[Readingroom] News on Burma - 1/3/11
- UNSC Resolution on Libya sends a message to other regimes
- Karen petition urges UN to take action against junta
- Chin state abuses are the tip of the iceberg
- Stop the looting of Burma
- Global Fund back with new hope
- Aung San Suu Kyi notes parallels between Middle East and Burma
- Compound interest in Myanmar
- Burma’s President-Elect: A clever puppet?
- Burma introduces prepaid card system for mobile phones
- Myanmar absorbs 3.56 billion USD of foreign investment in three months
- Myanmar’s human rights abuses burden region with exodus of refugees
- Suu Kyi’s determination to peacefully defy dictatorship remains unchanged
- Asset grabs in Myanmar
- US talks with Myanmar’s Suu Kyi about aid
- Burma snatches power from judges
- Why haven’t the Burmese joined the recent wave of pro-democracy protests?
- Army seizes 30,000 acres of farmland
- China tops Thailand as biggest investor in Myanmar
- Burma’s report to UN ‘is fictional’
- Why Aung San Suu Kyi wants to keep sanctions on Burma
- Is Suu Kyi being protected?
- Citizen diplomacy through tourism?
- Ethnic parties at the mercy of the ‘lion’
- China, Myanmar sign new cooperation accord
- A tale of two Burmas
- Ghosts of Panglong may haunt parliament
- Burma’s authoritarian avatar
UNSC Resolution on Libya sends a message to other regimes – Lalit K Jha
Irrawaddy: Mon 28 Feb 2011
Washington—The unprecedented unity shown by the powerful 15-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in passing a strong resolution against Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi, including a travel ban and asset freeze, also sends a tough warning to other hardline regimes, including Burma’s military junta.
The resolution, passed unanimously late Saturday night after hours of debate, sends a strong message that the international community will no longer tolerate regimes across the globe that kill their own citizens or commit gross human rights violations to hold onto power.
“It is obvious that this referral is going well beyond Libya,” France’s ambassador to the UN, Gerard Araud, told reporters Saturday night following a decision by the UNSC to refer Gaddafi and his cronies to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity.
Despite their initial reservations on this issue, China and India both finally agreed to go along with the rest of the Security Council in passing the resolution. This is particularly notable in the case of China, which in the past has used its veto power to block moves by Western countries led by France to invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle in the case of Burma.
This will make it more difficult in the future for China to block strong international action against the Burmese regime, as it did following the bloody crackdown on monk-led protests in September 2007 and in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, when the junta was accused of dragging its heels in response to the disaster, resulting in thousands of deaths.
The decision to condemn Gaddafi—and the newfound willingness of China and others to recognize the need to take strong action against oppressive regimes—was immediately applauded in Washington.
“The Security Council resolution, which was passed in record time and included countries that are often reluctant to empower the international community to take such actions, sends a strong, unmistakable signal,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters traveling with her on her way to Geneva to attend the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
Araud, the French ambassador, went even further in describing the move as a significant break from the past, calling the ICC referral “a warning to all the leaders who could be tempted to use repression against this wind of change, this wind of liberty. We feel it, we felt it in the Security Council chamber, we feel it in the corridors of this organization.”
“There is an earthquake going on, and it has reached New York. I don’t know if there will be a tomorrow. I do hope there will be a tomorrow. I do hope that responsibility to protect, international justice and sanctions against dictators will have a follow-up and that dictators will listen to what is happening even in the usually prudent Security Council,” the French ambassador said.
It is noteworthy that France had moved to invoke the UN’s responsibility to protect option on Burma in response to both the 2007 Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, but was both times rebuffed by the Chinese. At the time, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner suggested that the UN invoke this collective responsibility to protect the people of Burma.
China was not the only country that balked at the idea of invoking the responsibility to protect, or “R2P,” principle in response to the Burmese junta’s handling of the Nargis relief effort. Although some experts called on the US and UK to join France in taking drastic action to deal with the disaster in Burma, neither country supported the move at the time.
“The United States and Britain should join with the French government and introduce a resolution in the UN Security Council demanding that the Burmese government accept the offers of international relief supplies and personnel, let them enter the country immediately and without interference, and allow the UN to take charge of the humanitarian mission,” wrote Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Paul Stares, the director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, in The New York Times on May 13, 2008.
The Burmese expatriate community had also urged the UN to invoke the R2P principle to save the lives of people stranded in the Irrawaddy delta after Cyclone Nargis devastated the area.
“Now is the time to act. You have helicopters, ships and supplies ready and waiting. Stop waiting for China or the Burmese regime’s approval and send aid now,” wrote Aung Din, the director of the US Campaign for Burma, in a letter addressed to heads of state in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
Karen petition urges UN to take action against junta – Ko Wild
Mizzima News: Mon 28 Feb 2011
Chiang Mai – A petition signed by 84,000 Karen has been sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take action against the Burmese junta’s violation of human rights and military campaigns against the Karen people.
Organized by the Karen National Union (KNU) and 31 Karen social organizations in 16 countries in Asia, Europe and North America, the petition was also sent to leaders of eight countries including British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, according to the KNU.
The eldest petitioner was 103 years old and the youngest was 16.
Naw Zipporrah Sein, the KNU secretary-general, said, ‘We want Mr. Ban Ki-moon to use his power and authority to exert pressure on the junta to stop the violations of human rights. We would like to request Mr. Ban Ki-moon to put pressures on the junta to negotiate a cease-fire across the country, to hold a serious political dialogue and to build a federal country that can guarantee racial equality and human rights’.
KNU officials said that more than 3,600 villages in Karen State have been destroyed by the junta in the past 15 years. More recently, 18 Karen civilians were killed and 38 were physically abused by junta troops before the election in November 2010, officials said. It said 52 Karen were arrested unlawfully, 2,300 were used in forced labour, 198 buildings including homes, schools and churches were destroyed due to the military clashes in the Karen State, and more than 3,000 Karen villagers were forced to seek refuge in the jungle, according to the KNU statement.
During 2010, there were more than 1,000 clashes between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the KNU, and junta troops in Thaton, Taungoo, Nyaunglebin, Myeik, Dawei, Papun, Kawkareik and Hpa-an districts, said KNU officials.
The KNU was formed in February 5, 1947, to fight for equality and self-determination for the Karen people.
Chin state abuses are the tip of the iceberg – Richard Sollom
Democratic Voice of Burma: Mon 28 Feb 2011
Recently a new Burmese legislature convened for the first time in 22 years, but the parliament resembles last year’s electoral exercise – an elaborate show that is a democracy only in name. Yesterday, as DVB reported, Burma snatched power from judges as well.
The 50 million people living in Burma are still under the military regime’s repressive rule, and for them, the human rights abuses that they suffer at the hands of the military junta are a regular way of life.
Burma’s military regime has been a constant roadblock to democracy. The new parliament is under the junta’s strong arm, and 84 percent of all parliamentary seats are reserved for current military officers or held by General Than Shwe’s cronies – the same army soldiers who committed 73 percent of all reported human rights violations last year. The brutal treatment of ethnic nationalities under the military junta is well known to the international community, but the mass atrocities that they suffer have been deliberately hidden from the world by this repressive regime.
Physicians for Human Rights recently went door-to-door in Burma’s remote western Chin state to conduct a random survey of 702 households. Together with our local partners, we documented 2,951 abuses over a 12-month period. We found that government authorities may have killed an estimated 1,000 household members, tortured 3,800 individuals and raped 2,800 adults and children over the course of the 12-month reporting period. And that’s in just one state of 500,000 people who represent one percent of the total population of Burma. Our report, Life Under the Junta, presents strong evidence that Burmese authorities are committing crimes against humanity.
One 18-year-old woman told us how the Burmese military raped her at gunpoint in June 2009 in her rural village in Mindat. The reason they raped her and forced her into servitude is because she is Christian and Chin – a different ethnic nationality than the military, who are mostly Buddhist and Burmese.
The collective voices captured in our survey speak for a brutalized population who will not see the results of Burma’s new “democracy.” As one of its first orders of business, the new parliament should allow a full and independent investigation into these possible crimes. Such an investigation, which the United Nations could establish as a commission of inquiry, is an essential first step to help Burma replace impunity with accountability and bring justice and stability to the people of Burma.
I was in Geneva in the days before Burma’s review of its deplorable human rights record by the United Nations. While there, I had the opportunity to speak with UN delegations of countries that publicly support an investigation of crimes in Burma. The leadership these countries have shown in forging a path to justice is a hopeful sign, but more countries must join their ranks. Currently 14 countries publicly support establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry, most of which are Western democratic governments. Now these 14 countries, including the United States, should build cross-regional unity in the push for accountability in Burma to end these mass atrocities.
We know that Burmese authorities will continue the abuses that it has been committing for decades, and that the government will not investigate the crimes on its own. Under this regime of impunity, the 18-year-old Chin woman who told us her tale of survival will have no recourse to justice. International action is essential for justice, accountability, and a peaceful future. Now is the time for the international community to come together, stand alongside the people of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, and demand accountability in a country that has been plagued with injustice.
* Richard Sollom is deputy director of the Nobel prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights.
Stop the looting of Burma – Matthew Smith
Wall Street Journal: Mon 28 Feb 2011
The international community can make it harder for the generals to steal the proceeds of Burma’s oil and gas exports.
The hunt for Hosni Mubarak’s ill-gotten wealth is underway, with banks and governments cooperating to return what belongs to the people of Egypt. However, it may be too late to recover most of what Mr. Mubarak and his cronies stole, and in many other cases it may be impossible to prevent such losses as they are happening. There is one place, though, where it is both indisputable that the authoritarian rulers are looting the country’s wealth and possible to do something about it right now: Burma.
The military junta has been diverting profits from the lucrative energy sector for nearly two decades. Natural gas sales to Thailand alone have generated billions of dollars, accounting for roughly 35% of annual export earnings. But instead of generating prosperity and hope for Burmese, this wealth has largely disappeared into the generals’ pockets.
Part of the problem is that very little of the gas revenue ever officially enters Burma. A well-documented dual accounting method ensures most of the profit, paid to the military in U.S. dollars, remains outside of the country’s national budget. In some cases it is located in shadowy offshore bank accounts held in trust by entities designed to avoid international sanctions.
So what can the international community do? The U.S. could fully implement existing financial sanctions that were designed to target the generals’ offshore bank accounts. Section 5(c) of the JADE Act of 2008 already authorizes the Treasury Department to prohibit Burmese individuals and foreign banks from accessing the U.S. financial system if they hold cash or facilitate transactions for the Burmese regime.
Restricted access to the U.S. financial system is a risk foreign banks will not take lightly. This should have little adverse impact on Burma’s general population, since they are already largely isolated from the global financial system, but it will make it more difficult for the generals to hide public money.
While the full weight of the U.S. legislation has never been applied, recent reports from Singapore suggest some banks in the island state have started refusing accounts held by politically exposed persons from Burma. This shows that bankers are very aware of the risk of tougher sanctions, and that such sanctions might be very effective.
Working with Egypt and other transitioning countries to recover lost or stolen assets is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. A military junta should not be allowed to openly loot a country’s resources with the help of the international financial system. Cutting the generals off from the tools they need to launder their stolen money is a sound measure that can change their behavior and help the people of Burma recover what is rightfully theirs.
* Mr. Smith is a senior consultant with EarthRights International, which represented Burmese plaintiffs in Doe v. Unocal Corporation.
Global Fund back with new hope – Marwaan Macan-Markar
Inter Press Service: Mon 28 Feb 2011
Bangkok – Burma’s transition from an overt military rule to a civilian administration of retired generals is getting a shot in the arm from a former critic of the junta – the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The Fund that left the South-East Asian nation in protest more than five years ago is returning this year to Burma, or Myanmar. The move follows three agreements inked last November to finance two-year grants of up to 112.8 million dollars against the three killer diseases.
It marks an increase from the 98.4 million dollars that the Geneva-based humanitarian body had pledged during its first foray. The group pulled out in August 2005 citing political interference in its programmes.
Support for HIV/AIDS initiatives is billed to get the largest share, 46 million dollars, with malaria receiving 36.8 million dollars and tuberculosis (TB) 30 million dollars, according to the Global Fund.
“Burma re-applied for Global Fund grants in 2009 and due to the technical merit of the proposals the board decided to approve them,” Marcela Rojo, spokesperson for the Global Fund confirmed in an IPS interview.
The decision coincided with last year’s general election in Burma, the first in two decades. The Nov. 7 poll gained notoriety for its irregularities, prompting critics to say that little has changed since the country came under the grip of oppressive military rule in 1962 after a coup.
“No one really expects the new government to improve the human rights situation, but one practical dividend that must come with the new parliament is increased humanitarian space,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global watchdog.
“The Global Fund (entry), given its past experience, is going to be an important litmus test in assessing the new government’s sincerity,” he added.
The significance of its re-entry is clear to the Fund, as it begins working with its international partners in the country, Save the Children and the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS).
“Strong additional safeguards have been put in place to ensure strict oversight of these grants and to ensure the ability of the Global Fund to move quickly should any irregularities be identified,” said Rojo. These include an assurance from Burmese officials that the Fund’s staff will have immediate access to implementation sites.
“Funding for life saving drugs, awareness raising in the most vulnerable populations, and behavioural change campaigns will feature in the package to combat HIV,” said Andrew Kirkwood, head of Save the Children’s Burma office, that receives 28.3 million dollars for its AIDS programmes.
“The goal is to reduce HIV transmission and HIV-related morbidity, mortality, disability and social and economic impact,” he added in an interview.
Burma reportedly has nearly 240,000 people living with HIV, of which 120,000 need life prolonging anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs. Many of them belong to the three most vulnerable groups: female sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users.
Malaria has left an equally troubling trail, with nearly 70 percent of the country’s 57 million people at risk, and 475, 297 already infected, according to health reports. TB is as virulent, with some 200,000 cases reported in 2008, placing Burma 20th among 22 countries across the world topping in the burden of the disease.
Dovetailing with the Fund’s initiative is another international programme, the Three Diseases Fund (3DF), aimed at caring for the sick infected by HIV, TB and malaria.
Set up by a coalition of donors from Australia, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the European Commission, 3DF invested an estimated 100 million dollars when it came to Burma in 2006 after the Global Fund quit.
“These programmes have provided 21,138 people living with HIV antiretroviral medication, detected and treated more than 100,000 cases of tuberculosis and treated over one million cases of malaria,” Sanjay Mathur, director of UNOPS in Burma told IPS.
“The challenge to cover all those in need has always been daunting,” admits Paul Yon, head of the Medecins Sans Frontier (MSF- Doctors Without Borders) mission in Burma.
“The pulling out of the Global Fund in Myanmar did not make the situation better for the people in need of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatment for sure,” he told IPS. “MSF has always been advocating for international inputs and to get donors such as the Global Fund back in the country.”
The desperate need for foreign funds was brought home by MSF in 2008, when it warned that 76,000 patients needed the life-prolonging ARV therapy but only about 25,000 were receiving first-line drugs.
By then, the military regime’s record on welfare was as notorious as its oppressive grip. The junta had only permitted some 1,800 people to be treated with ARVs in 22 hospitals across the country. The health budget that year to care for people living with HIV was only 200,000 dollars, compared to the nearly 8 billion dollars the regime had earned from natural gas sales from the resource rich country between 2000 and 2008.
“Aid has always been a political issue in Burma and it will be that way now that the Global Fund is back,” said a Rangoon-based doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We need this assistance, because it is a lifeline for the patients.”
Aung San Suu Kyi notes parallels between Middle East and Burma – Luke Hunt
Voice of America: Fri 25 Feb 2011
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Nobel Laureate and pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi says the people of Burma are closely following events in the Middle East, where largely peaceful protests have forced governments out of office in Tunisia and Egypt.
Aung San Suu Kyi says Burma’s military government has attempted to block coverage of events in the Middle East from reaching ordinary people without much success. She spoke to foreign correspondents in Kuala Lumpur through an audio link from Rangoon.
The 65-year-old Nobel Laureate said the ousting of governments in Tunisia and Egypt – as well as the confrontation between supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government protestors – were followed closely by the Burmese people.
“They are comparing what’s happening there with what happened in Burma [in] 1988 and one of the things they have noticed is that in Tunisia and in Egypt the army did not fire on its people, whereas in Libya it is different,” she said. “The outcome also seems to be much more complicated and much worse in Libya than in Tunisia and Egypt. Everybody is waiting around to see with great interest what transpires because people were impressed with
what happened, particularly in Egypt.”
As leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi won democratic elections in 1988 but the result was rejected by the military, which put down protests and has ruled the country ever since.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the last two decades behind bars or under house arrest before she was freed last November, after scheduled elections, widely regarded as a sham by international rights groups and others.
Under military rule, civilian frustrations have erupted into protests on the streets of the capital, Rangoon, most recently in 2007 when thousands of Buddhist monks demonstrated. They were beaten harshly, fired upon by the military and jailed.
Aung San Suu Kyi says this is the significant difference between the plight of Burmese people and those living under totalitarian or autocratic regimes in the Middle East.
“Well the people have stood in Burma before as you know and in those instances they were fired upon by the army and I think that makes a great difference. Now the situation in Libya is that the army itself appears divided in regard to how the situation should be handled. In
Burma I don’t think there was any noticeable divisions with regards to the policies of the military,” she said.
Aung San Suu Kyi says even Burma can not escape 21st Century technology that has significantly increased the ability of people to organize without interference by their governments and she says she intends to sign up for Facebook and Twitter as soon as possible.
There are also plans to expand her party’s network among Burmese people living abroad to bring pressure on the Burmese military and the government, which she hopes might encourage them to the negotiating table and towards national reconciliation.
Compound interest in Myanmar – Bertil Lintner
Asia Times: Fri 25 Feb 2011
Bangkok – While the outside world grapples with how much power Myanmar’s new partly civilian government will command, the country’s still ruling generals are literally digging in, taking no chances of a substantial power shift after last November’s general elections.Those who predicted that the blatantly rigged polls would mean something more than further institutionalizing the military regime may now have to reevaluate those assessments. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in New York on February 5 that he hoped the new elected parliament would mark “the beginning of a change in the status quo” in Myanmar. He said that the appointment of retired general Thein Sein as the new president was “an important step”.
However, those hopes were dashed just days after Ki-moon presented his optimistic scenario for Myanmar’s political future. The old junta strongman, General Than Shwe, decided against retirement and will become the chairman of a new seven-member “State Supreme Council”, which, as the name suggests, will be the most powerful institution in the country.
Significantly, the new constitution, under which last year’s elections were held and the new government formed, does not mention or legally mandate the creation of any such body. Many earlier thought Than Shwe would retain influence through a constitutionally mandated 11-member National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), which will be led by the president.
Apart from chairman Than Shwe, the extra-constitutional State Supreme Council will also include the number two in the old junta hierarchy, General Maung Aye. Other former members of the now dissolved junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), will include Thura Shwe Mann, a known Than Shwe ally who supposedly retired from military service to become a “civilian politician” before last year’s election. He has also been appointed the new speaker of the Lower House of the new National Assembly.
More importantly, a new village has been built on the outskirts of the capital Naypyidaw, apparently to ensure that members of the top brass remain in view and stay in step with Than Shwe’s new political order. According to a town plan leaked to Asia Times Online, 16 new homes have or are in the process of being built behind a high-walled compound for the country’s 16 top military leaders.
Than Shwe’s own residence sits at the center of this exclusive, closely guarded “gated community”. He will reside in a huge mansion, complete with a sprawling garden, tree-lined driveway and swimming pool, according to the town plan. Next door, the plan shows, his deputy Maung Aye will reside in a considerably smaller villa.
Homes in the compound have also been reserved for Thein Sein, the former lieutenant-general-turned-civilian president, supposedly retired former general Thura Shwe Mann, and ex-Lieutenant General Tin Aye, now chairman of the Election Commission. The other houses will belong to other generals and newly appointed parliamentarians.
According to the source who leaked the town plans, Than Shwe wants to make sure that no one in his flock goes astray: “It’s like they are under some kind of house arrest. Than Shwe is dead-scared of any possible split, or even disagreements, within the top military leadership,” the source said. To guard against potential threats, there is a complex network of bunkers and bomb-proof culverts built under Than Shwe’s presumptuous new residence, according to the plan. Apart from a domestic revolt, Than Shwe is known to fear a possible US-led foreign invasion.
Historically, Myanmar’s ruling military has demonstrated a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of both domestic protests and international condemnation, particularly of its abysmal rights record. However, divergent opinions over how to handle public unrest became apparent among junta leaders in late 2007, when hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks marched through the old capital Yangon and other cities and towns.
There was also reportedly disagreement among the top brass over whether international aid should be accepted after Cyclone Nargis devastated much of lower Myanmar in May 2008. According to a cable from the US Embassy in Yangon, which was sent shortly after the cyclone and made public by WikiLeaks in February this year, both Than Shwe and Thura Shwe Mann were reluctant to allow international rescue workers into the country.
“Than Shwe remained worried about a US invasion and [was] determined to hold on to power,” the leaked cable said. Than Shwe was eventually persuaded by other top generals to give rescue workers access to the affected areas, but only after more than a hundred thousand people had perished and hundreds of thousands more were dislocated or otherwise adversely impacted by the natural disaster.
Faced with a Buddhist monk-led revolt in 2007, both Than Shwe and his deputy Maung Aye “gave the orders to crackdown on the monks, including shooting them if necessary”, according to another US cable made available by WikiLeaks. Dated November 28, 2007, that cable alleges that Thura Shwe Mann disagreed with the decision to suppress the monk-led anti-government manifestation, but carried it out while “quietly advising regional commanders to do so with minimal bloodshed”.
With the country’s 16 most powerful men living together inside a new compound, future disagreements will be more easily managed, some sources suggest. The appointment of Thein Sein as president will also ensure that little changes after the election and the formation of a new National Assembly.
Myanmar sources draw parallels with the Machiavellian tactics deployed by former strongman Ne Win, who “retired” as president of the country in 1981 and symbolically handed power to San Yu, a weak and colorless figure who obediently complied with his boss’s wishes. Ne Win also stayed on as chairman of the then ruling Burma Socialist Program Party, the country’s supreme authority, until both he and San Yu resigned in 1988 amid massive anti-government demonstrations that swept the country.
According to the assessment of some Myanmar insiders, Thein Sein has become “Than Shwe’s San Yu”. As one of the leaked US cables suggests, Thein Sein may have been among those who wanted to accept foreign assistance after Cyclone Nargis. However he is not known to have ever challenged any major official policy – no matter how controversial.
On May 9, 2001, when Thein Sein served as a major general and commander of the Myanmar Army’s Golden Triangle Command in eastern Shan State, he said in a speech before former rebels in the town of Mong La near the Chinese border: “I was in Mong Ton and Mong Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa groups are real friends.”
Wei and Bao may have made peace with the central government, but both have been indicted by a US court for their involvement in the Golden Triangle drug trade, which includes the production of methamphetamines as well as heroin. To Thein Sein, however, they were “friends” of the regime. Such tow-the-line statements indicate to observers that Thein Sein will remain a loyal servant to Than Shwe in his new presidential capacity.
According to another of the leaked US Embassy cables, “Than Shwe’s isolation and paranoia know no bounds … the question is who is brave enough to shunt Than Shwe aside? Most Burmese [Myanmars] tell us no one.” Because all the top generals will be closely guarded neighbors under the watchful eye of a general who will remain the country’s most powerful player, the potential for an internal coup seems as remote as the country’s democratic prospects under “civilian” rule.
* Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and the author of several books on Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
Burma’s President-Elect: A clever puppet?
Irrawaddy: Fri 25 Feb 2011
Upon inspection, the make-up of Burma’s “new” government much resembles the old. The only apparent difference from the military regime that has run the country for the past two decades is that certain job titles have changed to accommodate the facade of a civilian government and some ministers who had fallen out of favor with junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe have been replaced by their deputies.
Probably the biggest indication that it is junta business-as-usual in Naypyidaw is the fact that former Prime Minister Thein Sein, who is Than Shwe’s most malleable puppet, is now President-elect Thein Sein. But does the fact that he has been appointed the new government’s first president demonstrate a shrewdness that he is not often given credit for?
Born in Irrawaddy Division, Thein Sein was a 1968 graduate of the Defense Services Academy’s 19th Intake. He was a major in Light Infantry Division 55 when the nationwide pro-democracy uprising broke out in 1988 and later served as the commander of Infantry Battalion 89 in Kalay, Sagaing Division.
In 1989, Thein Sein’s path to promotion opened following graduation from the well-known Command and General Staff College in Kalaw, Shan State, and he was later assigned to the War Office as the Colonel General Staff for Than Shwe.
Observers said Thein Sein was transferred to the War Office as a courtesy to ex-Gen Khin Maung Than, the former head of the Bureau of Special Operations. At that time, fighting in the northeastern region had subsided and the junta was focusing its military efforts on the Karen National Union and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front in the southeastern part of the country, where the army engaged in hard-fought battles in which many senior officers died.
Being good at office work, Thein Sein became known as “Senior Clerk.” The dutiful Thein Sein gained favor with Than Shwe for his work as the junta chief’s personal assistant and was promoted to brigadier general earlier than expected. Although the Colonel General Staff position was traditionally held only by colonels, Than Shwe let Brig-Gen Thein Sein remain in the post.
In order to keep up with the growing number of officers, Than Shwe and a group of military leaders decided to expand the size of the army. Consequently, more divisions were created and Thein Sein was assigned to establish the newly formed No. 4 Military Operations Command in Rangoon’s Hmawbi Township.
In 1997, Thein Sein became the commander of the Triangle Region Command based in eastern Shan State. The nature of the orders he received in this command reportedly caused him painful head-aches, and according to Tachileik residents, he often went to a barber shop to get his hair washed in an effort to relieve his sufferings.
During his time as the Triangle Region Commander, Thein Sein developed a reputation of being anti-Thai because a number of border skirmishes with Thai troops occurred on his watch.
When Lt-Gen Tin Oo, who was then the Adjutant General, died in a helicopter crash in Karen State in 2001, Thein Sein became his successor. Two years later, he was appointed Secretary 2 of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and after the regime adopted its seven-step “Roadmap to Democracy,” he was assigned to be the chairman of the National Constitutional Convention.
Some who know him well said that although Thein Sein seems kinder and less haughty than other generals, he possesses the same negative character traits as most Burmese army officers—he once punched a railway station master in Mandalay. Nonetheless, among the arrogant and haughty top generals who comprise his peer group, Thein Sein is reportedly considered more open-minded and easy-going than most.
Thein Sein’s non-confrontational style led him to become known as Than Shwe’s “yes-man” who always listened to the junta chief whether he was right or wrong. From the junta chief’s perspective, this made Thein Sein the perfect choice to fill the vacancy when then Prime Minister Lt-Gen Soe Win—who allegedly masterminded the 2003 attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and her entourage—died of cancer.
As Prime Minister, Thein Sein was sent into the international arena and often asked to carry the regime’s highly controversial flag. According to recent dispatches by Wikileaks, Than Shwe ordered Thein Sein to boycott a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) held after the 2007 monk-led protests in Burma if Asean leaders allowed Ibrahim Gambari, a former UN special envoy to Burma, to speak at the meeting.
Also according to Wikileaks, Than Shwe ordered Thein Sein to try his best to alleviate US sanctions imposed on the junta, and Thein Sein became the first Burmese general to be allowed on US soil since 1988.
During his visit to New York, Thein Sein almost had the dubious distinction of being the first Burmese prime minister to be hit by shoes when former student leader Moe Thee Zun and other Burmese activists planned to throw their shoes at his car. For better or worse, he managed to avoid the incident.
Thein Sein was not given much respect at home, either. His mandates were reportedly blocked by Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo because he was considered too weak to handle the job of prime minister. Other ministers even remarked that Tin Aung Myint Oo had usurped Thein Sein’s power.
The two rivals have moved in unison into the new government—they have now become the President and the Vice President, respectively—and some observers said tension between Thein Sein and Tin Aung Myint Oo has already appeared in the Parliament and the ruling junta.
A businessman who met Thein Sein in person told The Irrawaddy that the President-elect is a good speaker, good at administrative matters and also well-liked by many people, but he does not seem to have an economic vision. The businessman said he does not know how the new President will administer the country’s economy without economic knowledge.
But even though he may not personally understand much about Burma’s economy, Thein Sein has recruited businessmen such as Khin Maung Aye, the chairman of the Co-operative Bank who allegedly became rich through illegal logging, to be his advisors. He reportedly takes Tay Za and Zaw Zaw, the Burmese economic tycoons who are subject to Western sanctions, along with him whenever he makes a trip outside the country.
Compared to Snr-Gen Than Shwe and other top generals who have been repeatedly accused of making the state’s money their own, Thein Sein is thought to be the least corrupt former general. Also, his children are reportedly not business hungry persons like those of former Gen Shwe Mann and Tin Aung Myint Oo.
Khin Khin Win, Thein Sein’s wife, said, “We don’t have money. We are living in the house provided by the State.”
However, some ethnic Wa and other leaders from the Triangle Region Command have said that there is no regional commander or general who does not accept bribes. So Thein Sein may have savings from what he was able to pocket while serving as the regional commander and prime minister.
Perhaps Burma’s Office of the Auditor General has just not yet caught up with Thein Sein—something which often coincidentally occurs when Than Shwe decides that a top junta official’s usefulness to him has run its course.
Burma introduces prepaid card system for mobile phones – Na Yee Lin Let
Irrawaddy: Thu 24 Feb 2011
Burma’s Ministry of Telecommunications, Post and Telegraphs has finally agreed to allow mobile phone users to buy “top-ups” for their phones to replace the existing billing system.
Sources at the ministry in Naypyidaw said that prepaid top-up cards will be produced by the E-lite Tech company, a subsidiary of the Htoo Trading Company, in collaboration with semi-government-owned Myanmar Teleport.
Currently, Burma has both GSM and CDMA networks. A WCDMA network was launched in 2009, but with very limited availability.
Burma introduced a cellular phone system in 1993, followed by the CDMA system in 1997 and the GSM system in 2002.
“Anyone can install the system on their mobile phones at any E-lite Tech shop or its affiliates,” an official said. “However, the phone service will be suspended for a day while the new system is installed.”
Traditionally, Burma’s telecommunications have been dominated by the state-owned monopoly telephone service provider, Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT). However, Central Marketing and E-Lite have reportedly been given the contract because they have the technology and infrastructure to provide better service.
In January, Myanmar Teleport and six privately owned companies—including E-Lite and Redlink, owned by Toe Naing Mann, the son of Burma’s former No. 3 general, “Thura” Shwe Mann—have introduced a VoIP system in mobile phones that is now available in cities including Rangoon, Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin.
Telecommunications authorities said they are building more cross-border fiber optic links with neighboring countries in addition to China, Thailand and India to improve domestic Internet communication links. They also said that they are are planning to expand GSM coverage to its neighbors including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and China.
Burma’s mobile market has been growing at an annual rate in excess of 25 percent over the last three years, although foreign investment in the telecoms sector continues to remain low.
According to research by Paul Budde Communication Pty Ltd., released on September 2010, investment in Burma’s telecoms sector has been running at less than $6 million per year.
The statistical figures show that the telephone density now stands 37 per 1,000 of the population.
Myanmar absorbs 3.56 billion USD of foreign investment in three months
Xinhua: Thu 24 Feb 2011
YANGON — Myanmar absorbed 3.56 billion U.S. dollars of foreign investment in the three months from November 2010 to January 2011, bringing the total to 35.406 billion dollars as of January this year since the country opened to such investment in late 1988, the Popular News reported Wednesday.The 3.5 billion USD include 3.18 billion USD from China, 186 million USD from Singapore, 183 million USD from South Korea and 3 million USD from China’s Hong Kong, the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development was quoted as saying.
Of the total foreign investment injected in over two decades, China’s investment has now topped with 9.603 billion USD, overtaking Thailand which once stood 9.568 billion USD in the foreign investment line-up previously.
The Chinese investment was raised by its increased involvement in building of deep seaport, hydropower plants, exploration of natural gas and exploitation of mineral resources and transport.
The foreign investment coming from 433 enterprises of 31 countries and region were respectively injected into 12 economic sectors which are oil and gas, electric power, manufacturing, real estate, hotels and tourism, mining, transport and communications, livestock breeding and fisheries, industry, construction, agriculture and services sector.
Myanmar’s human rights abuses burden region with exodus of refugees – UN expert
UN News Centre: Thu 24 Feb 2011
Human rights violations in Myanmar are burdening other countries in the region, with an influx of refuges fleeing a host of abuses from forced labour and land confiscation to arbitrary detention and sexual violence, a United Nations expert warned today.
“There is clearly an extra-territorial dimension,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, said in Kuala Lumpur at the end of an eight-day fact-finding mission to Malaysia, one of the affected countries with some 84,800 registered refugees and asylum-seekers and a large number still unregistered. “Despite the promise of the transition in Myanmar, the human rights situation remains grave.”
Other countries in the region also host a considerable number of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants from Myanmar.
“Countries in the region have a particular interest in persuading the Government of Myanmar to take necessary measures for the improvement of its human rights situation,” Mr. Quintana added. “These measures are an urgent matter for the new Government, and the international community should ensure that Myanmar fulfils this responsibility.”
Mr. Quintana met with a wide range of individuals who had fled Myanmar to Malaysia, the organizations that serve these communities, and different ethnic groups, particularly the Chin and Rohingya communities.
“I talked to many people who had recently left Myanmar fleeing forced labour, land and property confiscation, arbitrary taxation, religious and ethnic discrimination, arbitrary detention, as well as sexual and gender-based violence,” he said.
These included a man who left Chin State after 15 years of portering and forced labour for the military; a prominent Chin woman religious leader coerced to read a statement at a televised event denying restrictions on religious freedom despite her own views; and a young man who left Northern Rakhine State after he was denied the necessary travel permit to attend university and was arrested for trying to bypass the restrictions.
Another young man left Shan State after years of forced labour, when the military confiscated his family’s farm and his brother was arrested and subsequently killed; he himself was also arrested but managed to escape.
Mr. Quintana will present his latest report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council next month.
When a new president and vice-presidents of Myanmar were elected earlier this month by the newly-convened parliament, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had voiced hope that the move would lead to the formation of a more inclusive civilian government broadly representative of all parties “relevant to national reconciliation and more responsive to the aspirations of the people.”
Suu Kyi’s determination to peacefully defy dictatorship remains unchanged – Pak Chong-chu
Mainichi Shimbun (Japan): Thu 24 Feb 2011
The Mainichi Shimbun resumed Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s column, “Letter from Burma,” this year after a 13-year break. I flew to Myanmar where press restrains were in force late last year and visited Suu Kyi’s residence prior to the publication of the first part of the column on New Year’s Day.Suu Kyi had been under house arrest there on and off over a 15-year period from 1989 to November last year. I stood by one of the windows of her residence, and thought about how firm her determination must be to spend her life resisting Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
The military dictatorship has been in power in Myanmar for nearly half a century since the 1962 coup. Suu Kyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1988 in a bid to democratize the country, and the party secured 82 percent of the seats in Parliament in a 1990 general election. Nevertheless, the military regime refused to hand over power to the NLD and suppressed pro-democracy movements.
The military regime has continued a reign of terror, detaining and torturing NLD members and supporters. Last autumn, the regime called a general election and released Suu Kyi from house arrest. However, the shift to civilian rule was a mirage and the military is still ruling the country.
(Message over 64 KB, truncated)