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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 31/3/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Military trains for referendum 2.. USDA holds referendum information sessions 3.. Junta likens itself to 19th century royal court 4.. Arbitrary arrests
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 31, 2008
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      1. Military trains for referendum
      2. USDA holds referendum "information" sessions
      3. Junta likens itself to 19th century royal court
      4. Arbitrary arrests and extortion continue in Maungdaw
      5. Funds allocated for alternative route to Myanmar
      6. Myanmar's path towards Democracy
      7. Burmese start long march in Bangladesh to protest referendum
      8. U.N. rights body condemns Myanmar for abuses
      9. Right thinking must lead to action on Burma
      10. Holding the line: Burma's junta subdues its people and the world
      11. Than Shwe's Worthless Promises

      Military trains for referendum
      Narinjara News: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      Local Burmese military authorities in Arakan State have been conducting military training for its thugs, including members of the USDA, Fire Service, Swan Arr Shin, and people's militias, with the intent of using the forces to aid their victory in the referendum, said one villager who participated in the training but refused to be named.

      He said, "I was attending the military training in the remote jungle along with 30 other people near Kyauk Nga Nwar Village in Mraybon Township last month, and the training was by the Burmese army."

      Mraybon Township is located in Kyauk Pru District in central Arakan State and many village tracts in the township are being held by the military.

      "We have to learn how to use small arms in battle and army trainers taught us how to set up and how to set off the arms. But the army trainers did not tell us why we were summoned to attend the military training. They told us that people are to be united to wipe out the foes of the union of Burma," he said.

      Village chairmen in respective villages in Mraybon Township have mobilized the military training with some villagers who are members of the USDA, Fire Service, Swan Arr Shin and people's militias, on the order of the high authority.

      In Arakan State, there was no military training of these organizations in the past. Because of this, people in Arakan State believe the military training is related to the upcoming referendum.

      The villager said, "I am sure the training is for the referendum. The forces will be used to mobilize people to cast "yes" votes for the constitution. It is confirmed that the trainings are to be held closer to the time of the referendum."

      An analyst in Sittwe said, "I heard there are two major particulars for the military training by the authority of Arakan State. First is to show the strength of government supporters to the people, and second is to threaten people to vote "yes" in the referendum."

      "The military government received an excellent lesson about elections in 1990, so they are preparing to avoid failure in the referendum this time," the analyst added.

      The Mraybon Township authority is still conducting the military trainings in many village tracts in the township, including Kyar Inn Daung, Yaw Salin, Yoke Koon, Chaung Gri, Ka Bai Chaung and May Lawn, said the villager


      USDA holds referendum "information" sessions - Min Lwin
      Irrawaddy: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      Special commissions, including members of the government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), are touring Burma informing local residents about the upcoming constitutional referendum, according to sources close to local authorities in upper Burma.

      The mechanics of the referendum are being explained, often to villagers who show no interest in the procedure, a resident of Myinmu Township, Sagaing division, told The Irrawaddy on Friday. Many country people have no idea why the referendum is taking place, other residents said.

      Local people are being told one polling station will be set up for every 1,000 voters. Voting will be by secret ballot. Special rubber stamps will be used, one bearing a tick mark to indicate approval of the draft constitution and one with a cross to be used to register a "No" vote.

      A source close to the USDA said referendum sub-commissions would be in charge of taking ballot boxes to their offices and counting the ballots.

      A Sagaing resident said local authority officials and USDA members had organized an information session for local residents last week at a religious hall where pilgrims normally gather for Buddhist rites. Apart from members of the USDA and other government-backed organizations, few people had turned up, however, the resident said.

      The USDA is, meanwhile, undertaking a recruitment drive, offering financial incentives to join the organization. A resident of Chaung Oo, Sagaing division, said: "The organizers said the divisional level of USDA will advance newly registered members a loan of 50,000 kyat (US $38)."


      Junta likens itself to 19th century royal court
      Mizzima News: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      In an address to military personnel and dignitaries, Senior General Than Shwe linked today's Burmese armed forces with the battles of Burma's dead kings in a war against imperialism and regressive policies.

      Speaking yesterday on the occasion of the 63rd anniversary of Armed Forces Day, Burma's Head of State delivered a national address harkening back to a golden era of monarchial reign interrupted by an "unbearable situation of over a hundred long years."

      "Blind to progress of other nations, lack of defensive alertness resulted in losing of independence and sovereignty," Than Shwe told those in attendance at Naypyitaw's parade ground.

      The Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, is alluded to as dutifully picking up the pieces left from the 19th century and heroically finishing the work of Burma's kings in the 21st.

      Yet Britain overthrew the last Burmese king in 1885 and ceded independence to modern Burma in 1947, a period of only 62 years. How then to account for Than Shwe's over one-hundred years of "unbearable" conditions?

      The Senior General defines 1866 as the year when Burma's path to modernization was felled, spelling an end to Burma's honorable regency and opening the door to colonialism. In that year the modernizing, reforming vision of Prince Kanaung, who was the heir apparent to the throne of then King Mindon, was killed by jealous, regressive rivals.

      However, in his diatribe, Than Shwe also referenced the necessity for the army assuming power and responsibility in the country in 1988: "Because of the violent disturbances of 1988 the Tatmadaw, to protect the life, property and security of the people and to preserve and protect the sovereignty and independence of the nation, had to take over all the responsibilities of the country."

      Of course the armed forces assumed absolute political power fully 26 years earlier in 1962.

      Was Burma's top brass then attempting to further distance the present regime from that of General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party, which maintained a firm grip on power from 1962 till the late 1980s?

      Than Shwe also, interestingly, specifically spoke of the insulting obligation on Burmese citizens to refer to their colonial administrators as thakins, or masters. Yet in the 1930s there arose the thakin movement, which saw the Burmese population endowing worthy Burmese leaders with the same title, in a dual indication of objection to British policies and respect for their own leaders. Burmese thakins came to include future politicians and military men such as U Nu, Aung San and Burma's would be dictator Ne Win.

      The only solution to the puzzle of "over a hundred long years" must be that the current regime views itself as the continuation of the modernizing, progressive influences of Burma's doomed royal court, which are said to have come to an end in 1866 and were only revitalized with the actions of the army and state policy after 1988. This would then account for over 120 years of regressive polices.

      Fittingly, the speech took place under the watchful gaze of a monument to three former Burmese kings in the new capital of Naypyitaw, meaning "Royal City." And the legacies of these three kings, held in high esteem by the military, serve to further argue for the perceived legitimacy of monarchial-military rule dating back a thousand years.

      The three kings depicted are Anawrahta, an 11th century ruler credited with first unifying Burma, Bayinnaung, a 16th century monarch who arguably stretched Burmese rule to its outermost limits, and Alaungpaya, who in the 18th century is credited with christening Burma's port city of Dagon with its new moniker of Yangon.


      Arbitrary arrests and extortion continue in Maungdaw
      Kaladan Press Network: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      Maungdaw, Arakan state: Police in Bawli Bazaar camp in Maungdaw Township arrested villagers on false charges and extorted money without batting an eye lid and lack of fear of higher authorities.

      On March 26, the police arrested Idris (21), hailing from Krat Chaung village Loun Don village tract alleging that he went to Bangladesh, a close relative of the victim said.

      Two police, at about 8:30 a.m. went to his house arrested and brought him to their camp. He has a shop at the station of Krat Chaung village. He is still in police custody although he denied going to Bangladesh. He was tortured severely in the police camp.

      Similarly, on March 23, at about 11 a.m. Abdu Salam (25) of Zaydi Pyin village, Loun Don village Tract of Maungdaw Township was arrested by the police from a temporary Loun Don camp providing security to Natala villagers. He was arrested because he fell in love with a local girl, a friend of the victim said on condition of anonymity.

      Later, he was brought to the police camp and detained there for two days until arranged money. He was released on March 25 evening after paying kyat 40,000.


      Funds allocated for alternative route to Myanmar
      The Hindu: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      In an indication that India's attempt to develop an alternative route to the northeast from Myanmar is nearing fruition, the Union Cabinet on Thursday approved the sanctioning of funds for upgrading Myanmar's Sittwe port and Kaladan waterway as well as construction of a road up to the India-Myanmar border. The allocation of Rs. 535.91 crore under the 'aid to Myanmar' route will also cater to the construction and improvement of a 117-km road from the Myanmar border to National Highway 54.

      With Bangladesh continuing to mull over India's request to grant it access to the north-east through the Chittagong port, the access from Myanmar would ease New Delhi's unease over a single, narrow access through a narrow corridor via West Bengal.

      As Myanmar is endowed with substantial hydrocarbon deposits and in case Indian companies bag oil blocks, a pipeline could be built along the route if shipment to the eastern coast is economically unviable.

      The stalled talks moved forward after External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee took the initiative to reframe the proposal.

      The revised offer overcame Myanmar's sensitivities by proposing the transfer of the port to Myanmar after it is made suitable for larger vessels. Earlier, India was keen on developing the port and then operating it for some time.

      Petroleum Minister Murli Deora and Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh also visited Myanmar to discuss the proposal and convince Myanmar that it was a win-win situation for both countries.


      Myanmar's path towards Democracy - Jayati Chakraborty
      Marinews: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      The people of Myanmar have long been fighting the military rule existing in their country, long been under the threat of civil war. The neighbours should now at least lend a helping hand in Myanmar's transition from military rule to democracy.

      MYANMAR'S PATH towards democracy is not a bed of roses. Any discussion on this issue clearly brings into the forefront the present political, social and economic situation of Myanmar. Myanmar, presently, is under military rule after a long phase of ethnic strives, conflicts and civil war.

      Ever since her independence from British rule in 1948, Myanmar has been facing political instability - an offshoot of the British policy of divide and rule. Today, this strategically important country has become synonymous with poverty, illegal drug trade, human right violation, total collapse of the education system, lack of freedom of expression, etc. Any attempt at restoration of democracy has been violently suppressed, as had happened in 1988 and again in 1990, when the military junta refused to honour the verdict of the multi party election, which had brought Aung sung su kyi to power. Today, pro-democratic forces are working under severe limitation and restrictions imposed by the government.

      Given such a situation, the question obviously arises as to whether democracy is possible in Myanmar. If yes, then there are certain issues that need to be seriously addressed:

      1. How do we achieve democracy in Myanmar?
      2. What should be the modus operandi?
      3. What role can the international community play?

      Myanmar, as we all know, is a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country, which had been under civil war for a long period after independence. We cannot deny that the military has succeeded in keeping the country united and at least providing a semblance of a stable government. Given the existing ethnic rivalries in the country, any struggle for democracy must be preceded by a serious dialogue between the contending ethnic groups, so that they can fix up an agenda for their struggle and stand united. This is not an impossibility given the fact that 82 per cent voted for a democratic government in 1990. Unless this is achieved, it will be very difficult to evoke international sympathy for the people of Myanmar. Before toppling the military government, we need to ensure not only that Myanmar's transition to democracy is long term and permanent, but also that the country is not plunged into yet another civil war. A constitution for the country can be framed only after the government of the people comes to power and not under the supervision of a military government. A constituent assembly, comprising of representatives of different ethnic groups and religious groups, should frame the Constitution in order to ensure the unity of the country.

      It is only when the people of the country are mentally prepared that they can seek international help, and in this, Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) can play an important role. Myanmar needs to present its cause to the ASEAN countries and raise the issue in the UNO, which can provide financial aid to the democratic movement there and can also pressurise the junta to step down. The present international sanction imposed by the west on Myanmar has, in no way, facilitated the transition towards democracy nor did Myanmar's policy of isolation. Both these policies have only strengthened the military rule in the country. International sanctions should be withdrawn immediately so that the common people can overcome poverty.

      It is only active involvement of the international powers in Myanmar that can provide solution to the problems. The international community can also pressurise the military to enter into a dialogue with the democratic forces and the ethnic factions. The neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh should also seriously look into the problem, as restoration of democracy would be particularly favourable to them, as it will help the former to tackle the major insurgency groups operating in the north eastern borders and the latter can have a respite from the alarming refugee problem, which it is presently facing. The policy of non-interference, which the ASEAN countries have been following, needs to be stopped and only active lobbying for Myanmar's cause can do this.

      An effective leadership is the need of the hour for Myanmar. Ethnic unity and international awareness can at least pressurise the military junta both from within and outside. The UN needs to clearly stress that human rights abuses, failure to allow democratic processes will have serious negative consequences. Strong international pressure may enable the release of Su Kyi from house arrest. This move in itself will infuse the people with self-confidence and self-pride, which are essential for any movement.

      Another noticeable feature of Myanmar problem is the lack of seriousness to the cause, especially from the ASEAN countries including India that do not hesitate to communicate with the military government when it concerns its own self-interest. This, no doubt, provides legitimacy to the government that holds power by dishonouring the people's verdict. Unless Myanmar deals effectively with these challenges, abolishment and consolidation of democracy in the country will still be a far cry.


      Burmese start long march in Bangladesh to protest referendum
      Narinjara News: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      Thirteen Arakanese in exile, including five monks, started on a long march Thursday from the Bangladesh capital Dhaka to the southern town of Cox's Bazar, to rally Burmese people to oppose the upcoming referendum. The distance between Dhaka and Cox's Bazar is 245 miles.

      The long march is intended to attract the attention of the Bangladeshi people as well the international community to the upcoming referendum for the new draft constitution that is scheduled to be held in Burma in May 2008.

      U Thilawantha, who is a leader from the monks' alliance Sasana Moli in Bangladesh said, "We are monks but we are participating in the long march because we would like to show our desire against the referendum. We would like the Burmese military junta to know how much monks are dissatisfied with the referendum."

      The Burmese military government is currently preparing to hold a referendum in May on the new draft constitution, in which democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is excluded from participating in future elections and non-Burman ethnic groups are not given equal rights.

      Another organizer of the march, Ko Tha Tun said, "The military government has been working on what they want since they got power, and they have never considered the entire Burmese people. Now people are suffering from hunger and poverty but they want to continue holding on to power. How can we accept the military government's plan for power? So we arranged the long march to protest the referendum."

      The long march began at the historic monument Shaheed Minar at Dhaka University at 9 am on Thursday, and the activists have been distributing many anti-referendum flyers in Bengali among the Bangladesh communities they pass along the way.

      Ko Tha Tun said, "Most Bangladesh people know the present situation of Burma and they also know of the monk-led Saffron Revolution that broke out in our country last September. Many Bangladesh people have been cheering us on and waving their hands."

      The activists on the long march are wearing white shirts emblazoned with the word "NO", in referendum to the vote, and are holding two flags, a Buddhist flag and the flag of Bangladesh. They made it 20 miles out of downtown Dhaka yesterday on the first day of the march.

      Bangladesh is currently under a state of emergency and the authorities have not allowed any political activities on the street, but officials have not disturbed the marchers protesting the referendum.

      U Thilawantha said, "We really appreciate the Bangladesh government and its people because there has not been any disturbance in our long march program. Our peaceful long march will end at the town of Cox's Bazar on 10 April if there continue to be no disturbances."


      U.N. rights body condemns Myanmar for abuses - Laura MacInnis
      Reuters: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      The U.N. Human Rights Council unanimously condemned Myanmar on Friday for what it called "systematic violations" of fundamental freedoms six months after the country's repression of monk-led protests.

      The 47 member-state body also renewed the mandate of its special investigator to the former Burma for another year and called on the ruling military junta to let him visit to report on conditions there.

      The European Union presented two resolutions, both adopted by consensus, on behalf of Western countries who said human rights violations had persisted in the wake of Myanmar's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations last September.

      "There is still reason for great concern," Slovenia's ambassador Andrej Logar, on behalf of the EU, told the council on the last day of its four-week session.

      The independent post of U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, first established in 1992, has provided valuable insight into the human rights situation in the insular country, Logar added.

      Pinheiro, a Brazilian law professor who has held the post since 2000, is being replaced by Argentine expert Tomas Ojea Quintana, who is expected to try to seek a fresh visit.

      Pinheiro said after a visit there in November that at least 31 people had died and up to 4,000 were arrested in September's crisis.

      His latest report to the council cited increasing repression since the crushing of the Buddhist monk-led protests and said that 1,850 political prisoners were still being detained.

      The EU resolution expressed deep concern at the "violent repression" of the demonstrations and "the failure of the government of Myanmar to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of these violations".

      It further condemned "the ongoing systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Myanmar, continued arbitrary detentions and the continuing high number of political prisoners".

      Britain, China, France and Russia - four of the five permanent Security Council members - are members of the Human Rights Council, while the United States has observer status.

      Canada, a co-sponsor of the EU texts, voiced deep concern at "continuing reports of human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese authorities against their own people".

      "Many of those arrested remain in detention as does (Nobel laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi. Some have been criminally charged for peaceful expression of their opinions," Canadian ambassador Marius Grinius said.

      Myanmar's ambassador Wunna Maung Win dismissed the Western resolutions as "politically motivated".

      "The resolution is lop-sided and highly intrusive, besides it fails to take account of positive aspects of political developments in Myanmar," he told the council.

      The government has said it will hold a national referendum on a new constitution in May, with multi-party elections to follow in 2010, to set the nation on a path to democracy.

      "The international community should therefore recognise and encourage the positive political developments in Myanmar," the ambassador said.


      Right thinking must lead to action on Burma - Dr. Thaung Htun
      Globe and Mail: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      It was Hannah Arendt who wrote that "Under conditions of tyranny, it is easier to act than to think." While none would accuse Burma's Saffron Revolution of being unthinking, the sense of those words hold true. There is a time when thoughts must give way to action.

      Yet, just as this notion holds truth, so too does its reverse. That is to say, without the conditions of tyranny, it is easier to think than to act. This appears to be the position of many around the world, who have the privilege of remaining disengaged while seeing images of violence at a distance.

      The historic events that continue unfold in Burma today, evolving from peaceful demonstrations late last year, have been detailed in a new report "Bullets in the Alms Bowl," produced by the Human Rights Documentation Unit of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the country's government in exile.

      No one can read this report and not feel their very humanity challenged by the presence of the brutality it documents. No one can say, "We were unaware." No one has an excuse not to act.

      In asking for peace and dialogue toward a political settlement of the problems confronting this country, members of Burma's Buddhist community, the Sangha, have spoken for all their country and touched the whole world. They have galvanized world opinion and spoken to the very soul of our global community. All must hear them.

      All must hear how the Burmese military government suppressed a peaceful movement centred on monks, a movement that carried no weapons but the firmness of convictions and courage.

      The HRDU report documents the murders, the tortures, the late-night abductions, the house detentions, the arrest of family members of accused demonstrators, the list of actions designed to break the population, to discredit their agendas and to hold an ever tenuous grip on power.

      There are given names, dates and times. Personal experiences are painstakingly unfolded. The gaps left by the dead, the detained, the damaged and the broken are poignantly identified.

      The struggle of the Sangha and the Saffron Revolution is imbued with the deepest, resonant significance. Here is an outbreak of peace in the face of so much violence, an embodiment of hope in the face of hopelessness, a surge of spiritual values at a time of the most crushing assault on the human heart.

      The world cannot ignore these cries and still maintain its sense of dignity and trust, nor can we as the world family maintain our hold on truth and freedom if Burma's peoples continue to be so ill-treated and oppressed.

      In Burma, as in South Africa near the end of the apartheid era, a moment has arrived. It is a moment when the clock stops ticking, when the air stops moving, where sound is muffled, and where the mind stops spinning. This is a moment of clarity, a moment when the uncertainty of daily life disappears and a clear message overwhelms the senses. A moment when history stands still, awaiting the inevitable truth.

      It is our duty, and that of the global community, to ensure that this moment is not lost. This is not a time for empty politics or grandiose schemes designed to divert the attention and reverse the momentum.

      There are roles here for the United Nations (especially as another visit by its special envoy comes and goes without result), for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for specific countries such as China, India and the United States - for all interested in promoting the rule of law and human rights for all. The NCGUB has detailed these agendas and will continue to articulate them.

      The Free Burma movement is not in victim mode, nor are we devoid of intent. Our goal is clear. But we cannot work alone and we call on the global community to read this report and to ensure that what it documents is consigned to Burma's past, not allowed to be a template for the future.

      This is a time to realize our hopes and enact our dreams, for an oppressed Burma rests on all our shoulders, challenging and burdening the world. This is the time for a free Burma to be reborn, on the foundation of peace and forgiveness laid by its Sangha.

      It is indeed Burma's moment. But it is also one for all peoples.

      * Dr. Thaung Htun is the representative for United Nations affairs with the Burma UN Service Office, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.


      Holding the line: Burma's junta subdues its people and the world - Amy Kazmin and Richard McGregor
      Financial Times: Fri 28 Mar 2008

      After violently suppressing anti-government marches last year, Burma's ruling generals are hunt­ing a new enemy in the dilapidated city of Rangoon, zeroing in on street vendors who sell pirated DVDs. The object of the junta's wrath is the latest Rambo film, in which the Vietnam veteran played by Sylvester Stallone battles Burmese soldiers to rescue missionaries held for assisting persecuted ethnic minorities.

      Besides confiscating every copy it can find, the junta has compelled privately owned Burmese news journals to print articles ridiculing Rambo for being "so fat, with sagging breasts" and looking "like a lunatic" during fights.

      Aside from the Hollywood action picture, though, not much is rattling Burma's generals these days. Six months ago, their crackdown on the Buddhist monk-led "saffron revolt" provoked international revulsion and a clamour to push the regime to change. Today, the storm of criticism has largely passed. The junta, as firmly in power as ever, has rebuffed the pressure, making clear it intends to proceed with its own plans for Burma's future, with or without western or United Nations approval.

      After a brief moment of apparent unity, western and Asian governments are again divided on how to approach the Burmese generals. Although nearly all governments recognise the need for change in the impoverished state, they have profound differences on the reforms most necessary - and how best to foster them. "There is a philosophical difference between Asia and the west," says Thant Myint-U, a historian and grandson of the late U Thant, the UN's 1960s secretary-general. "The west believes in a push for democracy. But Asian governments believe in slow, gradual change in which economic change leads to an opening of political and social space."

      Asian perspectives on dealing with the generals - especially the views in neighbouring China, India and Thailand - are also coloured by regional interest in Burma's resources, particularly its natural gas. Thailand already relies on Burmese gas to generate about 20 per cent of its electricity; Bangkok's state oil company is negotiating another gas deal and the country is eyeing hydropower projects in Burma. For its part, Beijing is discussing deals to construct two pipelines across Burma. One would transport Middle Eastern oil from near Burma's Andaman Sea port of Sittwe to Yunnan province, reducing Chinese reliance on crude shipments through the Straits of Malacca, while a second pipeline would supply China with Burmese natural gas.

      "China's interests are mercantilist, not political or strategic," says Zhu Feng, a scholar at the School of International Studies at Peking University. "We need someone to press Myanmar [Burma] on the need for change [but] we cannot play that role - its not China's style."

      After last year's crackdown, which killed at least 31, western countries led the condemnation. But even Burma's traditional friends in the Association of South East Asian Nations expressed dismay at the bloodshed. China, long exasperated at the junta's failure to develop the national economy, also - at least by its own reticent standards - admonished its neighbour.

      The UN Security Council subsequently called for the junta to engage in a meaningful dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy advocate who is under house arrest in Rangoon, to free her and an estimated 1,800 other political prisoners and to address the "political, economic, humanitarian and human rights issues that are the concerns of its people". Beijing, the regime's closest ally, pushed the generals to allow Ibrahim Gambari, the UN's special envoy, to visit Burma to foster discussions on political change.

      But the world has since been divided by the generals' surprise declaration of a May referendum on a controversial new constitution, which the generals say will lay the foundation for a "discipline-flourishing democracy" suitable for Burma's multi-ethnic society. Burmese exiles and opposition groups, as well as many western governments, have denounced the charter - which would in all likelihood prevent Ms Suu Kyi and other dissidents from entering politics - as an attempt merely to legalise military rule. Yet some south-east Asian governments have praised the referendum and the promise of elections in 2010 as welcome steps towards reform. Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the UN, also called it "real progress", though he conceded "improvements" could be made.

      As Beijing prepares to host the Olympics, its worries about an eruption of fresh protests in Burma - which would highlight China's close ties to the regime - have also eased, amid the surface calm in Burma and Beijing's own trouble in Tibet. But the opening of the Beijing Olympics on August 8 coincides with the 20th anniversary of the start of Burma's previous big uprising, during which soldiers killed thousands of unarmed protesters. "Beijing's primary concern was that there be no repeat of [last] September in Burma before the Olympics and especially no demonstrations in Rangoon marking the 1988 uprising," says a UN official who monitors Burma. "Now that they see these generals can keep things under control in the short term, there is less interest in pushing for change. They see they can keep a lid on things."

      The US and UK remain focused on pushing for substantive political dialogue bet­ween the generals and Ms Suu Kyi, but appear to have few tools to put pressure on the junta. While anti-regime activists press for more punitive economic sanctions, Asian governments' unwavering rejection of such measures would be likely to render further western sanctions ineffective, al­though Asian capitals offer few alternative ideas of how to foster change. "They throw up their hands in exasperation and say 'what can we do?', which is just what the military wants," says one western diplomat based in Rangoon. In any case, China in­sists sanctions do not work. "If there are heavy sanctions, then the junta will not reform," says Zhai Kun, of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

      China appears to hope the new charter will lay a sufficient foundation to facilitate change along the lines of its own economy or that of Vietnam, which allow for fast development while tight political controls are maintained. "If we were to intervene we should have a goal, but what is China's goal?" asks Zhang Yunling of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The western countries' goal is very clear. It is democracy. But for China it is stability."

      Aware of these divisions, Burma's generals appear confident of their ability to ward off external pressure. "The unprecedented level of concern by the international community has run into the sand," says an academic who monitors Burma. "By demonstrating the limited options available to the international community, it may have encouraged the view among some Burmese generals that they can't be touched."

      Indeed, since the protests the generals have made no concessions that might mollify western critics, despite offers of dramatically increased aid if the generals undertake a credible reform process. The generals have also rejected nearly all requests made since September by the UN Security Council as well as by Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general, and Mr Gambari.

      With Ms Suu Kyi under house arrest, as she has been for 12 of the past 18 years, the junta hunts, locks up and prosecutes dissidents. Talks between her and the generals have gone nowhere after Than Shwe, head of the junta, demanded that she first denounce sanctions. The UN's resident representative in Rangoon was expelled in November for stating the seemingly obvious - that deepening poverty underlay the September protests.

      Since announcing their constitutional referendum, the generals have also spurned UN offers of technical advice and international election monitors. Blaming sanctions for the people's hardships, the generals rebuffed a UN idea to set up a commission to study Burma's economy and recommend policies to alleviate poverty. After a trip to Burma this month, his third since September, Mr Gambari expressed frustration that his visit had not yielded "any immediate tangible outcome".

      All along, the US and the UK have been appealing to China to use its leverage over the generals to urge change. Gordon Brown, British prime minister, pressed the case with Wen Jiabao, his Chinese counterpart, and President Hu Jintao during a recent visit. But little has emerged.

      Mr Zhai says the west overstates Beijing's influence on the highly nationalistic generals. Even on the economy, he says, China's advice to them falls on deaf ears. China has even said that it - like the rest of the world - was caught by surprise by the generals' 2005 move to a new capital city called Naypyidaw.

      China, which shares a long border with Burma, has reason to worry about the junta's poor governance. Its companies are highly active in Burma, mainly in natural resource exploitation. Beijing also wants the regime to step up border policing and do more to fight drug trafficking. In recent years, large numbers of Chinese migrants, mainly petty traders, have also drifted into Burma - displacing Burmese, especially in urban centres. This influx, coupled with perceptions that Beijing is propping up the junta, has fuelled resentment, raising the prospect of violence against the arrivals if frustrations boil over.

      "Anti-Chinese sentiment is growing in Burma - and they know the generals can't protect them," says one western diplomat. As another puts it: "The Chinese know this place is still an accident waiting to happen." Mr Zhai, too, recognises that "there are some sentiments against China among the common people". But like other Chinese scholars, he says China's importance to Burma is such that Beijing could forge strong ties with whomever is in power.

      With the UN process at a standstill, the generals' political makeover may force the west to rethink its approach. "The referendum and elections will create a new political reality," says the UN official. Mr Thant, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and himself formerly with the UN, argues that the constitution, whatever its shortcomings, could provide opportunities to re-engage with Burma. It would "create a much more complex decision-making structure - and that is the first step away from dictatorship", he says. "If that is coupled with economic reform and the economy growing, you have the beginnings of a different political system."

      Yet Burma's new constitution may simply mean the perpetuation of military rule in fresh garb - a matter of concern to both the west and China. "The Chinese genuinely do not think the government here is capable of delivering the kind of Burma they want to see," says a western diplomat in Rangoon. "The question for them, and all of us, is how do we get from where we are now to the better-run but still pretty authoritarian state that is likely to follow?" Answers so far are thin on the ground.


      Than Shwe's Worthless Promises
      Irrawaddy: March 29, 2008

      After four-and-a-half decades under military rule, the people of Burma are constantly looking for signs that the country may be ready for a return to democracy.

      On Thursday, in a ceremony to mark Armed Forces Day, the Burmese dictator in chief, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, announced that the military would be ready to hand over power to a civilian government after elections in 2010.

      This should have been welcome news to Burma's long-suffering citizens. Unfortunately, after 20 years in power, few were willing to give the aging general the benefit of the doubt about his true intentions. Upon hearing his words, most Burmese simply shrugged and said they've hear it all before.

      There are not many people left in Burma today who have much faith in the army that has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than a generation. When the army seized control in 1962, some were prepared to believe that it had the country's interests at heart. Now, it seems, the so-called national army is working solely for those who control it.

      When the generals came under fire from the international community for cracking down on monk-led protests last year, Than Shwe thought he could get his critics off his back by promising to meet with detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. True to form, he never kept his word.

      At this stage, Than Shwe seems to feel that he no longer needs to make such empty promises. In early March, Than Shwe sent a message through his protégé, Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, that he had rejected a request by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for changes to the new draft constitution to "ensure inclusiveness."

      All official avenues for a national reconciliation process have thus come to a dead end, resulting in the failure of mediation efforts by the UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. Once again, the dream of positive changes in Burma has been crushed by the grim reality of Than Shwe's rule.

      Burmese people understand the historical fact that Burma's modern army was formed by independence leader Gen Aung San and his comrades, who fought for the freedom and dignity of their country.

      Armed Forces Day - formerly known as Resistance Day - has turned into an occasion to subvert this legacy in the service of Than Shwe's military-backed quasi-monarchy.

      Than Shwe has deprived a proud moment in Burma's past of its meaning and now he is offering a vision of the country's future that is equally false.

      It is up to the new generation of officers in the armed forces to recognize the suffering and pain of their country and to correct the mistakes of the likes of Than Shwe and his despotic predecessors.

      If not, Burma's prospects will be as worthless as Than Shwe's words.


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