to vote "No" to a constitution which gives 25% of seats in both houses of parliament to military officers hand-picked by their commander-in-chief, which allows military to operate as a totally independent institution with no control what so ever by civilian government on it, which allows military to take over power virtually at any time they like, which allows only three presidential candidates with one of then to be hand-picked by the military. Only fools and soldiers will vote "Yes" to such a constitution; "No" vote is the only choice for people, and "No" campaign is a must for all political activists.
But, as no one knows if the military will really hold a free and fair referendum, as no one knows how military will respond to a "No" victory, and as nothing is certain in Burma where a bunch of unreasonable military generals have absolute control over everything, "No" campaign alone will not be enough solution for Burma's problems. And, politicians and activists who want to carry on the torch of their political aspirations into long distant future, however bleak it might be, need to start preparing now for all eventualities beyond 2008 May referendum.
Here, it'd not be very impolite to point out an important reason of the chronic failure of Burma's pro-democracy movement, that is the very re-active nature of many a movement leaders who lack pro-active plans but like to issue one ineffectual statement after another only in a sluggish response to those cunning political moves by street-wise military generals extending and strengthening their powers. Usually, whenever Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is under house-arrest, her deputies just wait for her return, acting only as quiescent care-takers in the mean time. But the problem is she has been under house-arrest most of the time during the last two decades. So, it's not surprising that she seems to become quite frustrated with the current situation of apparent lack of life in her party. And she, during her last meeting earlier this year with her party elders, pointed out to them the need to carry on the fight with or without her inspiration, and to be able to make decisions with or without her guidance, especially at this critical moment for the future of the country.
So, while making "No" campaign, activists should also start thinking about the next steps to take when military junta declare, in a believe-it-or-not manner, that their constitution has been approved by referendum.
When the new constitution come into effect, by hook or by crook, there will open up three main options to continue the fight against military oppressors _
- To take the new constitution as the symbol of total defeat and failure of current non-violent struggle, and launch an all out armed revolution.
- To continue the non-violent struggle but in a more active manner, taking direct actions frequently, mobilizing Saffron Revolution style people power uprisings as frequently as possible, trying to destabilize any future puppet civilian government under military control.
- To play along with the new constitution and take part in elections and attempt to fight any future puppet civilian government from inside, or from inside the parliament
Actually, all these three components can be used in a harmoniously synchronized combination. But to accomplish such a massive political effort and organization, pro-democracy parties will need new generations of more daring and more active leaders.
In reality, number two and number three options are more practically feasible than the first, as armed revolution nowadays seem to become totally obsolete. Since "nine eleven" no government around the world would provide assistance to an armed revolution in Burma, however much sympathetic they are to Burma's struggle for democracy. And all those successful coloured democratic uprisings (velvet one in Georgia, orange one in Ukraine, etc) in recent history are based on non-armed movements. Even the terrorist Hamas has finally come to power in Gaza Strip through political elections. Likewise, today's major armed ethnic resistance groups in Burma, if they understand changing trends in the world, will in near future need to form political wings like Sin Fein of IRA, to take part in elections and to make two-pronged efforts (non-armed political offensives as well as armed self defence against any attempted genocide) ultimately towards self-determination and autonomy in their homelands.
If the pro-democracy movement, especially the movement's main political party the National League for Democracy NLD, is to survive and thrive beyond 2008, and beyond 2010, the party must try to build political muscle. Of course, military junta and its security apparatuses and its future successor puppet civilian government will all try their best to contain and crush NLD party. But if there's a will, there will be a way. There had been many instances in the past where activists successfully organized strong movements despite intense scrutiny and tight control by security forces; e.g. , under difficult situations students organized and mobilized protests in 1987, 1988, 1996, and student leaders initiated white shirt movement and open heart campaigns of 2006 and anti-inflation demonstrations of 2007 despite the junta stamping down on them. And with the new constitution and new elections in 2010, it will become inevitable for military junta to allow some room for political activities inside the country. So NLD must try to regroup and rebuild itself, and must try to establish a well organized political institution inside the country, mostly above ground but also some under ground elements as required; and there must be a long line up, a virtually endless supply, of new generation leaders who will take over and carry on the fight whenever their senior colleagues are arrested or eliminated by the military.
Most important above all else will be to bring together people power; to re-align the movement as one for the people, and by the people, instead of a movement by a small group of politicians for transfer of power to their party.
Recently, there has been poverty relief efforts and rice distribution by Amyotheryei U Win Naing and group. And, there was Ko Htin Kyaw and group who voiced people's concerns for the worsening poverty, lack of credible social welfare and lack of electricity supply, etc. And, there was an effort by Phyu Phyu Thin and group to provide assistance to HIV patients. And there were attempts by Su Su Nway and group to protect the rights of people used as forced labourers by the military. And there even is a group led by actor Kyaw Thu providing free funeral arrangements for poor families. And there are many a faceless civilian journalists and bloggers from inside Burma who try to record the sufferings of people and spread the word to the outside world. And there are numerous groups which are providing healthcare, education, food, shelter and other helps to refugees, migrants and displaced people along Thai-Burma border.
But sadly, we haven't seen anything significant done, or said, by current caretaker leaders of the movement, and the elected people's representatives inside and outside the country, for the relief of poverty and sufferings of the people.
Since 1990, all policy platforms of current caretaker leaders of the movement and the elected people's representatives inside and outside the country have steadfastly been based on 1990 election results; all statements issued, all request and proposals made to the junta, all petitions and open letters written to United Nations, all policy initiatives laid down, and all political strategies designed have consistently been centred around 1990 election results and the need to get power transferred according to 1990 election results.
But the truth is, after nearly two whole decades, under very terrible real-life situations on the ground, the long suffering and now virtually starving people are no longer interested in election results of twenty years ago. And, the younger newer generation activists of today were either born after 1990 elections or were in a very tender young childhood at the time of the election. So, although they care very much about nowadays' terrible poverty suffered by their fellow country men under a corrupt military junta, they do not care that much about an election result some two decades ago which the military junta refused to recognize.
And remember that the massive Saffron Revolution of 2007 was not at all about politics or political parties or political elections. The people in 2007 were already absolutely poor and on the brink of starvation which was dramatically worsened by junta's five-fold increase in fuel prices. Angry people led by their student leaders came out onto streets and marched and made protests which were supported by Buddhist monks, which led to brutal beatings by soldiers on the monks, which in turn angered the mass of Buddhist monks and devotees in majority Buddhist country Burma, eventually leading to the explosion of the Saffron Revolution. So it is very clear that Saffron Revolution exploded solely and spontaneously out of people's poverties and miseries, nothing to do with politicians or political parties.
Since before 1990, and until now, people of Burma have been trying to get rid of an unwanted military rule. But there is a delicate and gradual change in underlying reason to get rid of the military rule. In 1990s people were angry with the military junta because they felt that, by refusing to recognize 1990 election results, the military had cheated people of their legitimate choice of government. But in 2007 and now, people are angry with the military junta because military generals' corruptions, brutalities and incompetence has caused so much and so terrible sufferings to the people.
So, if the pro-democracy movement is to survive and thrive beyond 2008 and 2010, there are two imminent and immediate requirements to fulfil.
The first is to reinvigorate the movement by getting more energetic new generation leaders who can get along and go along with people better, and are bold enough to initiate, organize and lead people power movements as required to take direct political action against military aggressors.
Nowadays' younger generation of grass-root junior activists are looking for new generation leaders, like the 8888 generation students, who understand the people and are understood in return by the people, who sympathize with the people and are sympathized by the people, who speak out for the people and are spoken very highly of by the people, who stood up for the people and are rallied around by the people.
And the second requirement is to realign the movement with the people by speaking up about people's sufferings, representing people's interests, trying to help people in every possible way, fighting for the people, fighting to get power for the people but not fighting to get power for a party.
Usually, in democratic systems politicians whose policies best reflect people's most pressing concerns have the best chance to get elected. Bill Clinton on economy platform during economic recessions of the beginnings of 1990s. Second Bush winning second term with a tough warrior stance on national security platform during an era of terrorist phobia.
As people in Burma are suffering quite a lot, there are a lot of things which Burmese politicians can speak out for their people. First of all there is very high inflation and low income, coupled with high un-employment and low morale. Many people are starving, and millions of children are malnourished. Child mortality rate is very high. With very meagre and poor quality health-care, maternal mortality rate is also high; and general population's life expectancy is also very low. Nasty infectious diseases like HIV, TB, etc are very prevalent. Education system is very chaotic. Starving and un-educated children are sold into sex-slavery or used as under-age under-paid labourers. Jobless women also fall into prostitution in neighbouring countries. Military frequently uses people as unpaid forced labourers. Military also uses child soldiers. Military can confiscate people's houses, land and any thing they want at any time and any where they like without giving any compensation. Judges, juries and the whole judicial system runs on bribery. The entire government bureaucratic system from top to bottom is rife with corruptions. And there is no media freedom, and all phones and emails and internet access are tightly controlled and monitored by security forces. If we go on and on .. there will be an endless list of people's sufferings. There is quite a lot for politicians to speak out on behalf of the people; they only need to have a will to do so. If politicians really love their country, as they usually tend to claim, they must think more about helping the people rather than about getting power for themselves. In a democratic system politicians really need to serve the people.
And, by the way, a few words about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; there is a very strong possibility that the people's long drawn-out struggle for human rights in Burma may outlive their leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. There is a very essential need to keep the freedom struggle and revolutionary spirit alive as long as necessary, until Burma become fully democratic with genuine and complete human rights, which may take up to twenty years or fifty years or even a century if all these democratic reforms and human rights improvements are to develop so very gradually against generations upon generations of hard-line dogmatic aggressive military generals who want to maintain their dominance in Burma's politics. The need is real, and may be even urgent, to make sure that the struggle will not die down or fizzle out when, in an eventuality, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer there to inspire it and lead it.
And concerning exile politicians; although they cannot serve the people directly, must try to make a difference in Burma's politics by repeatedly telling the international community time and again about the non-inclusive nature of the constitution drafting convention, the un-democratic nature of the new constitution, the lack of transparency in the referendum, so the illegitimacy of coming elections in 2010, and also the puppet nature of the future civilian government which the military is trying to install under their control.
And for the United Nations and the international community; if they really want to help Burma, they must first try to understand the true nature of Burma's current problems, and need to see clearly that Burma's problem is not a power struggle between a political party and a military junta, but is about the suffering, poverty and misery of the people under a corrupt and incompetent military junta. So if international community want to give a genuine help to people of Burma, they must try to help relieve sufferings of the people, and also get more freedom for the people if possible. Before UN envoy Mr Gambari's latest visit to Burma, when he sent five written requests to the junta, one of the requests was about co-operations between UN and Burmese junta to make a joint effort for poverty relief for the poor people of Burma. But it was rudely rejected by the military junta. But Mr Gambari should not be disappointed by the junta's total indifference towards people's sufferings, but keep up his good work and try again, and again, to provide direct help to the people.
And the future civilian government after 2010 elections (even though it most probably will be a puppet one); it should try its best to reduce hostilities among all political factions in Burma, and try to build trust, try to be flexible, and try to work well with all politicians and parties in the parliament; should even try to form a broad-based big-tent government if possible.
One last word, for the generals, about sanctions_ generals need to understand that sanctions are the fruits of their own wrong doings. As long as military dominance is persisting in Burma, so also will the sanctions be on the businesses of military generals, their families and cronies. Sanctions nowadays are a default response mechanism of international community to any authoritarian regime. So if they really want lifting of sanctions, Burmese generals need to show that they deserve it by making solid credible, even if gradual, reforms in the right direction.
(The author is a post graduate Law student in London; and general secretary of the UK-based exile branch of Burma's National League for Democracy)
Burma scorns a U.N. envoy.
Washington Post Editorial: Saturday, March 22, 2008
UNITED NATIONS special envoy Ibrahim Gambari just returned from Burma. It was his third visit since the Saffron Revolution -- in which the government imprisoned, tortured and slaughtered hundreds of its citizens who were engaged in peaceful protests -- and his first since Burma announced a referendum on its faux-democratic constitution. World leaders had hoped this visit, delayed by Burma for months, might at last convince the regime to make its "road map to democracy" more democratic. They were wrong.
After months of delays, Mr. Gambari was granted a visa after the junta announced it had already scheduled the referendum for this May and elections for 2010, both of which serve to falsely legitimize the current military dictatorship. His suggestions for creating a more inclusive constitution and referendum, for allowing international observers during the referendum, and for releasing Burma's 1,900 political prisoners were all thoroughly rebuffed. Yes, Mr. Gambari was allowed to meet with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. But he was denied meetings with the senior leadership, which further snubbed the United Nations by meeting with Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej just a few days later. (Mr. Samak's takeaway from that meeting: Burma's brutal leaders "meditate," just as good Buddhists should. He declared this after signing a lucrative investment pact.)
The junta needs to know that the world still cares about the fate of the abused Burmese people. One way to convey this message would be to extend targeted banking sanctions against the Burmese leadership and state-owned companies, an action that the United States pioneered but has been slow to fully roll out, and that the European Union has been reluctant to take at all; to impose arms embargo; and to urge countries such as China that are cozy with Burma to pressure the junta into true reform. Of course, China has been reluctant to "meddle" in another country's "internal affairs" -- especially when those "internal affairs" involve a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests led by monks. Still, well before the recent uprising in Tibet, China allowed a U.N. Security Council presidential statement last October that outlined elements for Burmese human rights reforms and "national reconciliation." China should recognize, then, that Burma's continued destruction of its own people means the junta is defying not only the West but Burma's Asian allies as well.
Self-immolation in Myanmar against military dictatorship
The Buddhist Channel : March 24, 2008
Military governed Myanmar where people are pining for democracy, witnessed what is thought to be the first self-immolation in protest against the junta and the way it is running the country. Audacious cost of living brought on the public suicide.
Yangon, Myanmar - IN THE first self-immolation in the recent history of Myanmar, a man set himself on fire in Yangon the former capital of the country, protesting against the suffering brought on by acute economic hardship in the military ruled country. The self-immolation was carried out in full view of people at the Shwedagon Pagoda, according to reports in the Myanmar media in exile.
The unidentified man thought to be in his thirties spoke about the difficulties he was undergoing because of the rising cost of living before he set himself on fire on Friday's Full Moon Day of Tabaung, a religiously important event for Buddhists at the historic pagoda. The pagoda has often been a rallying point for movements by members of opposition political parties, said Reuters on Sunday.
"It was about 8:40am when he poured petrol on his body and ignited himself with fire from a candle," Reuters quoted a woman eyewitness as saying.
The trustees of the pagoda confirmed the immolation but refused to give details.
Thousands of devotees milled around, it being a holiday and another eyewitness told Associated Press that the man shouted, "Down with the military regime," before dousing himself with petrol and setting himself on fire.
The pagoda has been a venue for political protests, demonstrations and uprisings since the colonial era when the British ruled what was then Burma (Myanmar, now). During the widespread demonstrations led by monks in September 2007 protesters comprising monks, students and the people gathered in Shwedagon pagoda.
Almost two decades after an uprising by students in 1988 when thousands were gunned down by the Myanmar Army, the poverty stricken southeast Asian country witnessed widespread protests and demonstrations launched by the 1988 student generation over an announced massive hike in fuel prices in August 2007 triggering an increase in prices of essential commodities and transport fares. The protests demanding a roll back in the fuel prices snowballed into demonstrations for a change from military rule to a civilian democratic government.
The Myanmar military junta, infamous for its ruthlessness let loose the army on the one and-a-half month long protests which was later spearheaded by monks after the students were incarcerated. While the junta claimed 10 people had died, a United Nations investigation said 31 monks and people had died and thousands arrested. Pro-democracy activists in Myanmar and in exile claimed that the figure was much higher. There has been strong ripples of unrest ever since and the ruthless regime continues to detain and torture dissidents, despite repeated appeals by the United Nations and the international community demanding their release along with other political prisoners like democracy icon and Noble Peace laureate Aung Suu Kyi.
The self-immolation during the weekend portends fresh unrest in a country where military dictatorship festers like a sore.
Burmese balk at immutable constitution - Wai Moe
Irrawaddy: Fri 21 Mar 2008
As Burma prepares for a referendum on the ruling junta's draft constitution, many Burmese are expressing growing uneasiness over the prospect of a dead-end charter that appears to be carved in stone. Although the regime has yet to disclose the full contents of the constitution, many have already decided to reject it on the grounds that it will be virtually impossible to change once it comes into force.
Under Section 12 of the draft charter, any amendment would require the support of more than three-quarters of members of parliament. However, with 25 percent of seats going to military appointees, the chance of changes being introduced against the wishes of Burma's powerful generals is effectively nil.
Two weeks ago, when United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari was in the country to press for a more inclusive political process, he was told by the head of the junta's Spokes Authoritative Team, Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, that the constitution would not remain unchanged forever.
"The democratic rights of the countries where democracy has flourished are different from the democratic rights when they started to practice democracy," the Information Minister said in a lecture to the visiting envoy on March 7. "It took time for these countries to make their democratic rights mature to the present level. We also will change and develop gradually."
When the junta announced in early February that it would hold a referendum on the constitution in May, some cautiously welcomed the move as opening a door to future democratic changes. Now, however, many say that there is little room left for such optimism.
"Some people thought that the constitution could be modified in the future. But now that I've looked at some of the basic principles of the constitution, I can see that this thinking is totally wrong," said a businessman in Rangoon, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"If we cannot change the constitution, how can we accept it?"
Despite growing doubts about the constitution, however, he also ruled out any likelihood that the outcome of the referendum would reflect the will of the people.
"Under military rule, we cannot openly say what we really want because we are afraid. So a genuine referendum and election is impossible in this country."
Win Min, a Burmese political analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand also said that it would be meaningless to endorse the constitution without guarantees that it can be altered to meet the needs of the country.
"If we cannot modify the constitution, democratization in Burma cannot grow," he said, noting that the regime had been careful to block any prospect of unwanted changes.
He also rejected as naïve the argument - made by some exiled dissidents and opposition politicians inside Burma - that the new constitution might pave the way to improvements in the country's political situation.
While some say that the opposition should be flexible in its approach to the referendum, other observers note that the real problem lies in the inflexibility of the constitution itself.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, a Burmese journalist working for an international news agency in Rangoon described the junta's constitution as "too rigid" to withstand Burma's political challenges.
"Making a constitution is like building a house - the foundation is the most important part. Over time, the structure on top of this foundation will need to be changed, but this won't be possible if the foundation is not strong," he said.
He added that constitutional amendments should be possible with 50 percent approval in parliament. Without this, he said "there is no room to maneuver."
"If we cannot change the constitution, Burma is on a river of no return."
Junta increases security at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon - Min Lwin
Irrawaddy: Fri 21 Mar 2008
Security forces, including policemen, fire fighters and members of the civilian militia Swan-Ah-Shin, were increased in the area around Shwedagon Pagoda on Friday, which marks Taboung, or Full Moon Day, one Buddhism's most sacred days.
Full Moon Day is celebrated each year with people flocking to the pagoda to pay homage, worship or to donate funds for the pagoda's upkeep.
A local resident told The Irrawaddy that hundreds of policemen and soldiers with weapons have been positioned around the Damayones religious hall, where people gather for Buddhist rites. Military trucks are parked in the Damayones compound near the pagoda.
"Police, soldiers, fire fighters and Swan-Ah-Shin have been stationed at every stairway of the Shwedagon pagoda. The soldiers have red cloths wrapped around their neck," she said. "Non-uniform military intelligence agents and police are going around the pagoda and clearly watching people whom they suspect."
A monk told The Irrawaddy that the non-uniform military agents and police were watching monks who come to the pagoda.
"Security forces closed all entrances to the Shwedagon Pagoda and bales of rusted barbed wire are heaped on the street," the monk said.
"The troops are taking over the pagodas," said a woman resident. "It is as if they are guarding them like internment camps."
Security forces were seen checking people's ID cards and observing their prayers, according to residents.
Shwedagon Pagoda has frequently been a center of political activity since the Colonial Era when university students gathered there to plan strikes against the British. The September 2007 monk-led uprising started at the pagoda.
An Irrawaddy correspondent in Rangoon contributed to this report.
Splits emerge in Burma's army over country's roadmap - Larry Jagan
Mizzima News: Fri 21 Mar 2008
There is a growing rift within Burma's military government over the country's political future and road-map to democracy. A battle is now beginning to emerge between those who are currently in control of most of Burma's assets and those who see themselves as the country's true guardians. Several key members of the ruling junta are secretly being investigated for corruption.
The junta is no longer cohesive and united, as two major camps have clearly emerged. On one side there are the ministers and members of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) who have major business interests and are associated with Than Shwe's brainchild, the mass community-based Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).
On the other side are the top ranking generals, led by second in command Maung Aye, who want a professional army and see its main role as protector of the people. They have become increasingly dismayed at corruption within the government and understand that it is undermining the army's future role in the country.
As the war between these two groups escalates, Senior General Than Shwe's rapidly deteriorating health has effectively left the country without a real leader. The result is total inertia in government administration and a growing fear that one of the contesting factions may launch a "soft coup" in the near future, according to Burmese military sources.
But the "real" Army, as these officers view themselves, is going to have to act quickly if it is to remain a force to be reckoned with. The planned referendum for May and the election in two years time will radically change the country's political landscape. The USDA, which is organising both the referendum and the elections, will significantly increase its power and control over the country's new emerging political process.
Senior members of the army are increasingly resentful of the growing dominance of the USDA and the likely curtailment of the army's authority after the referendum in May. "It will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute power," said a Burmese government official.
At the center of this emerging battle for supremacy is the growing division within the Army between those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS) like Than Shwe, and those who went to the Defence Services Academy (DSA) like Maung Aye.
Many Cabinet ministers associated with the USDA are from the OTS, as are several hardliners within the ruling SPDC, though some no longer have operational commands. These leaders are known to have the ear of Than Shwe and have convinced him to take an uncompromising stand against detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
These key ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein (who is also head of the powerful Myanmar Investment Commission), Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo (who is also a key leader of the USDA), are notorious hardliners and amongst the most corrupt members of the government.
They have all amassed huge personal fortunes from smuggling and kickbacks. "These fellows are out of control and racking up the money from bribery and fraud - not even Maung Aye, who despises excessive corruption, can touch them," a Burmese military source told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.
They have been in government now for over eight years and are entrenched in their lifestyles and practises. Everyone seems powerless to stop them at present, according to Burmese government sources. "They are known as 'the Nazis' within the top ranks of the army," according to a Burmese businessman with close links to the military hierarchy. "They have the money and they have their own militia," he added.
Many in the army now fear that this group - with some senior officers in the SPDC, current or former heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) - are planning a grab for power using the USDA as a front. "They are the real enemies of the people," said the Burmese businessman.
But there are now growing numbers within the army that are viewing these developments with increasing concern. There is mounting resentment and frustration amongst the junior officers in the Ministry of Defence in the new capital of Naypyitaw (Nay Pyi Taw).
Many of the junior officers are divisional commanders, aged between 47 and 55. These are the army's "young Turks," who are alarmed at the way in which the USDA is growing in influence at the expense of the army.
"They are watching their unscrupulous colleagues, hiding behind the uniform, building up massive fortunes from corruption in government and they are worried that this tarnishes the image of the army," said a source in Naypyitaw.
"It's time to get rid of the OTS bastards," an officer recently told a visiting businessman. But so far there are no signs of a palace coup. Many officers may feel aggrieved, but there is no open discussion as yet about doing anything in practise. "The climate of fear that pervades the whole country is also prevalent in the military," a Thai military intelligence officer told Mizzima.
"There is no doubt that many in the army are extremely unhappy with they way things are going, and are concerned about what will happen to them after the referendum and the elections," he said. "But they are army officers, and will continue to obey their orders unquestioningly," he said.
Yet there are now signs that the top few generals under Than Shwe may be beginning to form an informal alliance against the USDA leadership - and possibly Than Shwe himself. These are the deputy chief of the military, Maung Aye, Chief of Staff Thura Shwe Mann, Prime Minister Thein Sein and Secretary One of the SPDC, Tin Aung Myint Oo.
So far there is little to suggest that they are planning a purge of their opponents in the same way that former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and his intelligence apparatus were crushed four years ago. "Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing amongst the junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers," said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University.
But a pre-emptive strike against some of the key people in the USDA is definitely underway. Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein and the BSOs, Maung Bo and Ye Myint, are being secretly investigated by the Bureau of Special Investigations over bribery, kickbacks and illegal smuggling, a source inside the regime told Mizzima.
Maung Maung Thein and Maung Bo are under intense scrutiny for allegations of smuggling. At least 90 percent of the fish caught in Burmese waters are smuggled out through Thailand, especially Ranong, according to informed industry sources. Burma is estimated to be losing more than $500 million as a result.
For more than six months now the Myanmar Investment Commission, also controlled by Maung Maung Thein, has refused to grant import and export licenses to those in the construction industry to anyone not part of the USDA, according to Burmese businessmen. Licences granted for construction projects are crucial for the economy. For example, licenses are obtained to import cars and trucks theoretically needed for a construction project but instead sold for a massive profit.
Several other ministers and members of the SPDC and their families are also under investigation, according to government sources. Maung Maung Thein's infamous son, Ko Pauk (Myint Thein) had his timber business dissolved a few weeks ago for malpractice. Maung Bo's son's business, the Hurricane Bar, is also under investigation concerning drugs.
There are many other businesses and businessmen affiliated with USDA members being investigated, including the Managing Director of Asia Light, Soe Myint.
This has not happened in the past and indicates the concern the top military commanders have about corruption and what it is doing to the army's reputation. "It's an effort to distinguish between the government or USDA and the army," a senior military man told Mizzima.
Most of this is still behind closed doors. There is still no open confrontation between the two camps. In part that is because the SPDC quarterly meeting has been continuously postponed by Than Shwe for fear that it may open up a war between himself and his top subordinates.
One of the main reasons the ruling council has not met for more than nine months is that Than Shwe is trying to avoid the meeting as he knows Maung Aye will demand the resignations of at least four of the BSOs - including Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The last meeting reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused to accept Than Shwe's recommendation that Maung Bo be promoted to a full general, according to Burmese military sources.
At least two of them have since been removed from their commands - Khin Maung Than and Maung Bo being replaced by Khin Saw and Tha Aye (both graduates of the DSA) and Myint Hlaing is soon expected to replace Tin Aye. However, although they no longer have operational command for their regions they remain on the SPDC, imposed by Than Shwe.
If these three BSA commanders and DSA officers also replaced their predecessors on the SPDC it would radically change the composition of the council. Four years ago, with the support of his OTS men, Than Shwe's authority was unchallenged - but with these new promotions Maung Aye and Thura Shwe Mann would effectively control the SPDC.
As a result of the constant postponement of the SPDC quarterly meeting all promotions within the army have ground to a halt. "The top generals have not met [for the quarterly meeting] for months, since before the August and September protests. So during that time, apart from the appointment of three regional commanders, there have been no promotions," said Win Min.
"The impact of this will certainly add to the growing frustration amongst some of the commanders who should have already been promoted," he said.
Time is now running out for the top generals under Than Shwe if they are to take control.
They know that after the referendum in May their position will become increasingly less significant, as Ministers and selected military generals move into the USDA and take up civilian roles in the future. At the same time they fear that widespread corruption will also destroy the country and its political stability.
"The real Army is the only institution that can bring genuine democracy to the country in the future," a military man told Mizzima. "The new generation of officers represent the real hope for the country." They would be open to a political dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, he insisted, as they see themselves as the real guardians of the country.
In the meantime, Than Shwe's health is rapidly deteriorating and he is fast losing his memory. He is increasingly withdrawn and reclusive. His position is now becoming progressively more perilous, despite his carefully planned schemes, according to many specialists on Burma's military.
"It is not worth risking a crisis when nature may solve it for us legally and peacefully," Maung Aye recently told some of his close confidantes. But with the referendum only weeks away the army may yet have to move against the corrupt USDA lobby before it's too late.
Monks in exile urge people to boycott and rise against junta - Nay Thwin
Mizzima News: Fri 21 Mar 2008
In a major development, for the first time since the September 2007 protests, a monk's organization has exhorted people both inside and outside Burma to rise against and boycott the Burmese military junta and its seven-point road map including the referendum. The call is being dubbed "a battle cry by the monks".
The call comes from the Burmese monks' organization in exile and the statement is signed by Badanta Kawida Biwuntha (Masoyane monastery senior abbot) of the All Burma Monks Association (ABMA) or Sasana Moli. It urges both the people and monks inside Burma and monks and pro-democracy activists in exile to join hands and boycott the regime and its plans from April 26, 2008.
Ashin Pyinyar Zawta, who was the 'Taikot' abbot of Maggin monastery in Thingangyun Township, Rangoon and is now living on the Thai-Burma border said, "The monks have expressed their dislike of the referendum to be held in May. We have communicated our position to other organizations, political parties and pro-democracy forces. We alert and remind them to remain prepared."
Ashin Pyinyar Zawta, the senior abbot, is a patron of the ABMA and played a key role in preparing the ground before the saffron revolution.
The statement released on Thursday urged members of the ABMA across the world, pro-democracy forces, various organizations, the monks inside Burma, students and people, workers, farmers and genuine people's soldiers that they should raise the banner of revolt on April 26 bravely, and simultaneously go for a boycott inside and outside the country along with the Sasana Moli.
Ashin Pyinyar Zawta said, "The people are divided on how to oppose the junta. Some are calling for a 'NO' vote, some want a boycott of the referendum. These options are being considered. We have presented an alternative plan. The monks have pointed out to the people that there is an alternative way to protest against the junta's plans. These are neither boycott nor 'NO' vote. We will show the alternative way where the people should take to the streets and chant slogans."
U Sandaw Bathasara from ABMA New York, US Chapter said, "We are still observing the Ex-communicative boycott against the regime. This means we cannot recognize what the regime is doing. So we urge the people in Burma to join hands with the Sasana Moli in protesting against the national referendum. In this way, the stage of boycotting or casting 'NO' vote will not be reached otherwise it will seem as if we are assisting the regime in their game plan. Thus we believe that we cannot let the referendum take place. An uprising is badly needed before the referendum stage is reached".
"This is a battle cry by the monks. We are pleased to see that monks are actively participating in this national struggle. We recognize them for their activities. We prefer coordination with the pro-democracy forces in every action of ours", he added.
Sasana Moli was formed in Los Angeles, California State, US on October 27, 2007. Now chapters have been formed in US, UK, Europe, Canada, Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India totaling over a dozen countries.
The US based Sasana Moli HQ will chant paritta in front of UN office in New York, preaching sermons, holding religious observance for fallen martyrs among monks and people who sacrificed their lives and hold a peaceful protest march in procession on April 26.
Myanmar, Brunei to promote trade ties
Xinhua: Fri 21 Mar 2008
Major business organizations of Myanmar and Brunei have reached a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on promoting trade ties between the two countries, especially in trading of Myanmar's gems, jade and jewelry, a leading local weekly, the Myanmar Times, reported Friday.
The recent MoU between the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and its Brunei counterpart was the last which Myanmar initiated with member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the report quoted the UMFCCI as saying.
The MoU has paved way for Brunei entrepreneurs to have access to Myanmar's gems shows held seasonally in which the Brunei business community has shown interest, the sources said.
Brunei stands the 7th largest trading partner of Myanmar among ASEAN nations with their bilateral trade volume being expected to grow more.
According to official statistics, Myanmar-Brunei bilateral trade accounted for about 800,000 U.S. dollars out of Myanmar's total trade with ASEAN members which stood at 4.06 billion dollars in 2006-07.
In July last year, Brunei exempted tariff on over 204 items of products imported from Myanmar under the ASEAN Integration System of Preference program in a bid to boost the country's textile production, local media reported earlier.
Thailand to use 'quiet diplomacy' to make Myanmar democratic
AFP: Fri 21 Mar 2008
Thailand pledged Thursday to help transform Myanmar into a democracy through quiet diplomacy, but said that change has to come from within and Western sanctions against its military-ruled neighbor would fail.
Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said, as a start, his country would help Myanmar organize a May constitutional referendum preceding elections, both of which he emphasized should be "inclusive and credible."
"Quietly though slowly, we aim to turn this burden of proximity into a pragmatic opportunity for the sake of the people of Myanmar, our next door neighbour," he said at a forum of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Speaking after talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, where Myanmar was a key subject, Noppadon said the issue should not be a stumbling block to relations between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"As things now stand, we should be frank the ASEAN-US partnership has been kept from developing to its full potential in no small part by the issue of Myanmar," said the foreign minister of the newly elected Thai government.
"In fact, this issue has unfortunately even spilled over into the discussion on Thai-US relations. My question is: is this worth it for both of us?."
Noppadon emphasized that imposing sanctions or putting pressure on Myanmar "would not work," saying that economic engagement with the state, as well as technical assistance and infrastructure development to it, could help lay the foundation for a successful democracy.
"As a friend, Thailand can give Myanmar neighborly advice and as a friend, we will be in better position to persuade them to see the merit of democracy, respect for human rights and rule of law," he said.
"Indeed, if Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines could be taken as examples, democratic change has to come from within and not from outside."
Noppadon also said that he had conveyed the concerns of the international community to Myanmar's ruling military junta during Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's visit to Yangon last week.
World powers condemned Myanmar's military general for their bloody crackdown on peaceful pro-democracy protests in September last year.
At least 31 people died in the unrest, according to the United Nations, although Human Rights Watch put the toll at more than 100.
Noppadon said he also informed Myanmar's military rulers of "our wish to see continued momentum towards democratization and national reconciliation, the need for credible and inclusive referendum and elections, and importance of Myanmar's continued cooperation with the United Nations.
"As a first step, the Myanmar authorities have been receptive to our offer to share Thailand's experiences on holding a national referendum for the constitution," he said.
The referendum is meant to pave the way for multiparty elections in 2010.
But pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party's sweeping victory in 1990 elections was not recognized by the military, is barred from participating in the vote under the newly drafted constitution because she had been married to a foreigner.
The Nobel peace prize winner has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.
Noppadon stressed the political limitations in ASEAN, where member states cannot interfere in each other's internal affairs.
"That is a line we cannot cross but we (Thailand) will, as the new chairman of ASEAN, engage more actively with Myanmar. I am a pragmatist and optimist and hope that one day there would be change in Myanmar."
Thailand will take over this summer from Singapore as chairman of the 10-member ASEAN grouping, which also comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Revelations in the absurd - Christopher Smith
Mizzima News: Fri 21 Mar 2008
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