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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 27/3/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Activists launch underground campaign against Myanmar charter 2.. T-shirt campaign promotes No vote 3.. Activist groups accuse UN of letting Burmese people
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 27, 2008
      1. Activists launch underground campaign against Myanmar charter
      2. T-shirt campaign promotes No vote
      3. Activist groups accuse UN of letting Burmese people down
      4. Regime restricts more NGO activities
      5. Mon villagers flee from abuse to southern Ye Township
      6. New Delhi eyes a Burmese seaport
      7. Indonesia, Thailand expect ASEAN countries to help settle crisis in Myanmar
      8. Burma looking at democracy
      9. Silencing the 'Saffron Revolution'
      10. Crisis looms for Myanmar's riven junta
      11. Burma: Key facts on the working environment for international agencies
      12. Joint Statement Issued by the All Burma Monks' Alliance and the 88 Generation Students
      13. Time to release Aung San Suu Kyi

      Activists launch underground campaign against Myanmar charter
      AFP: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Myanmar's pro-democracy leaders have been arrested or forced into hiding, while their speeches and leaflets have been outlawed, and they have no access to the media.

      But activists say they are defying the pressure and have launched an underground campaign against a constitution drafted by the nation's military rulers, who plan to put it to a referendum in May.

      The 88 Generation Student Group, which kicked off the mass protests that shook the regime last year, says it is getting its message out through secretly distributed fliers and T-shirts, and emails passed clandestinely at Internet cafes.

      Since speeches have been outlawed, the group is making video recordings on CDs that are copied and passed anonymously through Myanmar's main city of Yangon.

      "In this way, we make our campaign in secret," said Tun Myint Aung, who is leading the group with a handful of other activists while living in hiding from the authorities.

      "We are asking our people to go to the polling station and vote 'No.' The authorities have no right to arrest anyone for voting 'No.' Let's show the enormous power of the people," he told AFP in Bangkok, speaking by telephone from a secret location inside Myanmar.

      "In this way, we reject the military constitution and we reject everything that was made by the military government," he said.

      Tun Myint Aung's group is made up of former student leaders who spearheaded a pro-democracy uprising in August 1988.

      The military crushed the protests by massacring students, with demonstrations and violent reprisals gripping the nation for five days. At least 3,000 people were killed, and more than 10,000 students fled into exile.

      Tun Myint Aung, like most of the others who were arrested then, served a decade in prison but returned to activism upon his release three years ago.

      The freed student leaders, now mostly in their 40s, rebuilt their network of activists and began new protests in August last year, harnessing public anger at a surprise hike in fuel prices.

      The junta tried to stamp out the movement by arresting the group's most prominent leaders, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.

      But Buddhist monks took up the cause, eventually bringing more than 100,000 people into the streets of Yangon in September, until the military launched a deadly crackdown.

      At least 31 people were killed while hundreds remain behind bars, according to the United Nations. A UN report earlier this month said that since the crackdown, the regime has actually stepped up unlawful arrests over the protests.

      Tun Myint Aung has managed to evade authorities by living in hiding since August.

      "I'm not afraid of jail, but I'm afraid of not doing my work," he said. "I always struggle, I always take action to dismiss the military dictatorship. If I am in jail, I can't," he said.

      He said the protests last year showed that the public wanted an end to military rule.

      "There is no need to hold a referendum in May. The September movement was a real referendum. People don't want military rule. People showed that," Tun Myint Aung said.

      Voters in Myanmar have not been to the ballot box since 1990, when they handed Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party a landslide victory in parliamentary polls.

      During that election, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was under house arrest, as she is now.

      The NLD's leadership has not been allowed to meet with her since the junta last month announced its plans for the referendum and multiparty elections for 2010.

      Without her guidance, the party has not taken a clear position on the referendum, saying only that the constitution "cannot be accepted by the people" - but without calling for a "No" vote or a boycott.

      But Tun Myint Aung said youth members of NLD were working with his group to campaign for voters to turn out in force to reject the charter.

      "If they cheat in force to win the referendum, we will keep fighting for our freedom," he said.

      "The military government, they don't want to abandon their throne, not even to share power with the civilians."

      T-shirt campaign promotes No vote - Maung Too
      DVB: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      People in Burma's cities have started wearing t-shirts bearing the word "NO" as part of a campaign against the government national referendum, according to local sources.

      Residents of Rangoon, Mandalay and other big cities told DVB there had been a noticeable number of people wearing NO t-shirts when they go out to express their disagreement with the referendum.

      In addition to people wearing NO t-shirts, a Mandalay resident said monks have been writing NO graffiti on their monastery walls to remind civilians to vote No in the constitutional referendum, due to be held in May.

      "Monasteries outside and inside Mandalay have the word 'No' written on their walls," he said.

      The All-Burmese Monks Alliance recently called on the people of Burma to vote No in the referendum, adding their voice to similar calls from the 88 Generation Students group and the National Council of the Union of Burma.

      Activist groups accuse UN of letting Burmese people down - Saw Yan Naing
      Irrawaddy: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      The All Burma Monks' Alliance and the 88 Generation Students group issued a joint statement on Wednesday accusing the UN and its special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, of letting the Burmese people down in their struggle for democracy.

      The statement, coming six months after the September crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, declared: "With or without the help of the UN Security Council, we are ready to determine our own future. We are prepared to confront the worst."

      The two groups accused Gambari of "supporting the one-sided acts of the military junta and suggesting that democracy forces surrender."

      Their joint statement also complained that the plight of the Burmese people had actually worsened since Ban Ki-moon took over as UN Secretary General. The suppression of dissidents hadn't ceased, the statement said - on the contrary, the arrests of pro-democracy activists had recently increased.

      The two groups also condemned the governments of China, Russia and South Africa, accusing them of protecting the Burmese regime in UN votes. They called for greater pressure on the junta from EU countries.

      They also reiterated calls for people to vote "No" in the upcoming referendum on a new constitution. "We all are determined to vote 'no' on the junta's sham constitution in the upcoming referendum," they said. "Our 'No' vote is not only to the sham constitution, but also to the junta."

      Pyinya Jota, a leader of the All Burma Monks' Alliance, urged Burmese monks to campaign for a free and fair constitutional referendum.

      In a telephone interview with The Irrawaddy from his hiding place in Rangoon, Soe Htun, a member of the 88 Generation Students group, said, "It is very hard for us to operate in [this] rigid situation. We even have to disguise ourselves when we go out. We have to be very careful. We could be arrested at any time."

      Soe Htun said that authorities were employing informers to gather information about pro-democracy activists. Some informers were posing as taxi drivers, he said.

      About 18 dissidents, including members of an underground activist group, the Generation Wave, were arrested earlier this month and are still being held.

      Soe Htun said the Burmese people should hold no hope for concessions from the military regime. "The military regime doesn't want to have political dialogue, so we have to prepare for the worst," he said. "We have to rely on ourselves. We have to fight bravely for a system that we want."

      Meanwhile, a boycott of state examinations by many monks, which started on March 24, is continuing, with only about 300 monks in Rangoon and some 60 in Sittwe reportedly turning up to sit the tests. Monks are also boycotting the exams in Mandalay and in Pakokku, central Burma, where last September's demonstrations began.

      Thousands of monks are remaining in their monasteries rather than attend the examinations, according to sources.

      Regime restricts more NGO activities - Violet Cho
      Irrawaddy: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Burma's military regime has imposed further restrictions on international non-government organizations (NGOs) working in Burma, voicing concerns over their activities at grassroots levels in the run-up to the constitutional referendum in May.

      According to one NGO source, earlier this month the authorities called a meeting with international organizations working in Burma and ordered every group to cease all activities at grassroots level in health education and counseling for HIV/AIDS patients, especially in rural areas.

      Among the organizations that have been warned by authorities are Save the Children Fund, Population Services International (PSI), Marie Stopes International (MSI), Care International in Myanmar (Care-Myanmar) and World Vision.

      According to an international NGO worker who asked not to be named for security reasons, NGOs can only carry out their projects if they allow staff from the official health department to oversee their activities.

      "They [the authorities] allowed us to open our office, but now all the activities have to stop," he said. "They also asked us to report every single thing we do in the field. It is very difficult to implement our project because we can only work when there is government staff with us."

      During the meeting between Burma's Ministry of Health and UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari on March 9, the minister of health, Dr Kyaw Myint, reportedly informed Gambari that the government was aware that some international NGOs were providing financial support to Burma's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who, in turn, was distributing it at a grassroots level.

      The NLD's youth group, led by HIV/AIDS activist Phu Phu Thin, is known to provide health care, counseling and HIV/AIDS education in Rangoon.

      In mid-January, Dr San Shwe Win, the deputy director general of the Public Health Department, called a meeting with international NGOs in Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw. During the meeting, he informed the NGO heads that they had to report on all their activities and that they could only continue their work if they receive permission from the Public Health Department. Reportedly, the military authorities also strongly warned NGOs against fact-finding missions or research projects in the country.

      There are more than 34 organizations that deal with HIV/AIDS issues in Burma. All of these health groups are registered with Burma's Ministry of Health.

      Just recently, a clinic known as the Drop-in Centre, which works on HIV/AIDS issues and provides counseling to patients, was ordered by authorities to halt their activities, according to a Burmese doctor close to international organizations in Rangoon.

      Mandalay Health Department issued a letter earlier this month ordering the Drop-in Center to stop all their programs with grassroots people without giving any reason.

      Mon villagers flee from abuse to southern Ye Township - Mon Son
      IMNA: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Widespread human rights violations, namely arbitrary arrests, torture and forced labour of adults and minors, are forcing Mon villagers to flee to more secure areas.

      About 15 households in Toe Thet Ywar Thit Village of Kaw-Zar Sub Township have shifted to Hangan village in Ye Township, said sources in Toe Thet Ywar Thit.

      The villagers were beaten and tortured almost every day by soldiers of the Burmese Army's Infantry Battalion No. 31, said a villager. Unable to live with the abuses, they moved to Hangan village and other places where they believe they will be more secure, added the villager.

      The villagers do not have time to run their business ventures as they are forced to work in the military camp. They are made to collect timber and work in construction sites.

      Many more people want to relocate, believing that bigger villages will offer better security and less abuse. Uncertainties about their survival in a new village prevent low income households from moving.

      The vast majority of villagers depend on their plantations and farms in Kaw-Zar sub township.

      Despite over 13 years of the ceasefire agreement between the New Mon State Party and the Burmese military junta, Human Rights violations continue in Mon State, especially in southern Ye Township.

      New Delhi eyes a Burmese seaport
      Narinjara News: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Come April 4 and New Delhi will unfold the red carpet for the 'second man in command' of the Burmese junta, Maung Aye, who supposes to arrive in India for finalizing many business deals, primarily the Kaladan project.

      The project includes the development of Sittwe port in the Bay of Bengal and then connects it with the landlocked Northeast India through the Kaladan river and road transport. The connected Indian state will be Mizoram, which is adjacent to Chin province of Burma (also known as Myanmar).

      Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the deputy commander-in-chief of Defence Services, is expected to arrive in New Delhi for signing the much discussed Kaladan Multi-Model Project. It will be an important visit of a Burmese high profile leader to New Delhi after Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the State Peace and Development Council (as the present brand of Generals is known) paid a visit four years back. The project includes the up-gradation of the seaport in Sittwe, widening and deepening of the Kaladan river and development of a road to connect Aizwal.

      "The Kaladan project will include shipping, riverine and road transport," said Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Commerce. Talking to media persons during one of his recent visits to the Northeast, Mr Ramesh also added, "New Delhi wants to connect the Northeast with the commercial sea routes. Moreover, with the development of Sittwe port and the Kaladan river as a navigation efficient, the region is expected to have another viable access to the South East Asian counties."

      India has decided to spend nearly $ 100 million for the project. The junta, though assured free land for the project, had shown reluctance to invest money in the project, which finally compels New Delhi to extend a soft loan of $ 10 million to the SPDC leaders. The Kaladan project is anticipated to be completed within four years and the project will be executed by the public sector Rail India Technical Economic Services organization.

      New Delhi's move to invest in a Burmese port assumes significance in view of Bangladesh's reluctance to give India access to Chittagong port, which is nearer to the Northeast. Chittagong port in Bangladesh is less than 200 km from Agartala, where as Sittwe is around 400 km away from Aizwal. Mr Ramesh clarified the issue, "It is unfortunate that we have not been able to develop our relationship with Bangladesh to the level of making it our gateway to Southeast Asia." But he pointed out that New Delhi was constantly working on enhancing ties with Bangladesh.

      But the signing of the deal will not be out of repercussion, as the international communities have been raising voices against the military junta for its continued repressive policies on the pro-democracy activists including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and of course poor human rights record in Burma. The public memory remained fresh for the political observers worldwide, where thousands of agitating monks in the streets of Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, were subjected to torture during last September. The junta controlled the movement with strong hands killing nearly hundreds.

      The Burmese exiles irrespective of their organizations have come out heavily against New Delhi for initiating for a business deal. The supporters of pro-democracy movement in Burma have raised a single point that India should not invest money at this moment in Burma as the money will not reach the common people, but the pockets of the Generals. They unanimously point out that it is not the suitable time to invest in Burma, even if one does not endorse the pro-democracy movement led by the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi.

      "This is not a right time to build long-term relationship with the Burmese rulers," argued M. Kim, the coordinator of Shwe Gas Pipeline Campaign Committee (India). Talking to this correspondent, Kim added, "India must not bury alive its extraordinary democratic values and inspiration of promotion of peace and human rights by dealing business and building relation with this barbaric Burmese military junta which recently not only kill, torture and imprison its own innocent people and monks but also violated religious rights by sealing off monasteries and restricting basic rights of prayers at pagodas."

      Even a public meeting at Aizwal during January resolved to appeal New Delhi to snap all ties with the military junta as 'the economic cooperation with them would never benefit the people unless democracy was restored in Burma'. Organized jointly by the Mizoram Committee for Democracy in Burma and the Campaign for Democratic Movement in Burma, the meeting also resolved that New Delhi should work with the UN to find amicable solution to the Burmese imbroglio. Dr Tint Swe, a leader of National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi, who is living in exile in India, was also present at the meeting and argued that dealing with Burma 'would only have a meaning after restoration of democracy' there.

      Tayza Thuria, a Burmese exile based in London debates that 'India's doing business with Burma and engaging with Burma's de-facto military government is not wrong in itself'. But the Indian government needs to be careful to maintain a balanced and ethical approach towards Burma; i.e., while engaging with Burmese government in business and security affairs, New Delhi must also try to persuade, advice and guide the junta to make the systematic democratic reforms in due course of time.

      Kyaw Than, the leader of All Burma Students' League (ABSL), a conglomeration of Burmese students' organizations in exile, asserted that it is not the suitable time to do business with Burma. He rather claimed, "It is high time for the international communities, more precisely India and China, to come clean on Burma policies. Otherwise, they will be criticized in future that both New Delhi and Beijing had continued business for good reasons but sadly with wrong people."

      Indonesia, Thailand expect ASEAN countries to help settle crisis in Myanmar
      Xinhua: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Indonesia and Thailand on Wednesday said that ASEAN member countries were the best to play peaceful roles to help settle the crisis in Myanmar, the leaders of the two countries said here.

      Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundravej told a joint press conference after a meeting at the State Palace that both countries support the Myanmar road map to democracy.

      The agreement came after the failure of the United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to settle the crisis in Myanmar recently.

      "On our fellow (Myanmar), both of us agree that the countries in the ASEAN region are in the best position to understand and have dialogue with the Myanmar government," Thai Prime Minister Sundravej said.

      During the meeting with President Susilo, Sundrajev said they discussed how Thailand, which will become the chairman of the ASEAN in July this year, and Indonesia work closely together with other ASEAN countries to develop and materialize an effective and strong ASEAN in order to settle the crisis in Myanmar.

      "We also discussed how the ASEAN could play a positive role in working with Myanmar to help it face the challenges it is facing," he said.

      On his turn, President Susilo said that Indonesia and Thailand insist to contribute for the crisis settlement in Myanmar.

      "The cooperation of Thailand and Indonesia is aimed at contributing to the crisis settlement in Myanmar," he said.

      The president reaffirmed Indonesia's support on the road map to democracy in Myanmar.

      "We will give assistance to maintain the stability and integrity (of Myanmar) in its way to reach the road map," said Susilo.

      Newly-elected Sundravej is on his two-day visit to Indonesia. He will leave for Thailand on Thursday.

      Indonesia, which has supported the Myanmar government plan to hold a referendum in May and a general election in 2010, has asked for the transparency of the election process.

      The member countries of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) include Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar and Vietnam.

      Burma looking at democracy
      AFP: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      MILITARY-RULED Burma is looking at the Indonesian model for its planned transition to civilian rule, UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari said in remarks published today.

      "I can reveal to you that the junta has been looking for a model closer to Indonesia where there was a transition from military to civilian rule and ultimately to democracy," Dr Gambari said in an interview with Singapore's Straits Times newspaper.

      Dr Gambari, who visited Burma earlier this month, said the country's military rulers were also studying the experience of Thailand, which had previously come under army rule, the report said.

      The Indonesian model of transition to civilian rule was engineered by then president Suharto, an army general who seized power in 1966 in the violent aftermath of a botched coup blamed on the Indonesian communist party.

      Suharto, who assumed the presidency in 1968, later retired from the military but ensured that the armed forces would continue to play a key role in the country's politics. Under his rule, the military was guaranteed seats in parliament and officers held key posts as administrators.

      Suharto also consolidated various political parties under a single party during his 30-year rule that ended following massive street demonstrations in 1998.

      Burma's ruling military has embarked on a "roadmap" to democracy, which includes the recently finished drafting of a new constitution. The charter will be put to a referendum in May and followed by elections in 2010.

      The Straits Times said Dr Gambari spoke at length on the proposed Burma constitution, which bars detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from running in the elections and is dismissed by critics as another means for the junta to remain in power.

      Dr Gambari said the charter's text includes clauses that would keep the military's dominant role in politics.

      About 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats would go to the junta, which would have the power to appoint personnel to key ministries such as defence, home affairs and border affairs, the report quoted Dr Gambari as saying.

      While the proposed constitution calls for a multiparty democracy with regular elections, it gives extensive powers with the president, who can appoint or dismiss legislative and judicial officials, the report added.

      The interview with Dr Gambari in New York came after the envoy's latest visit to Burma from March 6-9 which he said was disappointing.

      During his trip, the junta refused his proposal to amend the constitution and rejected an offer of UN technical assistance and foreign observers during the referendum.

      While Dr Gambari held two meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, he was unable to see junta leader General Tan Shwe.

      Silencing the 'Saffron Revolution' - Min Zin
      Far Eastern Economic Review: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      On Feb. 15, the military stormed the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal's editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a United Nation's report on the ruling junta's brutal crackdown on last September's demonstrations by monks and democracy activists - the so-called Saffron Revolution. My brother's name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country - whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the Internet - under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime.

      Indeed, even as the Burmese military promises the United Nations it will implement its "Roadmap to Democracy," the generals are stepping up their crackdown on the media. News of my brother's arrest was painful, but I should have been prepared for it. This kind of brutal repression and disregard for freedom of speech is the defining phenomenon of daily life in Burma.

      The irony here is that my brother, who was a political prisoner in 1988, has not been involved in clandestine political activities or activist groups since he began working as a reporter and editor for several legally published weekly journals in the early 2000s. He founded Myanmar Nation Weekly, where he worked as editor in chief until his arrest, in 2006.

      When the military raided the offices of Myanmar Nation, they discovered video footage of last September's Buddhist monk-led protests, a copy of the aforementioned report by U.N. Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, and a book about federalism written by a veteran Shan ethnic leader. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested. The authorities confiscated mobile phones and computer hard-drives during the raid.

      In early March, both were charged under section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Law. The court cited the U.N. report as evidence of possessing "illegal material" in order to set up a case against my brother. If found guilty, they could serve up to seven years' imprisonment. The publication of Myanmar Nation has also been suspended since their arrest.

      Sadly, my brother's case is not uncommon. In the wake of last September's protests, the military has stepped up its crackdown on the media and severely curtailed freedom of expression. At least 20 journalists have been arrested in the past six months, although many were released after severe interrogations. According to Reporters Without Borders, 11 journalists are known to be imprisoned in Burma, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, who has been in jail since July 1989.

      The exile-based Burmese Media Association (BMA), however, places the number of imprisoned writers - including journalists, poets, fiction writers, etc. - at 30. These journalists, writers and poets, who exercise their free speech as a birthright, add to the more than 1,800 political prisoners who, according to Human Rights Watch, are still behind bars.

      Since the Buddhist monk-led protests of September last year, about a dozen publications in Burma have been banned or suspended for allegedly failing to follow the directives of the regime's censorship board.

      Burma, which enjoyed perhaps the liveliest free press in Southeast Asia until the 1962 military coup, is now facing some of the severest media repression in the nation's history. The Burmese military launched a "fight media with media" campaign in 2005 in order to "rebuff the unfair and baseless news produced by the Western media." The junta's notorious censorship board has imposed ever more stringent restrictions on private publications. Journalists are pressured to write articles in line with the regime's views and policies. Journals and magazines are forced to print an increasing number of "planted" pro-junta articles.

      "The situation is now getting worse and very rigid," says Zaw Thet Htwe, a well-known journalist inside Burma, who himself received the death penalty in 2003 for sending reports to the outside world, a sentence which was later reduced to three years imprisonment due to international pressure. "The news journals are increasingly facing a hard time due to the whimsical regulations. The atmosphere of fear and pressure for self-censorship has been growing."

      Thankfully, the Burmese people's main sources of information remain free from the military's abuses. They are the daily Burmese language radio broadcasts from abroad by the BBC (Burmese Service), Voice of America (Burmese Service), Radio Free Asia, and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

      At the height of the protests last year, large numbers of people (including military personnel) relied on these broadcasts for information. The regime's anger was apparent in state-controlled newspapers and TV announcements that described the radio broadcasters as "killers on the airwaves" and "saboteurs" who were "airing a sky full of lies." In addition to radio, DVB launched a new Burmese language TV broadcast in May 2005 that can be received via satellite in Burma. The TV broadcast was a main source of news during the September protests.

      Now, a new generation of Burmese has found another means of defying the junta's thought police: the Internet. Although less than 1% of the total population has access to the Internet in Burma, that 1% generally has access to cell phones, digital cameras and memory sticks and can disseminate information widely. During last September's protests, these "cyber dissidents" - citizen reporters and bloggers - posted hundreds of images and eyewitness accounts of the Saffron Revolution and the regime's brutality on the Internet.

      Unlike the 1988 pro-democracy uprising - when the killing of at least 3,000 unarmed demonstrators received little international attention - images of violence against last fall's protestors, including the killing of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, spread fast throughout the world and helped ignite international outrage.

      The regime, of course, responded by hunting down and arresting those who posted the images, and by further limiting access to the Internet. Internet café owners are now reportedly forced to install spy software provided by military intelligence officials that take automatic screen shots of user activity every five minutes. The monitoring results then have to be delivered to the military for surveillance.

      Meanwhile, the military promises the outside world that it is marching toward "democracy" with its constitutional referendum in May and new elections in 2010. But nearly all observers agree that the military's constitution won't lead to legitimate political freedom or national reconciliation. Violations of human rights are expected to continue, as are repression and censorship of the media.

      "Though the military promises reform by holding a constitutional referendum in May," says Maung Maung Myint, chairman of the Burmese Media Association, "the arrest of journalists and constraints on the free flow of information clearly demonstrate that the regime discourages any informed public debate on their draft constitution."

      Clearly, my brother and other recently detained journalists are being held by the junta in an effort to spread fear among Burma's defiant media in the run-up to the constitutional referendum. Without outside pressure, the sad fact is these tactics will likely succeed - and the Burmese people will continue to suffer under a repressive military dictatorship, and those brave journalists and writers willing to challenge Burma's censors will be silenced.

      * Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.

      Crisis looms for Myanmar's riven junta - Larry Jagan
      Asia Times Online: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      As the health of Myanmar's senior general, Than Shwe, deteriorates, two major factions, one loosely allied to the ailing junta leader, and one loyal to the junta number two, General Maung Aye, are aggressively jockeying for position in anticipation of a new era of Myanmar politics - though not necessarily a more democratic era, as billed.

      Reports received by Asia Times Online that certain top junta members are now under secret investigation for corruption, similar to the probes in the leadup to the purge of former intelligence chief and prime minister General Khin Nyunt and his faction in 2004, indicate that another "soft coup" could be in the cards, this time against ambitious military officers who would gain the most from a planned democratic transition.

      Tensions between two major factions within the military government are increasingly on the boil, according to military insiders. At the core of the conflict is Than Shwe's mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which has been given authority to manage the recently announced constitutional referendum set for May and follow-up multi-party elections scheduled for 2010.

      If successfully staged, despite barring the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) from participating, the process would fundamentally change the country's political landscape and see the rise of one set of military officers who trade in their khakis for business suits and take top positions in a democratic government over those who remain in the barracks.

      With that writing on the wall, several senior army members are becoming increasingly resentful of the USDA's growing prominence and apprehensive about the curtailment of their authority after the referendum is held in May. "It will bring an abrupt end to the army's absolute power," said one Myanmar government official.

      Intra-junta rivalry is believed to be breaking down on institutional lines as much as on personalities, pitting those who graduated from the Officers Training School (OTS), like Than Shwe, against those who attended the Defense Services Academy (DSA), where Maung Aye is an alumni. Several current cabinet ministers associated with the USDA hail from the OTS, as are several hardliners on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), who once but no longer hold operational commands.

      Key OTS-affiliated ministers, including Industry Minister Aung Thaung, Fisheries Minister Maung Maung Thein, who is also head of the influential Myanmar Investment Commission, Construction Minister Saw Htun and Agriculture Minister Htay Oo, who is also a key leader of the USDA, are all extreme hardliners and stand accused by rivals and critics of being among the government's most corrupt officials.

      The group has now been in government for over eight years and enjoys an extravagant lifestyle in the impoverished country. The members are also among the military generals who are expected to move into the USDA and take up prominent roles in a new civilian-led government.

      Many in the army now fear that this group - along with certain other senior SPDC officers, who are currently or were formerly heads of the Bureau of Special Operations (BSO) - may be plotting a more immediate power grab, using the USDA and its mass following as its front.

      Those concerns apparently run strongest among officers in the Ministry of Defense, many of them divisional commanders in their late 40s or early 50s and widely known as the "Young Turks". "They see no definite future and are just sitting around in the office with nothing to do," said a well-placed source in the capital, Naypyidaw. "They are watching their colleagues hiding behind their uniforms and building up massive fortunes from corruption in government," he said.

      So far, apart from governmental inertia, there are no overt signs of a palace coup. "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," said a Thai military intelligence official. "Nothing can be ruled out at this stage as resentment and anger is growing among the junior officers and the rank-and-file soldiers," said Win Min, an independent analyst based at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.

      The OTS-affiliated ministers, some insiders believe, may in fact be planning a pre-emptive strike to protect their positions. The Fisheries minister, Maung Maung Thein, and BSO officials Maung Bo and Ye Myint, are all currently under secret investigation by the Bureau of Special Investigations on allegations of bribery, kickbacks and illegal smuggling, a well-placed source inside the regime told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity. Several other ministers and members of the SPDC, and their families, are also under investigation, according to the same source.

      That's apparently one main reason why the ruling council has not held its regular quarterly meeting for more than nine months. Military insiders say Than Shwe wants to avoid the meeting because he knows Maung Aye will, based on the evidence of the investigations, demand the resignations of at least four BSO-affiliated officers - including Maung Bo and Ye Myint. The council meeting held last year reportedly ended when Maung Aye refused to accept Than Shwe's recommendation that Maung Bo be promoted to a full general, according to Myanmar military sources.

      "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 the academic 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.

      For over a year there has been near total inertia in Myanmar's new capital as the ailing Than Shwe becomes more withdrawn and reclusive and tries to chart a course that will protect his family's interests after he passes from the scene. Some military observers believe that the junta leader's well-worn divide-and-rule tactics may eventually backfire, as a growing number of top generals immediately below him view his plans to move towards "discipline democracy" as a threat to their future positions and power.

      "We cannot rule out the possibility of a mutiny or purges within the army," said independent analyst Aung Naing Oo. "Than Shwe is standing in the way of change, but so far no one has had the guts to tell him that he is the main obstacle."

      As news of the investigations and concerns about the planned democratic transition become more widespread, the potential for purges and coups will only grow.

      * Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

      Burma: Key facts on the working environment for international agencies
      Refugees International via Relief Web: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      The U.S. government should re-evaluate policies that prohibit humanitarian assistance to Burma, and join the U.K. and Europe in increasing support for independent work inside the country. In calling for increased assistance, it is important to recognize the difficult working environment facing United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations. Burmese leadership is suspicious of foreign involvement in the country, especially from liberal democratic countries. Nonetheless, patient work has resulted in expanded access by international organizations.

      • The geographic scope of international aid organizations in Burma has increased significantly in recent years. There are now internationally supported activities in 300 of Burma's 325 townships. Areas with continuous presence by international organizations include such sensitive locations as Northern Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah and Mon States.
      • The scale of the programs of individual organizations is impressive. Population Services International (PSI), working through the private sector, markets condoms and conducts AIDS awareness activities throughout the country. PSI also treats 10,000 tuberculosis patients and 40,000 children with pneumonia. Save the Children has 37 offices, 500 local staff, and supports pre-schools in 200 communities. Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland provides anti-retroviral treatment to 10,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers.
      • Access to areas affected by conflict remains problematic, especially in southeastern townships bordering Thailand. A proposed joint UN assessment of conditions in Kayin and Mon States is presently on hold. The International Committee of the Red Cross has reduced its staff from 55 expatriates to five since December 2005 due to restrictions on its ability to work independently in conflict areas and to conduct prison visits.
      • The Burmese government's policy towards international organizations is restrictive on paper, and slightly less so in practice. The government issued Burmese and English versions of operating guidelines in 2006, with the former being more restrictive. When Burmese staff of international organizations were convoked to Naypidaw in January 2008 the government presented them with guidelines that proved to be a Burmese translation of the less restrictive English version - a significant victory for operational agencies. International organizations have also succeeded in getting the government to withdraw proposals to hire local staff from government rosters and to have project funds go through government accounts.
      • Requirements for program work include signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the organization and the relevant technical ministry; review and oversight by inter-governmental committees from national to state to township levels; advance travel permission for international staff and travel accompanied by government officials. In practice, agencies routinely continue working without signed MOUs, and reach local agreements to assure independent access and oversight of projects. Contrary to reports that circulated abroad after the January 2008 meeting in Naypidaw, the government has not carried out proposals to restrict the travel of local staff of international organizations.
      • The Burmese senior leadership responded to the September 2007 protests with a tightening of control over the international community based in Rangoon. The government suspended the granting of visas for international staff, especially from Western countries, and only within the past two months has the process begun to move again. As of the end of February about 50 staff from the UN and international non-governmental organizations were waiting for visa extensions. No visa extensions have been denied to date, however. Further, the government has made it clear to UN organizations that it would prefer that their representatives be from Asia rather than from Europe or the United States; with the UN Resident Coordinator and UNHCR representative positions presently vacant, this policy, if enforced, will pose new challenges to the international leadership in the country.

      Joint Statement Issued by the All Burma Monks' Alliance and the 88 Generation Students
      Wed 26 Mar 2008

      The United Nations Has Failed to Take Responsibility to Protect the People of Burma, Who Are Prepared for the Worst

      (1) We paid serious attention to the briefing by the UN Special Envoy Mr. Ibrahim Gambari to the United Nations Security Council on March 18, 2008 on Burma. Since his recommendations to the Burmese military junta have been flatly rejected on this and every one of his previous trips, we believed Mr. Gambari would report this failure truly. We hoped he would ask the Council to strengthen the mandate of the Secretary-General in pressuring the junta for an all party-inclusive, transparent and democratic process of national reconciliation in our country. However, to our surprise and sadness, he misled the Council.

      >From the perspective of the people of Burma, he altered his mission from
      "pressuring or persuading the military junta in Burma to create a credible process of constitution writing and engage in a meaningful and time-bound dialogue with our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi". Instead, it now appears he is "supporting the one-sided acts of the military junta and suggesting that democracy forces surrender". We have been 100% supportive of the UN efforts on Burma, but we object Mr. Gambari for misleading the world body in favor of the Burmese military junta.

      (2) We are also disappointed that the UN Security Council has failed to take an effective action on Burma. Under the misguidance of Mr. Gambari and due to objections by the governments of China, Russia and South Africa, the UN Security Council is paralyzed and has failed to undertake its major responsibility to protect the citizens of Burma, who continue to be severely oppressed by their own government, as has been the case for decades. We denounce the governments of China, Russia and South Africa for their strong protection of the most brutal military junta, ruling our country against the will of our people.

      (3) We are also disappointed with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his reluctance to ask for the UN Security Council to strengthen his good offices role in Burma by a binding resolution. Over the past 18 years, various UN Special Envoys and Rapporteurs have visited Burma 35 times to try to persuade the military junta to fully cooperate with the democracy forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of Burma's ethnic nationalities, without success. The UN Charter, Article 99 authorizes the Secretary-General to bring the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security . Despite the fact that the situation in Burma has spilled out over the region and become a threat to peace and stability in the region and in the world, Ban Ki-moon has failed to call for the Security Council to take effective action on Burma. From the perspective of the Burmese people, he has made zero impact on the situation in our country. On the contrary, the situation in Burma has grown even worse on his watch.

      (4) However, we are encouraged by the continued and persistent support by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia, European Union, Switzerland, Mongolia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Ghana, The Czech Republic, Norway and other supportive countries. We appreciate these governments for standing together with us in our darkest time, sharing our feelings and lending much-needed assistance. We request these countries to continue to support us and continue to apply maximum pressure on the military junta, especially including the implementation of finance and banking sanctions against the generals, their family members and crony businessmen. We also request these governments not to recognize the military junta's constitution and urge the UN Security Council to do the same.

      (5) Nonetheless, the people of Burma will stand on their own feet and confront the injustices and oppression of the military junta by peaceful means. We all are determined to "VOTE NO" on the junta's sham constitution in the upcoming referendum. As the military junta is aggressively and desperately pressuring the people to vote in favor of the constitution, our challenge to reject it will surely be met with a bloody response by the junta. Our vote "No" is not only to the sham constitution, but also to the junta. With or without the help of the UN Security Council, we are ready to determine our own future. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently told us to "hope for the best, prepare for the worst". This call echoes the message of her father our National Independence Hero U Aung San. We are prepared to confront the worst. We are working for truth and justice, and we will prevail.

      On behalf of the All Burma Monks' Alliance:
      Ashin Aww Ba Tha, Ashin Tay Za, Ashin Pyannya Vamsa

      On behalf of the 88 Generation Students:
      Tun Myint Aung, Nilar Thein, Soe Tun

      Time to release Aung San Suu Kyi
      Amnesty International: Wed 26 Mar 2008

      Call for the immediate and unconditional release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.

      There are more than 1,850 known political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the best-known.

      The co-founder of Myanmar's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi is also one of the country's best-known political figures and campaigners for human rights.

      Aung San Suu Kyi has endured unofficial detention, house arrest and restrictions on her movement since 1989, all aimed at preventing her from becoming the national leader of Myanmar. She has been under house arrest since July 2003 and her most recent detention will be up for review on 27 May 2008.

      Aung San Suu Kyi is also a member the global Elders but, because she is under strict house arrest, she cannot join them in their international work celebrating and promoting the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Her continued absence is a powerful reminder of the unrelenting repression in Myanmar and what must be done to make human rights a reality.

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