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[Readingroom] News on Burma - 13/7/10

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Myanmar troops seize vulnerable boys for tough army life Thai-Myanmar cross-border operations face uncertain future Thai businesses eyeing investments in Burma
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 13, 2010
      1. Myanmar troops seize vulnerable boys for tough army life
      2. Thai-Myanmar cross-border operations face uncertain future
      3. Thai businesses eyeing investments in Burma
      4. Refugees unlikely to return soon after election: EU
      5. Burma’s democrats will not cave in to dictatorship
      6. Burma’s paranoid dictator plots his dignified exit
      7. Is Burma’s junta trying to join the nuclear club?
      8. Myanmar democracy activists allowed to form new party
      9. Conscription in Burma following election?
      10. Forced labor continues unabated in army and Nasaka camps
      11. Ethnic parties gaining support in Northern Shan State
      12. Regime separates assets of USDA and USDP
      13. Students make risky public call for right to form unions
      14. Burma on new China ‘watch list’ for resources
      15. Forced labor still widespread in Burma
      16. EU sanctions on Tay Za’s son upheld
      17. Burma’s nuclear ambitions could divert international focus
      18. Burma’s democracy leaders hold parliamentary hearings in Kuala Lumpur
      19. Burma regime continues to target civilians
      20. Burma-North Korea ties: Escalating over two decades
      21. Total, Chevron deny abuse claim in Myanma
      22. Energy giants ‘fund Burma’s nuclear drive’
      23. Burmese army targets ‘dispirited’ youths
      24. Economic growth ‘to accelerate’ in 2010-11
      25. Challenge impunity in Myanmar
      26. House odds stacked in favor of the junta

      Myanmar troops seize vulnerable boys for tough army life – Rachel O’Brien
      Agence France Presse: Mon 12 Jul 2010

      Mae Sot, Thailand — The spiky-haired teenager said he clearly recalls the day when Myanmar state troops whisked him from the streets of Mandalay, accused him of stealing and forced him to become a child soldier.“They said if you don’t want to go to jail, you must join the army. I said I didn’t want to join but whenever I said it they beat me again and again. When I agreed to join they stopped beating me,” Win Sein told AFP.

      He said he was homeless and aged about 15 — although he doesn’t know his birthday — when he was recruited less than two years ago, joining thousands of under-18s believed to be in Myanmar’s state army and ethnic armed groups.

      After four months of boot camp, involving a gruelling fitness regime, weapons training and corporal punishment, the youngster said he was sent to the frontline of civil war against ethnic rebels in remote jungle regions.

      A year later, Win Sein fled his post and eventually escaped from the military-ruled country, arriving in the Thai border town Mae Sot in March.

      “The main reason was not the fighting, but because the sergeants were really, really brutal. They always insulted and beat the child soldiers,” he said. “So I decided to run away, whatever happened to me.”

      While it is difficult to verify former child soldiers’ backgrounds, Myanmar analyst David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch said Win Sein’s story was “sadly typical, in terms of training times, locations and the workload”.

      Win Sein, whose name AFP has changed to protect him and his family, is now in the care of Mae Sot-based aid group Social Action for Women (SAW), where he was initially reluctant to discuss his harrowing experience.

      “After he arrived, he would lose control. He broke bottles and used the glass to cut his arm,” said SAW’s director Aye Aye Mar. “He didn’t talk. He didn’t answer any questions we asked. He didn’t trust anyone.”

      Such psychological damage is typical in youngsters who have spent time in the army, added the director, who has looked after around 20 former child soldiers from Myanmar.

      Win Sein said the children at his boot camp were forced to tell the lieutenant they had signed up voluntarily, and “because they were afraid of the sergeants who recruited them, they lied about their age”.

      Such underage enlistment, which is banned by law in Myanmar, is a result of regimental efforts to keep numbers up in the vast army rather than a central junta directive, according to Mathieson of Human Rights Watch.

      “It’s basically free market recruitment,” he said.

      “It’s certainly not official — there’s no paper trail saying it’s coming from the war office in (the capital city) Naypyidaw.”

      Mathieson said there are likely to be thousands of child soldiers in the state military, which is thought to be up to 400,000 strong.

      And the problem is not confined to the official force in Myanmar, a nation ruled by the military since 1962 and embroiled in civil war in ethnic minority areas since gaining independence in 1948.

      A United Nations report released in May named nine of the country’s ethnic armed groups, as well as the government army, for recruiting and using children in conflict, noting “extremely limited access” to monitor such forces.

      Win Sein, who before his recruitment had run away from home to escape abuse by his step-father, said street children were a particularly easy target for state troops who get paid or rewarded for filling military personnel quotas.

      He said he met numerous fellow child soldiers with a similarly penurious background to his own.

      “Soldiers dressed in plain clothes go to children who live on the street and say, ‘Hey little brother, do you want a snack? I will get you one’.

      “These street children are hungry and have no food, so they are happy someone is buying something for them and they follow the men,” Win Sein said.

      Steve Marshall, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) liaison officer in Myanmar, agreed the children preyed upon “tend to be those in a vulnerable situation”, such as boys on their own at railway stations and markets.

      He said the youngest boy known to be signed up was aged just 11.

      With the junta’s agreement, the ILO has a process for families to complain about underage recruitment cases, which if verified are submitted to the government to get the children released and their recruiters disciplined.

      Since 2007 more than 100 victims have been discharged and numerous army personnel reprimanded for their part in such cases, including three who were jailed, and there has been training by the military to raise awareness of recruitment law.

      But “there is no firm evidence suggesting that the situation has markedly improved,” Marshall said.

      The youngsters roped into battle can face destroyed childhoods, uncertain futures and — for deserters such as Win Sein — a lingering fear of retribution.

      “I would like to see my mother and sister again but I dare not contact them because I don’t want to get them in trouble,” he said. “I also don’t want them to know what I have been through.”

      Thai-Myanmar cross-border operations face uncertain future – Peter Janssen
      Deutsche Presse-Agentur: Mon 12 Jul 2010

      Mae Sot, Thailand – When Cynthia Maung stumbled across the Thai-Myanmar border into Mae Sot in 1988 after a 10-day jungle trek to flee a military crackdown in Yangon, she planned to stay a few months at most.Twenty-two years later, Dr Maung’s Mae Tao clinic is a border institution, employing a staff of 634 who provide treatment to more than 2,000 patients a day suffering from malaria to amputated limbs.

      Maung’s pioneering health work for Burmese refugees and migrant workers has not gone unnoticed. She has won a dozen international awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2003, and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005.

      The clinic, founded by Maung in 1989, has grown from a makeshift shack where she sterilized thermometers in a rice cooker to a sprawling, albeit still makeshift, community hospital with 150 beds, a laboratory, pharmacy, prosthetics centre, first-aid training programmes and a school.

      Nearly half the patients are migrant workers and their families living in around Mae Sot, where an estimated 200,000 Burmese survive in a semi-legal limbo.

      The rest of her patients come from across the border.

      “Every day we see more and more people seeking help,” Maung said. “Our most severe cases come from inside Burma.”

      Not all are fleeing fighting and landmines. Some are simply escaping Myanmar’s notoriously poor medical system.

      War Yar Htuu, a 15-year-old from Myawadi, across the Moei River from Mae Sot, came to get treatment for a leg infection.

      “I had no money to go to a Myanmar hospital,” said Htuu. “The hospitals in Myanmar are okay but they only accept you if you have money.”

      After 48 years of military rule, Myanmar has gone from being one of the richest countries in South-East Asia to one of the poorest, with among the worst health and education systems in the region.

      “The system itself does not work, not even in central Burma,” Maung said. “Only people with money can use the health service.”

      Because of Myanmar’s pariah status as a brutally run military state, it ranks among the world’s lowest recipients of foreign aid, receiving less than 2 dollars per person each year.

      Operations such as Mae Tao clinic, on the other hand, survive on foreign largesse. Maung estimates that 95 per cent of her annual operating budget of about 3 million dollars comes from foreign donors, the rest is met by a token 1-dollar registration fee per patient.

      With her patient load increasing 5-10 per cent annually, the clinic is facing a budget shortfall this year, which is managed by cutbacks on free food and postponing improvements.

      The long term, especially with an election promised by Myanmar’s junta some time this year, is more worrying. Although few expect the polls to be free or fair, the outcome is likely to increase aid going into Myanmar, and less to cross-border operations.

      “Definitely, most donors want to do more inside and less cross-border, and I think that trend will continue after the election,” said one Bangkok-based European diplomat.

      Donations to political groups in exile, based along the border, are already drying up, and are expected to end after the polls as these groups look increasingly ineffective, sources said.

      More worrisome is the potential impact on cross-border operations such as health services, the more than 60 schools catering to Burmese migrant children and labour protection groups. There are some 130 Myanmar-related non-governmental organizations in Mae Sot alone.

      “That’s the big concern,” said David Mathieson, Myanmar expert for Human Rights Watch. “Because after the election it’s not like the root problems are going to change. It’s not as if all the Burmese refugees and migrant workers are going to go home after the polls, even if that’s what the Thai government wants to happen.”

      Thailand has yet to clarify its post-election policy towards the estimated 2 million Burmese refugees and migrant workers on its soil.

      Like most governments, Bangkok is waiting to see what the polls bring, but most observers anticipate a sham election that will install a pro-military government.

      “After the election things will become clearer for the international community,” said Mahn Mahn, executive director of the Back Pack Health Workers Team, that works with the Mae Tao clinic totrain health workers inside Myanmar. “It will be clear what the election hasn’t achieved.”

      Thai businesses eyeing investments in Burma
      The Nation (Thailand): Mon 12 Jul 2010

      Investors from many Thai sectors are looking to Burma, with its low operating costs, abundant natural resources and large market, according to the Thai-Myanmar Business Council.Representatives of Burma’s private sector visited the council in recent weeks to lobby Thai industries to establish manufacturing plants in the country, whose official name is Myanmar, said Thai-Myanmar Business Council Santi Vilassakdanont. Promising sectors in Burma include food processing, agriculture-related industries, consumer products and garments, he said.

      Burma will hold a general election at the end of this year. It is expected that the new Burmese government will establish investment incentives aimed at foreign businesses.

      “Burma has been opening its country to foreign investment since member nations agreed to implement the Asean Economic Community by 2015. Asean will become a single market under this agreement, and Burma does not want to be left behind. We’re cooperating closely with the private sector in Burma,” Santi said.

      Moreover, Burmese authorities want to create jobs. At present, many Burmese labourers work in Thai manufacturing plants on the countries’ border. It makes sense for the Burmese to encourage these people to work in their home country, he said.

      The Thai-Myanmar Business Council plans to take a delegation, including about 20 Thai businesspeople, to Burma next month, Santi said. During the visit, the two countries will sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) securing the supply of certain Burmese agricultural products to the Thai food-processing industry, as well as garment exports from Thailand to Burma.

      Thai manufacturers will also be given opportunities to meet and establish relationships with Burmese businesspeople.

      Santi said he had also received expressions of interest from representatives of firms in such heavy-industry sectors such as steel and cement, as well as from the energy industry, about investing in Burma.

      Other countries, including China and Singapore, are also looking for investment opportunities in Burma. Santi said Thailand needs to take advantage of its geographical proximity to Burma and its historical ties with the country’s people.

      “Thai industries should pay more attention to investing in Burma as the operating costs in that country, such as labour and land costs, are lower than in Thailand. Besides, the investment regulations in Burma are less stringent than in our country right now. We don’t know yet when the Southern Seaboard project will be ready for new investment,” he said.

      The Thai-Myanmar Business Council was set up in February this year as collaboration between the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI), the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai Bankers Association. Santi, who is a former chairman of the FTI, is the first chairman of the council.

      Refugees unlikely to return soon after election: EU – Lawi Weng
      Irrawaddy: Mon 12 Jul 2010

      The European Union (EU) is not anticipating a quick return of Burmese refugees from Thailand following Burma’s planned election this year, said an EU official in a written response to a request by The Irrawaddy for clarification on the EU position towards Burmese refugees and migrants in Thailand.The request for clarification was sent by email following a news report by the Bangkok Post on June 24 that quoted Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya as saying: “As the Burmese government is holding elections later this year, we should help those who live outside their country to return home and resume their lives in Burma.”

      “The EU does not expect that the elections in Myanmar [Burma] in 2010 will create conditions conducive to an immediate return of the predominantly Karen to eastern Burma, particularly since a ceasefire between SPDC [the Burmese government] and the Karen leadership seems unlikely to materialize and armed conflict persists to this day,” the EU official said.

      He said the EU welcomes steps taken by the Royal Thai Government since 2005 to provide the Burmese refugees “improved access to education and training and the recognition of the right of children born in Thailand to be granted a regular birth certificate.”

      While noting that resettlement to third countries will only be a solution for a fraction of the Burmese refugee population in Thailand, he said: “Any forcible repatriation without a proper and transparent screening would constitute a serious violation of the principle of non-refoulement,” referring to an international refugee law concerning the protection of refugees from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

      The EU offical noted that though the Thai government is not a member to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it has in the past “upheld high humanitarian and legal standards.”

      An estimated 140,000 Burmese refugees live at nine refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, where many of them have been confined for many years before getting a chance to resettle to third countries with the help of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Most of the refugees are ethnic Karen who fled their villages in the conflict zones of Karen State.

      The refugees become totally dependent on aid as they are confined in the camps, and they are in need of work opportunities and should be allowed employment opportunities outside as well as inside the camps, said Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an organization which works closely with Burmese refugees.

      “There needs to be a shift in policy on refugees so they can actually do more to contribute to the local economy here in Thailand,” she said. “It is recognized that it could be some time before they can return to Burma. They want to go back only if there is peace in their homeland following a solution to the political problems.

      “We hope the refugees will be able to return in the future, but we can’t predict the outcome of the election. There is ongoing conflict in eastern Burma and the election is unlikely to solve the ethnic issue. Therefore, a return in the near future is unlikely,” she said.

      The EU is the largest donor to the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border and the EU Commission’s support to the refugee camps is gradually shifting towards activities of a more developmental nature in the coming years, acording to the EU official.

      “We feel responsible to help addressing the protracted refugee situation and to develop a long-term strategy,” he said. “The refugees need to be enabled to support themselves and given the chance to actively contribute to Thailand’s growing economy through their skills and labour. As everybody else, they are entitled to a self-determined future and to realising their human potential.”

      Eric Schwartz, the US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, visited refugee camps along Thai-Burmese border in June and raised US concerns about the plight of Burmese refugees in camps in the light of Burma’s upcoming polls, but he noted that
      the third-country resettlement for the majority of the refugees is unrealistic.

      The Burmese regime has not announced the date of the election planned to be held this year.

      Critics say that without the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 2000 political prisoners in Burma, the election lacks credibility and legitimacy.

      Burma’s democrats will not cave in to dictatorship – U Win Tin
      Sydney Morning Herald: Mon 12 Jul 2010

      Last month many pro-democracy advocates inside and outside Burma paused to commemorate the 65th birthday of our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Many too, will take the opportunity to ponder the savage undermining of the democratic process that has occurred since she led the National League for Democracy to win the national elections in 1990.Now, Burma’s main political opposition has decided to disband rather than be co-opted into a sham electoral shadow-play being enacted by the military leaders. This decision has been based on a deep understanding of the tactics of dictators.

      Some of our supporters do not understand our decision. However, while we as democrats respect the right of all to hold views contrary to our own, we also expect our critics to be well appraised of the issue. It is clear many are not.
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      The first point of departure for all those analysing the planned election this year in Burma is the constitution under which it will be held. The 2008 basic law seeks to establish a range of encumbrances to the democratic process, which make it impossible to see it as anything other than a clumsy attempt to dress rotten wood with the polish and veneer of democracy and progress.

      Picture a fine piece of Burmese teak, smooth and presentable to the eye, but eaten away underneath.

      Most obviously, the constitution ensures a 25 per cent quota for members of the military in any parliament. The military is seeking an additional majority quota by fielding a disguised military political party in the election.

      So, at best the military is offering three-quarters of a democracy, or less, to the people of Burma.

      This constitution, under which the elections this year are held, carries a range of assaults on democracy.

      For instance, this election will not choose a government. It will select those who will fill the legislature and who will then be given the responsibility of selecting the heads of government.

      The constitution is unclear how this process will work in detail, only that the envisaged presidential Electoral College (the Parliament including the military) will decide upon a new president. If it can be assumed that a basic majority of the parliament be required, then the 25 per cent military representation ensures that considerably less than a majority of the elected members is required to name the new president, who will then in turn fill ministerial and other governmental posts by fiat.

      It is, in effect, a recipe for a rump parliament.

      That such a crucial component of the election process is clearly undemocratic is untenable. It sets the tone for the whole electoral process and ensures that participation by pro-democracy parties and individuals will lead nowhere in democratic terms.

      Other constitutional issues abound. Among them is the difficulty and unwieldy expense of registering and running a campaign. For instance, the roughly $US500 required for each candidate to run will not be refunded post-election and estimates for funding a campaign across all 498 national constituencies run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, a fortune in one of the world’s poorest countries.

      Moreover, some have argued that the requirement to name all party members to qualify for formal recognition is simply a means of finding where dissent may be so that a post-election purge may be carried out.

      Finally, significant ethnic groups are denied access to the political process. This ensures that large portions of the Burmese national constituency is denied their democratic rights.

      As a party of democrats, founded on the highest principles of freedom and equality, the National League for Democracy cannot participate in a system that not only denies us our due rights-as the winners of the 1990 elections, for instance – but denies fellow Burmese political forces appropriate input to the political process.

      Surely no self-respectable democrat could countenance such a cave-in to the forces of dictatorship.

      Ultimately, the NLD is a social movement as much as a political party. Our goal is to maintain our political party and our social role despite the many overtures from the ruling military to sell-out and to be a party to their ruinous dictatorial regime.

      Our participation in any election process remains conditional upon the four principles formulated in the NLD’s Shwegondaing Declaration of April 2009: release all political prisoners; open dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi; recognise the 1990 election results and; review the 2008 constitution.

      Only with these conditions can democracy find room to flourish in Burma.

      * U Win Tin is co-founder of Burma’s National League for Democracy and was imprisoned by the military for 19 years.

      Burma’s paranoid dictator plots his dignified exit
      Independent (UK): Mon 12 Jul 2010

      Senior-General Than Shwe is giving his regime a makeover as he calculates the safest way to step down. Peter Popham reports.In the run-up to a long promised but still unscheduled general election, the first for 20 years, Burma’s military dictator, Senior-General Than Shwe, has taken a step full of peril: he has ordered his uniformed cabinet ministers to resign from the army.

      Those faceless generals who adorn the front page of the New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s daily paper, inspecting fish-packing factories and barrages, will still be running the country, and anything resembling democratic governance will be as far away as ever.

      But the look of things will have changed. The ministers will wear longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong-like garment. And crucially for them, they will no longer enjoy the status and respect which, in a country ruled with an iron fist by the military for half a century, is the army’s prerogative.

      Irrawaddy, the expatriate Burmese news website, predicts trouble. “Senior-General Than Shwe is facing a mutiny among his subordinates,” it claimed last week. “There are growing signs of discontent among his cabinet ministers… They have been betrayed by their boss.

      “Like it or not, army uniforms are a symbol of authority in Burma,” it went on. “Those who wear them always get priority over those who don’t. They are respected and can expect easy co-operation from others. Suddenly they will lose that privilege.”

      Leaving the army also means that those ministers will not be included in the 25 per cent quota that the army has reserved for itself in the planned new parliament. “Now they are on their own,” Irrawaddy columnist Bamargyi pointed out. “Unless Than Shwe supports them with some dirty deals from behind the scenes, they are sure to lose. Once this happens, they are down the drain.”

      In trying to rebrand his military dictatorship as a civilian administration, the 77-year-old soldier who has been the boss of his nation of 50 million people for the past 18 years, and who was recently named by the journal Foreign Affairs as the world’s third-worst dictator after Kim Jong-il and Robert Mugabe, thus faces a major challenge.

      And in trying to withdraw from the scene while remaining in control, he faces an even tougher test: how, as King Lear deludedly put it, to “shake all cares and business from our age,/ Conferring them on younger strengths, while we/ Unburden’d crawl towards death”? How to do that without getting the Goneril and Regan treatment – or much worse?

      How, in other words, to live out the rest of his days enjoying the billions he has plundered from the state, without ending up like his late boss Ne Win, Burma’s dictator from 1962 to 1988, who, on Than Shwe’s orders, ended his life locked in his lakeside villa in Rangoon under house arrest while his sons languished in jail under sentence of death?

      How to avoid the fate of Khin Nyunt, the military intelligence chief and for many years Than Shwe’s number two, who is also under house arrest with no prospect of release (while some of his underlings were tortured to death) after China hailed him as “Burma’s Deng Xiaoping”?

      According to Ben Rogers, author of the first-ever biography, Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, which is launched in London next week, acute anxiety about his security is behind the fact that, two years after announcing elections, the senior general has yet to say when they will be held.

      “He wants to make sure that everything is sewn up perfectly and that he can continue to govern from behind the scenes,” said Rogers, a human rights advocate with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “He will hold off naming the date until he’s certain he’s got all his ducks in a row. He doesn’t want to give the candidates any room for campaigning.”

      A similarly secretive, paranoid approach dictated the most extraordinary decision of Than Shwe’s career, and the one which, for good or ill, will assure him immortality of a sort: the removal of Burma’s capital from Rangoon to a hot, malaria-infested, seismically sensitive wasteland in the centre of the country.

      The idea of moving the army’s HQ out of Rangoon had been in the air for a number of years, and may have been mentioned by Than Shwe to Aung San Suu Kyi in one of the fruitless meetings they held in 1994, while the opposition leader was under her first spell of house arrest. Rangoon is in the far south; for an army engaged in multiple counter-insurgency operations in the north and east, a base in the centre made strategic sense.

      But unbeknownst to the outside world, Than Shwe nursed a far more drastic plan. “At precisely 6.37 am on 6 November 2005,” writes Rogers, “hundreds of government servants left Rangoon in trucks shouting, “We are leaving! We are leaving!” … Five days later, a second convoy of 1,100 military trucks carrying 11 military battalions and 11 ministries left Rangoon. Perhaps influenced by astrologers, Than Shwe had decided to move the country’s capital. He had given government officials just two days’ notice.”

      So Naypyitaw, which translates as “Seat of Kings” and is dominated by oversize statues of Than Shwe’s favourite royal forerunners, will be this man’s monument. “It’s the most awful place you’ve ever been to,” said Mark Canning, a former British ambassador to Burma. “It’s a collection of buildings scattered over scrubland. But they are all just dispersed, and there are two or three kilometres between each building. One can only presume it’s so they don’t get bombed or something, to spread out the targets.” As a resident of Naypyitaw told one foreign journalist, “Although [Than Shwe] is a king, he is afraid of many things. He thinks that here he will be safe.”

      Naypyitaw thus incarnates what Suu Kyi once said about fear. “It is not power that corrupts, but fear,” she noted in 1990 when she was already under house arrest. “Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it… Fear slowly stifles and destroys all sense of right and wrong.”

      Only in a system dominated by fear could a man like Than Shwe rise to the top and stay there, because throughout his career he has given the impression of being so unimpeachably mediocre as to be without ambition or hope of success. He was a man incapable of provoking fear until suddenly he was at the top of the tree, and now he has held his nation in thrall for nearly two decades.

      The comments of those who have had dealings with him are uniformly unflattering. “Short and fat with not a strong voice,” says one. “Relatively boring,” says another. “No evident personality.” “Our leader is a very uneducated man.” “There were many intelligent soldiers but he was not one of them…a bit of a thug.” “You feel that he’s got there by accident…” The closest Than Shwe gets to being complimented is in the description of a former World Bank official: “He is such an old fox!”

      Born in 1933 in the central Burmese town of Kyaukse, Than Shwe quietly rose through the ranks despite having no striking military successes, until he was appointed deputy defence minister in July 1988 in the midst of the biggest revolt since the military takeover, the regime’s moment of greatest danger.

      In 1990 he was there alongside the erratic, sometimes deranged General Saw Maung, head of the new State Law and Order Restoration Council, who once drew his pistol on fellow generals during a game of golf and was eventually deposed. Then it was a contest between Than Shwe and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt – who crucially had no experience as a commander in the field, and thus no chance of being accepted as chief by the army. Eventually Khin Nyunt, too, was flung from the battlements, a denouement waiting to happen. “Every single chief of military intelligence in Burma has been disgraced,” said a former ambassador. “It’s rather like being the drummer in Spinal Tap – you end up disappearing.”

      Than Shwe’s mediocrity may have had its effect on Western attitudes towards him: he is easily under- estimated. As Rogers points out, he “has demonstrated time and again his skill at offering just enough of a concession to hold the international community at bay whenever pressure intensifies…Each time the pressure eases, Than Shwe quietly abandons his promises.”

      Meanwhile at home he has continued on the path set by his former superior Ne Win decades back: hugely expanding the size of the army, which now includes tens of thousands of children in its ranks, and continuing the campaigns of quasi-genocidal terrorism against the Karen and other ethnic minorities.

      According to Sergio Pinheiro, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma from 2000 to 2008, writing in 2009, “Over the past 15 years the Burmese Army has destroyed over 3,300 villages in a systematic and widespread campaign to subjugate ethnic groups.” At the same time he has kept Burma’s civilian population in poverty and hopelessness. The only “reforms” he has pushed for have had the aim of perpetuating military rule under a disguise that fools nobody.

      It is safe to predict that sooner or later Than Shwe will get his come-uppance. It may come from his immediate subordinates, furious at being kicked out, and an army that has never held him in esteem. The civil servants of Naypyitaw, incandescent at being exiled from the civilised comforts of Rangoon, may play their part. The monks, whom he arrogantly and foolishly refused to appease in 2007, could have a role.

      But however certain his eventual downfall, you would have to be a very brave optimist to predict that he will be replaced by someone significantly better.

      The general in brief

      Born in 1933, Than Shwe joined the army at 20. He became Burma’s top military leader in 1992 – four years after thousands of protesters had been massacred in Rangoon. The reclusive 77-year-old is thought to be superstitious, often consulting astrologers. In 2007, his new Burmese constitution effectively barred opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from office. Some credit the general with negotiating ceasefires with ethnic rebel armies, although he has also been accused of brutally suppressing minorities. He has been linked with high-level government purges, including that of Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt in 2004.

      Is Burma’s junta trying to join the nuclear club? – Christopher Shay
      TIME: Mon 12 Jul 2010

      It may seem counterintuitive, but Burma has a lot going for it. Blessed with abundant natural resources, the nation is home to the last of the world’s ancient teak forests; it produces tens of thousands of tons of jade every year; it’s at the center of the global ruby trade; and most important, it has natural gas. Lots of it. Burmese gas already powers half of Bangkok, and it will soon start flowing to China, making billions of dollars of profit. For many though, it’s how the money is being spent that’s worrying.Up until a few years ago, Burma’s military government, cut off from trade with the West, led a “hand-to-mouth existence,” says Sean Turnell, an economics professor at Macquarie University in Australia. Now, thanks in no small part to its resource-hungry neighbors, the pariah state has $6 billion in cash reserves, according to Turnell. As cash is flowing in, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 is spending lavishly. With about a third of the country in poverty, the junta could invest in health, education or job creation, but instead, new evidence suggests Burma is spending billions on outlandish military projects, including, perhaps, a secretive nuclear weapons program. Turnell says the junta is “absolutely paranoid about international interference in the country.”(See pictures of Burma’s slowly shifting landscape.)

      A documentary released last month by the Norway-based NGO Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) purports to detail the beginnings of a Burmese nuclear program. Though much of the documentary’s evidence comes from a single defector living in hiding, the NGO contends that hundreds of color photographs lend support to the rumors swirling for the past few years that Burma has been pursuing the bomb. The Burmese Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls DVB’s accusations “baseless,” but Robert Kelley, a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, concluded from the DVB evidence that the technology in the photos “is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

      The documentary’s primary source, a former Burmese army major named Sai Thein Win, is a Russian-trained missile expert — not a nuclear engineer —who says he was second in command at a top-secret military factory that made parts for Burma’s nuclear weapons program. The photographs that Sai Thein Win supplied to DVB dovetail with other evidence that suggests Burma is undertaking a massive nuclear project. Dictator Watch, a U.S.-based opposition watchdog group, provided TIME with a list of some 660 Burmese students studying engineering and military-related fields in Russia, more than 65 of whom are studying nuclear-related subjects. According to Roland Watson of Dictator Watch, the list is just a batch from 2009; he claims he has heard from multiple independent sources that there are more than 3,000 Burmese military researchers who have studied in Russia over the past decade. In the film, Sai Thein Win estimates that the number could be as high as 10,000. In fact, Sai Thein Win says he was in the first group of Burmese students sent to Russia, in 2001, where he studied missile technology at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, once the primary training ground for Soviet nuclear weapons experts. (See pictures of Burma’s decades-long battle for democracy.)

      Even if DVB is right about Burma’s nuclear ambitions, the country is likely years away from any kind of bomb. Kelley told TIME that Burma’s apparent attempt to enrich uranium using laser isotope separation — a complex and expensive method that has stumped many richer nations — was “kind of dumb.” That may be news to the junta leader Than Shwe, according to the Irrawaddy, a Burmese newsmagazine in exile based in Thailand, which reported that Than Shwe was furious at his officials after learning that Kelley’s report for the DVB said a nuclear weapon “may be beyond Burma’s reach” at this time.

      Meanwhile, the people in Burma continue to suffer. In a 2000 World Health Organization ranking, Burma had the second worst health system in the world, sandwiched between the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that only 1.8% of Burma’s total public expenditure is on health, also the second lowest in the world, according to the United Nations Development Program. “This is not a modern, developmentally focused government like China or Vietnam,” Turnell says, adding that the country’s irrational military spending “is the great scandal. Its poor have so many needs.” (See TIME’s special on the battle for global health.)

      If this sounds similar to another Asian pariah state, it should; Burma is trying to follow the North Korean model, according to Khin Maung Win. Than Shwe reportedly admires Kim Jong Il for standing up to the international community, and ever since the countries formalized relations in 2007, the two states have deepened their military connections, say DVB sources. Relations between the two countries, however, have not always been so amicable. In 1983, North Korean operatives attempted to assassinate the South Korean President in a Rangoon bomb attack that killed 21, and Burma severed official diplomatic relations for more than two decades. Recently, though, the countries seem to have bonded as joint pariah states, with the junta’s No. 3 general, Shwe Mann, visiting North Korea in 2008. Nowadays, Khin Maung Win says there are North Korean military experts who sneak into Burma through China and act as advisers to key parts of Burma’s defense industry.

      There is no evidence that the North Koreans are directly helping with Burma’s alleged nuclear weapons program, but analysts worry this might not always be the case. Burma has cash, and North Korea needs it — desperately. Defectors say Burma wants a bomb; U.S. intelligence says North Korea already tried helping build a nuclear reactor for Syria before Israel bombed it. “A couple years ago, I would’ve pooh-poohed the whole thing,” says Turnell of Burma’s nuclear weapons program. But now, he says, “The whole story is a perfect fit.”

      Myanmar democracy activists allowed to form new party
      Agence France Presse: Fri 9 Jul 2010

      Yangon — Former members of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy have been allowed to form a new political party to run in upcoming elections, state media reported Friday.The activists have been granted permission to create the National Democratic Force (NDF) to stand in the military-ruled country’s first polls in two decades, expected sometime this year, according to state TV and radio.

      “It’s a victory for the people,” said Khin Maung Swe, one of the leaders of the new party.

      “I’m glad for the people because we can officially strive for democracy,” he told AFP by telephone.

      The NLD refused to meet a May 6 deadline to re-register — a move that would have forced it to expel Suu Kyi — and opted to boycott the vote, which critics say is a sham designed to legitimise the junta’s half-century grip on power.

      There have been signs of friction between older hardline opposition figures and younger more moderate figures who opposed the boycott decision.

      Under election legislation unveiled in March, anyone serving a prison term is banned from being a member of a political party and parties that fail to obey the rule will be abolished.

      The NLD, which was founded in 1988 after a popular uprising against the junta that left thousands dead, won a landslide victory in 1990 elections but the military rulers never allowed it to take office.

      Suu Kyi has spent much of the past 20 years in jail or house arrest.

      In another sign of a rift within the opposition, former top NLD members have accused the NDF of copying their symbol of a bamboo hat and recently lodged a complaint with the election commission about its use of the image.

      Khin Maung Swe said the NDF would not remove the hat from its official seal.

      “Our symbol is a golden bamboo hat and two stars. As we were allowed to be a registered political party, we will officially form our central committee in the coming week,” he said.

      So far 38 political parties out of 43 which applied to be recognised have been given permission to register ahead of the elections.

      Suu Kyi had her incarceration lengthened by 18 months in August last year after being convicted over a bizarre incident in which a US man swam to her lakeside home, and there are fears her detention may be extended again.

      Her dedication to non-violence in pressing for change earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and placed her — along with Nelson Mandela — among the world’s foremost voices against tyranny.

      The woman known in Myanmar simply as “The Lady” remains the most powerful symbol of freedom in a country where the army rules with an iron fist.

      Last month she marked her 65th birthday under house arrest at her lakeside mansion in Yangon, where she lives with two female assistants, cut off from the outside world without telephone or Internet access.

      Foreign governments have urged the Myanmar military regime — which faces strict Western sanctions because of its human rights record — to take steps to ensure the vote is free, fair and credible.

      In April Myanmar’s prime minister and some 22 other ministers retired from their military posts Monday, in a move seen as converting the leadership to civilian form ahead of elections due this year.

      Myanmar’s leader is the head of the ruling junta, Senior General Than Shwe.

      Conscription in Burma following election? – Aung Thet Wine
      Irrawaddy: Fri 9 Jul 2010

      Rangoon — Following the upcoming election in Burma, the new government may introduce military conscription in accordance with the 2008 Constitution, according to sources.A high court lawyer in Rangoon said a provision allowing the government to force every citizen to serve in the armed forces is already included in the 2008 Constitution, which will take effect once the new parliament is seated.

      Article 386 of Chapter VIII of the Constitution, titled “Citizen, Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens,” states that: “Every citizen has the duty to undergo military training in accord with the provisions of the law and to serve in the Armed Forces to defend the Union.”

      “Based on this provision, I am pretty sure an additional act will be introduced forcing every adult citizen to serve in the armed forces,” said the high court lawyer.

      But a politician from a Rangoon-based political party, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any military conscription law must be approved by parliament, and if the law is oppressive then parliamentarians may not vote in favor.

      “No matter what kind of law is introduced, it must be adopted by a majority of parliament. If it is a very repressive military service law, as a political party we will lobby parliamentarians to vote against it,” said the general secretary of another political party, who also asked to remain anonymous.

      However, if conscription is promulgated as a military law by the commander-in-chief of the Defense Services, it will be difficult for parliament to oppose.

      “The Constitution says that the decision of the commander-in-chief of the Defense Services is final and conclusive in all military affairs, so a conscription law will not likely be revoked if he introduces it as a military law,” said a senior journalist in Rangoon.

      A political analyst from Rangoon said that because the upcoming election will prolong the military rule and will not bring a democratic outcome to Burma, it cannot be expected that laws promulgated by the new government will reflect the people’s desire.

      “The laws adopted by an undemocratic system will only be dictatorial laws. The country’s future situation will not be much different from now,” said the analyst.

      Many young people are also unhappy with the constitutional provision stating that every citizen has the duty to serve in the armed forces.

      A student from the University of West Rangoon said an army is essential for the defense of the country, but he does not want to serve in the current army in Burma because it does not contribute to the good of the people.

      “People hate soldiers from the bottom of their hearts. So even if I am conscripted I will have to think about it before entering the army,” said the student.

      In addition, some observers say that a future conscription law may involve those even younger than university students.

      “For a long time, the military regime has forced people to act as porters and recruited child soldiers. It may not be wrong to predict that under the future conscription act the regime can and will officially recruit more child soldiers,” said a Rangoon resident.

      Burma’s military junta adopted the new Constitution in a highly-criticized referendum held only one week after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country in 2008.

      Asian countries that currently practice military conscription are Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and North Korea. Thailand and China also practice conscription, but with exemptions.

      Forced labor continues unabated in army and Nasaka camps
      Kaladan Press Network: Fri 9 Jul 2010

      Buthidaung, Arakan State: The Burmese Army and Burma’s border security force (Nasaka) continue to use forced labour from among local Roingya villagers in north Arakan, said a local businessman.Every day, at least 10 villagers have to go to one army camp or Nasaka camp in north Arakan. For instance, villagers have to provide 10 villagers everyday to army battalion No.552, of Buthidaung Township and another 10 villagers have to go to Aung Min Gala Nasaka camp of Nasaka area No.6 of Maungdaw Township.

      Similarly, in Buthidaung township villagers have to provide forced labor to Nga Kyin Tauk army camp, Mogh Bill army camp, Khaya Siri army camp and Military Operation Commander (MOC)-15 camp of Dabru Chaung among others. In Maungdaw Township too, villagers have to provide forced labor in every Nasaka camp including Nasaka Headquarters of Kawar Bill.

      They have to construct roads in the camps, bridges, military facilities, take care of camp maintenance, carrying water, cooking food, collecting fire wood, washing pots and plates, cleaning the camp including washing the clothes of officers’ wives, said a labor who once worked as a forced labor in an army camp.

      If anyone fails to deliver in time, he will be beaten up with a bamboo or cane.

      Military has long been using forced labor in everything from building roads to carrying military supplies to their outpost camps in border areas. Many people are forced to work against their will including children and elderly people. Many suffer abuse, said a local youth.

      The army relies on local labor and other resources as the result of the inability of the regime to deliver any form of support for their activities (the self-reliance policy). So, the military unlawfully confiscates lands, livestock, harvest and other property from villagers, while Burma has increased the number of its battalions nationwide since 1988. The implementation of self-reliance policy by the local military, has contributed to undermining the rule of law and damaging the livelihood of local communities, according to sources.

      The UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) said yesterday Burma has made limited progress in curtailing the use of forced labor. Steve Marshal, the ILO’s liaison officer in Burma said, over the past three years, there have been “significant steps” toward eliminating forced labor in the country.

      Ethnic parties gaining support in Northern Shan State – Hseng Khio Fah
      Shan Herald Agency for News: Fri 9 Jul 2010

      Of all the political parties that will contest the upcoming general elections, ethnic parties are reported to have gained much support and raised hopes of the people, especially in the areas where they are dominant, according to election watchers from the Sino-Burma border.At present, the Shan National Democratic Party (SNDP) and Palaung (Taang) National Party (PNP) are said to be popular among people in Shan State North’s Muse and Namkham townships, the towns located opposite China’s Yunnan province. Both townships are homelands for ethnic nationalities such as Shan, Palaung and Kachin.

      Currently the two are seen as running neck to neck as most populated on the hills are Palaung people and Shan are in the lower land, said a local resident in Namkham.

      There are four parties that are active around in the areas so far: the SNDP, PNP, the former Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) turned National Unity Party (NUP) and Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But the NUP has reportedly yet to decide whether to contest in the areas or not due to having few members.

      The rest have been recruiting party members, he said. “But most people don’t like the USDP because it is forcing people to become its members.”

      Nevertheless, it is reported to have many members than others, said another source.

      “Some of them are already members of its parent organization [Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDA)]. On the other hand, it is still recruiting more and more using its mother organization’s influence,” he said.

      In May, village headmen in Namkham were forced to provide at least 5,000 members for the party.

      A villager in Namkham said, “We were forced not only to be its members but also were forced to pay Kyat 1,000 ($ 1) for photo fees,”

      However, a border watcher commented that there is still hope for the ethnic parties if it is going to be a free and fair process. “It will not be so difficult for them to obtain votes.”

      The SNDP has finished opening branch offices in 15 townships in Shan State North so far and have been recruiting party members since it was granted permission by EU in May, according to the True News journal reported on 29 June. (There are 23 townships in Shan State North: 4 Wa, 2 Kokang and 2 Palaung have been designated as self-administered areas. The SNDP has promised not to field its candidates there.)

      Another source in Namkham also said it has reportedly obtained its 1,000 members quota. The number of members in Namkham Township alone is over 800.

      However, the party will continue opening branch offices and will recruit more members in Shan State East and South and Kachin State as well as Mandalay and Sagaing divisions in July, according to party member quoted by the True News.

      But in early July, the party was reported to have faced some restrictions by EC.

      On 5 July, the party was said to have asked permission to hold a meeting in Nawngkhang village tract, but the request was rejected by the EC, citing the areas that the party would go was not safe and villagers are still afraid of previous incidents that took place earlier.

      Nawngkhang was where Sai Kyaw Myint, secretary of USDA in Namkham Township was killed by unknown gunmen while campaigning for support of junta drawn charter in 2008.

      In the meantime, early this month, leaflets against 2010 elections were also distributed in downtown Muse and Namkham urging people not to go and vote for anyone and not to participate, said a source.

      “Local people are worried there would be disturbance.”

      One of the EC of SNDP also said, “We are not afraid to do campaigning in the public, but we are more worried about unknown third parties.”

      Regime separates assets of USDA and USDP – Nayee Lin Latt
      Irrawaddy: Thu 8 Jul 2010

      The office of the Burmese military regime’s auditor general is producing a list of properties owned by the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) to show whether they belong to the state or to the party formed by the association to run in this year’s election.A source close to the auditor general’s office told The Irrawaddy that the list was drawn up to avoid complications arising from the fact that the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the USDA, a state-sponsored organization formed under the patronage of the ruling regime.

      “All the possessions of the USDA will be examined to show the division between the party and the association,” said the source.

      The USDA was formed by the regime as a mass civic organization in 1993. It claims to have more than 24 million members nationwide, including civil servants and members of the military. The USDA Central Panel of Patrons include Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Prime Minister Thein Sein, and other government ministers.

      On April 29, Thein Sein and 26 ministers and senior officials formed the USDP to contest the election later this year. The Election Commission officially recognized the USDP as a political party on June 8.

      A senior military officer at the Ministry of Defense in Naypyidaw said the USDA will continue to function as a social organization that uses state-owned properties, which must be clearly distinguished from the USDP’s assets. Otherwise, he said, the party will be criticized for not acting in accordance with the law.

      “The party will purchase buildings, vehicles and office equipment from the association. They need to do it according to the election law,” he said.

      At the end of this month, the USDP will reportedly put up signboards at buildings owned by the party, according to sources.

      Under Chapter III, Section 12 (a-5) of the Political Parties Registration Law, a party “shall not have the right to subsist as a political party if it is … found that the organization obtained and used directly or indirectly money, land, house, building, vehicle, property owned by the State.”

      Some observers have noted that since the USDA’s assets belong to the state, any use of the association’s property by the USDP would constitute a violation of the Political Parties Registration Law.

      However, a USDP official told The Irrawaddy that the party will legally acquire assets from the USDA with money donated by some of the country’s leading businessmen.

      It is believed that about 25 businessmen close to the regime have donated large sums of money to the USDP.

      Students make risky public call for right to form unions – Nyein Thu
      Mizzima News: Thu 8 Jul 2010

      Rangoon – A group of students publicly distributed leaflets near a crowded junction in Rangoon yesterday, urging people to boycott the junta’s forthcoming elections and calling for the freedom to legally form student unions, witnesses said.At least seven students near Hledan Junction in Kamayut Township handed out the leaflets to passers-by that described the junta’s elections scheduled for this year “a fake”. The gathering also commemorated the 48th anniversary of the July 7 massacre at Rangoon University in 1962, during the dictatorship of late General Ne Win.

      “I saw students distributing the leaflets. I was curious to know what they said,” a young man told Mizzima. “The leaflets called for the right to organise student unions legally, boycott of the ‘fake’ election and to oppose the military dictatorship.”

      “I felt nervous to take it, so I dropped it”, he added.

      According to a man who lives in a condominium near the junction, the seven youths, who he said might be university students, gathered at around 10 a.m. He estimated their ages at more than 20.

      The students also handed out the leaflets to passengers waiting at bus stops, according to an official from the umbrella division of the Ministry of Industry No. 1.

      In 1962, students from Rangoon University staged peaceful protests on July 7 against the Ne Win government, citing anger at “unjust university rules”. Ne Win sent troops to disperse the uprising, at which they shot dozens of students dead and dynamited the historic Student Union building the next morning with students still inside.

      A report on the Democracy for Burma website said the army took some of the students’

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