[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 24/4/08
- Top Myanmar activist may go blind
- Burmese regime fails to provide proper medical care to political prisoners
- Burma's displaced people
- Wa farmers demand return to poppy cultivation
- UN draft calls on Myanmar junta to take urgent steps to start talks with opposition's Suu Kyi
- Rangoon life: Powerless and nervous
- Myanmar's awful choice
- Military commanders join referendum "vote yes" campaign
- Analysts apprehend vote rigging
- Opinion poll suggests Burmese are confused about referendum
- National ID cards for Muslims in Arakan State
- In the Burmese countryside, elderly and sick forced to vote "yes"
- Plans readied to rig constitution referendum
- No room for No amid the junta's Yes drive
- Burma's durable junta
Top Myanmar activist may go blind: US
AFP: Wed 23 Apr 2008
Military-ruled Myanmar's imprisoned pro-democracy activist Min Ko Naing may go blind after failing to receive medical treatment, the US State Department charged Tuesday.
The de facto number two opposition leader after democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi "has not received care for an eye infection that, if left untreated, could cause loss of sight," department spokesman Tom Casey said.
Student leader Min Ko Naing was arrested in August last year along with a dozen colleagues after he participated in a peaceful march over a sudden oil price hike that triggered wide-spread protests later and a deadly military crackdown.
He sought permission to see an eye specialist but the authorities at the Insein Prison in Yangon, where he is being held, refused, reports said.
"We condemn the failure of Burma's authorities to provide proper medical treatment to a number of prisoners, who may suffer irreparable damages due to the lack of prompt medical attention," Casey said.
Burma is the previous name of Myanmar.
In March, U Myint Thein, spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, died in Singapore from cancer that was left untreated while he was imprisoned for his role in the September pro-democracy protests, Casey said.
He also expressed concern that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had still not received the monthly visits with her doctor as had been agreed with UN Special Envoy on Burma Ibrahim Gambari.
"We urge the regime to release all political prisoners immediately," Casey said.
"The intentional withholding of necessary medical treatment for political reasons is a serious violation of human rights. While these individuals are in the custody of the regime, they should receive the medical care they require," he said.
Rights groups say there are about 1,850 political prisoners in Myanmar, at least 700 of whom were arrested after anti-junta demonstrations last September.
The military crushed those protests in an operation the UN says killed at least 31 people.
Burmese regime fails to provide proper medical care to political prisoners - Tom Casey
US Department of State: Wed 23 Apr 2008
We condemn the failure of Burma's authorities to provide proper medical treatment to a number of prisoners, who may suffer irreparable damages due to the lack of prompt medical attention. We have received reports that pro-democracy activist and 88 Generation Students leader Min Ko Naing has not received care for an eye infection that, if left untreated, could cause loss of sight. In March, U Myint Thein, the National League for Democracy spokesperson, died in Singapore from cancer that was left untreated while he was imprisoned for his role in the September pro-democracy protests.
We are also concerned that Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi still has not received the monthly visits with her doctor as had been agreed with UN Special Envoy on Burma Ibrahim Gambari.
We urge the regime to release all political prisoners immediately. The intentional withholding of necessary medical treatment for political reasons is a serious violation of human rights. While these individuals are in the custody of the regime, they should receive the medical care they require.
Burma's displaced people - Inge Brees
Forced Migration Review No.30: Wed 23 Apr 2008
This issue of FMR aims to help bring the crisis of forced displacement of Burmese people back into the international spotlight.
With the 'Saffron Revolution' of September 2007, Burma was catapulted into the centre of international attention. It was briefly headline news as people monitored the regime's response and watched for hints of progress towards democracy and the restoration of rights. With little action on either front (and no visible resurgence of violence or protest), interest has since waned.
The September protests, led by Buddhist monks, were sparked by a sudden increase in oil prices which had a serious impact on the already impoverished population. After a few days, the government violently ended what it called the 'disruption of stability'. Governments around the world condemned the crackdown and the UN Secretary-General sent Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari to negotiate with the Burmese rulers. At the same time, however, China and Russia used their right of veto in the UN Security Council to block discussion of matters which they considered to be internal to Burma, no 'threat to international security' - and therefore outside the mandate of the Security Council.
Most reports on Burma explain that the conflict started in 1988 when the Burmese junta cracked down on nationwide demonstrations. But is that really when it all started? How about the moment when the army took power in 1962? Or before that, after independence from the British in 1948, when some of the ethnic minorities were granted autonomy while the plight of others was ignored - who then, predictably, took up arms to fight this inequality? Stating that conflict only started in 1988 ignores the call for (cultural) autonomy by the ethnic minorities that started decades earlier. What is certainly true is that refugee and IDP numbers rose considerably at the end of the 1980s, in the aftermath of the demonstrations of 1988, and with the loss of territory by the ethnic armies and the country's growing economic emergency.
Today, displacement is widespread. In June 2007, the ICRC issued a rare public condemnation of the Burmese military government's actions, saying that they have 'helped to create a climate of constant fear among the population and have forced thousands of people to join the ranks of the internally displaced, or to flee abroad.' Close to half a million people have been displaced internally over the last decade on the eastern border alone. In addition, millions of Burmese have crossed into neighbouring countries. In Thailand there are an estimated two million Burmese trying to make a living. If they are fleeing armed conflict or political persecution, they can receive protection and assistance in refugee camps. Those who fled after November 2005, however, are ineligible for protection, due to the moratorium on refugee registration. They have no choice but to stay outside the camps, where they are considered illegal migrants, subject to arrest and deportation.
There are good reasons why Thailand maintains such a strict demarcation between refugee and migrant status. Those inside the camps not only get protection and assistance but also have access to resettlement programmes - a recognised pull factor. Thailand has had to carry the burden of refugee inflows from neighbouring countries for decades and prefers to keep tight control on its ability to respond according to its own interests. That is why Thailand has still not signed the Geneva Convention and why they call refugees 'temporary displaced persons fleeing fighting', to emphasise that their stay in Thailand will come to an end as soon as conditions in Burma are conducive to return.
The exact number of Burmese refugees in other countries bordering Burma is unknown but Bangladesh, India, China and Malaysia have all had to deal with substantial influxes of Burmese citizens. As Thailand receives the bulk of the refugees and is the base for the vocal Burmese opposition, many of the articles in this issue of FMR focus on the Thai situation and the ethnic Karen. This should not be seen to underplay the plight of Burmese refugees in other countries or IDPs in other areas inside Burma. There is simply less information available on them - a gap that needs to be addressed.
In terms of durable solutions for this refugee population, the current focus is on resettlement. As a form of responsibility sharing, several Western countries have agreed to accept groups of Burmese refugees. This is resulting in large scale movements from the Thai camps to the West, with some additional cases from Bangladesh and India. Several articles in this issue explain how resettlement, while ensuring protection for the refugees concerned, raises issues for community management of the camps and is causing tensions within the refugee population.
Thoughts on other durable solutions, such as repatriation or local integration, are missing, however. Even if repatriation is currently impossible, agencies should at least consider the possibility of unexpected changes in Burma which would lead to massive population movements. Early planning is imperative. At the same time, more thought should be given to the alternative solution of local integration. Although most host countries are against this option, my own research indicates that many Burmese people are already integrating, against the odds, and are an economic asset to their host countries. An open debate on all durable solutions and immediate improvements to the 'closed' camps are urgently needed for the sake of both the Burmese refugees and their host populations.
Given that Burmese people are displaced throughout the region, this humanitarian crisis will require regional solutions. UNHCR could be encouraged to set up a consultative committee involving all refugee receiving countries to discuss and coordinate a common approach towards Burmese refugees - even if a comprehensive plan of action is currently impossible due to the actions of the Burmese junta. But, as Loescher and Milner state, this is only part of the solution: 'A humanitarian response to the needs of refugees in the region is not a substitute for engaging in the question of resolving the conditions in the country of origin that continue to force refugees to flee.' (1) The efforts of the UN Special Representative to push for dialogue between the different stakeholders in Burma are essential if Burma's large-scale displacement is ever to end. But from his latest visit to the country in March 2008 it is clear that the prospects for genuine dialogue remain gloomy.
In January 2008 the junta suddenly announced that the National Convention had drafted a Constitution, on which the Burmese population has to vote in a national referendum. Elections will be held in 2010. Finally a positive move? Maybe so, but with a lot of caveats. Opposition to or campaigning against the National Convention and the referendum are regarded as treason, and incur a penalty of several years' imprisonment. Additionally, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from taking part in the elections because of her marriage to a British citizen. When Gambari requested that international monitors be allowed to observe the referendum, this was immediately rejected and he was accused of bias in favour of the opposition. The carving out of both humanitarian and political space thus so far remains extremely difficult.
We would like to express our thanks to the numerous academics, UN agencies, NGOs and human rights organisations who have written for this issue - and to the refugees and IDPs themselves who wrote from inside the conflict zones and the refugee camps to make sure their views were heard. (2)
* Inge Brees (inge.brees@...), guest editor for this issue, is a doctoral fellow at the Conflict Research Group, based at the University of Ghent in Belgium (www.conflictresearchgroup.be). She is currently conducting research on livelihoods of both camp and self-settled refugees in Thailand.
(1.) 'Protracted refugee situation in Thailand: towards solutions'. Presentation given to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 1 February 2006.
(2.) For their protection, the names of most refugee contributors have not been given; these articles have instead, at their request, been attributed to their organisation.
Burma v Myanmar
Using the name Burma, rather than the official name Myanmar, is a politically sensitive choice, as the opposition and several Western countries refuse to recognise the name change instigated by the junta. Most Burmese people still use the old name in private conversations, which is why 'Burma' is used here. Contributors to FMR were free to choose which name to use. The term 'Burmese' is used for any person originally coming from Burma, while the term 'Burman' is used for people from the ethnic majority group.
Wa farmers demand return to poppy cultivation
SHAN: Wed 23 Apr 2008
A growing number of impoverished farmers in the Wa region on the Sino-Burma has been calling on the Wa authorities to allow a return to poppy culture that was suspended almost 3 years ago, according to both official and unofficial sources.
"We've been pleading with our local officials since August," said a middle-age elder from Pangyang, some 30 miles west of Panghsang, the Wa capital. "They said they would forward our petition to the Central. No reply has been received so far and we are quite desperate, especially when our relatives in Mawfa (Burma Army controlled Wa territory since 1980, now renamed Markmang aka Metman township) are boasting a good harvest."
One official in Panghsang acknowledged the fact saying, "The world says we are wicked when our people grow opium. But when we stop it, the Burmese military government, although it has done nothing to stop in areas under its control, is praised for doing a good job."
All townships surrounding the United Wa State Army's territory, designated by Naypyidaw as Shan State Special Region #2: Hsenwi, Lashio, Tangyan, Monghsu, Markmang and Mongkhark, except those under the control of Kokang and Mongla ceasefire groups, have reported increased output.
Housewives are most articulate about the prevailing conditions:
"Before the ban, I was able to go to the market, held once every 5 days," said a mother of two children, "but now, only once a month. Every time I go to the market, I see fewer buyers and fewer sellers. Many former marketeers who are my friends say they can no longer make a living as traveling salespeople so they are doing something else."
Another housewife in Panghsang offered SHAN a different aspect of the plight. "I used to send my kids to study in Monglem (known by the Chinese as Menglien, across the border)," she said. "But now they all go to school in Panghsang, because I can no longer afford the cost."
There were 5 middle schools and 240 primary schools in the year 2000, reported Tom Kramer's The United Wa State Party: Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party? (2007). Education beyond middle school is non-existent.
Other stories told by migrants from the surrounding hills to the fast growing slums on the outskirts of Panghsang are more freakish:
"We were taught how to grow tea," said a 54-year old ex-poppy farmer who is now making a living by digging and transporting sand from Panghsang's Namkha river to the construction sites. "But they were even more delicate than newborns and when it failed, our instructors were never seen again."
"Those who have lowland paddy fields are luckier," he added. "The aid agencies bought them buffaloes to plow their fields."
A mother in a makeshift hovel whose roofs leak when the rains come thought she was lucky to have the job of looking after the rubber plantations. "One of my friends, a divorcee with one child, was sold to a Chinese man by her parents for Y 6,000 ($750)," she said.
According to a Wa official, there are 600,000 acres of rubber plants in areas under its control.
Many other women are working in hotels, restaurants and homes. "Some are luckier," she said. "They have relatives across the border and get jobs paying Y 200-400 ($25-50) a month."
Several sources pointed out that most girls working as prostitutes on the border, although they may have haild from the Wa region, are not Wa as most people believe. "Most Wa have darker skin, which few customers prefer," said a Panghsang resident. "So the majority of those engaging in this profession are those with fairer skin like Shans, although they may be known as Wa to the outside world."
An advertisement in a Chinese website last year boasted: "Wa men flaunt their guns , while Wa girls flaunt their bodies."
The ex-poppy farmers, on the other hand, are getting their regular rice donations from the World Food Program (WFP) twice a year, 20 pay (66.7 liters) each time, which, if mixed with other edibles and carefully rationed, lasts about 4 months. "So most are in dire straits for the remaining 4 months of the year," a Wa from the hills who had recently moved to Panghsang said. "But here in Panghsang, we are close to the authorities and the aid agencies, so our situation is not as bad as those back in the hills."
Taking stock, commented an educated native of the Wa territory, things have not been getting better since the ban in 2005. "In fact, it is getting worse each year," he said. "But one might be fooled into thinking that the situation may be getting better, because you are getting a less number of complaints these days compared to the first two years, except for the demand to return to poppy cultivation."
The reasons are two-fold, according to him:
One, complaints do not bring improvements
Two, people are getting used to their sufferings after three years
"The generals in Naypyidaw are probably counting on it," he concluded.
UN draft calls on Myanmar junta to take urgent steps to start talks with opposition's Suu Kyi
AP: Wed 23 Apr 2008
A revised draft Security Council statement circulated Wednesday calls on Myanmar's government to take urgent steps to initiate a dialogue with detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and allow her all other political actors to fully participate in the May referendum on a new constitution.
The revised statement, prepared by the United States, Britain and France appeared to reflect their growing impatience with the failure of Myanmar's military rulers to start serious talks with Suu Kyi and open up the political process to all opposition parties. It was sent to council members and obtained by The Associated Press.
China, which has close ties with Myanmar, had objected to the initial draft circulated in early April. Since the revised draft is very similar, it was unclear whether it would support the statement, which requires approval from all 15 Security Council members.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters its very important that the council sends "a strong message, a clear message" that the referendum must be credible.
Asked whether China supported the draft, he noted that since the initial draft was circulated, council members have watched to seen whether Myanmar's regime would take "some of the steps that are necessary for a credible process." Myanmar's junta has not, he said, so a "strong message" is needed from the council to the regime and to the people and to the world.
"The council cannot be silent, should not be silent in the face of what has happened and what has not happened," he said. "The people of Burma deserve support from the council, from the international community.
The previous draft, circulated in early April, called on Myanmar's military rulers "to take, in a timely manner, concrete, meaningful steps that result in genuine dialogue" with Suu Kyi. The revised draft stresses the need for the government "to take, on an urgent basis, concrete, meaningful steps that result in genuine dialogue" with the detained pro-democracy leader.
The revised draft reiterates the call "on the government of Myanmar to allow full participation of all political actors, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi" in the referendum process and elections in 2010 in order for it "to be inclusive and credible.
"The Security Council further notes the commitment by the government of Myanmar to ensure that the referendum will be free and fair and that all will be allowed to participate on equal terms," the revised draft statement says.
The junta's critics charge that the constitution - a stage on its so-called "roadmap to democracy" - was drafted in an undemocratic way, and that it would perpetuate military rule.
Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, has urged voters to reject the draft constitution, but longstanding restrictions on freedom of speech and harassment of pro-democracy activists have made it difficult to mount a campaign against the proposed charter.
Myanmar has been ruled by the military since 1962. The current junta seized power in 1988 and refused to honor the results of a 1990 general election won by Suu Kyi's party. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is currently under house arrest, has been in detention without trial for more than 12 of the past 18 years.
During a visit to Myanmar in March, U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari was rebuffed when he proposed a a U.N. role in the May referendum _ and when he suggested that the military junta amend its seven-point roadmap to democracy to include input from the country's pro-democracy movement and other political parties.
The junta has been under strong international pressure to make democratic reforms, especially since it quashed peaceful pro-democracy protests last September. The U.N. estimates at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained in the crackdown.
The revised draft reaffirms the Security Council's "unwavering support" for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's "good offices mission" and for Gambari _ and it adds a line urging the government and all parties to cooperate fully with the United Nations.
It reiterates the previous draft's expression of regret at the military government's "slow rate of progress" toward meeting the council's call last September for a "genuine dialogue" with the pro-democracy opposition and the early release of all political prisoners and detainees.
The revised draft for the first time acknowledges "the important role" that Myanmar's fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, "continue to play in supporting a peaceful transition to democracy, and supporting the United Nations' good offices mission.
It reiterates the Security Council's commitment to Myanmar's territorial integrity, "and, in that context, to helping the government and people of Myanmar to bring an early end to military rule and begin a transition to democracy.
Rangoon life: Powerless and nervous
BBC News: Wed 23 Apr 2008
After two explosions in the Burmese capital last weekend, a Burmese man, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells the BBC about increasing discontent and worsening conditions in Rangoon.
Our country's situation is getting worse.
We used to get electricity and power for six hours a day. Now it has reduced to five hours a day.
If we do not get power in the night it is difficult to sleep because the weather now is extremely hot. Without air conditioning or a fan we cannot sleep.
Sometimes the power is from 5pm one evening to 5am the next morning, and sometimes it comes on close to midnight and goes off at 5am.
The blackouts mean people cannot channel water up to their apartments. Can you imagine what our life is like here?
We don't know where the cash from Burma's gas has gone to. We feel the [ruling] generals' pockets are becoming bigger and bigger while the country's pockets are becoming smaller and smaller.
We even wonder if the bomb last weekend was planted by the authorities to blame those who are against them.
Whenever a bomb explodes, no responsible person is found or brought to justice. But they will arrest a man from an opposition party and force him to admit that he planted the bomb.
Now that the referendum period is drawing near, it is in the interest of the authorities to make people fear bomb attacks. It appears to me that now there is a good reason to place soldiers and police at polling booths.
I think that people will become too afraid to cast the "No" vote when they see a heavy police presence.
Now the authorities are forcing local wards to get as many "Yes" votes as they can. They will use all their means to get a "Yes" vote from government staff and army personnel.
Meanwhile the economy is getting worse, the price of commodities is rising sky-high, while people's incomes just don't change.
The junta is building dams for hydropower but the power hasn't arrived yet.
After years of being broken the power station hasn't been repaired because they don't have any spare parts.
Myanmar's awful choice
The Economist: Wed 23 Apr 2008
IN EMBASSIES abroad, voting has already begun in the referendum on Myanmar's new constitution, which will be held in-country on May 10th. The ruling junta advertises it as an important step forward on its "roadmap" to democratic, civilian rule. If only.
Rather the referendum is, in the words of Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, a "ritual without real content".
Or perhaps it is even worse than that: a ritual with content, symbolising and confirming the sheer misery of Myanmar's plight and threatening to make it permanent. A junta-appointed committee took 15 years to draft the constitution, which offers nothing close to democracy.
It gives the army chief the power to intervene in politics at will. Several cabinet seats would be reserved for army officers, as would 25% of seats in both houses of parliament.
A bizarre clause is apparently tailor-made to bar Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, from elected office. When Myanmar last held elections, she was banned because of her foreign connections: she was married to a foreigner and had spent much of her life abroad.
Her husband has since died, and she has been in Myanmar without interruption - mostly under lock and key. Now, however, those whose "children or their spouses" are foreign are excluded. Miss Suu Kyi's two sons are British, having been deprived of their Burmese citizenship.
Despite all this, some of the regime's critics used to think the constitution worth voting for: it is, after all, the only chance of change that is on offer. And it does envisage some sort of political process, with a parliament, which implies debate and even, perhaps, disagreement.
To be blithely optimistic, this process might gather a momentum of its own. It might, for example, expose the undoubted rifts within the junta.
And, by bringing in the "ceasefire groups" - representatives of ethnic insurgencies that are at present quiescent - it would bring a formal end to some of the world's longest-running armed conflicts.
Now, however, it is hard to find anyone outside the junta itself who favours a "yes" vote. There are two main reasons for this. The first is the junta's brutal suppression of last autumn's monk-led protests. A much feared and loathed regime proved itself even more hateful.
Second is the strengthening of provisions in the draft designed to make it hard to change it in future. Amendment will require at least 75% of the votes in parliament - ie, including those of some of the soldiers - and 50% of eligible voters in a subsequent referendum.
So the constitution seems a way of entrenching eternal military domination.
Any hint of a campaign for a "no" vote in Myanmar has been suppressed - those caught scrawling graffiti face long jail sentences; T-shirts bearing the word "Nobody", which were made in Thailand and which Burmese had taken to wearing in discreet protest, are being removed from shop shelves.
With no independent poll-monitors, even if there is a "no" vote, we might never know. The generals will surely remember the embarrassment of being thrashed in the election they held in 1990.
So the looming vote evokes in some activists not the hope of change, however imperfect, but desperation over its impossibility. In that sense, it is comparable to the role of the Beijing Olympics in Tibet - almost a last chance to make a futile protest heard.
In a rare (if minor) incident of terrorism in Myanmar, two small bombs exploded in the centre of Yangon on Sunday April 20th. The government has blamed a group of exiled dissidents. But the one thing Myanmar is not short of is angry, desperate people.
Military commanders join referendum "vote yes" campaign - Saw Yan Naing
Irrawaddy: Wed 23 Apr 2008
Some Burmese military commanders have joined the government-sponsored campaign to persuade people to vote in favor of the draft constitution in next month's referendum.
The head of Northern Command, Maj-Gen Ohn Myint, who is also chairman of the Kachin State Peace and Development Council, recently toured Kachin State urging local authorities and members of the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association to persuade local residents to vote for the constitution, said a resident in Myitkyina.
Mobile phones were being promised to people who voted in favor of the draft constitution in the May 10 referendum, the source said.
Legal action, including fines or imprisonment, was being threatened against voters who opposed the constitution, he said.
A new law enacted by the military government provides for punishment of up to three years imprisonment and a 100,000 kyat (US $91) fine for anyone convicted of making anti-government statements or distributing posters opposing the referendum.
Htay Aung, a researcher for the Network for Democracy and Development, who lives in exile, said: "They [the Burmese government] plan on success for their constitution because they have written it in their 'seven-step road map'. They have a sense of duty to win."
In early March, local authorities in Rangoon, including members of Township and Ward Peace and Development Councils, were ordered to lobby residents to vote in favor of the constitution by the chairman of the Rangoon Division Peace and Development Council, Brig-Gen Hla Htay Win, and Home Minister Maung Oo, according to sources in the former capital.
'Vote Yes' campaigns are also under way in some townships of Mandalay and in Shan State, according to reliable sources there. Sai Lao Hseng, spokesman of the Shan State ArmySouth, said local authorities were using threats in their appeals to local people to vote in favor of the constitution.
Htay Aung said that if the referendum is free and fair the military regime is sure to lose. "It is very clear that nobody wants to live under dictatorship. If the people have a chance to vote freely and fairly, they will vote 'No,'" he said.
Since early March, local authorities in Rangoon and other regions, especially in ethnic states, have been issuing temporary citizen identification cards to residents over the age of 18 while urging them to vote "Yes," sources said. The cards were also being issued to government soldiers, their families and members of major ceasefire groups to allow them to vote in the referendum.
Members and soldiers of the Kachin Independence Organization and its military wing, the Kachin Independence Army, the United Wa State Army, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the New Mon State Party have reportedly received IDs.
Voting has already begun ahead of the May 10 referendum date at several Burmese embassies in Asia, including South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.
Analysts apprehend vote rigging - Nay Thwin
Mizzima News: Wed 23 Apr 2008
Analysts and critics at home and abroad are concerned over the possibility of rigging in the referendum seeking approval of the constitution on May 10. The apprehension has mounted following a junta brass statement on the vote counting method.
Maj. Gen. Myint Swe, member of ruling military council, said during a meeting held in Naypyitaw on April 9 that the voting results will be announced from the junta's capital city Naypyitaw.
This meeting was attended by about 600 senior officials from government and non-government sectors. During the meeting, Maj. Gen. Myint Swe said that they would allow only 10 last voters in each polling station to witness the vote counting in each station.
Thailand based Burmese observer and analyst U Win Min said that what Maj. Gen. Myint Swe said was contrary to the referendum law and rule issued by the Referendum Commission. He was worried about the method of counting votes and the consequent results.
"According to the Referendum Law, there must be at least 10 voters as witnesses in each polling booth. It means there may be 20, 30, 40 to 100 but it must not be less than 10. But Gen. Myint Swe said that they would allow only the last 10 voters, which is contrary to the law", he said.
"So our people will have to wait till the end to be among the last 10 witnesses as voters. The government backed organizations like USDA will manipulate to be among the last 10 voters by any means and at any cost", he added.
U Thein Nyunt, NLD's lawyer is apprehensive about vote rigging more at the Township level than at the ward level. He warned that vote counting should be guarded and monitored by the people themselves to make sure there is no foul play and vote rigging in the referendum.
U Thein Nyunt further said that there are many loopholes in this referendum laws and rules. His party NLD is studying these laws and rules thoroughly and will inform the people after studying it.
"In the 1990 general election, the poll results were announced from each polling station after counting there. We could collect the result from each polling station and add it up ourselves. In this way, we knew who won in each constituency. We can do the same this time. We must try to send our people to every polling station. For instance, we must send 100 people to all 100 polling stations in Myitkyina. Suppose if we have 100,000 'No' votes according to our own collected data, and then if this comes down to 10,000 according to the government result, it must be vote rigging. We must lodge a complaint about this irregularity to the authorities concerned, "U Thein Nyunt added.
"Each polling station will send the ballot boxes to the Township level referendum commission. Then the votes will be counted at these township level stations. In the prescribed vote counting form, there is no space for witnesses. There are many questionable things and points as far as we have studied", U Thein Nyunt further said.
Burmese observer and analyst U Win Min said the junta's announcement that all the voting result will be announced from Naypyitaw suggests that the referendum will be rigged.
"They can guess whether the result will be 'Yes' or 'No'. So they can easily rig the referendum. They will announce re-polling where there are 'No' votes. They can do anything. The point of concern is the announcement of results from only one place, Naypyitaw, not from each polling station. It is not in accordance with international norms. In Burma too, this system has never been in use. Their intention is very clear - poll rigging," he observed.
The junta fixed the referendum for May 10 this year amid growing protests and criticism at home.
Though the UN and opposition forces called for allowing independent observers to monitor the referendum to make it more free, fair and transparent, the junta turned down all these requests and demands.
Opinion poll suggests Burmese are confused about referendum
Mizzima News: Wed 23 Apr 2008
Less than three weeks from the referendum meant to approve the draft constitution, a large section of the Burmese population are still in a state of confusion about what they are going to vote for. This despite, the Burmese military junta's vigorous campaign seeking support for its draft constitution.
In a random opinion poll, conducted by Mizzima on the forthcoming referendum, most respondents said they are still undecided about what they would vote in the referendum.
Out of the 226 random telephone calls across major cities in Burma, 24 people said they will not vote in the referendum while 55 people said they have not decided whether to cast their votes.
The survey, which was a part of a larger opinion poll, was conducted across a wide-range of Burmese society including, government employees, street vendors, businessmen and traders, housewives, professionals, members of the armed forces and retired people across Burma.
Of the 147 people who said they will vote, 55.1 per cent or 81 people said they are still confused of what to vote. While 46 people said they will vote in favour of the junta's draft constitution, 20 people said they will reject the constitution by casting a 'No' vote.
Out of the 45 respondents in Rangoon, 26 people or 57.7 per cent said they will vote in the ensuing referendum while 10 persons said they will abstain.
But nine people said they are still confused of whether they should vote or should stay out of the whole process.
Of the total, only one, an officer from the Burmese Navy, said he has read the constitution while the rest said they have not read it and are unaware of the contents.
While six people, all of whom are government employee in various department, said they will vote in favour of the constitution, three people said they will reject the constitution by casting a 'No' vote. Of more than half of those who have decided to vote, 17 people, said they were undecided.
Of the 32 respondents in Burma's second largest city, Mandalay, 68.75 percent or 22 people said they will cast their votes in the May referendum, while 10 people said they have not decided whether to vote or not.
More than half or 59 percent or 13 people out of those who decided to vote said they will continue to keep a watch on the process of the referendum before deciding on what to vote.
Three people - a street vendor, a college student and a company manager - said they will vote in favour of the constitution by voting 'yes', while six others said they will vote 'No' and reject the draft constitution.
But out of the 32 respondents, 22 said they have not read the draft constitution while 10 said they have seen and read it and have a rough understanding of the constitution.
In a random call to three towns - Magwe, Pakokku and Yenan Chaung - in Magwe division in central Burma, 61.5 percent or 24 people out of the 39 respondents said they will cast their votes in the referendum in May.
But while 12 of the respondents said they have not decided, three people said they prefer to remain away from any of the junta's process.
Of the 24, who have decided to vote, five people said they will support the junta's constitution while another five said they will cast a 'No' vote as they have no idea of the constitution. But the remaining 14 said, they have not made up their minds, and would decide later, though they said they will vote.
Of the 39 respondents, only three said they have had a chance to view the draft constitution, while the rest said they have not seen it.
Of the 92 random calls made to Pegu, Pyi (Prome), Zegone, and Tharyarwaddy towns in Pegu division, only 30 people responded. The majority of them disconnected the phone, as soon as Mizzima asked about their voting plans in the forthcoming referendum.
Among the 30 respondents, 26 persons or 86 per cent said they will cast their votes in the referendum, and three said they are undecided, but one person said he would remain out of the whole process and that he will not cast a vote.
Eleven people from Pyi, Tharyarwaddy and Zegone towns said, they will vote in favour of the constitution because it is essential that Burma has one, while another eleven said they have not yet decided on whether to vote in support or to reject the constitution.
But four people said, they will cast a 'No' vote rejecting the junta's draft constitution.
"I cannot agree to what I have not seen," said an educated man of the age 50 in Tharyarwaddy town, complaining that the draft constitution has come to their town recently.
Of the 30 respondents in Pegu division, only five said they have read the constitution and have a rough idea of what it is.
Sixty respondents to Mizzima's calls to Hinzada, Ma Oo Pin, Basein, Ngapuhtaw, Daw Pong, Myuang Mya, and Laputta towns in Burma's delta region of Irrawaddy Division, and 66.6 percent or 40 people said they have made up their minds to cast their votes in the referendum.
While four people said they have no desire to vote, as they are not aware of what has been written in the constitution, 28.3 percent or 17 people said they will watch the process and take a decision later.
Interestingly, while 34 people said they have not seen the draft constitution and are not aware of the content, 26 people, mostly middle class businessmen and government employees, said they have seen the draft constitution and are fairly aware of the contents.
Of the 20 respondents from Kalemyo and Monywa towns in Sagaing division nine people said they are ready to cast their votes, while five said they have not made up their minds.
Another six people said, they will remain out of the whole process and will not cast their votes as a boycott of the military regime.
Three people - a retired military personal, a USDA member (junta-backed civilian organization), and an Army Major - in Monywa town said they have no choice but to support the constitution as they serve the junta.
The other six out of the nine, however, said they would like to see the process and hear people talking and then later decide on what to vote.
Of the 20 respondents, while 15 said they have not seen the draft constitution and are not aware of the contents, another five said they have seen the junta's draft constitution.
National ID cards for Muslims in Arakan State
Narinjara News: Wed 23 Apr 2008
Government authorities in Arakan State have been luring Muslim community members in Sittwe to cast "yes" votes in the upcoming referendum with promises that it will issue them with genuine national ID cards, said a politician.
He said, "The authority has conducted the plan in Sittwe through a group of Muslim businessmen led by U Khin Maung Lat, who is pro military government. The group is visiting all households in the Muslim community in Sittwe one by one to organize people to cast "yes" votes in the referendum, with the enticement of national ID cards."
Military authorities in Arakan State have been conducting the plan after rumors began spreading in Sittwe that residents will be casting "no" votes if they go to the polling booths.
"I think authorities will force people to cast "yes" votes, but there is a problem of how they can covert "no" votes to "yes" votes, if the everyone in Sittwe casts "no" votes in the referendum. So the authority has been using a new tactic of giving many enticements to get people to cast "yes" votes," he said.
The Burmese military government used to issue white national ID cards to Muslims in Sittwe, but many Muslims have refused to accept them because the cards are for resident foreigners, and not for Burmese nationals.
He said, "The authority knows well what the Muslim community needs from the military government, so they have lured the Muslim community by showing national ID cards for "yes" votes."
The Burmese military authority has issued temporary ID cards to individuals who are over 18 recently for the referendum, but the temporary ID cards are not substitutes for genuine national ID cards.
The authority is attempting to lure the Muslim community to Sittwe by issuing genuine national ID cards if the community supports the draft constitution by casting "yes" votes, the politician concluded.
In the Burmese countryside, elderly and sick forced to vote "yes"
AsiaNews: Wed 23 Apr 2008
There has been early voting for these categories of voters: last Sunday, dozens of election observers went to the homes of the elderly and sick, requiring them to vote and to sign their ballots. In the state of Kachin, the authorities offer rice and mobile phones in exchange for support of the new constitution.
In the Burmese villages, the elderly and sick have been summoned for early voting in the constitutional referendum, scheduled to take place on May 10 on the national level. The voting was coerced by "volunteers" sent by the military regime, and was not conducted in secret. On April 20 - sources outside of Mandalay tell AsiaNews - dozens of observers, including many young students, went to the homes of elderly and sick voters and "made them vote" for the "yes". The citizens, moreover, were forced to sign the ballot, so that each vote could be traced back to the voter. The population has been afraid for weeks that the junta might enact this kind of strategy. The lack of secrecy in the voting makes more concrete the threats of "grave repercussions" issued by the authorities to those who will not support the new constitution.
"Fear reigns in the villages and in the province following this news", recounts a farmer in the southern part of the country, "we are angry and concerned at seeing the methods used by the government to obtain what it wants, but I hope that my countrymen will have the courage to vote 'no'".
Three weeks from the scheduled voting, the military junta is intensifying its campaign to gather support. The news agency Democratic Voice of Burma yesterday claimed that the authorities are literally buying votes in the countryside in the state of Kachin, where many Christians live. "They offer mobile phones and rice", says Lahpai Naw Din, director of the Kachin News Group headquartered in Thailand and cited by the agency. "The religious leaders", he continues, "are asked to persuade their faithful to vote 'yes'. The military officials have an easy game of it in the areas where the level of literacy is very low and access to the media is almost nonexistent". "In the area of the Maykha river", the journalist adds, "they are manipulating the people as they please, they are sure they will obtain a large number of votes here".
Since 1988, Burma has had no constitution. The referendum is part of the controversial "road map" toward democratic reforms proposed by the junta during the 1990's. It will be followed by "democratic elections" in 2010, but experts maintain that this is only an attempt to consolidate the status quo, making it unassailable on the legal level.
Plans readied to rig constitution referendum - Marwaan Macan-Markar
IPS: Wed 23 Apr 2008
A rising star within the ranks of Burma's military regime is reported to have unveiled a plan to ensure the junta gets its way at the May referendum for a new constitution, according to information revealed to IPS.
Lt. Gen Myint Swe told a meeting of some 600 people, which included senior government officials, that only the last 10 people to vote at each polling station will be entitled to monitor the counting of the ballots at the station, revealed a well-informed source close to the military, who attended the meeting.
Furthermore, the results of the votes counted at the local level will not be revealed as and when the tallies are confirmed, Myint Swe is reported to have added, the source said of the Apr. 9 meeting, which was held in the former capital, Rangoon. The junta's plan is to reveal the final results in one announcement from the new capital, Naypidaw.
"This is to control the votes and rig the votes if needed," says Win Min, a Burmese national security expert lecturing at Payap University, in northern Thailand. "This is different from the 1990 elections, when they announced the results by each polling station at the local level, which makes controlling the result difficult."
At that election, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won a thumping majority despite the heavy odds it faced and the strong campaign launched by the junta to promote its own political party. However the junta refused to recognise the results. It opted, instead, to establish a national convention to draft a new constitution, a process that took a record 15 years and is finally awaiting approval on May 10.
Members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-junta organisation, will be the ones sent to vote last at each polling station to ensure access to monitor the vote count, Win Min added in an interview. "There have been widespread worries among the ministers, regional commanders, light infantry division commanders and senior USDA officials that they would be sacked if the referendum is lost in their respective areas."
Another plan the military has in store is to compel civil servants, university lecturers and school teachers to vote a week ahead of the referendum date in the direct presence of senior military officers, an order that ignores a voter's right to secrecy.
"This is voter intimidation," says Win Min. "It shows that the authorities are worried that these civil servants are likely to vote 'no' if they are free to do so."
The role of Myint Swe in this effort to swing the plebiscite the junta's way has broader implications, since he is known as a close confidante of the South-east Asian country's strongman, Senior General Than Shwe. Some Burmese analysts concur that what Myint Swe says "reflects Than Shwe's mind".
In fact, the army officer, in his late 50s, has played pivotal roles in the past to strengthen the military dictator's grip on power in Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta has renamed it.
In early 2006, in his capacity as the head of the military division in Rangoon and as head of military intelligence, Myint Swe launched a campaign to track down citizens in Burma who were feeding the international media with information. This manhunt in an already oppressed country included targets that ranged from businessmen and civil servants to local journalists.
In 2004, it was Myint Swe who Than Shwe turned to when he wanted get rid of Gen. Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and the intelligence chief at that time. Myint Swe arrested Khin Nyunt at the airport after having ordered the soldiers under his Rangoon division to arrest key men attached to the Khin Nyunt's intelligence office.
Myint Swe's role to ensure an outcome favourable to the junta is no different to that of another confidante of Than Shwe, Maj. Gen. Htay Oo, the secretary-general of the USDA. The latter organisation, which Than Shwe founded in September 1993, has been given the lead role in the forthcoming referendum and the general elections to be held in 2010.
And Htay Oo's role goes beyond ensuring that the USDA, which is officially reported to have 23 million members out of the country's 54 million population, campaigns for a favourable vote. He is reportedly spearheading a programme of intimidation in the run-up to the plebiscite.
Currently, an old racecourse in downtown Rangoon, the Kyaik-Ka-San grounds, has been converted to a training centre for USDA toughs to learn such skills as beating, threatening and arresting civilians identified as opponents of the junta, says a Burmese source who has secured pictures of such sessions.
"Htay Oo is very close to Than Shwe and he is part of the junta's campaign to intimidate voters into saying 'yes' at the referendum," says Zin Linn, spokesman for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese government in exile. "The training at the racecourse is under Htay Oo's control. No wonder the people regard them as a mafia."
"NLD members and pro-democracy activists have already been attacked by these USDA members," Zin Linn added in an interview. "There is going to be more force unleashed as the days for the referendum draw closer."
The USDA's notoriety as another arm of Than Shwe's oppressive regime was on display in September 2007, when it joined the military and riot police in the brutal crackdown of the pro-democracy protests, led by thousands of maroon-robed monks.
In May 2003, the USDA was also implicated in a bloody attack on NLD members, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during a political campaign in Depayin. Nearly 70 NDL supporters were killed by the mob of USDA members and other junta supporters.
In fact, the military official who masterminded the Depayin attack - aimed at silencing the universally popular pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi, now under house arrest - was Gen. Soe Win, another Than Shwe ally. He was subsequently named "the Butcher of Depayin" by Burmese dissidents for his ruthlessness. But Than Shwe viewed his confidante differently, rewarding him with the role of prime minister following Khin Nyunt's arrest.
Since it grabbed power in a March 1962 coup, the Burmese military has regularly served up officers prepared to unleash acts of repression as a pledge of loyalty to the dictator in power. Among the earliest in this Burmese military tradition was Brig. Gen. Sein Lwin. As a young commander, he gave soldiers the order to first shoot university students demonstrating and then to blow up the students' union building at the Rangoon University with students trapped inside.
For such brutal acts in July 1962, Sein Lwin was dubbed "the Butcher of Rangoon" by the Burmese opposition at the time. Yet it hardly came in the way of his rise within the military regime under Gen. Ne Win.
Sein Lwin was rewarded for implementing his master's policies as Myint Swe is being rewarded today. The latter is reported to be Than Shwe's second favourite after Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third-most powerful military officer in Burma and the one Than Shwe reportedly favours as his successor.
No room for No amid the junta's Yes drive
The New Straits Times: Wed 23 Apr 2008
The military rulers are not taking any chances as Myanmar gears up for May 10 referendum on a new charter. Dissenting voices are being silenced even as the junta runs a campaign urging the people to vote 'Yes', writes MOE MOE YU. IN military-run Myanmar, the junta's campaign for the proposed draft constitution is in full swing while opposing voices are kept silent, but many people are not convinced by the generals' promises.
Three weeks ahead of the May 10 referendum on the charter, front pages of state press scream in bold headlines: Let's vote Yes for national interest. Songs extolling the new proposed constitution, which was drafted by a committee hand-picked by the generals, fill the prime-time airwaves of government-owned television and radio stations.
The draft constitution book is now available in many bookstores in Yangon, albeit at a price of nearly US$1 (RM3.1) - far beyond the means of most people in this impoverished country.
Than Than, a 45-year-old housewife in the economic hub Yangon, has no plans to splash out for the hefty 194-page basic law.
"We don't even need to read that book," she said. "Even a housewife like me has enough experience under military rule. I think it was just prepared to secure their power."
The regime says the referendum will pave the way for multi-party elections in 2010.
But activists say the constitution was drafted with no public input, and simply enshrines the military's role in the country it has ruled for nearly half a century.
While barely a day goes by without the appearance in local press of poems, cartoons and editorials urging people to vote "Yes", efforts by pro-democracy activists to campaign against the charter have been quashed.
Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party is urging people to vote down the charter, but said last week that their activities were being curtailed, sometimes violently.
In the western town of Sittwe on Tuesday, at least 23 people wearing T-shirts bearing just one word - "No" - were arrested, the party said.
Official NLD documents were confiscated by authorities, they said, while local party organisers had been detained and interrogated.
Amid the tense atmosphere, people were weighing up their choice in the first poll to be held in Myanmar in 18 years.
"People are so stubborn," said a Myanmar engineer who works in Singapore. "They should be aware that if we vote 'Yes' the military will step down in two years, if not it will take another 10 years."
The proposed constitution reserves one quarter of seats in both chambers of parliament for military members, while some key ministries, including home affairs, will also be controlled exclusively by the army.
Aung San Suu Kyi would be barred from running for president under the new constitution because she was married to a foreigner.
Win, a 73-year-old former socialist party member, said it reminded him of the period after the military first grabbed power in 1962, headed by Ne Win.
"Many army officials including General Ne Win changed uniforms and took up positions in country's administration."
Many people in Myanmar were unwilling to discuss how they plan to vote out of fear of repercussions from the regime, and some are afraid that their votes too will be monitored by the junta.
"It would be dangerous for us if we vote 'No' because somebody might watch what we vote for at polling places", said 59-year-old Ye Ye.
Analysts have warned that the generals will do anything to prevent a "No" vote, and have cautioned that the poll will likely not be free and fair.
The last time the junta called open elections in 1990, the NLD won by a landslide in a result the regime refused to recognise. Instead, the generals kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has remained for 12 of the last 18 years.
"I don't think they will clear out even if the result is 'No', but I just want to show clearly that I don't want them any more," said a 38-year-old woman.
"So although there is not much hope for voting 'No', I will just vote 'No' anyway."
Burma's durable junta - Kyaw Zwa Moe
Irrawaddy: Wed 23 Apr 2008
After nearly two decades in power, Burma's ruling junta should be showing signs of wear and tear. Indeed, observers are constantly on the lookout for evidence of a split within the ranks of the regime's top leadership.
Not surprisingly, they often find what they're looking for. But rarely, if ever, do these internal strains signal the sort of real weakness that could undermine the junta's hold on power.
Since it seized power in 1988, the current regime has carried out four significant purges, each time emerging, if anything, stronger and more united.
In each case, the motive for removing certain high-ranking figures from their positions was personal rather than political: At no point has there ever been any major disagreement among the top generals about what direction the country should take.
The first change to take place in the regime's leadership came in April 1992, when the head of the ruling military council, Snr-Gen Saw Maung, was forced to step down, opening the way for the current leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to assume the position of head of state.
Saw Maung wasn't dismissed because he had shown a willingness to hand over power to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Actually, he refused to recognize the results of the 1990 national elections, which had handed the party an overwhelming victory.
The real problem was Saw Maung's health. "He was becoming increasingly erratic and his public speeches were incoherent and rambling, covering subjects such as dying tomorrow and sightings of Jesus in Tibet," wrote journalist Bertil Lintner in his book "Burma in Revolt." Finally, he had a nervous breakdown and his tenure as Burma's supreme leader came to an abrupt end.
In 1997, several junta members and senior ministers, including Trade and Commerce Minister Lt-Gen Tun Kyi, Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt-Gen Kyaw Ba and Agriculture Minister Lt-Gen Myint Aung were purged. All three had previously been regional commanders notorious for abusing their power in their respective regions of Mandalay Division, Kachin State and Irrawaddy Division. They were removed from their ministerial posts on charges of corruption.
In 2002, Secretary 3 Lt-Gen Win Myint and Minister for Military Affairs Lt-Gen Tin Hla were sacked because "they violated the state policy." There was no evidence that political rivalry had played any part in their ouster.
The most interesting and controversial purge happened in 2004, when Gen Khin Nyunt was dismissed and arrested on charges of corruption. Khin Nyunt, who for many years was one of the most influential figures within the junta, is currently under house arrest with a suspended prison sentence of 44 years.
Some foreign observers regarded Khin Nyunt as a "moderate" military officer who had shown some willingness to move the country towards a political transition. However, Burmese dissidents dubbed him the "Prince of Evil," as the person primarily responsible for the arrest and torture of thousands of political prisoners.
The 2004 purge was due to Than Shwe's suspicion of the military intelligence apparatus, which had been under Khin Nyunt's control for two decades. Than Shwe ordered the dismantling of the military intelligence services, but Khin Nyunt's political legacy - the so-called "road map to democracy" - remained in place even
(Message over 64 KB, truncated)