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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 2/3/10

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Suu Kyi to seek special appeal 70 percent of Burma property goes to junta cronies Privatization? What privatization? Aung San Suu Kyi must be released
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 2, 2010
      1. Suu Kyi to seek special appeal
      2. 70 percent of Burma property goes to junta cronies
      3. Privatization? What privatization?
      4. Aung San Suu Kyi must be released immediately
      5. Nobel laureates to host international tribunal on crimes against women of Burma
      6. NLD CEC approves 100 CC members
      7. Little hope for Burma’s political prisoners
      8. ‘Our movement is unique for women from Burma’
      9. Myanmar troops commit atrocities
      10. Inhospitality
      11. For sex workers, a life of risks
      12. Fair labour rights in Myanmar benchmark for country’s 2010 elections
      13. Than Shwe, the progressive
      14. Pioneering women village heads targeted for systematic abuse by junta’s troops
      15. Junta to raise salaries of government employees
      16. Burma’s Kachin army prepares for civil war
      17. Burma plans crackdown on monks as election nears
      18. Junta bans reporting Quintana’s comments
      19. New forced labour tactics adopted in Arakan
      20. UN empty-handed again from Myanmar visit
      21. UN examines mistreatment of Muslims in Myanmar
      22. For Rohingya in Bangladesh, no place is home
      23. Myanmar’s Rohingyas – who are they?

      Suu Kyi to seek special appeal – Ahunt Phone Myat
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Mon 1 Mar 2010

      Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to take a special appeal over her house arrest to Burma’s supreme court after it was last week rejected.Her lawyers said that the new appeal would go through two stages: acceptance by the court, and then a final presentation by lawyers at the court.

      Analysts have said the appeal will effectively be made to junta chief Than Shwe, who is seen as the main architect behind her sentencing. Courts in Burma have been criticised as puppets of the government.

      “There will be two judges deciding on [he acceptance] and we [lawyers] are to make an argument statement before them,” said lawyer Nyan Win.

      “If they accept it, the appeal will be heard before three judges in [the capital] Naypyidaw. This is the current [legal] system procedure.”

      Nyan Win said that judges last Friday only read out the ruling that rejected the previous appeal, but did not give any reasons for why it was rejected.

      Suu Kyi has said that last year’s 18-month extension of her house arrest, and the new conditions placed on her house arrest, is unjust. Critics of the ruling junta have said the detention is a ploy to keep her locked up during elections, scheduled for later this year.

      International leaders, including UK prime minister Gordon Brown and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, have condemned the rejection last week.

      “I welcome the denouncing, because Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not guilty in this case,” Nyan Win said.

      He added that lawyers will meet with Suu Kyi to discuss the special appeal, and are looking to get a copy of the verdict to see why it was rejected.

      70 percent of Burma property goes to junta cronies – Ahunt Phone Myat
      Democratic Voice of Burma: Mon 1 Mar 2010

      Around 70 percent of property in Burma auctioned off to private enterprise in recent months has ended up in the hands of cronies of the ruling junta.The Burmese government recently announced the sale of 115 national properties, including major shipping ports and airports. The majority of the remaining 30 percent of property has gone to foreign companies.

      Rumours are circulating that the Rangoon Ministers’ Office, where independence hero Aung San was assassinated in 1947, has been sold to a foreign company, although it is not known whom.

      A businessman in Rangoon said that local companies not close to the government can only bid for small properties which are unlikely to generate much revenue.

      “[The junta] took the [promising properties] off the bidding list. Those are only opened for the big guys and foreign companies but it is impossible for an ordinary business owner to enter the bid,” he said.

      “The big companies are not only close [to the ruling generals]; in fact [the generals] also owned shares in these companies. So there is nothing we can do.”

      He added that authorities are selling bidding forms for 25,000 kyat ($US25) for each property. Among those being auctioned off are formerly private-owned properties nationalised by the Ne Win government in 1964.

      An economist said that the current government was privatizing industry to show that Burma is heading towards a market economy. In reality, however, this will leave nothing for the country when a next [elected] civilian government comes to power.

      “The international community and those who don’t have the technical knowledge may think the government is now carrying out the privatisation process in favour of private businesses,” he said.

      “At least those properties that were nationalised could be regarded as belonging to the public, but now they are completely in the hands of the companies close to the government.”

      Privatization? What privatization? – Yeni
      Irrawaddy: Mon 1 Mar 2010

      Residents of Mogok, the center of Burma’s gems industry, have been in a panic recently. Since last week, earth-movers and other heavy equipment have begun appearing in the town’s residential neighborhoods.This follows an earlier survey of the area carried out by local officials, the Ministry of Mines and two private companies—Htoo Trading Co, Ltd, owned by junta crony Tay Za, and Ruby Dragon Jade & Gems Co, Ltd, which counts a number of high-ranking generals among its shareholders.

      “We are very worried now that our houses and land will be confiscated,” said one man living in Mogok, located some 200 km northeast of Mandalay in the “Valley of Rubies”—a land famous since ancient times for its gemstones, especially its rare pigeon’s blood rubies and blue sapphires.

      This is “privatization,” Burmese-stye, in action. And it is going on all over the country these days, as the ruling junta counts down to the election that will, at least nominally, end their total control of one of the world’s most resource-rich yet woefully underdeveloped economies.

      What is happening in Mogok—where the generals and their close associates are laying claim to anything worth owning—is also taking place everywhere else. From gas stations to hydropower plants, cinemas to telecommunications companies, factories and warehouses to airlines—everything is up for grabs.

      This would be welcome news if it were a sign that the regime is finally getting around to the economic reforms it has been promising for the past two decades. Unfortunately, however, that isn’t the case. What we are actually witnessing is the formal transfer of the nation’s wealth into the hands of an entrenched elite who, until now, have been able to simply take whatever they want without having to worry about rival claims.

      After the election, things won’t be quite that simple. Although the ruling generals and their “business partners” will continue to hold a commanding position in the economy, when the new Constitution comes into effect, it will mean that, at least in theory, others will also have the right to possess property. That is why they are preemptively buying up everything in sight, before they find themselves actually having to pay a fair price for properties and concessions that they can now get virtually for nothing.

      In its recent round of sell-offs, the regime has not invited public tendering or released information about the proceeds from the sales or how non-state ownership will work. Whereas privatization that takes place under more transparent circumstances usually benefits the public, resulting in lower prices, improved quality, more choices, less corruption, less red tape and quicker delivery, in the case of Burma, the country’s people will once again be the biggest losers.

      Since 1989, the ruling junta has periodically sold off state-owned properties as part of its so-called “open-door” economic policy. But instead of undoing the damage done by former dictator Ne Win’s “Burmese way of socialism,” the regime has merely replaced it with crony capitalism.

      Of course, Burma is not alone in practicing this particularly pernicious approach to economic development; nor are well-connected Burmese tycoons the only ones bargain hunting in the country.

      While Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and former foreign minister of Thailand, was defending the 10-member regional bloc’s position on Burma’s upcoming election on BBC’s Hardtalk recently, a group of Thailand-based investors were visiting the country. A few weeks earlier, a similar delegation from Vietnam was also looking at investment opportunities in Burma.

      But even if the Burmese regime’s disregard for economic transparency and accountability is hardly unique, there’s no denying that the country’s standards are among the worst in the world.

      According to the “2010 Index of Economic Freedom,” a report prepared by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, Burma ranks 174th out of 179 countries in the world in terms of economic freedom.

      The report identifies a number of factors contributing to Burma’s low ranking, including government interference in economic activities; structural problems such as fiscal deficits; continuing losses by state-owned enterprises; and underdeveloped legal and regulatory frameworks and poor government service. On property rights in Burma, the report states succinctly: “Private real property and intellectual property are not protected.”

      What Burma needs now is not self-serving “reforms” by the country’s current rulers, but a return to the rule of law under a democratically elected government. But since the coming election is not likely to deliver real change, the people of Mogok—like the rest of the country’s population—can do no more than stand back and watch as the generals take away what little they have left.

      Aung San Suu Kyi must be released immediately; Supreme Court’s decision on her house arrest another travesty of justice
      International Federation for Human Rights and Altsean-Burma: Mon 1 Mar 2010

      Paris-Bangkok, March 1, 2010. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma) strongly condemn the decision by Burma to reject Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal against the extension of her house arrest. FIDH and Altsean-Burma consider this latest development as another proof of the regime’s disinterest in engaging in true democratic reform.According to information received, on Friday, February 26, 2010, the Supreme Court of Burma in Rangoon rejected Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal against her house arrest without offering any legal reasoning. Reporters were not allowed in the courtroom. Mr. Nyan Win, Daw Suu Kyi’s lawyer, said he planned to obtain explanation for the verdict and then lodge a special appeal against the decision before Burma’s chief justice. The pro-democracy leader’s appeal has already been rejected once by a lower court in October 2009.

      FIDH and Altsean recall that Suu Kyi’s house arrest was lengthened for another 18 months in August 2009 when she was arbitrarily convicted with breaching the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American man swam across a lake to her house and stayed for two nights. The initial ruling has been widely denounced as illegitimate and the trial was considered a sham. Daw Suu Kyi’s conviction effectively denies her participation in the general election planned for the fall of this year.

      FIDH and Altsean also recall that Friday’s verdict comes a week after the visit to the country of Prof. Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who said upon his departure that he “deeply regretted” being refused access to Daw Suu Kyi. The regime imprisoned five more dissidents during the visit by the UN special rapporteur.

      FIDH and Altsean emphasize that key benchmarks must be met by the Burmese regime in order for the elections to be free, fair, inclusive and, above all, credible. The benchmarks include the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including Daw Suu Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other opposition parties. The regime must also initiate inclusive dialogue with key stakeholders from democracy groups and ethnic nationalities, including a comprehensive review of the 2008 Constitution, and immediately cease systematic human rights abuses and criminal hostilities against ethnic minority groups, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.(1)

      “For a long time now, the international community has been unable to deal with the Burmese junta in a coordinated manner. With this decision, some months before the planned elections, the regime, one of the most repressive in the world, shows again that it can take full advantage of the cacophony of the international community. This must stop.” said Souhayr Belhassen, President of FIDH.

      Nobel laureates to host international tribunal on crimes against women of Burma
      Nobel Women’s Initiative: Mon 1 Mar 2010

      On March 2, 2010, Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams will host the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma in New York City. This quasi-legal event will feature the compelling testimony—for the first time ever—of 12 women from Burma who have suffered rape, torture and other crimes at the hands of the military junta. A few of these women are colleagues of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, still under house arrest.
      Below is an excerpt from one of the women, who sent us in advance some of her testimony:
      They raped us all without a second thought, until we finally escaped their drunken grasps. News spread quickly throughout my village… The shame I brought to my family, my school, my village was so difficult to bear. I was caned by my teacher in front of the entire school and expelled from my school and community for bringing shame upon it. Left without a home, a school, friends or a family, I was arrested by the police for “defaming” the same soldiers that raped me.

      The day after the Tribunal, on March 3, 2010, the ‘judges’ will present their findings and recommendations to the international community—in advance of the Burmese elections this year. The event will also be broadcast live on the internet. See http://www.nobelwomensinitiative.org/ for details.

      The International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma:
      March 2, 2010: 9 am – 6 pm
      Proshansky Auditorium, The Graduate Center
      City University of New York
      365 Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street)

      March 3, 2010: 10 am – 11 am
      The Church Center (across from the United Nations)
      777 United Nations Plaza, Drew Room (lower level)
      New York NY 10017

      For more information, please contact us:
      • Rachel Vincent: Mobile: + 1-613-276-9030, rvincent@...
      • Kimberley MacKenzie: +1-908-342-0160, kmackenzie@...
      • Kieran Bergmann: +1-613-569-8400 ext. 115, kbergmann@...

      NLD CEC approves 100 CC members – Phanida
      Mizzima News: Fri 26 Feb 2010

      Chiang Mai – The Central Executive Committee (CEC) of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma today approved 100 members of the new Central Committee (CC).The CEC began the selection and scrutiny of nominees for the CC sent by branches of States and Divisions of the party as of February 22. It approved the finalized list of new CC members today.

      The final list has to be sent to the party Chairman U Aung Shwe tomorrow for his approval following which it will be released in the first week of next month, Party Information Department in-charge Khin Maung Swe told Mizzima.

      “We finalized the list today and approved 100 nominees as new CC members but we need to seek the approval of our party chairman. The CEC has approved the list,” Khin Maung Swe, who is also a CEC member, said.

      The list of CC nominees was submitted to the CEC on February 16 and 17.

      The party fixed the number of its CEC and CC members at 20 and 100 to 120 respectively and the number of nominees for the CC was over 100.

      A NLD statement said the party Central Committee has been formed to consolidate and strengthen the party and efficiently handle the party’s future plans.

      Party functionaries said that they selected nominees on the basis of loyalty to the party, having calibre and capability, staying capacity and serving the party, standing by the principles and policies of the party and from among those against whom no disciplinary action was taken.

      There were 80 CC members, when it was first formed in 1990, but most of the CC members were arrested by the regime in 1997 and party activities and party work were crippled, it is learnt.

      Little hope for Burma’s political prisoners – Larry Jagan
      Mizzima News: Fri 26 Feb 2010

      BANGKOK (Mizzima) – The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana believes there that the country’s political prisoners will not be freed any time soon. “There seems to be no movement on political prisoners since my last trip [a year ago],” the UN envoy told Mizzima in an interview in Bangkok a few days ago. “In fact the government continues to deny that there are any prisoners of conscience.”At the same time more critics of the government and activists have been imprisoned on spurious charges. And political prioners already in jail mounted protests to coincide with the UN envoys visit.

      Scores of prisoners in at least two jails have gone on hunger strike, according to an organistion that monitors the situation of Burma’s political prisoners, and more than seventy in the Buthidaung jail, which Mr Quintana visited during his trip to the west of the country. Tthe regime’s total disregard for the envoy was underlined when five more political activists – a monk and five female activists – were given stiff jail sentences in the middle of his visit.

      “There were few positives from the trip,” Mr Quinata told Mizzima, apart from being allowed to visit Northern Rakhine State and meet 15 political prisoners in three different prisons.

      “They were not prepared to discuss the forthcoming elections in any detail, though it was clear from my visit that unofficial campaigning has started even though the electoral law has not been published,” he told Mizzima.

      The Argentinian lawyer was also frustrated that he was not allowed to see the country’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi who is currently under house arrest, where she has spent more than 15 of the last 21 years.

      “Of course I was disappointed not to meet her, and even though I had made my desire to talk to her about the forthcoming elections, I never expected to be given permission to see her.”

      The envoy is scheduled to give a detailed report on Burma’s human rights situation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month from this, his third mission to the country since his appointment two years ago.

      “But my mission should not be judged by whether the regime makes any concessions or not,” he said. “It’s a process – and the fact that they allow me to visit and continue the dialogue on human rights is very positive.” Otherwise the envoy seemed very down-beat in his over-all assessment of the trip.

      The Argentinian also complained about the Burmese authorities approach to his five-day visit. For one thing, he said, there was never any advance warning of the agenda. “It was a day-to-day programme,” he said. This did not permit him and his team to prepare properly and reduced the effectiveness of his mission, UN sources told Mizzima on condition of anonymity.

      There is no doubt though that Mr Quintana’s visit to Rakhine State in western Burma to see for himself the conditions of Burmese Muslims there was a significant concession by the regime. This is the first time a senior UN envoy has been allowed in that region – though the UN country team do have projects and people in the area. He visited both the regional capital Sittwe and Buthidaung in the north of the state — where the worse abuses against Burmese Muslims are alledged to take place.

      Perhaps even more significantly he was allowed to be accompanied by the two senior representatives of the International Labour Organization in Rangoon, who are actively involved in checking reports of forced labour in the country.

      During his mission there he was also allowed to visit Buthidaung prison where he met five political prisoners, including one of the ten local leaders of the Myanmar Muslim Association of Maungdaw — who have been sentenced to some 13 years for allegedly holding a meeting to discuss the constitution in 2007 – and a senior Shan leader, Tun Nyo who is now 79. Both were in very poor health, the envoy said.

      “Curiously the conditions in the jail have improved over the last six months, the prisonsers told me,” Mr Quintana told Mizzima. “But no one seemed to know why. They assumed it was maybe to do with election preparations,” he added. “But the conditions remain a matter of grave concern,” he added.

      “It is essential that the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to be allowed to resume their prison visits,” he stressed. ICRC suspended these at the end of 2005 because of the interference of government officials. As a result many prisoners do not the medicines they need or soap.

      More importantly the ICRC used to provide a channel of communications with the prisoners’ families. “I was the first visitor ever to Buthidaung prison,” he told Mizzima. “And while I thank the authorities for this opportunity, it is intolerable that some have had no contact with their love-ones since being transferred there – in some case that has been years.”

      ICRC’s access to the prisons is something that has been in every report the envoy has put before the UN, and will feature prominently in his fourth report, the next to be submitted to the Human Rights Council in Geneva soon. It was also something that the envoy said he raised persistently and firmly at every opportunity, with the home minister, the attorney general and the chief justice. But the envoy remained pessimistic that the regime will take any notice.

      Both Indonesia and China have also been quietly encouraging the junta to soften its stance towards ICRC behind the scenes. Most countries, even those with blemished human rights’ records, understand that the ICRC should be allowed to do its work unhindered by government interference.

      “That the ICRC is not permitted to do carry out its full mandate is shameful, since this is considered worldwide to be a minimum standard of cooperation with the international community,” Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s South East Asia researcher based in Bangkok told Mizzima.

      On Mr Quintana’s other two major concerns – the release of political prisoners and the forthcoming election – the regime remained equally intransigent.

      “I don’t expect any progress soon [on the release of political prisoners],” he said. During his talks with the representatives of the regime he continued to stress the need to release all political prisoners before the elections if the process was to at all believable.

      “These are well-educated and capable people who could participate in the election and help make the whole process credible I told the authorities,” he said.

      But on the elections as a whole he found the senior representatives of the junta he met relatively uncompromising. No one was prepared to discuss the elections in any detail – all they would say was that the legal framework is being prepared and the electoral law will be released in time. The UN envoy was obviously frustrated at the regime’s apparent obstinance.

      “But its important to have access to the authorities to be able to discuss human rights issues and explain what is needed to be done to meet international standards,” he said. “We can at least explain what is needed.”

      When he met the Home Minister, Maung Oo, the Attorney General and the Chief Justice, he left the UN’s handbook on free and fair elections for their reference. Few people though, including the envoy, expect the regime to consult in any way.

      “Barring an Election Law that marks a radical departure from its past and present laws and practices, the government is unlikely to allow political parties to participate fully–and meaningfully — in the elections process,” said Mr Zawacki.

      “Politicians and political parties must able to communicate freely with both the domestic and international media,” he added. “Unfortunately, all the signs are that the only views acceptable to the government will be its own, with no room at all for a debate of any kind.”

      The key people involved in the elections that Mr Quintana met also categorically rejected any involvement of international observers. “They aren’t needed,” he was told.

      The envoy also took the opportunity to discuss acceptable approaches to demonstrations with the police chief, Khin Yi.

      The issue was raised in terms of future protests rather than the brutal handling of the monk-led marches in 2007. “It’s important to peacefully control demonstrations, and force needs to be used proportionately,” he told the senior policeman.

      Tin Oo, the deputy leader of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy, was freed on the even of Mr Quintana’s mission to Burma after nearly seven years in detention. But during his visit five other dissidents were imprisoned – including a Buddhist abbot and four women activists.

      The four women were arrested last October after being accused of offering Buddhist monks alms that included religious literature, said Nyan Win, spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by detained Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The women used to hold prayer services at Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda for Ms Suu Kyi’s release.

      The Buddhist monk, Gaw Thita was given seven years jail for violating immigration laws by making a trip to Taiwan last year, said his lawyer Aung Thein. He was also convicted of unlawful association and failing to declare possession of foreign currency.

      On top of that, six detained political activists in Rangoon’s infamous Insein jail went on hunger strike a day before the UN envoy was due to visit the prison, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP-B), a Thailand-based Burmese human rights group. They launched their week-long hunger strike after complaining that the prison authorities were denying them what they called “basic human requirements”. It was due to end on Thursday 25th February.

      In a letter smuggled out of the prison, the political detainees complained that the rice that was given to prisoners was stale and mixed with small stones. “The bean soup and the sour vegetable soup often have insects in it and are dirty. We only get meat twice a week … and we get no salt,” said the letter.

      The prisoners are denied appropriate medical attention or needed medicines, and are not allowed sufficient exercise, complained the prisoners.

      In the letter activists said that although prisoners were allowed to receive books and newspapers from their relatives, all reading material was heavily censored. “Sometimes the pages are torn [out] and the books censored,” said the letter. “There is no regular access to newspapers, [and] when they do arrive, are often out of date,” compllined the letter.

      The prisoners are also not allowed paper or pens. “If a prisoner is found with paper or pens, they are sent to the punishment cell called the ‘Dog Cell’, said the letter. “We are not allowed to write to our families,” the prisoners complained.

      Last week, according to Mulim activists in Rakhune state, more than 70 inmates of Buthidaung prison also went on hunger strike in protest at the insufficient food rations. Their protests erupted after the prisoners, mostly non-Burmese, were denied a meeting with Mr Quintana when he visited Buthidaung prison.

      But on the positive side, Mr Quintan found a child soldier – who had been sentenced to 7 years for desertion. He had been conscripted when he was 16, seized off the street in hi school uniform on the way home. He was arrested when he went home to see his sick mother less than six months after he was forcibly recruited.

      When the envoy raised it with the Home Minister he at least responded positively, and maybe released soon. The ILO is following up the case.

      But human rights groups still fear that these high-profile visits are only used by the regime for their own ends.

      “When visits by UN envoys fail to achieve any progress, they allow the country to still claim it is cooperating with the UN, and leave the UN itself with little choice but to claim that the visits themselves constitute progress,” aid Mr Zawacki. “But in this case the special rapportteur is making it clear that the failure is the government’s fault.”

      Although no spectacular break-throughs may result from this visit, the fact that senior members of the regime are engaged with representatives of the international community is significant, especially on human rights. Some Burmese leaders at the very top are hearing what the government needs to be done, especially if the elections are to be credible and to meet international human rights’ norms.

      “If anyone expects that fundamental human rights changes are going to come about strictly through UN visits and other efforts they’re ignoring 20 years of history,” said Mr Zawacki. “Change will only come from within,” he added.

      And the real problem is that the senior general Than Shwe, who makes all the decisions, may not be listening to any of it.

      Our movement is unique for women from Burma’ – Marwaan Macan-Markar
      Inter Press Service: Fri 26 Feb 2010

      Chiang Mai, Thailand – Women who fled conflict and oppression in military-ruled Burma have become a potent political force during their lives in exile, says a leading women’s rights activist from the South-east Asian country’s Shan ethnic minority.Nothing confirms this more than the fact that the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), a network of 13 women’s groups in exile based in this northern Thai city, marked its 10th anniversary in December 2009. “Women’s participation is a must for any kind of peace and reconciliation in Burma,” declares Hseng Noung, one of the founder members of the league.

      “We have worked to create a political space and a democratic space for the voices and views of women from many ethnic groups to be heard in order to shape a better future for our country,” adds the 48-year-old activist, who left her country in 1983 after some years with a separatist rebel group in Shan State, in north-eastern Burma.

      Hseng Noung, who was WLB general secretary, is also a representative of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), which is known for its publication of a numbing exposure of rape being used as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. The shocking disclosures in the 2002 publication ‘License to Rape’ triggered condemnation by the international community, including the U.S. government and the United Nations.

      IPS interviewed Hseng Noung on the eve of her departure to New York to participate in a special tribunal examining the Burmese regime’s use of rape and violence against women in its military assaults on the country’s ethnic minorities.

      Q: Ten years ago when you set up the Women’s League of Burma, what kind of space was there for exiled women from Burma to shape your country’s political agenda?

      A: We didn’t see so much of women’s participation among the exile groups. And even when there was, there was little recognition of women’s contribution. There were women’s groups at the time that were active and had participated in the country’s affairs as they had done inside, like student activists. So we felt it would be better if we get together and create an organisation to create more space for us, and then to enlarge that space.

      Q: When the WLB came into existence, was it seen as a groundbreaking moment?

      A: Yes. It was unique for a country with the kind of historical background like Burma. We felt the need for collective ideas and collective action for women to participate in political change in Burma, social change, and to secure gender equality. Advocacy was also important for us because working towards women’s development was community development.

      Q: Now, 10 years after your organisation was established, do you have reasons to celebrate? Have you made an impact?

      A: Of course. We see more women participating in our activities and demonstrating new and better skills to deal with many political issues. One example was the participation of women when there were discussions to draft Burma’s new constitution. With their unique background from different ethnic areas, women contributed towards the discussion on what is best for national affairs and state affairs.

      Our members come from areas where there is civil war, conflict, where issues like refugees and human rights violations of different forms under the regime have to be faced. The space we created through the Women’s League of Burma made it possible to bring these diverse issues and talk about them. This would not be possible inside the country.

      Q: The conflicts that you mention reveal what a deeply divided country Burma is along ethnic lines. There are officially over 130 ethnic groups and creating unity among them has been a historical challenge. Was the objective of your organisation to bridge these ethnic divides?

      A: It is very clear that we want to build trust between us and we can do so by working together. We know it is so important for peace in Burma, for reconciliation in Burma. For that we must understand each other after many years of civil war and conflict and the regime’s propaganda to divide and rule and carry out actions against us, their own people.

      Q: Has it easy to build such trust? After all, you have among your members women from the majority Burman community and they have been responsible – or at least the Burmese army – for targeting ethnic minorities, of which you are one.

      A: Nothing like this is easy. Because we know, having been under the regime, that we have lot of experiences to share as a way of building understanding so we can work together to go forward to build a peaceful society. The women talk the same language, that we want peace. But what kind of peace? Not just the absence of war. We want peace that offers better opportunities for all ethnic groups, for different people and different genders.

      Q: Do you have similar organisations like yours inside Burma, working with the same objectives?

      A: No.

      Q: How have men in the exile community accepted this shift in the gender balance with your organisation taking such an important step to shape the political agenda and influence political discussions?

      A: Some men have welcomed our contribution. But there are others who have not given positive comments and even made fun of us. They expect us only to concentrate on select issues like human trafficking, health or HIV issues, because they see these as women’s issues. Sometimes they dismissed or overlooked what women’s groups were doing such as our three main areas of activity: peacebuilding and reconciliation programme, the violence against women programme and the women’s political empowerment programme. That is why we call our movement a “struggle within a struggle.”

      We have also proved ourselves by making people in the international community aware of the problems in Burma through our international networks. Before this people didn’t know much about what the military regime was doing, using sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war. But we changed that view through the documentation work done by our member organisations, producing reports to expose these human rights violations. This helped to counter the propaganda of the regime.

      Q: Aung San Suu Kyi is Burma’s democracy icon. How has her importance influenced your organisation?

      A: She is an inspiration to everybody. She didn’t know that we were forming the Women’s League of Burma. I am sure she will be proud of us. And we will support her.

      Q: Do you think the Burmese regime will be able to handle organisations like yours?

      A: They will have to handle it sooner or later. But I know – or heard – from some people, and not directly, that the regime has got some FM radio stations inside the country to denounce groups it does not like, and the Women’s League of Burma has also been mentioned.

      Myanmar troops commit atrocities – Denis D. Gray
      Associated Press: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Bangkok — Myanmar troops have gang-raped, murdered and even crucified Karen women, or those in their charge, who took on the roles of village chiefs in hopes they would be less likely abused than traditional male leaders, a Karen group said Thursday.The atrocities, which also include beheadings, torture, forced prostitution and slave labor, are often committed as the troops attempt to root out a 60-year-old insurgency by guerrillas of the Karen ethnic minority, the Karen Women Organization said in a report.

      Although the United Nations and other organizations have documented similar atrocities against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, the government has consistently denied allegations of human rights abuses, saying its troops are only engaged in anti-terrorist operations.

      The report said that the trend for Karen women to assume community leadership “has put women further into the front line of human rights abuses being committed by the Burma Army and their allies.” Myanmar is also known as Burma.

      “I was not happy being village chief. It is similar to digging my own grave,” Daw Way Way, a 51-year-old woman who led her community for five years, was quoted as saying. Like a third of the 95 women interviewed for the report, Daw Way Way said she was tortured by soldiers during her tenure.

      The abuse often reportedly occurred as soldiers questioned villagers about their suspected ties to insurgents of the Karen National Union.

      “Some of the villagers were arrested whilst working on their farms, they were tied up, crucified and finally had their throats cut,” said Naw Pee Sit, another village chief who was beaten after being accused of such connections.

      Naw Chaw Chaw Kyi, who served as chief for five years because nobody else wanted the job, said the military in her village forced several people into a hole, covered it with earth up to their necks and them stomped on them.

      “Then they took out the villagers and beat them and brutally tortured villagers for a month and after that they killed them,” she said.

      “Gender-based violence,” ranging from rape of girls to forced labor and grueling interrogations for pregnant and nursing mothers, was especially widespread, the report said.

      “When I was village chief and was forced to be a porter, they tied me up with ropes at night and pulled me from this side to the other side. I could not endure the torture any more and they raped me,” said Naw Htu Pit. Other women, the report said, were used as “mine sweepers,” walking ahead of soldiers into mine-strewn areas.

      The women chiefs, the report said, were often caught between government troops who punished them on suspicion that they were supporting the guerrillas and insurgents who accused them of serving as officials of the regime.

      “These women are unsung heroes,” said Blooming Night Zan, a member of the organization based along the Thai-Myanmar border, where some 140,000 Karen, Shan and Karenni ethnic minority groups from Myanmar have sought refuge.

      The Thai Burma Border Consortium, a key aid provider for the refugees, says that nearly 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes in eastern Myanmar during operations by the military against the die-hard insurgents.

      The report, titled “Walking Amongst Sharp Knives,” was compiled between 2005 and 2009. It said that a third of the women interviewed were still serving as village chiefs.

      Economist: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Bangkok – THEY sew bras, peel shrimps, build blocks of flats and haul fishing-nets. In return, migrant workers in Thailand are paid poorly, if at all, and face exploitation and abuse at the hands of employers and the security forces. Up to 3m migrants, many undocumented and mostly from Myanmar, fall into this category. So a scheme to start registering this workforce and bring it into the legal fold sounds like a step forward. Migrants have been ordered to apply to their home countries for special passports so that they can work legally in Thailand and, in theory, enjoy access to public services, such as health care.But the plan has run into practical and political difficulties, mostly among workers from Myanmar, who rightly fear their awful government and do not want to return home, even temporarily. Many are unaware of the registration drive. So the first applicants have come mostly from migrants from Laos and Cambodia, where the authorities are more willing to help.

      The Thai government says 400,000 Myanmar nationals have so far joined the process. Under pressure, the Thai government has reportedly modified its original deadline of February 28th for filing papers. Now that is the deadline only for migrants to fill in a form agreeing to go through the “nationality verification” process. They have until the end of March to submit forms to their home government.

      But Thailand has not lifted its threat to arrest and deport migrants who do not comply by the new deadline. The government apparently believes that unregistered foreigners are a security threat. This raises the spectre of mass expulsions on a scale not seen since the 1990s. Jorge Bustamante, a United Nations official in Geneva dealing with migrant rights, has said that this would breach Thailand’s human-rights obligations, since workers might also be asylum-seekers.

      This argument is unlikely to sway a government that shows increasing contempt for refugees. In December it expelled more than 4,000 Hmong to Laos, including 158 refugees recognised as such by the UN. Most were packed off to a remote camp. A Thai-government spokesman has claimed that the 158 refugees were happy to be in Laos. Foreign diplomats in Bangkok, still fuming over the expulsion, doubt it.

      Kicking out millions of migrants who do dirty, low-paid jobs would be unpopular with Thai companies. Too few locals are willing to take their place. Garment factories in Thai-Myanmar border towns such as Mae Sot would probably go bankrupt if they had to offer decent wages and benefits. Fisheries and plantations also depend on imported labour. The government, however, believes that deported workers would soon be replaced by others eager to escape misery in Myanmar.

      Not all foreign workers are under the radar; over 1.3m migrants registered in 2009 for work permits under the old system. These are the workers whose nationality Thailand wants to verify first, before tackling the rest. But being a legal migrant in Thailand confers few benefits. Workers are still at the mercy of employers who can cheat them of their wages and dismiss them summarily. Complaining can be futile or worse. Workers face extortion, rape and even murder by the very officials supposed to be protecting them, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a watchdog that this week released a report on the abuses suffered by migrants. It noted that officials treat them like “walking ATMs”.

      There is little reason to believe that holding a special passport would protect migrants from rapacious cops and stingy employers, says HRW’s Phil Robertson. Migrants will still be unable to travel freely or organise into unions. In some provinces it is illegal for them to use mobile phones. Labour-inspectors pay little heed.

      Employers have the upper hand and can keep down labour costs, but at a price to Thailand’s competitiveness. Surveys of Thai workers show a steady decline in their productivity, says Pracha Vasuprasat, an expert on migration at the International Labour Organisation. An abundance of poorly paid migrants means less incentive to upgrade to a more skilled workforce. Thailand’s is not the only Asian economy hooked on cheap labour. Neighbouring Malaysia also depends on millions of guest-workers. So much so that its home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, has suggested that, to lessen the dependence, political refugees be allowed to work.

      For sex workers, a life of risks – Mon Mon Myat
      Inter Press Service: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Rangoon – When Aye Aye (not her real name) leaves her youngest son at home each night, she tells him that she has to work selling snacks. But what Aye actually sells is sex so that her 12-year-old son, a Grade 7 student, can finish his education.“Every night I work with the intention of giving my son some money the next morning before he goes to school,” said Aye, 51. She has three other older children, all of whom are married.

      Her 38-year-old friend Pan Phyu, also a sex worker, has a greater burden. After her husband died, she takes care of three children – apart from her mother and uncle.

      But Aye and Phyu’s source of income is fast declining, because it is no longer that easy to get clients at their age. Many younger women are in the sex trade today because of the difficult economic conditions in Burma, where prostitution is illegal.

      Aye and Phyu’s daily lives are marked by living with the risks that come with being in illegal work, ranging from abuse from clients and police harassment, to worrying about getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV.

      Accurate figures of the number of sex workers are difficult to come by. But some media reports say that there are more than 3,000 entertainment venues such as karaoke places, massage parlours or nightclubs where there are sex workers, and that there are an estimated five sex workers in each venue.

      There are fewer opportunities available for Aye and Phyu in the nightclubs in downtown Rangoon, but they found a place near the highway in the city outskirts.

      “I’m already having a hard time finding even just one client a night, yet some clients want to use me for free. Sometimes they cheat me and go without paying,” Aye said with a sigh.

      Their clients vary, ranging from college students, policemen, business people, taxi drivers or trishaw drivers. “It’s true that sometimes we get no money but just pain,” Phyu added.

      Many clients think that they can easily abuse commercial sex workers because they have little clout in an illegal area of work.

      “Sometimes I receive money for one client but I have to serve three clients. I would be beaten up if I refuse or speak up,” said Phyu, who has been a sex worker for 14 years. “If the local official in my ward or my neighbours don’t like me, they could inform the police who could arrest me anytime for trading sex,” Aye added. To keep from being harassed by the police, Aye and Phyu say they have to either give money or sex. “The police want money or sex from us. We need to make friends with them. If we can’t give a bribe we are threatened with arrest.”

      Phyu said, “Some clients came in plain clothes, but through the conversation, I later knew that some of them are police officials.”

      A few years ago, Aye and Phyu were arrested when the police raided the hotel they were in under the Brothel Suppression Act. Aye spent a month in a Rangoon jail after paying a bribe. Phyu could not afford to pay, so she spent one year in jail.

      Like many commercial sex workers, getting infected with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases is never far from their minds.

      Aye recalls that two years ago, she suspected that she might have HIV. A blood test at the Tha Zin clinic, which provides free HIV testing and counselling service for CSWs, confirmed her worst fears. “I was shocked and lost consciousness,” Aye said.

      But Phyu said calmly, “I already expected to have HIV infection as I’ve seen friends of mine dying from AIDS-related diseases. “My doctor told me that I can live normally as my CD4 counts are above 800,” she added, referring to count of white blood cells that fights infection and indicates the stage of HIV or AIDS.

      Still, Aye and Phyu say they remain in sex work because that is the only job they know that can bring them enough money.

      “I tried to work as a street vendor, but it didn’t work because I didn’t have enough money to invest,” Aye said. Aye earns from 2,000 to 5,000 kyat (2 to 5 U.S. dollars) for a one-hour session with a client, an amount she would never earn as a food vendor even if she works the whole day.

      Because she has HIV, Aye carries a condom in her bag as suggested by the doctor from the Tha Zin clinic. But her clients are stubborn and refuse to use any protection, she said. “It’s even harder to convince them to use a condom when they are drunk. I was often beaten up for urging them to use a condom,” Aye pointed out.

      Htay, a doctor who asked that his full name not be disclosed, says he has heard a similar story from a sex worker who comes to see him. “Every month we provide a box of free condoms to sex workers, but their number does not get reduced by much when we checked the box again. The reason she (sex worker patient) gave me was that her clients did not want to use a condom. That’s a problem,” said Htay, who provides community health care for people with living with HIV.

      According to a 2008 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than 18 percent of some 240,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Burma are female sex workers.

      HIV-positive sex workers are a hidden reality in Burma. “Our society covers up the truth that prostitution exists because of shame and fear of sin, but it actually makes the situation worse,” pointed out Htay.

      “I think a network of commercial sex workers needs to be set up in this country,” said Nay Lin of Phoenix Association, a group that provides moral support and vocational training for people living with HIV/AIDS. “Through that they could stand for their rights and protect their communities.”

      “Just like others, commercial sex workers who are mothers earn money in exchange for sex to support their children and their families, but they always work under fear of the police and of being abused by clients,” Lin said. “We should respect them as mothers instead of abusing them.”

      To this day, Aye leaves home to go to work as soon as her son falls asleep at night. She worries about earning enough money, and what will happen to her son if she does not.

      “If I have no client tonight, I will have to go to the pawnshop tomorrow morning (to sell items),” she said. Showing her one-foot-long hair, Aye added: “If I have nothing left, I’d have to sell my hair. It could probably be worth about 7,000 kyat (7 dollars).”

      Fair labour rights in Myanmar benchmark for country’s 2010 elections
      Asian Tribune: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Kuala Lumpur – As Myanmar plans for general elections this year, the country’s military rulers have announced their commitment to ASEAN and the international community to conduct a truly democratic election and ensure a “free and fair” electoral process.Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) has endorsed the statement that the country has asserted that it will respect the rights of its citizens as enshrined in the ASEAN Charter to which it is a signatory.

      Though AIPMCE has endorsed, there have been virtually no visible signs of the junta’s willingness to adhere to democratic practice thus far and it still fails to uphold the rights of its citizens.

      One example is the reported case of 3600 workers staging a protest on February 8th at their factories in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone in Yangon. The group, mostly women, temporarily stopped work to request better working conditions and benefits but was met with aggression.

      Myanmar’s military regime reportedly deployed more than 50 truckloads of riot police and set up barbed-wire barricades to quell and contain the otherwise peaceful picket.

      The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) commends the bravery of these workers and questions the means in which the regime chose to deal with the matter.

      Under threat of violence, the workers accepted a compromise of a (USD) $2 – $5 wage increase per month, far less than their original request of $10, and returned to their factories. However, the workers reportedly continue to press for overtime payments, enforcement of public holidays and improvement of the substandard working conditions at the factories.

      AIPMC’s committee members representing regional lawmakers are therefore left to call in question the commitment of Myanmar’s regime towards protecting and upholding rights.

      “In light of the military regime’s threats of violence and history of using excessive force to quash opposition and peaceful protests, we are gravely concerned for the welfare and safety of these workers,” state AIPMC’s regional committee urging the regime to refrain from using violence and to abide by internationally accepted protocols in handling labour disputes.

      AIPMC further urges ASEAN government leaders and ASEAN’s Secretary-General to intervene in the matter to closely monitor the situation in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone to ensure that the workers are not put in further danger and that their basic human rights are not violated.

      Myanmar, as an ASEAN member, has pledged to promote and protect the rights of its citizens and therefore must show a willingness to act in accordance with principles of labor rights.

      To do otherwise will suggest that Myanmar’s rulers are not serious in their claims of carrying out free and fair elections or their ability thereafter to lead a nation through good governance.

      AIPMC further urges labor unions in the various ASEAN member states and the International Labor Organization to assist Burma’s workers in pursuing fair working conditions.

      Than Shwe, the progressive – Adam Selene
      Irrawaddy: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Fear is a powerful thing. Ask Than Shwe, the military ruler who during his active army career excelled in psychological warfare. Fear can make people do things that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of doing. Like introducing some sort of a democratic system that will ultimately eat away, in 10 years or more, all the power that the tatmadaw has over the Burmese people.Fear turned Than Shwe into a reformer. Let’s look at the issue from his perspective.

      Than Shwe knows the stories of Ne Win and Saw Maung. His predecessors ended their lives in dreadful circumstances. In Ne Win’s case, he was placed under house arrest. Than Shwe did it to these men, and he doesn’t want it to happen to him.

      The leader is ageing. He knows that soon he will have to announce which prince will inherit his crown. But when he does that, will he be safe in retirement? Probably not. Better not appoint a new leader at all, Than Shwe probably thought.

      He came up with a creative solution. Than Shwe adopted a plan that guarantees that a “democratic” government will take over in 2010. And he came up with the 2008 Constitution—which overshadows the importance of the elections which the army now can afford to be “free” (although not fair). In the Constitution many safeguards have been built in, which protect army leaders from prosecution and loss of their privileges.

      The result will be that Than Shwe doesn’t have to fear his successor or the semi-democratic government that will follow in his footsteps. He can retire, and he will in the coming years use his influence within the army leadership to get things done that he deems important.

      Actually, Than Shwe’s biggest fear is not the opposition, which is weak and divided, and largely without a program, capable leaders and experience in public governance. His biggest worry will be the army itself.

      A majority within the army doesn’t support his reform program. Most officers would like to continue the status quo and want to cling to their economic benefits. What is left of a general who is instructed to shed his uniform and be a member of parliament? What will happen to him if he can’t wield his rank to make money?

      The biggest threat to Than Shwe is a new coup after the elections. In that case, all his plans end up in the dust bin and all the safeguards are gone.

      Believe it or not, Than Shwe is the biggest progressive force in the army right now.

      His reasons may be wrong and borne out of self-interest, but the results will in the long run benefit Burma. Let’s cling to that thought.

      * Adam Selene, a journalist based in Bangkok, has just returned from a one month visit to Burma.

      Pioneering women village heads targeted for systematic abuse by junta’s troops across Eastern Burma
      Karen Women Organization: Thu 25 Feb 2010

      Walking Amongst Sharp Knives reveals previously unreported abuses taking place against ethnic Karen women in Burma.The practice of the Burmese Army to execute village heads has led to traditional Karen culture being turned upside-down, with women now being appointed village chiefs as they are seen as less likely to be killed. However, this change has put women in the frontline of human rights abuses. These abuses constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.

      The abuses experienced or witnessed by the women chiefs include:
      · Crucifixions
      · People burnt alive
      · Rape, including gang rape.

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