Two elected MPs jailed for 15 years - Aye Nai
Elected members of parliament Dr Tin Min Htut and Nyi Pu were sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment today by Insein prison court, according to Dr Tin Min Htut's son.
Khaing Win Hlaing, son of Dr Tin Min Htut, said his father and Nyi Pu were sentenced at 4.40pm this afternoon.
Kyaw Hoe, the lawyer for the two MPs-elect, was barred from attending the court proceedings right up until the sentencing.
Nyi Pu is the elected representative for Gwa township and an Arakan National League for Democracy organising committee member, while Dr Tin Min Htut is an elected MP from Panatanaw township in Irrawaddy division.
Khaing Win Hlaing said he expected to find out more details when he visits his father tomorrow.
The two men were among five elected MPs who signed a letter to United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at the end of July last year, along with Pu Cin Sian Thaung, Thein Pe and Dr Myint Naing.
In the letter, the five declared their opposition to the 2010 elections and called for the 1990 election result to be honoured and for tripartite dialogue.
Dr Tin Min Htut and Nyi Pu were arrested by police special branch soon after the letter was sent, in the early hours of 12 August.
They were charged with disrupting the national convention, causing a public disturbance and offences under the electronic communication law.
Legal diploma course begins in Mae Sot - Ko Ko Thet
A two-year law programme is being run on the Thai-Burma border to provide training in international and domestic law to 25 students from Burma, according to Myint Thein of the Burma Lawyers' Council.
Twenty-five students have enrolled on the course, which is being held in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
Myint Thein, joint secretary-1 of the BLC, said the diploma programme would cover legal issues relevant to Burma's future.
"There will be lectures on legal issues that could help in the building of the union and to help consolidate the new nation," he said.
"We are looking at bringing future benefits to the country. We should have more of this kind of course."
The course is named the Union Legal Academy and it is the second time the training programme has been held.
The first programme was held in 2006 and was also attended by 25 trainees.
During the two-year course, students will be taught Burmese legal procedures and international law by experienced BLC lawyers and professors of international law.
Burma's rice exports soar, while millions remain malnourished - Min Lwin
Driven by strong demand from Africa and Bangladesh, Burma's rice exports have increased rapidly since the beginning of this year, according to traders in Rangoon, who say that sales in January have already nearly quadrupled the total for the first half of the current fiscal year.
"Exports to Africa, Mauritius and Bangladesh have gone way up," said a rice exporter from Rangoon, adding that export prices remain unusually low, while domestic prices are continuing to rise.
"The increase in rice exports is having an impact, making rice more expensive locally," he said.
According to a Reuters report, Burma has exported around 400,000 tons of rice so far this year. A Burmese agricultural official told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the country's exports over the period from April to September 2008 amounted to around 100,000 tons.
One reason for the strong sales has been the cheap price of Burmese rice on the international market. Burma is selling 25 percent broken rice at US $270-$280 per ton, compared with $348-US$353 quoted for a similar Vietnamese variety.
Speaking early last December, Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein said that Burmese rice exports could reach as high as three million tons in 2009. "Myanmar is to strive for ensuring local self-sufficiency in rice and [exports of] about three million tons of rice annually," he was quoted in the state-run media as saying.
However, some Burmese agricultural experts said they didn't expect the country's rice surplus to exceed two million tons, far short of the three million projected by the government.
A senior official from the Myanmar Rice Traders Association said that rice production would likely decrease as a result of lower prices, as farmers say they could end up selling at a loss because of the high price of inputs.
"Fertilizer, seeds, pesticides and equipment such as pumps and ploughs are all very expensive," he said, adding that the impact of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Irrawaddy and Rangoon divisions last May, would also be felt for some time.
"Total rice production was about 18 million tons last year, including summer paddy," he said. "In the coming fiscal year, rice production will fall at least 20 percent."
Meanwhile, a joint report by the World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, released on January 22, said that there are more than five million people below the food poverty line in Burma.
The report also said that two divisions and five states were found to be a priority for emergency food assistance, requiring 186,000 tons of food aid.
The report pointed out that after Cyclone Nargis hit the Irrawaddy delta - an area known as the "Rice Bowl" of Burma - last May, rice harvests in the affected townships fell by about a third.
In Chin State, near Burma's border with India, at least 30 children were reported to have died as a result of a famine caused by a plague of rats that has been devouring rice stocks since December 2007. According to exiled Chin rights groups, at least 100,000 ethnic Chin, or 20 percent of the state's population, has been affected by the food emergency.
Kachin refugee status seekers increase in Burma's neighbouring countries
The number of ethnic Kachin in Burma seeking refugee status has gradually increased in the two neighboring countries - Malaysia and Thailand since 2005, said Kachin refugees in the two countries.
Till date over 3,000 Kachin refugees and refugee/asylum seekers have arrived in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur and in the three refugee camps (Mae La, Nu Po and Umpiem) along the Thailand-Burma border, said Kachin refugees.
There are fewer Kachin refugees and those seeking refugee statuses in Malaysia and Thailand when compared with thousands of refugees from Burma in these countries, said Kachin refugees in the two countries.
According to Kuala Lumpur based Kachin Refugee Committee (KRC), the number of Kachin people seeking refugee status has now risen to nearly 3,000 from some 500 till 2003 in Malaysia. During 2003-2008, over 300 Kachin refugees in Malaysia departed to third countries like Canada, United States of America, Denmark, New Zealand and Norway.
On the other hand, there were no Kachin refugees or those seeking refugee status in refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border before the year 2000, but there are now over 40 Kachin refugees and some 500 refugees status seekers in these camps, said a Kachin refugee called Lamung Brang Gam who is waiting to leave for a third country for 10 years in Nu Po camp.
About a dozen Kachin refugees from the camps along Thailand-Burma departed to third countries during the past four years, added Lamung Brang Gam.
Most Kachin refugee status seekers in these countries have economic problems in their areas in Burma rather than political problems with Burma's ruling junta, added refugees.
Refugee and refugee status seekers live an unsafe life in Malaysia and Thailand because the two countries do not recognize the 1951 Geneva Convention related to the Status of Refugees.
In Malaysia, refugees and refugee status seekers have to live and work and hide from being sent to jail and are expelled by Malaysian authorities whereas refugees and refugee status seekers on the Thailand-Burma border have to live only in refugee camps, added refugees in the two countries.
For the first time, Kachin refugees started to resettle in third countries Europe and North America after the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) signed a ceasefire agreement with Burma's ruling junta in February 24, 1994.
During the civil war from 1961 to 1994 between the KIO and the ruling junta in Kachin state and Northeast Shan state, thousands of Kachin people had their homes burnt and lost their live stock when the Burmese Army launched operations but they had to hide within the states.
The UN has failed Burma again - Editorial
Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was briefed by his special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, on the outcome of his latest visit to the country, which ended ten days ago. Ban said nothing of substance about what the trip accomplished, but through a spokesperson, reiterated a familiar diplomatic refrain: "I would again call on the government and opposition to resume substantive dialogue without preconditions and without further delay."
Sadly, Ban's statement demonstrates that his understanding of the situation in Burma has not improved at all. The conditions for a resumption of dialogue are completely absent in Burma, despite countless trips to the country by successive UN special envoys over the past two decades.
The reason that real political dialogue remains as remote as ever is that Burma's jackbooted rulers have no interest in listening to anyone who doesn't unconditionally accept their absolute right to hold on to power indefinitely. And yet, Ban's statement seems to suggest that both the Burmese junta and the democratic opposition both need to do something to break the stalemate, as if they were on a level playing field. But with thousands of dissidents, including many of Burma's leading pro-democracy activists, imprisoned or under house arrest, it is meaningless to suggest that the opposition is not doing enough to move the country forward.
If the UN's Burma policy is premised on the fallacy that both sides are somehow equally guilty of stonewalling, it's no wonder that its efforts to broker reconciliation talks have repeatedly ended in failure. What is the point of telling shackled opposition leaders that they must be prepared to come to the negotiating table when their jailers are calling all the shots?
Diplomatic observers suggest that Gambari's latest visit was a non-event because it was merely intended to test the waters for his boss. The UN chief has shown an interest in returning to Burma as a follow-up to his visit last May, when he helped to persuade the junta to allow international aid workers into the country to assist in the Cyclone Nargis relief effort.
But Ban is reluctant to make another trip unless he feels it is likely to achieve something. And the Burmese regime, for its part, also seems less than enthusiastic about the prospect of meeting him again. When Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the junta's paramount leader, met Ban in Naypyidaw last May, political issues were completely off the table - at the time, the urgent need to get aid into the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta trumped everything else. Now, however, there can be no excuse for not tackling Burma's political problems head on.
Than Shwe doesn't suffer international interference in Burma's internal affairs lightly, so even if Ban made up his mind to return to the country, there is no guarantee that the top general would even deign to meet him. The most sensitive issue, of course, is the UN's demands for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Ironically, however, it is widely believed that Than Shwe will release the iconic leaders of Burma's democracy movement sometime before elections slated to take place next year. But he is not about to make such a move - intended to lend the far-from-free elections an air of legitimacy - before it makes good tactical sense, and certainly not at the behest of a foreign leader.
The simple fact is that Than Shwe doesn't want to be seen as giving in to the demands of the international community. He has been especially disdainful of Gambari's feeble attempts to voice the concerns of countries appalled by the situation in Burma. He has repeatedly refused to meet the UN envoy, whose four-day visit last week - his seventh since taking on the role of special envoy in 2006 - was eclipsed on the senior general's busy schedule of ceremonial duties by his courteous reception of three new ambassadors from the friendly neighboring nations of China, Vietnam and Laos.
Meanwhile, back at the UN headquarters in New York, Ban continued to mouth the same empty words that have gotten Burma precisely nowhere, saying he "looks forward to building on the talks to re-establish democracy and the protection of human rights in Burma."
Referring to the briefing he received from Gambari in New Delhi shortly after the latter's visit to Burma, Ban added euphemistically: "He had good discussions there, even though one may not be totally satisfied."
It may not be very diplomatic to say so, but these words, if stripped of their niceties and seen in the light of what was actually accomplished, can mean only one thing: Gambari has failed once again to justify his pointless mission, which has served only as an excuse to avoid real action by the UN Security Council.
Myanmar party to petition for Suu Kyi's freedom
Myanmar's main pro-democracy party launched a nationwide signature campaign Thursday to press for the immediate release of its detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political detainees.
Getting the public involved may be difficult in Myanmar, which has been under virtually continuous military rule since 1962. Few people are willing to publicly criticize the government, and dissidents face harassment or imprisonment.
The petition campaign was launched Thursday in Yangon at the headquarters of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party during a Union Day celebration attended by nearly 300 party members.
"The campaign is meant to show the ruling military junta and the international community the solidarity of the people and support of the people," party spokesman Nyan Win said. He said the party had not yet decided what to do with the collected signatures.
The party held a similar campaign in 2004 with no evident results.
Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention and is currently under house arrest in Yangon.
The current junta held elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results after Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory.
Human rights groups say Myanmar holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, up sharply from nearly 1,200 before pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks were crushed in 2007.
For the official celebration of Union Day, Myanmar's military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, called on the people "to prevent the danger of internal and external destructive elements attempting to undermine peace and stability," in a speech printed in state-run newspapers.
He did not name anyone specifically, but frequently lashes out at the opposition and at the United States and other Western nations for imposing political and economic sanctions on the government.
Lawyers denied entry to Insein prison court - Kham Kaew and Aye Nai
Six members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions and four others who were arrested after helping victims of Cyclone Nargis appeared in Insein prison court without their lawyers on 10 February.
Phyo Phyo Aung, her father Dr Ne Win, Shein Yarzar, Aung Thant Zin Oo, Aung Kyaw San, Phone Pyit Kywe, Yin Yin Waing, Tin Tin Cho, Ni Mo Hlaing and Myat Thu were arrested for collecting rotting corpses in the aftermath of the cyclone and burying them.
Kyaw Hoe, Khin Htay Kywe and Maung Maung Latt, the lawyers representing the ten people, were not allowed to enter the court on the orders of special branch, a lawyer said.
Lawyer Kyaw Hoe said that MPs-elect Nyi Pu and Dr Tin Ming Htut had also appeared at the court without legal representation.
Kyaw Hoe said it was special branch, not the prison authorities, who had barred him from attending.
The lawyers wrote a letter to Tin Htut, the presiding judge at Western Rangoon district court, but he also rejected their appeal on the orders of special branch.
National League for Democracy legal advisor Thein Nyunt insisted that action should be taken against those who interfere with court procedures.
"If we are to maintain the right to a free trial, the court has a duty to prevent outside interference," he said.
"It won't be a free trial if lawyers are not allowed to represent their clients; this should be reported to the court. Their relatives should also report it to justice ministry."
NLD members Ma Cho and Theingi were also denied legal representation on 11 February, when their lawyer Myint Thaung was refused access to the court to defend them, according to party spokesman Nyan Win.
The two women were arrested five months ago and charged with having contact with illegal organisations.
Chinese businessmen abandon Sino-Burmese border town - Solomon
Chinese authorities have cut off electricity supply and disconnected telephone lines in the Burmese town of Maija Yang on the Sino-Burmese border, compelling thousands of Chinese businessmen to abandon the town and leave for mainland China, local residents said.
A local youth said thousands of Chinese businessmen were moving away from the town to other parts of China, after electricity and telephone lines were cut off in the town since early February.
Maija Yang, a border town in Burma's northern Kachin state, is a commercial hub filled with Chinese-owned casinos, restaurants and other commercial activities, according to the youth. And it was impossible for businessmen to live without electricity and telephone lines.
Mya Maung, a Sino-Burmese border-based analyst said, "At least 7000 Chinese people have moved out of the town to mainland China since February 5."
He said, while several small businesses faced difficulties without electricity and telephone lines, the hardest hit were the Chinese-owned casinos. The closure of the casinos has had an adverse impact on the commercial aspect of the town, he added.
"There is no electricity, phone connections and the casinos have stopped functioning and other businesses cannot run, that's why people are leaving the place," he suggested.
Sources in the border area said, the border town of Maija Yang is under the control of ethnic Kachin rebels - the Kachin Independence Organization. However, the KIO, which has a ceasefire agreement with Burma's military rulers, had signed a contract with Chinese businessmen, to allow them free business operations in the town including running casinos.
The source said, the KIO annually receives not less than 6 million Chinese Yuan (approximately USD 877, 205) from Chinese businessmen for allowing them business operations in Maija Yang.
In the early 1990s, Maija Yang, a small village with an approximate population of about 1000 people, was a remote and under-developed area controlled by the KIO. But following the KIO's ceasefire agreement with the ruling junta in 1994, the village transformed into a border commercial hub, filled with casinos and other businesses.
"Casino gambling began in Maija Yang 6 to 7 years ago," said Mya Maung.
Meanwhile, it is still unclear why the Chinese authorities have shut down electricity supply and telephone lines in the town. According to Mya Maung, it might be due to the news of Chinese children being kidnapped and taken to Kachin state.
Earlier, Chinese newspapers reported that a number of Chinese youth were being kidnapped and taken to Burma for ransom. The information, however, could not be independently verified.
UN envoy, Japan encourage Myanmar on vote
The UN envoy to Myanmar made a joint call Thursday with Japan for the military regime to move ahead with elections next year, saying the rest of the world would respond positively.
Ibrahim Gambari, a special advisor to UN chief Ban Ki-moon, was visiting Japan after spending four days in Myanmar where he tried to nudge the military regime towards dialogue with the democratic opposition.
The former Nigerian foreign minister spoke separately with detained Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and Prime Minister Thein Sein but failed to arrange for the two to meet.
Gambari in talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone "agreed that all the relevant parties need to participate in the democratisation process of Myanmar," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
They agreed on "encouraging the Myanmar government to hold a general election in 2010 in a form that be congratulated by the international community," it said.
Nakasone told Gambari that the world would "react positively to a positive move" by the isolated regime.
"Even though there are few positive moves by the Myanmar government, it's a huge step for them to have announced that they would hold a general election in 2010, compared with two past decades of silence about its democratisation process," a foreign ministry official in charge of Japan's relations with Myanmar told AFP.
"If they take favourable action, the international community should react in a manner that encourages more positive actions," he added.
Japan, the top donor to Myanmar among the OECD major economies, in 2003 suspended most assistance other than emergency aid and some training funding.
Japan cut its assistance further after Myanmar cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations in 2007.
But Japan refuses to join Western allies in slapping punishing sanctions on Myanmar. China, which often spars with Japan for influence, is the main political and commercial partner of Myanmar.
Exiled Burmese government calls for tripartite dialogue on Union Day - Salai Pi Pi
Burma's government in exile - the National Coalition Government of Union of Burma - today urged the ruling military junta to immediately begin a tripartite dialogue with the opposition party and the ethnic nationalities in order to build a genuine federal state.
Dr. Tint Swe, Information Minister of NCGUB, during Burma's 62nd Union Day celebrations held in New Delhi, said a tripartite dialogue between the ruling regime, Burma's main opposition party - the National League for Democracy - and leaders of ethnic nationalities was the only way to revive the spirit of the Union Day and build a federal union.
"The role of ethnics is essential to form a federal Union of Burma," Dr. Tint Swe told Mizzima.
On Thursday, more than a hundred Burmese pro-democracy activists in New Delhi held celebrations to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the Union Day. Speeches, felicitations and cultural dances were performed to depict unity in diversity, which the founding fathers of the 'Union Day' had envisaged.
Nearly a year before Burma gained independence from the British colonial rulers, on February 12, 1947, General Aung San, who is regarded as the architect of Burma's independence, along with leaders of ethnic Chin, Kachin and Shan came together at a conference in Panglong town of Shan state to sign the historic 'Panglong' Agreement.
In Burma's history, the day came to be known as Union Day, and has always been annually observed as a state holiday. But the essence of the agreement, however, deteriorated after the assassination of General Aung San on July 19, 1947.
Burma gained independence on January 4, 1948, and with General Aung San already assassinated, ethnic leaders said they had been betrayed and the Panglong Agreement was never honoured.
Dr. Tint Swe said the spirit of the Panglong Agreement disappeared as the country came under military dictators, who led the country under a unitary system.
"The spirit of the Panglong Agreement has disappeared in Burma," said Dr. Tint Swe, adding that the NCGUB and ethnic leaders were under no illusion that the government to be formed by the military junta, through its Constitution approved in May 2008, would bring back the spirit of the Union.
He said, the only way to bring back the spirit of the union was to start a tripartite dialogue and that should be the objective of the movement.
Equal rights essential to revive Union Spirit: Ethnic leaders - Salai Pi Pi
Burma's ethnic leaders have said the essence of Unions Day has been degraded and have urged the ruling junta to revise the Constitution to ensure the rights of ethnic people, which will re-establish the true spirit of Union Day.
Dr. Lian Hmung Sakhong, Vice-president of the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) in exile, said the revision of the Constitution and tripartite dialogue with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic nationalities could revive the true spirit of the Union Day in Burma.
"If the regime wants to see unity, they must revise the junta drafted and endorsed Constitution to ensure the rights of ethnic nationalities," Dr. Sakhong told Mizzima, adding, "The junta should also call for tripartite dialogue with NLD and ethnic groups."
However, in order to hold a tripartite dialogue, Sakhong said, "Initially, the regime must release all political prisoners, including Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and Shan ethnic leader Khun Htun Oo."
The ethnic leader's call came following Burmese military supremo Senior General Than Shwe's message on the 62nd anniversary of Union Day, published by the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar yesterday.
In his message, Than Shwe said the Union Day marks the signing of the 'Panglong' agreement between Burmese independence architect General Aung San and ethnic leaders to form the Union of Burma in 1947 and urged the people to nurture the Burmese spirit regardless of where they were.
"Only the Union Spirit is true patriotism that will ever protect and safeguard all the national races," the paper quoted Than Shwe as saying.
Sakhong, however, said the Union Spirit could not be obtained in the absence of equal rights for ethnic nationalities. "Words are not enough, and action needs to be taken," he said.
Meanwhile, veteran Arakanese politician Aye Thar Aung said, with the military junta's Constitution, which largely fails to recognize the rights of ethnic nationalities, unity among all nationalities in Burma is be a dream, which cannot be realized.
"The Constitution will not lead to unity as it failed to include self-determination rights of ethnic groups," said Aye Thar Aung, who is also the Secretary of the Committee Representing People's Parliament (CRPP), a group formed with the Members of Parliament elected in the 1990 election.
"If they [the junta], really want to build unity, the Constitution must include the equal rights of ethnic nationalities," Aye Thar Aung added.
He added that the regime by refusing to accept proposals from ethnic representatives on equal rights at the National Convention, proved their unwillingness to recognize the rights of ethnic nationalities.
Burma, on February 12, will mark the 62nd anniversary of the Union Day, on which date General Aung San and ethnic leaders in Panglong Town of Shan state, signed the historic 'Panglong Agreement' to form the Union of Burma.
General Aung San along with his eight other colleagues were assassinated on July 19, 1947. However, Burma gained independence from the British colonial rule on January 4, 1948.
Barely a month later, the ethnic Karen group began to revolt demanding rights of self-determination. Burma has been plagued with civil war since then.
The ethnic nationalities' aspiration of a federal state was further crushed in 1962, when General Ne Win took over in a military coup and re-wrote the Constitution in 1974. The new Constitution introduced a unitary system and denied the existence of a multi-party system, giving way only to Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).
"We do not want a unity that is forcibly built without regard for the rights of ethnics' self-determination," Sakhong said.
Confiscated land rented to rightful cwners
Arakanese farmers in Min Bya Township have had to rent their own farmland from the Burmese army for cultivation after the army confiscated their land with claims of building an army battalion, said a farmer.
"The Burmese army confiscated our land to build an army battalion but nothing was dong on the land. Later the army official rented the farm to us to cultivate with paddy rice. We have to pay 8 tinns [20 baskets] of paddy per acre to the army to rent the lands from them," he said.
The Burmese army confiscated 107 acres of farmland from many farmers in the villages of Thik Gon, Tok Pin New, Zi Khong, and Saray Gri in Min Bya Township of central Arakan.
"We requested the army official Colonel Aung Myint to return the farmland to us, but he denied our request and instead rented the land to us for paddy payments," he said.
The farmlands were confiscated by Light Infantry Battalion 309 based in Min Bya and the farmers have to pay the battalion 8 tinns of rice per acre to rent the land.
There were low rice yields this harvest season, but the farmers were unable to reduce the rental rate for their land.
"We are now suffering with many obstacles due to the decrease of paddy product and paddy prices, but we have to give paddy to the army at the rate of the army's demands," the farmer added.
Myanmar envoy brands boatpeople 'ugly as ogres': report
Myanmar's senior official in Hong Kong has described the Rohingya boatpeople as "ugly as ogres," as a high-profile refugee case has highlighted the group's plight, a report said Wednesday.
The country's Consul General Ye Myint Aung wrote to heads of foreign missions in Hong Kong and local newspapers insisting the Muslim tribe should not be described as being from Myanmar, the South China Morning Post reported.
"In reality, Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar's ethnic group," he said.
The envoy contrasted the "dark brown" Rohingya complexion with the "fair and soft" skin of people from Myanmar, according to the Post.
"It is quite different from what you have seen and read in the papers. (They are as ugly as ogres)," Ye Myint Aung was said to have written.
The Rohingya are stateless and face religious and ethnic persecution from Myanmar's military regime, forcing thousands to take to rickety boats each year in a bid to escape poverty and oppression, rights groups say.
But Myanmar's junta denies the existence of the Rohingya as an ethnic group in the mainly Buddhist country and says the migrants are Bangladeshis.
Thailand's military was accused in January of towing hundreds of Rohingya out to sea in poorly equipped boats with scant food and water after they tried to flee Myanmar, a charge Thailand has "categorically denied".
The accusations surfaced after nearly 650 Rohingya were rescued off India and Indonesia, some saying they had been beaten by Thai soldiers. Hundreds of the boat people are still believed to be missing at sea.
The case has raised the profile of the group's struggle, prompting Ye Myint Aung's letter, the Post said.
No one from Myanmar's Hong Kong consulate was immediately available to comment when contacted by AFP.
Thai FM agrees to use 'Bali Process' to solve Rohingya issue - Nurfika Osman
Visiting Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Wednesday that Thailand had accepted an Indonesian proposal to solve the Rohingya problem through the Bali Process, a ministerial forum that aims to develop measures to help combat human trafficking and other related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region.
"We are going to renew the Bali process," Kasit said.
"We should pick up from where we left off and tackle this problem in a very coordinated manner."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, speaking to the press after a closed meeting with Kasit, confirmed that the two countries had agreed to use the forum to discuss the plight of the stateless refugees.
"We hope to find the best possible solution to address the problem," Wirajuda said.
The Bali Process was originally scheduled to be held in June, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Tauku Faizasyah recently said that it could be moved to as early as March.
Kasit indicated there was a possibility that the issue would also be discussed at the ASEAN Summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, later this month.
"It could be taken up on the summit's sidelines," Kasit said.
Thailand has faced condemnation from many quarters, including Indonesia, over its alleged mistreatment of the Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic group from Burma. The Thai Navy was alleged to have towed as many as 1,000 Rohingyas out to sea in boats without engines and cast them adrift with little food or water.
Faizasyah said that the International Organization for Migration had found evidence that the refugees were mistreated by Thai authorities.
Survivors told Indonesian authorities that they had been badly beaten in Thailand and that many had died of starvation while being adrift at sea. Hundreds of others are still missing at sea and feared dead.
Although Thailand had previously denied the accusations, Kasit told a reporter from the state-run Antara news agency that his government was still attempting to verify the reports.
"It is still being investigated, but so far the Thai Navy has assured the government that nothing of the sort happened," he said.
Take the money and run in Myanmar - Norman Robespierre
Recent media reports indicate at least eight ministers and the mayor of the old capital of Yangon will resign their posts as a presage to Myanmar's general elections scheduled for 2010. The list is a veritable who's who of the ruling State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC) top lieutenants and signals the regime's intention to keep its members prominent in the transition towards an elected civilian-led administration.
Several of the outgoing ministers have served especially long tenures for Myanmar's cut-and-thrust politics and are expected to run for office at the upcoming polls under a military-supported political party. The regime has promoted the elections as part of its seven-step road map to democracy; opponents see the promised political transition as a sham to give a veneer of legitimacy to continued military rule. It's unclear where the departing ministers fit into that political future.
Minister of Construction Major General Saw Tun, for instance, has maintained control over the lucrative construction portfolio since 1995, predating the formation of the SPDC. While allegations of rampant corruption have tarnished the reputations of many Myanmar ministers and ministries, Saw Tun's name is usually not mentioned among them. According to a Myanmar businessman who knows the minister, Saw Tun often says that it is better to make a little bit of money over a long time than to make a lot of money quickly. Apart from that temperance, his longevity in the position can also be attributed to his hometown ties to junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, who likewise hails from the Kyaukse township of the country's central Mandalay division.
Another long-serving minister is U Aung Thaung, who has served as Minister of Industry No 1 since the SPDC's formation in 1997. According to businessmen who know both ministers, U Aung Thaung is not as inhibited as Saw Tun. Many Myanmar ministers who have bid to maximize short-term profits from their positions have had their careers ended prematurely on corruption charges. Some say U Aung Thaung has survived in his post because of his close connections to the senior leadership: He is a known favorite of Than Shwe and his son is married to the daughter of Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the junta's second top-ranking official.
Other officials apparently set to trade their military khakis for civilian garb include Minister of Forestry Brigadier General Thein Aung, Minister of Immigration and Population Major General Saw Lwin, Minister of Livestock Breeding and Fisheries Brigadier General Maung Maung Thein, Minister of Transport Major General Thein Swe, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Major-General Htay Oo and Minister of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs Brigadier General Thein Zaw. Also mentioned is Yangon mayor Brigadier General Aung Thein Lin.
Some of the departing ministers are believed to be building up financial war chests for the elections or securing preferential deals and concessions for their families' businesses. It's a sometimes predatory process that has increased competition for resources among the ministers and exerted pressure on the country's private business community.
Ministers and their associates have in particular targeted foreign investors, pressuring many of them to renegotiate their existing contracts and business arrangements. Officials have through the discretionary power of their ministries reviewed the documentation of various joint foreign-local ventures for legal loopholes to pressure companies into forfeiting assets, accepting new business partners or receiving lower profit percentages than originally agreed, according to people familiar with the situation.
One of the higher profile victims is Woodlands Travel, a tourism company founded in 1995 by U Win Aung and which lists company addresses both in Yangon and New Jersey in the United States. The company's website lists its investment in two boutique hotels, the Kandawgyi Lodge and Popa Mountain Resort, in line with the government's eco-tourism campaign.
Unstated on the company website, however, is the source of those investments' funding, though local businessmen note that several Singaporeans hold senior company positions. Speculation recently intensified around the Woodlands Travel when its two boutique hotels - among the country's finest upscale resorts - were purchased last November by Htoo Trading Co. The controversial company is headed by Tay Za, a businessman known for his close SPDC connections and who was individually targeted by the US government's new "smart" financial sanctions.
It's not clear whether Tay Za purchased the properties independently or as a nominee in league with junta officials or their family members, despite speculation that the Ministry of Forestry had earlier exerted pressure on the company. According to a source intimately familiar with the deal, Minister of Forestry Thein Aung had previously sought to have Woodlands Travel modify its concession terms to include another local company, which apparently offered little in terms of expertise or capital.
Company officials instead decided to sell the properties outright at below market value rather than face a protracted legal battle over being forced to take on the new business partner and retaining their original contractual rights. That, the source said, would have put the company up against "influential people" and made future business difficult.
Woodlands Travel had originally brokered its deal under the auspices of former intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt, who was ousted from power on corruption charges in October 2004 and is currently under house arrest. Thein Aung's ministry office declined an Asia Times Online request for a telephone interview to address the allegations.
Minister for Industry No 1 U Aung Thaung has come under similar criticism. The controversial minister was paraphrased in a recent media report saying that he would retire only after providing for a comfortable future for his children. Accounts from one well-placed source indicate the long-serving minister has followed up those words with actions.
In recent months, the source says several businesses and hotels in the popular Bagan Nyaung U tourist area have been approached by ministry officials to grant concessions and contracts to U Aung Thaung's family businesses, including the Aung Yee Phyo Co Ltd and IGE Co Ltd companies. Both companies are run by his sons, Nay Aung and Pyi Aung. Given the influence of ministers and ministries in Myanmar's political and economic systems, such approaches would be difficult to reject without fear of repercussions.
A senior advisor to both companies, contacted at their Yangon-based offices, told Asia Times Online that he had "never heard anything" about the allegations and didn't know if they were true. Initially involved in industrial equipment and supplies trading, U Aung Thaung's family businesses have recently expanded into the energy, information technology and tourism sectors, which the senior advisor acknowledged.
The company's bid to move into the tourism sector, currently in a lull but expected to accelerate after the 2010 elections, has been viewed by some in Yangon as an attempt to further diversify the family's business holdings before relinquishing his ministerial post. The ministry's head of office, U Myint Swe, said by telephone that he had "no comment" on whether the ministry was trying to wrest concessions from private businesses in the Bagan area. He said that the minister was away from his office and unavailable to speak by telephone.
There are several allegations of top government officials using their positions to ramp up personal business activities before the 2010 transition towards democracy. One recent Kachin News Group report suggested that the planned move towards civilian rule has served as catalyst for SPDC officials to cash in on their positions in the northern Kachin State, including through the recent establishment of road closures to tax passing motorists.
Corruption is so endemic in Myanmar, which consistently ranks among the global worst in international country graft ratings, that it's difficult to tie any given incident specifically to the 2010 elections. Yet if the reported ministerial changes come to fruition, the departure of some of the junta's longest-serving members will open up to a new generation of soldiers and regime loyalists some of the most lucrative ministerial positions in government.
Ministerial positions are normally given to flag officers and occasionally deputy ministers promoted to the ministerial level. Considering the personal profits that could be accrued in the portfolios reportedly set to be vacated, it is possible that incumbent ministers from less lucrative ministries, such as the Ministry of Culture or Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, could be transferred laterally, as has happened in previous shake-ups.
Their current positions could in turn be filled with flag officers currently serving in operational positions within the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar armed forces are known. Cabinet reshuffles are common inside the SPDC, an outgrowth of the regime's need to provide cushy advancement opportunities to officers who occupy critical field-grade positions, including command over areas fighting against ethnic insurgent groups.
Often the cabinet reorganizations are timed to ensure a number of brigadier positions open up for colonels graduating from the National Defense College. The frequent ministerial musical chairs among generals and ministers has the psychological effect of promoting loyalty while ensuring that nobody gets too comfortable in their position. Officers often feel a sense of relief and renewed loyalty to the top decision-makers if they still have a job when the music stops.
In private conversations, some senior SPDC officers suggest that the 2010 election date is not etched in stone. Knowing that the 76-year-old Than Shwe intends to hold onto supreme power for as long as possible, they anticipate the democratic transition could be postponed for any number of reasons, including, according to one officer, the simple top-down determination that "the country isn't ready". The prognostications of the junta leader's astrologer, E Thi, could also offer cosmic cause for delay, he suggests.
Until then, Myanmar's citizenry and businesses will likely come under increasing pressure from ministers and other officials preparing for either elections or life outside of public office. All in all, the mounting money grab augurs ill for the political change Than Shwe and his junta has promised democracy will hold.
* Norman Robespierre, a pseudonym, is a freelance journalist specializing in Southeast Asian affairs. Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin contributed reporting from Bangkok.
Tension mounts between Wa and Burmese army - Saw Yan Naing
Rising tension between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Burmese government forces is reported by sources in Shan State and along the Sino-Burmese border.
Saeng Juen, assistant editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, said the Burmese army had deployed an estimated 2,000 reinforcements since the middle of January in Mong Ping, Mong Hsnu, Tang Yan and Kunlong.
The reinforcements included troops under Military Operation Command 16, he said.
The sound of weapons fire was reported from around Hopang and Panlong, regions close to the Sino-Burmese border where the tension between Burmese army and Wa troops is mounting. Border-based analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw said a Wa unit based in Hopang had tested its weapons two days ago.
Aung Kyaw Zaw said that although the Burmese army was on the alert there was no military activity involving government forces or Wa troops at the moment.
Saeng Juen said Burmese authorities had halted the construction of a bridge on the upper Salween River in Shan State after the UWSA prohibited further work.
Aung Kyaw Zaw said tension between the UWSA and Burmese forces had been increasing for several reasons, including a Wa announcement in January describing Wa-controlled areas as a special autonomous region known as the "Government of Wa State, Special Autonomous Region, Union of Myanmar."
Tensions also reportedly rose after the Wa ignored a Burmese government demand for drug dealer Aik Hawk to be handed over.
In a recent raid in Rangoon, a Burmese special drugs force arrested several associates of Aik Hawk, also known as Hsiao Haw, following the seizure of a quantity of heroin. Aik Hawk is the son-in-law of UWSA chairman Bao Youxiang.
The Burmese government believes Aik Hawk is being protected by Wa forces in Panghsang, headquarters of the UWSA, which is heavily involved in the drugs trade.
Another cause of rising tension was an incident on January 19, when a 30-member Burmese delegation led by Lt-Gen Ye Myint, chief of Military Affairs Security, was forced to disarm during a visit to Wa-held territory in Shan State.
An estimated force of 20,000 UWSA soldiers is currently deployed along Burma's borders with Thailand and China, while an estimated 60,000 to 120,000 Wa villagers inhabit areas of lower Shan State.
Who is Kyaw Thu? - Min Lwin
Amid a series of as-yet unannounced reassignments in the top ranks of Burma's military government, many political observers are paying close attention to the fate of former Deputy Foreign Minister Kyaw Thu, who gained prominence last year as the ruling junta's liaison with the international community in the Cyclone Nargis relief effort.
Since last May, when Cyclone Nargis devastated much of the Irrawaddy delta, Kyaw Thu has served as the chairman of the Tripartite Core Group (TCG), consisting of representatives of the Burmese regime, the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Kyaw Thu, who is in his late 50s, is said to be close to Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the junta's second-most powerful figure. Like Maung Aye, he is a graduate of the elite Defense Services Academy (DSA).
His father, the noted scholar Dr Maung Maung, who briefly assumed the position of president at the height of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, published a book entitled "To my Soldier Son" in 1974, soon after Kyaw Thu graduated as a member of the DSA's 13th Intake.
Former military intelligence sources said that Kyaw Thu had a reputation for being forthright with his superiors.
In 1997, when he was commander of Light Infantry Division (LID) 22, based in Pa-an Township, Karen State, he got into an physical altercation with his boss Maj-Gen Myint Aung, then commander of the Southeast Regional Command.
According to the intelligence sources, Kyaw Thu's straightforward manner made him a favorite of Maung Aye. Instead of being disciplined for insubordination for fighting with a superior officer, he was assigned to the foreign ministry.
His first overseas posting was as ambassador to South Africa. According to some former Rangoon-based Burmese diplomats, Kyaw Thu was suspected of corruption during his time in Pretoria from 1999 to 2002.
He was later assigned to head the Burmese embassy in Paris, but the French government refused to recognize his credentials because of his connection to LID 22, which has been linked to human rights abuses.
LID 22 was notorious for its role in the crackdown on peaceful protests in 1988, and has been accused of press-ganging civilians to construct roads used in the Burmese army's campaign against ethnic Karen rebels.
Kyaw Thu became ambassador to India in 2003, but was called back to Rangoon in late 2004 to become deputy foreign minister following the purge of Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt.
Last year he gained an even higher profile when he was named chairman of the TCG, coordinating international relief operations in the cyclone-stricken Irrawaddy delta. Aid workers who met him described him as down-to-earth and cooperative.
Kyaw Thu continued to act as deputy foreign minister until last week, when he was named chairman of the Civil Service Selection and Training Board, an inactive post.
The move came as a surprise to many who had worked with him on Nargis-related projects.
"As far as I could tell, he was very effective in his foreign ministry role, serving in a professional and friendly manner," said one aid worker.
Although Kyaw Thu attended a TCG meeting in Bangkok on Monday, he is expected to be replaced as chairman of the group in the near future.
ABFSU leaders jailed for three years - Naw Say Phaw
All Burmese Federation of Student Unions leaders Kyaw Ko Ko and Nyan Linn Aung were sentenced to three years' imprisonment each by Rangoon's Mingalar Taung Nyunt township court yesterday.
Judge Tin Latt sentenced the two to the maximum term under the Video Act.
Kyaw Aye, Kyaw Ko Ko's father, said the sentence was politically motivated.
"Under the law my son should be released because when they caught him, they only seized a mobile phone from him and the special police had already testified that all the exhibits presented belonged to Nyan Linn Aung," Kyaw Aye said.
"They could have just let him pay the 100,000 kyat fine instead of giving him the maximum three-year punishment, but I can't really complain now as there were political motives behind the sentence."
Kyaw Aye said Kyaw Ko Ko was suffering from jaundice and he was worried his son might be transferred to another prison before he gets better.
Kyaw Ko Ko, who is studying for a Master's degree in economics, played a significant role in the September 2007 demonstrations.
He and Nyan Linn Aung, a final-year year economics student, were arrested together on 16 March 2008.
Burma's policy debate: polarisation and paralysis - Benedict Rogers
Burma is one of the world's worst human tragedies. A beautiful nation, with talented people, rich in natural resources, it was once "the rice bowl of Asia". Today, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, ruled by a regime which does not just brutally suppress its people politically, but callously denies them humanitarian aid. The junta spends almost half its budget on the military, and less than $1 per person per year on health and education combined. The world witnessed the regime's astonishing refusal, and subsequent restriction, diversion and manipulation, of aid and access for aid workers following Cyclone Nargis. A similar pattern of criminal neglect is currently played out in Chin State, where a famine caused by a plague of rats has gone largely unreported and unaided.
In addition, the military regime is guilty of every possible violation of human rights. The junta has imprisoned more than 2,000 dissidents, and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has spent over 13 years under house arrest. A campaign of ethnic cleansing, amounting to crimes against humanity and bordering on a form of genocide, is being conducted against the Karen, Karenni and Shan in eastern Burma, and gross violations continue in Chin, Kachin and Rakhine areas. The Rohingya Muslim people are targeted for ethnic and religious persecution, and denied citizenship despite having lived in northern Arakan for generations.
One would think that the scale of the crisis in Burma would cause people, within the country and in the international community, to put aside petty differences and unite. But instead, Burma's tragedy is compounded by the intensely polarised nature of the debate about Burma. This polarisation has led to a paralysis - giving the regime the upper hand. Its biggest strategy is divide-and-rule, and it has played it to great effect at every level. Small divisions between Burmese activists become huge rifts; petty squabbles among factions within each ethnic group have been widened by the regime, in some cases causing groups to fragment and some to do deals with the junta; and among the international community, the debate about sanctions versus engagement grows ever more weary.
It is not for me to comment more on the divisions within the Burmese and ethnic movements, except simply to observe that disunity are a problem. If the different Burmese groups could recognise that what they have in common, their desire for freedom, is infinitely more important than the small policy differences or personal rivalries they may have, then they will be much the stronger for it. If they had one umbrella group, instead of multiple alliances, their cause would be advanced. But it is the international debate that concerns me here.
Critics of sanctions are rearing their heads again in a significant way, and it is tiresome. It seems bizarre that after two of the worst years in Burma's recent history, some people are seriously proposing lifting sanctions. The regime put its character on full display when it beat and shot Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrating in September 2007. Its sham referendum on a new constitution last May was so blatant it was laughable. Its initial response to Cyclone Nargis - a failure to prepare people before the cyclone hit, and a deliberate denial and diversion of aid afterwards - should not be forgotten. And before the end of last year, several hundred dissidents were jailed, some for more than 65 years. Yet there are voices within the UN, NGOs and academia who say now is the time to end international pressure, normalise relations with the regime and legitimise the planned elections in 2010.
Advocates of sanctions such as myself have however not always got it right either. There has been an almost religious affiliation to sanctions, and a refusal to hear criticism. Sanctions have become a litmus test of devotion to democracy. Advocates of sanctions have tended to demonise opponents. I admit that this is wrong. While there are some critics of sanctions who have aligned themselves so much with the junta that they are not credible, there are some who cannot be easily dismissed as pro-regime. Some whose credentials in fighting for democracy are well-proven are starting to question the effectiveness of sanctions. Those of us who continue to believe in sanctions should listen to such people, and seek to find common ground.
I do not buy the argument that sanctions have not worked. It is too simplistic. It depends totally on what our definition of effectiveness is, and what timeframe we are working to. While we can agree on the obvious - that the current sanctions regime have not yet delivered the change we would like to see - there are several points to make. The first is that many of the sanctions in place are the wrong ones. I have always advocated targeted sanctions, aimed at the Generals and their assets. But it is only in the past year that the US has introduced targeted financial sanctions, and the European Union placed a ban on the gems and timber sectors. Until 2007, the sanctions in place were either too broad, or too symbolic. The EU banned investment in a pineapple juice factory, but continues to allow money to flow into the oil and gas sectors. But the junta is built on oil and gas, not fruit juice. And critics claim we have had 20 years of sanctions - but in reality, the only really tough sanctions were introduced in the past ten years, and particularly since 2003. So they need more time to work. Thirdly, sanctions are only one tool in the toolbox anyway. No advocate of sanctions that I know has ever suggested that sanctions alone will change the situation. They are an important ingredient in the policy mix ?but they need to be used alongside other methods.
Two myths about the pro-sanctions lobby continue to be put about the critics, both of which are misrepresentative and deeply destructive. The first is that they frame the debate as one of engagement versus isolation, and they describe themselves as 'pro-engagement'. But this is totally misleading. I am pro-engagement too. The objective is not the isolate the regime, but rather to draw it out and force it to enter dialogue. Pressure is the only language the regime understands. The idea that investment will open things up is not only naïve, it has been tried. Britain held trade fairs in Rangoon in the 1990s, and that did not seem to make the regime any nicer. No one I know wants to isolate the regime, and it is pro-sanctions campaigners who have led calls for the UN Secretary-General and Security Council to get involved, and the process recommended is all about engagement. So it is not a debate about whether to engage, but rather about what type of engagement - how, when, about what and with whom should we engage.
The second myth is that we oppose aid. This is manifest nonsense, but it continues to be put about. No one campaigned harder for increased aid to Burma by Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) than my own organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the Burma Campaign UK. Our efforts resulted in pressure on DfID by the House of Commons to increase its Burma budget. It was DfID officials, backed up by so-called pro-engagement types, who actually resisted it. They did not want to increase the Burma budget. Ultimately, DfID responded to political pressure and doubled the budget. We campaigned both for in-country aid and cross-border aid to the displaced people. So please, don't tell me I am anti-aid. Like engagement, the debate is not about whether to provide aid, but how.
If the critics of sanctions agree to stop spreading such misperceptions, and advocates of sanctions cease demonising their opponents, there are still three remaining questions. Some of the most naïve critics of sanctions propose actually lifting them now, regardless of whether the regime offers any sign of progress. They portray themselves as bold fresh thinkers, but such an approach is sheer folly. To lift sanctions now, unconditionally, would send the regime the worst possible signal. The regime will have won, and they can have their rule - and their legitimacy internationally - sewn up. So I am vigorously opposed to such an approach. But more sensible critics of sanctions argue we should review specific measures, and question their effectiveness. I have an open mind on this. While I am totally opposed to lifting sanctions as a whole, there is merit in looking at each measure and asking how they could be improved. A debate about improving, sharpening, strengthening and more carefully targeting sanctions would be healthy. We might even find some areas of agreement between the two sides in the polarised debate. But we should ensure that such a debate is not timeless. A debate, within a specific timeframe, about how to sharpen sanctions must lead to an outcome. It should not result in a continuation of the current exhausting, pointless and endless debate that achieves nothing except further entrenchment and polarisation. And once the debate has been had, the issue should be parked and we should seek other creative means of bringing about change in Burma in addition to sanctions. Critics of sanctions should agree to stop dredging the issue up again and again, and advocates of sanctions might agree - provided we succeed in obtaining sharper, targeted, effective measures in place - to channel their energies into seeking other solutions. In fact, that is what sanctions advocates have already been doing, but their critics keep popping up with the sanctions debate. It is becoming an unhealthy distraction and consumes far too much emotional energy.
It will not be easy, but both sides in this debate need to move out of their respective camps. If we cannot engage with each other, how are we to have a hope of seeing the regime engage? There are voices on the fringes of both camps who deserve little respect and should be ignored. There are some with vested interests or outdated experience who are now irrelevant. But there are others who may disagree over certain approaches, but who should be treated more seriously. Common ground should be sought, and perhaps a division of labour agreed. There are individuals who have a particular role to play in, for example, quiet diplomacy with Asian neighbours, strengthening ethnic unity or building civil society, and they should not be written off. However, they do themselves no favours when they spend their time undermining the efforts of campaigners by vocally and publicly opposing not only sanctions, but any form of international pressure in defeatist tones. If such people were to focus on what they are good at, and keep their reservations about international pressure to themselves, they would earn much more respect. Similarly, if those of us who advocate pressure recognised more explicitly the value of other approaches, particularly in building civil society, strengthening ethnic unity and in lobbying countries in the region, we would advance the cause further.
There is in my mind no contradiction at all between pressure and engagement. If properly coordinated, they are two sides of the same coin. This was outlined in a paper published by The Burma Campaign UK a few years ago, called "Pro-Aid, Pro-Sanctions, Pro-Engagement". Our critics should read that paper, we should seek to understand our more sensible critics, and together we can try to break the paralysis that has come from the polarisation of the debate. Only when we combine our efforts, diverse but coordinated and complementary, will we have any chance of seeing change in Burma.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist working for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which recently launched the Change for Burma! campaign. He is the author of 'A Land Without Evil: Stopping the Genocide of Burma's Karen people (Monarch Books, 2004). He has travelled 28 times to Burma and its borderlands, and is currently writing two new books on Burma.
Roundtable: Strategies for 2010 - Htet Aung Kyaw
The military regime's planned 2010 election has aroused fierce debate within the Burmese political community between those who reject the idea of participation outright and others who advocate a pragmatic approach.
While the National League for Democracy has condemned the holding of an election without recognising the result of the previous election in 1990, other political figures have argued that, since the election will be held regardless of any opposition, the only option is participation.
DVB asked a range of political figures for their views on participation in the upcoming elections and the prospects for change.
Shan leader Shwe Ohn said he did not support the election, but felt that participation was the most practical course of action.
SO: "I have said from the beginning that I don't like it, I don't support it. But I have to accept it inevitably. Supporting it is different from accepting it. We shouted out against the referendum. But it's finished. We do not like the way it finished. But we have no strength to destroy it. I think it will hurt us more if we keep on shouting when there is no possibility of change. In politics it is called a 'fait accompli'. It has happened. It has nothing to do with whether we like it or not. Even if we do not like it we have to accept it if we can't dismantle it. In politics, it's called realpolitik. We can't keep on imagining things are the way we want them to be, good and useful to people. Realpolitik is doing things based on the actual circumstances.
"We say that our aim is to reach Nirvana but instead we have turned up in hell. When in hell, we have to behave in accordance with the rules of hell. But we will continue to reach for Nirvana. Things will go completely awry if we act like we are in Nirvana while we are still in hell."
87-year old Shwe Ohn attended 1947 Panglong conference as a reporter and has been involved in politics ever since.
He was also arrested with other renowned Shan leaders such as Khun Tun Oo in 2005 for discussing Shan affairs and the national convention, and placed under house arrest for a year.
But his critics say that he has recently been focusing more on his solo efforts and distributing leaflets than on working for collective interests.
Aye Lwin, leader of the rival 88 Generation Students group, said the election was the only hope of bringing about change.
AL: "The 88 pro-democracy struggle is not over and there are many reasons for that. They are talking about the 2008 referendum, about 2010, about the 1990 election. By just talking about it, we are not going to become a democratic country. People are talking about it because it is not happening.
"In reality, the people need to have a political arena where they can represent themselves. That will only happen when there is an election - we can hold it and get the results. By just saying what we want about a hopeless matter and having nothing in our heads, we will get nowhere. By combining what we want with the conditions in 2010, we will be able to see the end of military rule and the beginning of the path to a multi-party system. We believe that we will be able to do these two things. We understand this as the pragmatic way."
Sai Leik, a leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, said that the SNLD would not consider participating in the election unless detained party leaders were released.
SL: "No election law has come out for the 2010 election yet. Even when the law does come out, we won't consider it unless our chairman Khun Tun Oo and secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin and others are released. Currently, we are neither thinking about nor preparing for the election. Whatever we do, unless political prisoners are released and talks are held, there can be no political solution."
Arakan League for Democracy leader Aye Thar Aung, who is also secretary of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament, completely rejected the idea that the election could bring about democracy in Burma.
ATA: "It is unacceptable to do nothing after holding an election and start planning a new one. The 2010 election cannot be seen as a democratic election. The 2010 election must be seen in connection with the constitution ratified in 2008. The election can't benefit the people or the ethnic nationalities."
Senior NLD leader Win Tin said any election based on the 2008 constitution would be unacceptable.
WT: "I reject the constitution. I have no faith in it. Not only the constitution, I reject the military government's gilded national convention. In 1993, I told US congressman Bill Richardson [that] I would not accept the constitution that emerged from that convention. You need not talk to me about that. I will not give any thought to the election to this day. But due to the wisdom and consideration expected from a leader, I have to moderate myself into reconsideration.
"Although the constitution was ratified by a referendum, it has not yet been confirmed. It will only be confirmed after the election is called and the parliament is convened. The country doesn't like this constitution which has not been ratified and we do not like it either. The world doesn't like it either. In this situation, we advised them to revise and amend it. There has been no response to our offer. As long as there is no response and the constitution is unacceptable, we will neither think nor talk about the election."
Chan Tun, a veteran politician and former diplomat, said the opposition should only participate if certain conditions were met to ensure the election was fair.
CT: "It is nothing to do with experience. There is only demand and that's what we won't get. In fact, it is a question of doing what is possible. They say they will hold the election in 2010. What I want to say is that the government has to release all political prisoners including Daw Aung San Auu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Dr Zaw Myint Maung, students such as Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and so on - more than 2000 prisoners in all. After their release, they must be allowed to form political parties and rally people. The law that says that those who have married foreigners must not take part in politics must be abolished.
"During the elections in Bangladesh, around 200,000 observers were allowed, including about 2000 or 3000 foreigners. In Burma too, foreigners must be allowed to observe and all journalists from the world media must be allowed to come. If this is the case, we should contest the election. Or, we must dare to protest with a big crowd of, let's say, 80,000-100,000 people, and dare to be arrested. At least 20,000?0,000 could be arrested. We need to dare do it or be able to do it. Or, we must dare to fight with arms. If this is not the case, we must contest the election and demand our rights."
Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who now concentrates on social work, said he had not yet decided with to take part in the election.
KZW: "I haven't decided whether to take part as no law has been issued. As I am a former political prisoner, I might not be allowed to contest even if I want to. Things didn't turn out as people expected in 88. But it also depends on us. We have had many opportunities in the past, but we lost them. It is harder to regain them now. Generally, the interest of people [in politics] is very low. We have to try very hard to make people interested again. I have very low expectations. People are very poor and have to struggle to survive. A [Union Solidarity and Development Association] member said that his interest was very low. 'Nothing has happened in the past and what can happen now?' he said. People will focus on their struggle for survival. Even if the road to politics is open, you have to try very hard to get the people to participate."
The ALD's Aye Thar Aung came back to the idea of political pragmatism.
ATA: "Some people joined and worked with the [Burma Socialist] Programme Party in the past with the hope that they could change the party or individual members [from within]. In reality, they were unable to change the BSPP or its leading figures. In this day and age, if you think that you will get democracy and ethnic national rights by going along with the 2010 election, you are living in a dream world - no - you are just giving excuses, that's how I see it."
Rebels in Myanmar refuse to join polls
The Shan State Army (SSA) - an insurgent group in northeast Myanmar - has opposed the junta's planned general election next year, joining a growing number of ethnic minority groups determined to upset the polls, media reports and analysts said yesterday.
Shan State Army leader Colonel Yod Serk said the SSA was one of at least 10 ethnic minority rebel groups that have come out against the 2010 general election, the Bangkok Post reported.
"The junta announced the upcoming election, but never let the opposing parties run in the race," Yod Serk told the newspaper.
The rebel leader claimed even the United Wa State Army, a close ally of the Myanmar junta, was opposed to the upcoming election.
Growing opposition to the planned general election may force Myanmar's ruling junta to delay the polls, analysts said yesterday.
"Besides the SSA, the New Mon State Party and Kachin Independence Organization have also come out against the polls," said Aung Din, executive director for the US Campaign for Burma.
Myanmar's military regime has fought more than a dozen ethnic minority-based insurgencies in its hinterlands for decades, although ceasefire agreements have been signed with most of them.
The junta included representatives of the ethnic minorities, representing almost half the population, in its constitution-drafting process, which took 14 years, but ignored their demands to establish a federation in a post-election period.
Instead, under the new Constitution, all rebels groups will be required to give up their arms and submit to the central government.
Junta recruits under age boys into army in Chin state
Under age boys are being recruited forcibly as soldiers in the Burmese Army in Chin state, western Myanmar.
Three boys, about 13 years of age in Paletwa town were forcibly recruited in the army on January 28 by Commander Maung Than and seven soldiers from the Lisin Army camp of IB (304). They are still at the military camp, a local said.
He said the victims are NguiTheing (13) son of Pa Net, In Thawng (14) son of Khipui, and Sawng San (13) son of Khan Kung of Lung Zaw Kung village. They were taken from their homes..
"Ngui Theing was taken from his house. He was reluctant to go and cried out but even village heads were afraid to stop the forced recruitment, he told to Khonumthung News.
A report said that five boys from Matupi and Paletwa townships ran away to Mizoram state between December 2008 to January 2009 as they were afraid to join the army.
A local in Matupi said that if soldiers in Matupi IB (304) can recruit children, they will be promoted to a higher rank. So army people are searching for boys in the villages.
"When the authorities constructed the Matupi army camp in December 2008, they were trying to persuade a boy who was not attending school to serve as a soldier. But he refused and he was put in the lockup for a whole night as punishment," he added.
Regarding this matter Terah of Chin Human Rights Organistaion(CHRO) said, "Actually the government should protect children from forced recruitment as child soldiers, but they doing this disgusting thing for their own interest and it violates human rights,"
The military junta is a signatory to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) paragraph (38) which mentions that it has to protect under 15 year-old children from forced recruitment to the military.