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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 20/1/09

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Pro-government groups preparing for election in Mon State; opposition left in the dark 2.. Indian Vice President to visit Burma to strengthen bilateral
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 19, 2009
      1. Pro-government groups preparing for election in Mon State; opposition left in the dark
      2. Indian Vice President to visit Burma to strengthen bilateral relations
      3. Farmers encouraged to join USDA to get loans
      4. Crackdown on churches in Rangoon
      5. Myanmar activist gets 104 years in jail
      6. Chinese digging for nickel and uranium in Mwe Taung
      7. China provides more military trucks to Burma
      8. Burma's gem industry: profit that fills the generals' pockets
      9. MP's to elect new NCGUB PM in exile
      10. Elected MPs' lawyers denied access to court
      11. Rangoon under tightened security
      12. Timber funds Western Command
      13. Burma ranks among worst nations for civilian freedom: Rights Group
      14. Civilians forced to pay after Karen rebels seize army rice
      15. Junta struggling to keep state budget afloat
      16. Myanmar to grant more blocks for gem mining
      17. Failure of international community before drama of Burmese people

      Pro-government groups preparing for election in Mon State; opposition left in the dark - Hong Gakao, Mi Kyae Goe, and Blai Mon
      Independent Mon News Agency: Fri 16 Jan 2009

      Pro-regime groups in Mon State are being ordered to prepare for the upcoming 2010 election, though groups that do not support the government continue to be left in the dark about election details.

      Burma's military government has yet to announce its rules governing the formation of political parties or the election itself, and a formal date has yet to be officially announced. January 4th, Burma's Independence Day, came and went without an announcement, though experienced Burma watchers had expected the day to figure a declaration of the rules.

      The deferred announcement is likely part of a strategy to ensure victory for the regime and its supporters, said a veteran Mon politician involved in the 1990 election, which was later annulled. The regime is preparing itself for the election, he said, and will announce the election rules only at the last moment. Opposition parties will be left scrambling with only a few months to organize themselves.

      The National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's largest opposition party, has yet to officially decide whether it will participate. According to Nyan Win, quoted by Mizzima in December, the NLD is holding its decision until after the election law is announced.

      Though the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) may be deferring announcement of the election law, it is not deferring its election preparations in Mon State. In Mudon Township, near to Mon State's capital city of Moulmein, authorities have ordered regime-back civilian groups like the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), Myanmar Women's Affairs Association and the fire brigade to step up their recruitment efforts.

      The recruitment order in Mudon was issued on January 2nd in a meeting between Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) authorities and the heads of all Village Peace and Development Councils (VPDC) in the township. According to a source that attended the meeting, each village was ordered to increase the size of government-backed civilian groups by the hundreds and report the increase to local army battalions. Mudon Township's larger villages, Kamawet, Hneepadaw and Kwan Hlar, were each ordered to add at least 1,000 new members, said the source. Mudon is home to 44 villages, and one of Mon State's most populous townships.

      A source in Rangoon confirmed a similar recruitment effort, and said that government-backed groups in her township had been instructed to find 200 new members each month. The source, who is a member of one of the groups in question, also said that in nearby South Okkalapa Township the USDA had set up a free clinic and tutoring sessions for students in the 10th standard. The services are overt recruitment efforts, as only USDA members can oblige themselves of the services.

      The source did not comment on the motivation for the projects, but similar projects have been reported around Burma as both a recruitment effort and pre-election drives for positive publicity.

      USDA officials appear cognizant of the infamous reputation enjoyed by their organization, which played a highly visible role in the brutal crackdown on monks and civilians during peaceful demonstrations in September 2007; on January 13th, Southeast Command Commander Major General Thet Naing Win explained as much in a meeting with top USDA officials.

      The meeting, convened at the USDA office in Moulmein, featured top USDA representatives from Mon State's 10 townships as well as representatives to the National Convention that drafted Burma's new constitution and referendum committee members who oversaw the constitution's approval.

      According to a source present at the meeting, the general explained that the USDA would participate in the election in three ways, depending on local sentiments towards the organization. Contrary to reports by Mizzima and the Irrawaddy, the general said that the USDA might field a candidate as a political party. Consistent with reports by Mizzima and the Irrawaddy, he said that in places where the USDA is unpopular it would form new political parties or, depending on organizational strength, support another party as directed by higher USDA officials.

      According to the IMNA source, the general said that a report by the Special Police had recently explained that the USDA should not involve its name in the election because of its negative reputation.

      Indian Vice President to visit Burma to strengthen bilateral relations - Salai Pi Pi
      Mizzima News: Fri 16 Jan 2009

      India's Vice President Hamid Ansari is set to visit neighbouring military-ruled Burma, in a bid to further strengthen bilateral cooperation between both countries, according to reports.

      Ansari's trip will focus on consolidating India's energy interests in Burma and cooperation in infrastructure development, an official source was quoted as saying by the Indo-Asian News Service.

      "Ansari will go on a goodwill visit to Myanmar [Burma] early next month. Preparations are under way," the report said.

      Ansari's visit to Burma, which is a first for Indian leaders in 2009, is seen as a part of India's growing efforts to strengthen bilateral relationship with the gas-rich Southeast Asian nation.

      Dr. Tint Swe, a minister of the Burmese government in exile - the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma - said Ansari's visit is part of India's efforts to appease the Burmese military government in order to gain wider foothold in the country.

      However, he said, "It has been about 15 years now, but India's Look East Policy has still not been a success," adding that it was time for India to reconsider its policy on Burma.

      India, which is Burma's 4th largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore, is competing with China, Thailand, South Korea and Japan to tap natural gas from offshore gas reserves on Burma's western coast.

      However, in December 2008, Daewoo International Corporation along with it's four other partners - Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), ONGC, GAIL and Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) signed a deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation, to supply Burma's offshore gas to China for 30 years from 2012.

      India's ONGC and GAIL both held 20% and 10% respectively in Burma's offshore A1 and A3 gas fields, and has been appeasing the junta so that it awards the right to import gas.

      The Shwe gas fields on Burma's western coast are estimated to hold a reserve of 4.53 tcf (trillion cubic feet) of gas.

      India, which lost out to China in its race to buy gas from Burma, however, is also looking for other energy cooperation options, with Burma including the building of hydro-electric projects.

      The two countries recently signed a pact on the development of Tamanthi and Shwezay hydropower projects on the Chindwin River, in Burma's northwestern Sagaing division.

      But Dr. Tint Swe, who is based in New Delhi and monitors Indo-Burmese relationship said, "The two countries' bilateral relations does not help the Burmese peoples' aspiration for democratic change."

      "But it helps the junta in strengthening their rule," he added.

      Indo-Burmese bilateral trade reached a record of 995 million US dollars in the fiscal year 2007-08, while Burma's exports to India accounted for 810 million US dollars and its imports from India touched 185 million US dollars, according to Burma's official statistics.

      Daw Suu's lawyer frustrated by appeal delays - Htet Aung Kyaw
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 15 Jan 2009

      Kyi Win, lawyer for detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has expressed his frustration with the authorities' slow response to her appeal against her house arrest.

      Kyi Win's recent requests to meet his clients have also been rejected by the authorities.

      "There has been no update yet apart from some government officials tell us it was being processed," Kyi Win said.

      "The order to extend Daw Suu's house arrest, which we are appealing against, will expire on 29 May. So we are worried that we might run out of time."

      Kyi Win said he was planning to write another official letter to authorities complaining about the delays in the process.

      He submitted a similar complaint letter at the end of December 2008 but has not yet received any response.

      Farmers encouraged to join USDA to get loans - Naw Say Phaw
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 15 Jan 2009

      Farmers seeking agricultural loans from the Union Solidarity and Development Association are being encouraged to join the organisation and charged fees for application forms.

      Local farmer in Thonegwa township, Rangoon division, said villages with a high level of USDA membership were most likely to benefit from the loans.

      "Since 14 January, a group of USDA officials led by the township USDA leader Dr Myint Thein have been visiting villages in the area and setting up procedures for agricultural loans," the farmer said.

      "The process has already been completed in Aung Pan Sein, Min Ywar and Phayagyi village," he said.

      "Apparently their programme is only likely to benefit villages where there are a lot of members."

      The farmer said local people viewed the loans as a propaganda effort ahead of the 2010 elections, which the USDA will contest.

      "They assured the farmers they would take care of their needs if they joined the association and that the problems of those who did join would not be their concern," the farmer said.

      "Then they charged 1000 kyat for photos and 1000 more as document fees from those who agreed to join," he said.

      "They are only giving loan of 5000 kyat per acre of farmland and we still have to pay them 2000 kyat. So a lot of people who agreed to join are now very disappointed."

      CSW condemns crackdown on churches in Rangoon
      Christian Solidarity Worldwide: Thu 15 Jan 2009

      Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has received reports of a serious crackdown on churches in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.

      According to the news agency Mizzima, local authorities in Rangoon have ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding worship services. Mizzima also reports that the order could affect as many as 80 per cent of churches in the city, and that 50 pastors were forced to sign at least five documents promising to cease church services. The pastors were reportedly warned they could be jailed if they disobeyed the order.

      The campaign appears to be particularly targeted at churches meeting in apartment buildings, rather than churches that own their own building and land. According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), officials from the local branch of the Ministry of Religious Affairs summoned the owners of buildings in which churches were meeting, and issued them with an order prohibiting the use of private property for religious purposes. "Christians are worried that they will not be allowed to worship anymore, even in their own house," said one pastor in a report received by CSW.

      One pastor in Rangoon, who cannot be named for security reasons, claimed in a report received by CSW that several churches have now been locked and sealed, including three churches in South Dagon Township: the Evangelical Baptist Church, the Karen Baptist Church and the Dagon Joshua Church. An eyewitness said that in one church, the pastor presented his Legal Registration Certificate provided by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the authorities when they came to inform him of the new order. In response, officials told him his registration certificate had been withdrawn.

      Some Christians believe that the immediate cause of the crackdown is church involvement in providing relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the area in May 2008. According to Shwekey Hoipang, a Chin pastor from Burma living in exile, the regime does not like the fact that Buddhists have been receiving help from churches, and fears this may possibly result in conversions. "The regime does not want Buddhists coming in and out of churches. It does not want Christianity to grow in Burma," said Shwekey Hoipang. "Ultimately, the regime seeks the destruction of Christianity. This is part of a top-secret plan by the military to stop Christian growth."

      Burma is categorised as a 'Country of Particular Concern' by the US State Department, for its violations of religious freedom. In 2007, CSW published a report, Carrying the Cross: The military regime's campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma, which revealed a 17-point document allegedly from an organisation affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, titled "Programme to Destroy the Christian religion in Burma". The first point states: "There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised."

      Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at CSW and author of Carrying the Cross said: "There is no doubt that the regime is hostile to minority religions in Burma, particularly Christianity and Islam, and seeks to restrict and suppress them. This recent crackdown is an extremely worrying development and a serious violation of religious freedom. We urge the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, to put pressure on the Burmese junta to end these violations and to permit churches and other religious institutions to operate freely, in accordance with internationally-accepted norms of religious freedom."

      For further information contact Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide on 020 8329 0041 or 07823 329664, email ben@... or visit www.csw.org.uk

      CSW is a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.

      Myanmar activist gets 104 years in jail
      Associated Press: Wed 14 Jan 2009

      Military-ruled Myanmar has freed six people who recently called for the release of detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but sentenced another activist to 104 years in prison, relatives and an activist group said Wednesday.

      Six members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party who marched for her release on Dec. 30 in the country's biggest city, Yangon, were freed without charge Wednesday, said the detainees' relatives. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by the authorities.

      Three others activists remained in detention, according to the relatives.

      Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi, the face of Myanmar's beleaguered opposition, has been detained without trial for about 13 of the past 19 years, despite a worldwide campaign calling on the country's military rulers to release her.

      Meanwhile, a member of a student protest group who was arrested last September was sentenced on Jan. 3 to 104 years in jail on a variety of charges, including six violations of immigration law, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based group of Myanmar activists.

      It said Bo Min Yu Ko of the All Burma Federation of Students Unions was not allowed a defense lawyer at his trial. It did not give details of his offenses.

      "The courts are not independent and simply follow orders from the regime," said the group's statement. "Criminals sentenced on drug charges are often given relatively light sentences, but political activists are given very long terms of imprisonment."

      It said that at least 280 political activists have been sentenced in a flurry of hurried and often closed court cases since October last year.

      Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a nationwide pro-democracy uprising. It held elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results after Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory.

      Chinese digging for nickel and uranium in Mwe Taung
      Khonumthung News: Wed 14 Jan 2009

      A Chinese company has been constructing roads even as it digs for nickel and uranium in the mountains of Mwe Taung in Chin state, Myanmar.

      Nickel and uranium have been discovered around Teddim Township in upper Chin state. Now about 50 villagers are working on constructing a 12 feet wide road, which can help to carry out natural resources.

      The villagers from Min Hla, Su Khin Ta and Myaihsein villages near the foothills are earning Kyat 2000 per day by working in the road construction site.

      "The 12-feet wide road is under construction for taking out natural resources by trucks and other big vehicles," said a local.

      A report said that the Mwe Taung Mountain was sold to a Chinese company in 2005 by the military government in spite of Chin people's reluctance. It is situated 15 kilometers from Kalemyo, Sagaing Division. The company started to discover natural resources from 2006 and now their staff members are opening an office near Kalemyo Road Transportation Cooperative (RTC) to look after all the things on the field.

      The natural resources are the heritage of Chin ancestors. Selling it and taking them out without the approval of the Chin people is like condemning the whole nation of Chin people. The military junta must look into what is has done, said Paul Sitha, Secretary of Chin National Front in exile.

      At the initial stage of independence, the world thought that Myanmar would become a developed country soon, but after 1962 when General Ne win took over power, all the rich natural resources were sold to foreign countries and now Myanmar is on the list of the poorest countries in the world.

      China provides more military trucks to Burma - Myo Gyi
      Mizzima News: Wed 14 Jan 2009

      Five military trucks, believed to be capable of carrying up to 100 tons in weight, were driven to the Burmese side of the border from China through the Sino-Burmese border gate, eyewitnesses said.

      The trucks, which were driven through the Jiegao-Mahnwingyi border gate, were seen being guided by several Burmese military officers.

      "The trucks had a label reading 'Sino Truk'. They were driven from the Mahnwingyi gate to the Burmese side at about 9:30 a.m. (Burmese Time). There were some Burmese military officers in the trucks," an eyewitness told Mizzima.

      The eyewitness said the trucks were empty but there were people in civilian dresses, who are believed to be Burmese army men.

      A source, who claimed to have spoken to some of the Burmese officials, said the trucks will be transported to a military base in central Burma's Meikhtila town.

      He also said, the trucks were nearly double the size of military trucks - FAW and Dong Feng - which the Chinese in earlier years had given to Burma and are believed to be capable of carrying up to 100 tons in weight.

      He said these trucks are different from the earlier Dong Feng trucks, which the Chinese had given in hundreds to Burma, as they are nearly double the size and length of the earlier trucks.

      "They are ten-wheelers and according to one of the soldiers, these trucks will be used for carrying canons," the eyewitness said.

      Sources said, China has been supplying military trucks to Burma at nearly half the market rate and allowing them to pay in installments. However, it is still not known how much Burma pays China for the trucks.

      China has long been the major supplier of military hardware including arms, ammunitions and military trucks to Burma. In the past, sources in the border said China had supplied hundreds of military trucks to Burma through the Jiegong-Muse border gate.

      Burma's gem industry: profit that fills the generals' pockets - Mungpi & Solomon
      Mizzima News: Wed 14 Jan 2009

      To promote production of gems and jewellery, Burma's Ministry of Mines said it is allocating six blocks in three states to local entrepreneurs to mine gems, an official at the ministry said.

      An official at the Ministry of Mines in Naypyitaw said, the six blocks, located in Shan state's Mongshu and Namhyar, Kachin state's Moenyin and Sagaing division's Mawhan, Mawlu and Hkamti will be leased out to private entrepreneurs for a three-year term.

      "These areas are regular mining zones and we are giving out new blocks in these areas. Those who are interested can apply now," the official told Mizzima.

      While Burma's military government by occasionally granting gem mining blocks claims that it is promoting domestic entrepreneurs, local residents in the mining areas said mining and the gem trade has largely deteriorated since the current batch of generals grabbed power in 1988.

      A local businessman in Mogoke in Mandalay division, a mining town which produces one of the world's finest rubies, said, mining business has largely been monopolized by a few businessmen who maintain a close relationship with the junta.

      "Even those (the announced) blocks will be dominated by some of the cronies of the junta, others will only get it if the sites are not producing much gems," he said.

      He said, since the early 1990s, the junta has taken control over all gem mines and only permits companies to carry out mining in collaboration with government enterprises, popularly known as Oo Paing.

      Since then, companies such as Shwe Pyi Aye, Lynn Yaung Chi and Kadekada, who have close relations with the ruling generals, have dominated gem mining and production in Mogoke.

      While Burma's Ministry of Mines designates Mogoke, Mongshu, Lonkin, Phakant, Khamhti, Moenyin and Namyar as gem mines, Phakant of Kachin State and Mogoke of Mandalay division and Monghshu of Shan state are the most famous areas, where mining of gem is carried out on a large scale.

      According to a veteran gem trader residing in Mogoke, with the mining industries solely dominated by junta's allied companies, most high quality gems are directly transported to Rangoon and Mandalay to be sold to foreign buyers.

      He also insists that a part of the high-quality gems produced is also smuggled directly to China, Thailand and Hong Kong.

      "The mining scene in Mogoke today has drastically changed. Earlier we could look for gems in 'Hta Pwe' but now the machines do the work and most products, specially the high quality gems, would not even be noticed by local traders," the trader said, referring to a local gem-bazaar in Mogoke town, known as 'Hta Pwe', where traders and local miners come to meet and bid.

      Despite the big companies coming in to take control over mining, Mogoke, a town with abundant gems beneath, still holds the 'Hta Pwe' where small time businessmen and private, now illegal, miners still hold business meets.

      Similarly, in Phakant in Kachin State, a town popularly known for its quality and abundance of jade products, with the advance of Oo Paings, most jades have disappeared from local businessmen only to be sold off to China, Hong Kong and other countries, through the borders.

      But the business community in Phakant said a few of the products still reaches Rangoon to be exhibited in government sponsored gems and jewellery exhibitions.

      The Burmese government has been conducting annual exhibitions in Rangoon since 1964, and later in 1992 extended it to twice a year by having a mid-year exhibition. Through these exhibitions, the junta earns millions of dollars. In October 2008, the junta said, it earned more than US $172 million from the sale of gems in such an exhibition.

      But a long time jade businessman in Mandalay calculates that the junta's generals are earning much more from sale of gems mainly jade to China through the borders, which are then re-sold to buyers in Hong Kong and other parts of the world.

      Burma, from its various gem mines across the country produces some of the best quality rubies and jades in the world, and also produces emerald, topaz, pearl, sapphire, coral and a variety of garnet tinged with yellow.

      "If all of these precious stones and gems are made use for the development of the country, people won't be starving," the veteran businessman, who now resides in Mandalay, said.

      MP's to elect new NCGUB PM in exile - Nem Davies
      Mizzima News: Wed 14 Jan 2009

      The 'National Coalition Government of Union of Burma' (NCGUB) in exile will elect its new Prime Minister at a meeting to be held in Ireland this month.

      Dr. San Aung, one of the Council of Ministers of NCGUB, said that the MPs in exile will elect their new PM at this meeting held once every four years by secret ballot.

      Over 30 MPs from the 'Members of Parliamentary Union' (MPU) will attend the meeting and they will elect the new PM, discuss the current political situation in Burma and their future plans.

      The first part of the 10-day meeting will be the exclusive MP meeting and the second half (5-daya meeting) will be attended by 'Ethnic Nationalities Council' (ENC), 'Student and the Youth Congress of Burma' (SYCB) among others.

      Meanwhile, Dr. San Aung also said that the recent announcement made by exile based alliance, 'National Council of Union of Burma' (NCUB), announcing its plan of forming a new government of their own should not have been made.

      "NCUB is not a party, it's an alliance. The resolution of this alliance should be adopted by consensus only after thorough deliberations. No one can flout and bypass this rule. If a member organization of this alliance wants to do something, it can do it on its own, but cannot misuse and exploit the leverage of this alliance," he said.

      The 'National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma' (NCGUB) was formed with MPs-elect in exile who won the 1990 general elections and are based in Washington D.C. USA. Dr. Sein Win, the cousin brother of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is serving as PM in this government.

      Elected MPs' lawyers denied access to court - Nan Kham Kaew
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Tue 13 Jan 2009

      Lawyers defending two 1990 people's parliament representatives, Nyi Pu and Dr Tin Min Htut, were denied entry to the courtroom at Insein prison special court yesterday.

      Nyi Pu and Dr Tin Min Htut are facing four different charges including sedition and disrupting the national convention.

      Central court lawyer Kyaw Ho said he had arrived in court at around 9am yesterday morning with fellow lawyers Maung Maung Latt and Sithu Maung to attend the hearing.

      "We already have obtained all the necessary documents to act as defending lawyers for the two on 6 January," Kyaw Ho said.

      "We filled out and submitted forms to gain entry to the courtroom but then we were told by the deputy prison chief and another official we were not allowed in," he said.

      "I asked them whether it was the prison's decision to not let us in, and they said the prison had nothing to do with it and that it was an order from the special police's prosecution department."

      Kyaw Ho said the lawyers had asked secondary provincial judge Tin Htut of western Rangoon provincial court, who was hearing the case, to help them negotiate with government authorities to gain access to the courtroom.

      "It's the judge's responsibility to enable us to come to the court hearing; otherwise it disadvantages defendants whose lawyers are not present," he said.

      Relatives of Nyi Pu and Tin Min Htut who went to the prison to visit them yesterday were not allowed to see them due to the court hearing.

      Rangoon under tightened security: Sources - Wai Moe
      Irrawaddy: Tue 13 Jan 2009

      Burma's ruling authorities have tightened security around Rangoon after anti-government leaflets were distributed last week, according to sources in the city.

      "There are riot police and soldiers, in standby position on trucks and on the ground, at important junctions and corners in the downtown area, as well as around Shwedagon Pagoda," a student in the former capital told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

      Other residents of the city also reported an increased security presence since last week. Last night, security forces were sighted patrolling in various parts of the city, including Dawbon, Sanchaung, Thingangyun, and North and South Dagon Myothit townships.

      A businessman in Rangoon's Bayintnaung Market said he heard that anti-junta leaflets were distributed around the city last week. "Since then, there are a lot more security forces around here," he said.

      An unknown dissident group has been carrying out an anti-government campaign since the beginning of January, distributing leaflets which read, "As people have not attained freedom yet, we must continue our struggle."

      On January 4, Burma's Independence Day, nine members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were arrested after they held a small protest in front of the People's Parliament building on Prome Road in Rangoon.

      The protesters called for the release of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The parliament building has been unused since the current junta seized power in 1988.

      Timber funds Western Command
      Narinjara: Tue 13 Jan 2009

      A timber-selling center was recently opened by the Western Army Command in order to sell timber produced in Arakan Roma to private companies and businessmen, said one timber trader.

      "The timber-selling center was opened at Yho Chaung Creek and many timber traders have been invited by the authority to purchase timber from the center," the trader said.

      According to an army source, the timber center is ten miles east of Arakan's Ann Town and has been opened by the army authority in order to generate revenue that will be used to fund the Western Command Headquarters located in Ann.

      "The army authority has given permission to transport timber from the center to anywhere, if we buy the timber from there," the trader said.

      The center has become crowded by timber company representatives and timber traders, and authorities are arranging accommodation and other facilities for those visiting the center.

      Many different kinds of timber are being produced by the Western Command authorities for sale to buyers through the timber center.

      Burma ranks among worst nations for civilian freedom: Rights Group
      Mizzima News: Tue 13 Jan 2009

      A United States-based Freedom House in its annual global release on freedom in the world, has ranked Burma among the 'worst of the worst' countries, where civilians enjoy negligible political and civil liberties.

      The Freedom in the World 2009, which examines the state of freedom in 193 countries and 16 strategic territories, ranked Burma along with North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Libya, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Somalia among the worst countries that impose restrictions on the lives of civilians.

      The report said freedom "retreated in much of the world in 2008, the third year of global decline," and countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet Union, and a few countries in Asia including China, North Korea and Burma saw the most reversals.

      The Freedom House survey categorized countries, according to the political rights and civil liberties which their civilians enjoy, into three categories - Free, Partly Free and Not Free. Burma along with 41 other countries was ranked as 'Not Free'.

      In 2008, Burma's military rulers have widely attracted criticism and condemnation from international communities for its high-handedness on opposition activists by arresting and sentencing them to long prison terms.

      Following the September 2007 monk-led mass protests, Burma's military junta escalated its crackdown on dissidents by arresting several activists, including prominent student activist Min Ko Naing and group.

      Since August 2008, the military junta has conducted secret trials in prisons and handed down harsh sentences of imprisonment upto 68 years. Among those handed harsh prison terms, a dissident Buddhist monk, Ashin Gambira, who had played a vital role in leading the September 2007 protests, was given 68 years of prison term.

      Burma's military rulers have said that the country is building a roadmap to democracy and are gearing up to hold general elections in 2010. However, critics doubt whether the elections will be free and fair.

      The junta in May, amidst a severe crisis faced by the country's southwestern coastal region after it was hit by Cyclone Nargis, held a referendum to approve a draft constitution, which critics and opposition parties said was a tool to cement military rule.

      Regional and international communities including the United Nations have urged Burma's military rulers to implement a broad based dialogue with all political stake holders and to speed up the process of democratization.

      Burma has been under military rule since 1962.

      Civilians forced to pay after Karen rebels seize army rice - Leyh Mon
      Independent Mon News Agency: Mon 12 Jan 2009

      Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers along the Thanbyuzayat (Thanpyuzayart) to Three Pagodas Pass motor road have seized at least 100 sacks of rice from civilian drivers forced to transport the cargo for the Burmese army. Drivers are being made to pay for the loss, say sources close to the drivers.

      On December 26th and January 4th, temporary KNLA checkpoints near Ta-nyin and Myaing Thayar villages, Kyainnseikyi and Three Pagodas Pass Township, respectively, stopped civilian drivers en route to Three Pagodas. According to a source in the KNLA, KNLA soldiers from company No. 2 and 3 of Brigade 16 queried the drivers about their loads' ownership, and took only rice belonging to the Burmese army.

      The same KNLA source alleged that 140 sacks of rice, each weighing 50 kilograms, were seized. This number could not be independently confirmed by IMNA, but a close friend of one of the drivers who had his load seized on January 4th said 60 sacks were taken from a total of 21 vehicles.

      According to the friend, Infantry Battalion (IB) No. 31 randomly chose drivers in Thanbyuzayat and forced them to carry rice along with their regular commercial loads. During the winter and hot seasons, scores of cars and trucks make the trip between Thanbyuzayat and Three Pagodas Pass, on the Thai-Burma border. The road, which opened to traffic in December, becomes impassable in the rainy season.

      After the raids on December 26th, authorities in Thanbyuzayat held a meeting with the drivers and informed them that they would each be required to pay 50,000 kyat as a repayment for the lost rice. According to a trader in Three Pagodas who knows a number of the affected drivers, the order was issued by authorities within the Southeast Command, which controls the area. The payments, however, had to be made to IB No. 31.

      "After the KNLA took the rice, Burmese soldiers called a meeting with the drivers and ordered them to repay money for the rice - 50,000 kyat each," said the trader. The payments are uniform and do not vary depending on the number of rice sacks transported by the drivers, the source added. Cars were typically carrying 3 to 4 sacks, while trucks carried 5 to 10.

      According to the IMNA sources, the drivers have already made the required payments. "If the drivers don't repay the money, they [the army] will stop them from driving on the road. So the drivers will face trouble," said the friend of one of the drivers. Some drivers unlucky enough to be pressed into service twice have, consequently, had to pay twice, added the trader.

      When asked to comment on the impact the rice seizures have had on drivers, captain Htet Nay said, "They took the rice because the Burmese soldiers are our enemy. The materials from the traders we did not take. We did not threaten them, we only asked them if they were carrying rice belonging to the soldiers." The KNLA, the armed wing of the Karen National Union, is embroiled in one of the longest running civil wars in the world, and has been fighting a succession of central governments in Burma since 1948.

      The trader in Three Pagodas Pass, meanwhile, wondered at IB No. 31's decision to send the rice without an armed escort. In the past, he said, security guards have accompanied the semi-regular, approximately tri-monthly supply shipments. The decision to leave the rice unguarded might have been calculated to entice seizure by the KNLA, he surmised, creating a pretense under which money could be collected from drivers. Or, he added, maybe the soldiers are afraid of the KNLA.

      Junta struggling to keep state budget afloat - Moe Thu
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Mon 12 Jan 2009

      Experiencing increased pains related to the global financial crisis, Burma's military government is struggling to maintain a solvent state budget, seemingly exploiting every option available to them, such as the introduction of a pre-paid phone system and further state-run auctions.

      "Given the measures of the military government, they are apparently absorbing cash from the general public, which is adding to the woes of poor cash flow among public trading activities," said a retired professor from the Rangoon Institute of Economics.

      Only last month, a pre-paid cellular phone system was introduced, attracting many customers.

      "Theses days, public voices over stagnant business, from street vendors to large-scale exporters, are getting louder," added the professor, who declined to be identified.

      He said many items normally intended for export - like seafood and agricultural produce - have instead flocked into the already suffering local market.

      He also said revenue from natural gas, primarily exported to Thailand, is declining - as prices of crude oil have fallen under US $50 a barrel in the world market.

      "Decreased energy prices are symbolic of reduced economic activities," he said.

      Additionally, the military government is facing a limited supply of raw gems, reduced extraction possibilities the result of aggressive extraction over the past few years in previous attempts to service the country's cash-strapped budget.

      The supply of Burmese rubies dropped to 1.5 million carats in fiscal year 2007-2008 from 2.3 million carats in 2004-2005, according to government statistics; while sapphire decreased to 308,642 carats in 2007-2008 from 1.088 million carats in 2003-2004.

      "These [the gems] are not just decreasing in quantity, but in quality also," the professor said, adding that the real situation signals the sector's decreasing reliability as a means of revenue.

      Yet, to counter pains from the ongoing financial crisis, Burma's military government has limited options. However, one such proposed course is the plan to maintain the construction sector by contracting for new projects in the country's nascent capital of Naypyitaw.

      For example, the government has recently revealed that the development of a prototype of a countrywide geographical profile map is beginning around Naypyitaw, utilizing a model scaled at 1: 60 kilometers.

      "The government hopes that the multi-million dollar project will provide job opportunities for general workers who are in dire straits, increasingly suffering from economic hardship," the professor said.

      However, he iterated that most infrastructure projects are politicized on purpose, not really for the sake of the general populace, but more in a move to make an impression on the public.

      Myanmar to grant more blocks for gem mining
      Xinhua: Mon 12 Jan 2009

      Myanmar will grant four more blocks in three states and division for local investors to carry out gem mining, according to the Ministry of Mines Sunday.

      The four blocks are located in Shan state's Mongshu and Namhyar, Kachin state's Moenyin and Sagaing division's Mawhan Mawlu.

      Myanmar occasionally introduced gem mining blocks for engagement by domestic entrepreneurs to promote gem production in the country.

      In 2006, 77 blocks in Shan state and 39 in Mandalay division were allotted for gem mining, while 99 near Lonekin in Kachin state for jade mining,

      In 2007, Myanmar permitted again 319 jade mining blocks for such engagement. Among those unexplored jade blocks allotted, 139 were in northern Kachin state's Moenyin and 180 in Sagaing division's Khamhti.

      Each block measured one acre (4,000 square meters) and the blocks were leased on a three-year term.

      There are six mining areas in Myanmar under gem and jade exploration, namely, Mogok, Mongshu, Lonkin/Phakant, Khamhti, Moenyin and Namyar.

      For the development of gem industry, Myanmar has been holding gem shows annually starting 1964 and introducing the mid-year one since 1992 and the special one since 2004. On each occasion, the country's quality gems, jade, pearl and jewelry worth of millions of dollars were put on sale mainly through competitive bidding.

      Myanmar, a well-known producer of gems in the world, boasts ruby, diamond, cat's eye, emerald, topaz, pearl, sapphire, coral and a variety of garnet tinged with yellow.

      Failure of international community before drama of Burmese people - Pascal Khoo Thwe
      AsiaNews.it: Mon 12 Jan 2009

      For most Burmese, 2008 will be remembered for "an apocalypse by the name of Cyclone Nargis" that devastated the country, "and the year the international community headed by the United Nations thoroughly failed" in the face of the emergency and the drama of the refugees, incapable of touching the power of a military dictatorship that "represses any voice contrary to the regime" in blood. The charge comes from Pascal Khoo Thwe, a Burmese activist of Padaung ethnicity, exiled in London, in an editorial published on the website of the dissident newspaper Democratic Voice of Burma.

      He recalls how last May, the world was "waiting for the arrival of the biggest Olympic Games ever to be held" in China, and too preoccupied "not to do anything which could upset the striding dragon that is China" to think of the tragedy afflicting Myanmar. The situation was intensified by the neglect of the ruling junta, which did not take into consideration the alarm raised by a meteorological center in India, considering Nargis on the level of a simple tropical storm.

      "The more people the storm killed," Pascal Khoo Thwe writes, "the better for the generals as no one could blame them for it and they could seize the prime lands of the people who perished." Many of the victims were of Karen ethnicity, a minority that the government has repeatedly tried to eradicate by force from the region.

      He does not spare criticism of foreign governments, which "'urged', 'denounced', 'condemned' and 'demanded'," but did nothing concrete to change the situation and help the Burmese people. At the same time, he blasts the UN policy of "wait and see," while "hundreds of people were dying day by day."

      The repression imposed by the military rulers also impacts those - few, in reality - who have promoted personal initiatives to help the populations and areas ravaged by the passage of the cyclone: Pascal Khoo Thwe cites the example of the most famous Burmese actor, Zarganar, who was "stopped, assaulted, and intimidated by agents of the junta," and finally "arrested and imprisoned for his efforts." He also tells about a farmer - the only survivor in his family - who, a few weeks after the catastrophe, reprimanded a volunteer with a foreign NGO, telling him: "Thanks for nothing and for coming too late. Keep on helping tyranny." "The farmer disappeared without a trace and nobody knows what happened to him." He also recalls those who "have courageously fought against the dictatorship for years, like Win Tin," a leading representative of the opposition party National League for Democracy, who seem to have "wasted their energy" without the international community providing them "any concrete help" or ceasing "to support the generals" in power.

      For the future, Pascal Khoo Thwe does not seem to be on board with the wave of optimism that has accompanied the election of U.S. president Barack Obama. It is not a matter of distrust, justified among other things by many of his predecessors who never kept their promises, but a question of political realism. "Obama has too many things on his plate to sort out as the most powerful leader on earth, such as the mess in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel/Palestine and the global economic crisis, to name but a few. I would advise my countrymen that we should not pin our hopes on events abroad." He urges that "we must all stop mentally depending on foreign powers . . . and go beyond the politics of emotion." "We must stop our reliance on a magic bullet formula in politics, by really listening to the concerns of those at the grassroots level." Otherwise, there will be a repeat of the slaughter, massacres, and natural disasters on an even more devastating scale, which can be avoided only if the people are capable of facing the future "with less anxiety and emotion." "The history of Burma," he concludes, "has shown that good ideas or actions or foreign support alone are not enough to govern or rebuild a nation and maintain its soul."

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