Jan 17th, 2012
By Didier Lauras | AFP News – 1 hour 18 minutes ago The top Republican in the US Senate said Tuesday that Myanmar’s new regime was serious about change and voiced openness for an eventual lifting of sanctions, which he has long championed.
“Reform is for real,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters after talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as well as top members of the nominally civilian government that took power last year.
“I heard the same message from literally everyone: that there is a level of seriousness about reforms in this country that makes it highly likely that it will occur. This is the first time that I have been genuinely optimistic about the future,” he said.
“Reform is clearly on the agenda here and likely to stay on the agenda.”
McConnell has long been outspoken in his criticism of Myanmar’s human rights record and has co-sponsored legislation each year for nearly a decade that has imposed sweeping sanctions on the country formerly known as Burma.
Speaking afterward in a telephone interview with AFP, McConnell said that he was willing to work with Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration to lift sanctions if Suu Kyi believed it was the right course.
“We are open to it,” he said of lifting sanctions. “Obviously the government here cares about it because they kept bringing it up, leading me to believe that it may have been a part of the number of things that may well have brought about the change in direction here, which is really quite remarkable.”
Myanmar has a nominally civilian government following a controversial November 2010 election, but its ranks are filled with former generals including President Thein Sein, who was premier under the junta.
The regime has surprised observers in recent months through a series of gestures including opening dialogue with Suu Kyi, pursuing peace deals with ethnic minority rebels and pardoning hundreds of imprisoned dissidents.
The government released about 300 political prisoners in its latest amnesty on Friday, leading Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to move to appoint a US ambassador in Myanmar, restoring full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than two decades.
McConnell voiced support for the move and said that some administration officials also wanted to ease sanctions. The appointment of an ambassador and easing of sanctions would both need approval from Congress.
“I think reciprocity is the key word. If they do things, we will consider responding,” McConnell told AFP.
“I think the best arbiter of whether one or more of the sanctions ought to be lifted is Suu Kyi herself. She was an advocate of sanctions when we imposed them, she lives here, she’s involved in the process and she’s somebody that we can completely trust,” he said.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, released from years of house arrest soon after the 2010 election, has said she believes the current regime genuinely wants to reform, but she has so far stopped short of supporting an end to sanctions.
The Obama administration in 2009 launched an engagement drive with Myanmar, concluding that the previous Western policy of trying to isolate the regime had failed.
While Republicans have been sharply critical of much of Obama’s foreign policy, his efforts on Myanmar have enjoyed more support as he has linked the administration’s positions to Suu Kyi.
McConnell welcomed that Suu Kyi is seeking election to parliament in April in a district that has a large population of ethnic Karens.
“I think that this will show that she has broad support among ethnic minorities as well as the Burman majority,” McConnell said.
Despite some Republicans’ support for the engagement efforts, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the decision to appoint an ambassador.
The hawkish lawmaker said Friday that the United States should end talks with Myanmar’s “ruthless tyrants” until it has a “duly elected, democratic government that respects human rights and civil liberties.”
By Didier Lauras | AFP – 4 hrs ago Myanmar has told the military to halt all offensives in ethnic minority conflict zones, a top official said Tuesday, as the regime pursues peace deals with guerrillas as part of wider reforms.
The army-backed government, which last year replaced the long-ruling junta, on Thursday signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels in the eastern border region, raising hopes of an end to one of the world’s oldest civil conflicts.
A day later, President Thein Sein ordered the military not to attack any ethnic minority groups except in self-defence, Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population, told AFP in an interview in the capital Naypyidaw.
“The order covers the whole country,” added the former national police chief, who was present at the signing of the ceasefire with the Karen National Union.
But Khin Yi admitted that the order was sometimes proving hard to implement on the ground.
“Some of the grassroot level units, when on patrolling duty, unexpectedly met each other and exchanged fire. Sometimes, the order (not to attack) did not reach to the grassroot level,” he said.
An earlier presidential order issued in mid-December for the military to cease attacks against ethnic Kachin guerillas in the north of the country failed to stop heavy fighting in the region, according to the rebels.
The Kachin guerrillas have not yet taken up the government’s offer of peace talks, Khin Yi said, but added that the authorities aimed to organise a meeting of all the ethnic groups if ceasefires are agreed.
In December, a ceasefire deal was reached between the local government and the Shan State Army-South, another major ethnic militia.
Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948. An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations which impose sanctions on the regime.
Vast numbers of villagers in Karen state, scene of Myanmar’s oldest insurgency, have been forced to flee, and tens of thousands of these refugees live in camps across the border in Thailand.
Rights groups say the government’s counter-insurgency campaigns over the years have deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes, destroying villages and forcing them to work for the army.
Fighting in northern Kachin state between the army and rebels since June last year has displaced tens of thousands of people.
Myanmar’s previous junta justified decades of military rule as a way of maintaining stability and unity in a country where one-third of the population is made up of ethnic minorities.
The country now has a nominally civilian government following a controversial November 2010 election, but its ranks are filled with former generals including Thein Sein, who was premier under the junta.
The regime has surprised observers with a series of reforms, including talks with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been allowed to stand in an April by-election, and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
Suu Kyi said on Sunday that an end to the ethnic conflicts was a priority.
“I think it’s a matter of both sides being more flexible,” she told reporters, calling on the predominant Burman ethnic group “to be more broad-minded and to be more generous”.
By Didier Lauras | AFP – Mon, Jan 16, 2012 France’s foreign minister held talks with Myanmar’s rulers on Monday during a visit to assess the regime’s reformist credentials as Western powers weigh a possible relaxation of sanctions.
A nominally civilian government which took power last year has surprised even critics with a series of reformist moves, including dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in late 2010.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said after his talks with President Thein Sein that he was confident the leader is a reformer.
“It’s a certainty. It’s enough to look at what he has done in the past few months,” he said, describing the president as a “wise man, completely determined.”
A day earlier Juppe said France and the European Union would respond “positively and in concrete terms” to what he described as “significant gestures” by the regime.
He later said initial changes could be discussed at the EU level in April, including an end to visa bans for regime figures and the granting of lower duties on certain exports to the European Union not subject to sanctions.
Juppe is the highest level French diplomat to ever visit the country also known as Burma, long criticised by the West for its human rights record and ruled outright by the military for almost five decades until last year.
His visit coincides with a fact-finding trip by Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the US Senate and a long time force behind sanctions on Myanmar.
The long-isolated country is now welcoming not just advocates of engagement but also critics whom it will need to win over for any lifting of sanctions.
In a move hailed by the West, Myanmar on Friday released about 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents, a day after signing a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic minority group.
“We hope that these new developments will reinforce the process of democratisation and national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi said after her talks with Juppe.
But the acclaimed dissident said it was unclear whether the military was fully behind the changes.
“Certainly there is always a theoretical, and perhaps not so theoretical, danger of an army coup by those who do not approve of the process of democratisation,” she said. “We hope very much that we will not come to that.”
Friday’s prisoner release was the most significant yet by the new government, whose ranks are filled with former generals including Thein Sein.
Such an amnesty had been long demanded by the West and was hailed by the international community. France welcomed such an “important step” and the United States said it wanted to restore top-level diplomatic ties.
It is not clear how many more political prisoners are still behind bars but some activists estimate about 1,000 remain locked up.
Juppe is the first French foreign minister in history to visit the Southeast Asian country, which gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the first French minister to visit since a popular uprising was brutally crushed in 1988.
His trip follows landmark visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague in recent months.
Associated Press – 2 hrs 23 mins ago
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines says international sanctions against Myanmar should be lifted amid the political reforms taking place there.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement late Tuesday that the Philippines welcomes the recent amnesty and release of more than 600 political prisoners. It said they showed Myanmar’s political resolve and commitment “to nurture an environment for an enduring national reconciliation and democracy.”
The foreign affairs department says such reforms “should find reciprocal gesture from the international community” in the lifting of sanctions.
The Philippines was one of the most vocal critics of the junta that once ruled Myanmar.
Western countries have praised the reforms but are keeping sanctions in place for now.
Published: Jan. 16, 2012 at 6:31 PM
YANGON, Myanmar, Jan. 16 (UPI) — Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys, previously only known from one dead specimen, have been photographed living in the wild for the first time, conservationists say.
The animal was photographed by a camera trap operated by a joint team from Fauna & Flora International, Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association, and People Resources and Conservation Foundation.
The camera, triggered by infrared sensors, was located in the mountains of Burma’s northerly Kachin state bordering China, NewScientist.com reported.
“We were very surprised to get these pictures,” Saw Soe Aung, a field biologist who set the camera traps, said. “It was exciting to see that some of the females were carrying babies — a new generation of our rarest primate.”
The snub-nosed monkey, Rhinopithecus strykeri, was first described scientifically from a dead specimen collected by a local hunter in 2010.
Conservationists said hunting and habitat loss mean the species will likely be classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The population of the monkeys is thought to be less than 300 individuals, they said.
by Aung Zaw
Aung Zaw is founding editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, based in Thailand. One sweltering day in August of last year, Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi arrived for the first time in the capital of her country. The city of Naypyidaw, inaugurated six years ago by Burma’s mercurial military rulers, is a supremely artificial creation, a place of vacant boulevards and echoing plazas built in the foothills some 200 miles away from the old capital of Rangoon. Rangoon is the city that Aung San Suu Kyi calls home, and it is there that she had spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest.
She had come to Naypyidaw to meet the man who had orchestrated her release from detention 10 months earlier. Burmese President Thein Sein, like most of the men who have ruled the country since World War II, spent almost his entire adult life as an army officer. Then, in 2010, he took off his uniform, assumed the leadership of the ruling political party, and led it to victory in an election denounced by most international observers as a sham. He then took office as the head of the first ostensibly civilian government in Burma (also known as Myanmar) in 49 years and announced that he was preparing to lead the country toward democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi was understandably cautious as she went into her meeting with the president. She and her fellow activists have watched Burma’s leaders break promises for decades. Was this one really any different?
To her surprise, the president welcomed her warmly, lavishing praise upon her father Aung San, a hero of Burma’s anti-colonial struggle in the 1940s. Two decades ago, wary of the late Aung San’s continuing star power (and that of his daughter, who entered politics after the 1988 uprising), the military junta had erased his image from the national currency. Now, in demonstrative contrast, the president insisted that he and Aung San Suu Kyi pose for an official photo beneath a portrait of her father. Later that evening Thein Sein’s wife welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to a “family dinner” in the presidential palace. She greeted Burma’s leading dissident with a warm embrace.
In the weeks that followed, the opposition leader told her colleagues that it was time to take the president’s promises of reform for real. She moved to obtain official registration for her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and stated that she wanted to see it participate in parliamentary by-elections to be held on April 1 of this year. Even if the NLD wins every seat at stake, it would still fall short of anything like a legislative majority. Victory, though, could ensure an important opposition voice in the hitherto docile body. On Jan. 10, after weeks of uncertainty, she finally announced that she will run for a seat in the parliament.
Allowing the NLD to participate is merely the latest in a series of dramatic moves made by the president. Since Thein Sein took power in March 2010, he has freed hundreds of political prisoners, initiated discussions about legalizing trade unions, and loosened censorship. Over the past year the new Burmese government has taken more steps toward political reform than the previous military regime took in over two decades.
Yet none of this can disguise the fact that Burma is still a country under authoritarian rule, and that means its further progress depends to a critical extent on the motives and capabilities of the man who holds its highest office. Many observers wonder whether Thein Sein is committed to meaningful progress or is simply serving as the public face of the old junta in its quest to retain power under a quasi-civilian government. Once a pillar of the old regime, he was one of its highest-ranking generals when in 2007 he assumed the office of prime minister, a post that he retained throughout the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests that year.
There are also questions about the extent to which Thein Sein is truly in control. Several leaders of the military regime still hold positions in his government. (In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Aung San Suu Kyi cautioned that the generals still wield enormous power despite the veneer of democracy provided by the elections. “I am concerned about how much support there is in the military for changes,” she said. “In the end that’s the most important factor, how far the military are prepared to cooperate with reform principles.”) Although the government denies it, former junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe, a master political chess player, continues to exercise considerable influence behind the scenes, say some experts.
The culture of secrecy surrounding Burma’s military rulers makes it especially difficult to gauge just how far they will allow the current opening to go. But Thein Sein’s biography provides some intriguing clues. The son of peasants from the Irrawaddy Delta, he graduated from the country’s elite military academy in 1968. As a young officer in the 1970s, he was sent to the front lines of the Burmese military campaign against the Chinese-backed communist insurgency. Retired Lt. Gen. Chit Swe, under whom Thein Sein served in the 1980s, describes the president as someone who rarely shows his emotions, is notably devoid of arrogance, and is usually willing to listen to differing opinions.
Karen leader David Tharckabaw is more cautious than optimistic about the recent cease-fire.
Christopher MacLean January 17, 2012 06:44
MAE SOT, Thailand — The lightning-fast pace of reforms in Burma has so far included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, renewed ties with the US and an end to the world’s longest-running civil war.
Not so long ago, each measure would have been nearly unthinkable and yet, today, reforms are unfolding at quite a clip. Or are they?
Some measures, like the release of prisoners, are tangible and swift. Others, like an end to the conflict between Burma’s Thein Sein government and the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic rebel group that has been fighting for autonomy for more than 60 years, will take months to solidify.
And many are skeptical whether that will, in fact, happen.
The decades-long conflict between the Karen, who number as many as 7 million, and the government has resulted in countless military atrocities, according to human-rights groups. Rape, forced labor and child conscription succeeded in driving hundreds of thousands of Karen refugees across the border into Thailand.
KNU Vice President David Tharckabaw joined the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the KNU, as a soldier at the age of 14. He is now in his late 70s and spends most of his time living in exile.
“It’s very difficult to trust people that have been killing, displacing, and abusing your people for over 60-years,” Tharckabaw said in August 2010, during a private meeting over tea in the living room of his exiled safe house near the Thai-Burmese border.
More from GlobalPost: New reformist government in Burma dares to push back against China
“Without a federal solution, I don’t think there can ever be peace and stability. The ethnic minorities simply don’t trust them,” he said.
Yet, flash forward 16 months. KNU and government representatives sat together at a table last week in Pa-an, capital of the Karen state. They shook hands and agreed on terms and conditions for peace.
The next day, Burma released 651 prisoners, in what is being called the largest single release of political prisoners in Asia’s history.
More from GlobalPost: Is China threatened by a more open Burma?
The United States responded by renewing diplomatic relations with the country and declaring the intention to reinstall an ambassador.
The US and the European Union stopped short of lifting sanctions, but it seems increasingly likely that the economy will open soon. Most of the reforms that have taken place — including an end to war against ethnic minority groups and a release of political prisoners — were all stated as preconditions to the lifting of US and EU sanctions.
Tharckabaw, KNU vice president, agreed to a telephone interview over the weekend to discuss the events that precipitated the once unthinkable cease-fire as well as how trustworthy he thinks the regime is when it comes to promises of progress.
How did change come about?
“We felt that there are positive changes taking place that leave room for cautious optimism. Although it’s more caution than optimism,” said Tharckabaw.
“The international community is dangling bigger carrots than ever before to push Thein Sein’s government to reform,” he added.
Among the other recent reforms: Burma’s government has lessened restrictions on freedom of association, legalized the right to peaceful demonstration and said it would allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in the upcoming by-elections.
“When Suu Kyi decided to participate within the framework set by the current regime, it showed that she feels there is a decent probability for change. That gave us a lot of confidence that maybe this time the government’s intentions are real,” said Tharckabaw.
The government offered peace talks with all ethnic minority groups, including the Karen, in a statement on Aug. 18 of last year. After lengthy consultations with Karen followers overseas and inside Burma, and an intense two-day deliberation the KNU leadership decided upon an 11-point demand of terms of conditions for the cease-fire.
“Our critical demands were that the government agree to stop all military offensives in the Karen territories, release all political prisoners, and allow the Karen people to move about freely and without hindrance within the Karen state,” said Tharckabaw.
Tharckabaw said that the KNU will issue a statement soon with the full list of terms and conditions agreed upon at the cease-fire.
More cautious than optimistic
The cease-fire with the KNU is being touted by the government and many in the international media as a major breakthrough, but many Karen in exile are still wary about buying in to the hype.
“The cease-fire was only the first step. I’m nervous about getting through the next stages because both parties have had such a bad history,” says Tha Wah, a 26-year old Karen refugee who left his parents in Burma and crossed the border into Thailand’s Mae La refugee camp as a young teenager.
Tharckabaw says that until the cease-fire proves to be valid and durable, the KNLA will not relinquish arms nor will the KNU begin telling the thousands of Karen refugees in exile that it is safe to return.
“This is not a surrender, nor is it peace. They’ve agreed to our principles so we’ll continue to talk to them. Talking is good, it’s better than fighting. But if we come under attack, believe me, we will fight back,” said Tharckabaw.
Twenty-six of the 30 ministers appointed to Burma’s executive cabinet are former military officers, and many feel that it’s still unclear what the true intentions are of those in the capital Napyidaw, or even who is really in control.
The army has launched a major offensive in the northern Kachin state, where fighting since June has displaced tens of thousands of people, despite President Thein Sein’s call for a halt to all military action on Dec. 10, 2011.
“We believe Thein Sein when he calls for peace. But it seems like there are divisions on that side between the political leadership and the army because the army isn’t listening to him,” said Tharckabaw.
“They could very well do the same to us. We need to continue to see positive developments in the political dialogue over the next five to six months before a peaceful solution will begin to truly look viable.”
For the Karen, despite all the progress the last 16 months have seen, the next 16 months may prove to be the most critical of all.
By Gwen Robinson | Financial Times, Published: January 16
KAWHMU, Burma — In the cluttered bookshops of the city of Rangoon, biographies of Aung San Suu Kyi sit alongside books on Barack Obama and David Beckham. Outside, stalls lining the dilapidated pavement sell calendars showing the de facto opposition leader and her late father, independence hero Aung San.
As Burma proceeds with political and economic reforms, the “ASSK cult,” as some have dubbed it, becomes more visible by the day. When one young man offering rides into town for $10 from Rangoon airport learns that his passenger’s destination is Suu Kyi’s home, he grins: “Ah then, $6, okay.”
Just 14 months ago, the driver — whose discount equals three days’ wages at a local garment sweatshop — would have been afraid to say her name out loud, let alone drive to her house.
In recent months, a stream of prominent visitors — including Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, and George Soros, the billionaire investor — has flowed to No. 54 University Avenue for a “photo op” with Suu Kyi. Since she recently announced her first run for political office, however, many would-be visitors have been politely turned away.
“It’s probably easier to get in to see Madonna,” says one diplomat.
In the eyes of many supporters, a place in Burma’s 440-seat lower house of parliament will be the vital springboard for Suu Kyi to eventually lead the country. If, as expected, she wins a seat in April, she will gain a platform to influence legislators in a parliament that has demonstrated reformist credentials.
“President Thein Sein and his government have clearly decided they’d rather have her inside their tent than out,” says one Western diplomat.
Since August, the nominally civilian government of Thein Sein, a former general, has rapidly rolled out reforms. It has abolished media censorship, revamped labor laws and held talks with ethnic rebel groups, securing a landmark cease-fire with the Karen National Union last week.
But the move that has attracted the most international attention — prompting the United States to normalize diplomatic ties — was the release Friday of hundreds of political prisoners.
“For the first time in decades, people believe change is on the way,” says Susanne Kempel, a consultant to international organizations who operates in Burma, also known as Myanmar. “Of course, there are fears it could all be taken away again, but there’s a sense that, this time, change is real.”
Not everyone believes Burma’s new rush for democratization is irreversible. Although some newly freed detainees are considering entering politics, others remain wary.
“They still have characteristics of the dictatorship. What kind of a democracy is this?” asks Ashin Gambira, an activist monk released from jail Friday, pointing out that some political detainees remain imprisoned and that charges are yet to be lifted on those freed.
Others, including Khin Zaw Win, a political activist who was previously detained for 11 years, are more optimistic. “If I talked like this before, I would have to look over my shoulder,” he says. “There are still hard-liners in government, but I feel a tipping point has been reached.”
In Kawhmu, a group of poor villages about 30 miles south of Rangoon where Suu Kyi will stand for election, that “tipping point” is still distant. Until recently, locals had little hope for their district, among the areas worst hit by Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000 people in 2008.
In Burma, there are many areas like Kawhmu. Meanwhile, grand villas in Rangoon can now sell for up to $10 million. With abundant natural resources controlled for decades by the military, wealth has been confined to an elite minority.
However, recent economic reforms, including cuts in income and trade taxes and foreign-exchange liberalization, are spurring a growing middle-class — although average daily wages are between 3,000 and 4,000 kyat ($3.50 and $4.60).
Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University, says changes will trickle down but warns it will take time. Some economists estimate growth could reach 5.5 percent, after hitting 3.2 percent last year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Nationally, the challenges of tackling rural — as well as urban — poverty become more daunting by the day. Although Suu Kyi had only visited Kawhmu three times before announcing her intention to run, many locals hoping to rebuild their lives after Nargis already see her as their “savior.”
“The main thing she has already brought to the district is hope — and that is vital,” says U Thein Htum, a local spokesman for the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party.
Over sweet tea at the party’s bamboo-hut local headquarters, 20 or so NLD organizers — mostly men clad in traditional “longyi” sarongs — discuss the poll. “How can we trust this government? Nothing will change,” says one man angrily.
His colleagues mostly disagree. Shwe Than, an NLD member from Rangoon, later explains: “All the people trust her. Perhaps some expect too much, but we know she will make a difference, because she will give them a voice in parliament?.?.?.?and one day she will get full power.”
At this point, people think of Suu Kyi as a demi-god, says Khin Maung Swe, a founder of the National Democratic Force, the largest opposition party after the NLD. “But once she’s in parliament, and maybe even in cabinet, it may be good for the country.”
But, he cautions, “this is not a one-woman democracy. There are many voices.”
January 17, 2012, 4:18 AM EST
By Daniel Ten Kate
Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) — Myanmar’s government began releasing hundreds of political prisoners after signing a cease-fire with the country’s largest armed rebel group, two conditions set by Western nations for lifting sanctions.
Prisoners including pro-democracy activists, ethnic minority leaders and an ex-prime minister who fell out of favor with the former ruling junta were set free today, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, an Internet news service run by exiles. They are among 651 prisoners included in a presidential pardon, the Associated Press reported.
“This could be the big prisoner release that everyone has been waiting for,” Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official who has written two books on Myanmar, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a number greater than the National League for Democracy’s number of prisoners of conscience,” he said, referring to top dissident Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
Freeing political prisoners has been a primary demand of U.S. and European policy makers who impose sanctions on Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest countries whose 62 million citizens earn an average of $2.20 per day. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Myanmar President Thein Sein during a visit in December to free prisoners and improve ties with ethnic groups as a condition for easing restrictions.
The prisoners released today included Min Ko Naing, a student leader from a 1988 uprising, and Khun Tun Oo, a Shan ethnic leader, the AP reported. Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was also freed after more than seven years under house arrest, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
“Years of international calls to release long-detained political prisoners seem to have pushed the government to finally do the right thing,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The next step for Burma’s government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.”
The number of jailed dissidents in Myanmar is disputed. Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years in confinement before her release in 2010, called for the government to free 525 political prisoners on Nov. 16. The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said Dec. 23 that more than 1,500 dissidents remained locked up.
The prisoner release follows an agreement signed yesterday with the Karen National Union in a bid to end more than 60 years of fighting in one of the world’s oldest conflicts.
“This is good news for the people of Burma,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who traveled to Myanmar for talks last week, said in an e-mailed statement, referring to the country by its former name. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland yesterday called the cease-fire “a good step.”
“This is an incredibly significant moment,” Jim Della- Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, said by telephone from Jakarta. “It could be a tipping point and lead other major armed groups that have not yet signed cease-fires with the government to do so.”
Hague offered last week to lift sanctions on Myanmar in return for “bold steps” toward increased freedom and democracy, echoing Clinton’s statement from last month.
European Union sanctions on Myanmar include asset freezes on state-owned companies as well as travel restrictions on officials. U.S. measures ban imports, restrict money transfers, curb aid funding and target jewelry with gemstones originating in Myanmar.
Return to Myanmar
Chevron Corp., based in San Ramon, California, is one of the few U.S. companies operating in Myanmar through its 2005 purchase of Unocal Corp., which invested in a gas field and pipeline prior to a 1997 ban on new investment. Standard Chartered Plc, the U.K. bank that earns more than two-thirds of its profit in Asia, said this month it’s seeking to return to Myanmar once the U.S. and Europe lift sanctions.
China National Petroleum Corp. is building oil and gas pipelines across Myanmar, a move that would allow it to access Middle Eastern crude without having to go through the Malacca Straits. China, Hong Kong and Thailand account for more than 70 percent of total investment into Myanmar, compared with less than 1 percent for the U.S., according to government data.
China’s Yunnan province has an economy twice the size of Myanmar. China and India, which account for more than a third of the world population, share more than 3,600 kilometers (2,237 miles) of border with Myanmar.
The KNU was among five ethnic groups that met with Myanmar government representative Aung Min two months ago for initial peace talks. The group, founded in 1947, claims about a tenth of Myanmar’s 62 million people. It is seeking to retain the ability to carry weapons in a federal system that maintains self- determination for the Karen, according to its website.
The KNU sent a 19-member delegation to the talks, according to a statement released two days ago before the meeting. The conflict has driven more than 140,000 people to seek asylum in neighboring Thailand, which hosts them in camps along the border, according to the United Nations.
Myanmar’s army is still fighting with ethnic groups including the Kachin Independence Army, a conflict that has displaced 50,000 ethnic Kachin since last June, Human Rights Watch said on Dec. 21. Kachin, bordering China and India, is the northernmost of Myanmar’s 14 provinces.
Abdullah Mamun, The Daily Star
Publication Date : 17-01-2012 Bangladesh plans to connect with the world’s longest undersea cable through Burma to strengthen its back-up for internet operation, officials said.
To connect with the SEA-ME-WE 3 (South-East Asia – Middle East-Western Europe), Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Ltd (BSCCL) will build about 50-kilometre fibre optic link from Cox’s Bazar up to the Burma border.
State-run BSCCL has started working with Burma authorities to get the connectivity, said Sunil Kanti Bose, the telecom secretary.
“We are exploring the possibility of getting connectivity with Burma through microwave or terrestrial cable link. Recently a group of experts from Burma came to Bangladesh to this effect,” he said.
Bangladesh has no direct scope to be connected with the SEA-ME-WE 3. But Bose said it is however possible to connect to the cable via Burma. It is Burma’s only one under sea connectivity.
Recently the government has approved BSCCL to be a consortium member of another new under sea cable system SEA-ME-WE 5, said the secretary.
The new connection will be used as a back-up of Bangladesh’s lone under sea cable SEA-ME-WE 4. It will also be used as a core bandwidth supplier.
BSCCL Managing Director Monwar Hossain said Bangladesh will build part of the cable on its own border side while the other part will be built by Myanmar.
BSCCL is the consortium member of the country’s lone submarine cable SEA-ME-WE 4.
The company will have to spend $2.75 million to complete the project, said a BSCCL official. The project would take 12 months to complete, he said.
Thirty-three countries are connected with SEA-ME-WE 3, a 39,000-kilometre cable.
Bangladesh was proposed to join the consortium but the then government chose not to connect with the cable fearing information leaks out of the country.
By Hannah Beech | January 16, 2012 |
Burmese political prisoners Kyaw Min Yu, center, also known as Ko Jimmy, and his wife Nilar Thein, left, holding their child, celebrate upon their arrival at the Rangoon airport following their release from detention on Jan. 13, 2012
The reaction was swift. On Jan. 13 (an auspicious Friday the 13th, it turned out), Burma released 651 prisoners, among them hundreds of democracy activists, ethnic leaders, senior monks and even a former Prime Minister who had fallen out with the country’s ex-military junta chief. Hours later, the U.S. announced that it was normalizing relations with Burma and would soon name an ambassador to the Southeast Asian country after an absence of two decades.
Diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Burma, known officially as Myanmar, had languished in a purgatory since the former army regime ignored the 1990 elections won overwhelmingly by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Since that time, the military junta had jailed those who dared to question its authority, terrorized ethnic minorities in the country’s vast borderlands and presided over a resource-rich country with one of the world’s smallest budgets for health and education spending.
But several rounds of political-prisoner amnesties and a series of political and economic reforms have completely changed the dynamic in Burma. When a military that had ruled the country since a 1962 coup announced it would be transitioning to a quasi-civilian government after elections in 2010, the world scoffed. The polls were neither free nor fair, and many of the country’s top leadership positions were reserved for members of the military. Nevertheless, Burma is blossoming. Opposition leader Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in late 2010 and will be running for a seat in parliament in by-elections this April. Cease-fires have been signed with several ethnic rebel groups, most notably last week with the Karens who had been fighting the central Burmese authority for more than six decades. Politics, once a word whispered in secret for fear of imprisonment, are now discussed in the open.
That’s not to say that serious problems, ranging from ethnic clashes in the northern hills and a largely unaccountable military to desperate poverty and a widening income gap, don’t remain. But it was in recognition of the recent changes that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Burma late last year, the first such high-level visit by an American in more than half a century. With the mass political-prisoner release on Friday, the bigger reward — normalized relations — was duly granted.
The remaining thorn in U.S.-Burma ties is by far the biggest: the U.S. (along with other Western nations, Japan and Australia) has maintained widespread trade and aid sanctions on Burma, along with financial and travel restrictions on members of the Burmese regime and their families. While considered morally right by many Americans, the sanctions have lost their teeth in recent years as Burma’s neighboring countries have poured investment into natural-resource sectors, snapping up dams, minerals and natural gas.
Even if the sanctions have been compromised by a tide of Asian investment, the generals that ruled (and still, to a degree, continue to rule) Burma could not have enjoyed their status as international outcasts. For one, it presumably became a bit embarrassing for Burmese military progeny not to be able to jaunt off to the West for shopping sprees, like they do in Singapore or Bangkok. Perhaps a craving for respectability has spurred the changes currently unfolding in Burma. The calculus from the bunkered new Burmese capital, Naypyidaw, appears clear: we reform, you lift sanctions.
When I was in Burma during Clinton’s visit late last year, nearly everyone I spoke to, from opposition activists to senior diplomats, seemed to believe that it was simply a matter of when sanctions would be lifted, not whether they would be. What everyone seemed to be waiting for were the political-prisoner amnesties.
Yet the outside community began to act even before the latest emptying of jails. Earlier this month, Australia announced that it would begin relaxing some financial and travel sanctions on government tourism representatives and former members of the regime. Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd just wrapped up a trip to Burma, as did Britain’s William Hague. Their French counterpart Alain Juppé is visiting now, as is Mitch McConnell, the influential U.S. Senator who has shepherded Burma-sanctions legislation through U.S. Congress. The red carpet, so long reserved in Burma for leaders of other minor dictatorships, is finally getting good use.
Meanwhile, the worriers worry. They note, accurately, that Burma has gone through many a round of dissidents being freed only to be jailed again. Friday’s historic releases came by way of suspended sentences (as opposed to full pardons), which give the government a legal way to lock people up again to finish their full jail terms should they prove too outspoken.
There is also the issue of unity in the cabinet of President Thein Sein, who retired from the military to take up his new position and who has surprised the international community with his willingness to helm reform after reform. When political prisoners locked up at Burma’s notorious Insein jail in commercial capital Rangoon were freed on Friday, crowds gathered to chant “Long live Thein Sein,” according to veteran exile journalist and former activist Aung Zaw. But not everyone in Naypyidaw is as inclined to open up as Thein Sein. Suu Kyi herself warned recently that the reforms are not irreversible.
And practically speaking, the lifting of any American sanctions — the reward that Thein Sein and his supporters seem to so desperately crave — will not happen immediately, even if high-level American officials were to endorse such a move. Such decisions will have to make their way through U.S. Congress. Still, in a sign of just how much things have changed, another American delegation is slated to visit Burma, possibly next month. Who’s going? U.S. businessmen.
Francis Wade | January 13, 2012 Burma’s befuddling rulers have launched another surprise attack on our (somewhat waning) ability to rationalize what is happening in Naypyidaw, the nation’s capital. Four months after the shock suspension of the China-backed Myitsone Dam in the country’s north, the government’s environment minister on Monday announced that a massive, Thai-financed power plant in the south of the country has also been scrapped.
The move prompts two immediate questions: First, what has become of the 60-year lease awarded to construction company Italian-Thai Development to develop the Dawei industrial zone (surely it has been spectacularly breached)? Second, with the cancelation of the 4,000 megawatt plant, whose output would have gone toward powering the vast array of factories and petrochemical plants the 250 square-kilometer site will house, can the project possibly continue?
Like the Myitsone decision, the government has cited public opposition as the key trigger for the Dawei cancellation. Also like Myitsone, its newfound fans have been quick to link the scrapping of the plant to the reformist nature of Thein Sein and his cabinet. But while it may have been China’s increasing economic influence in Burma, rather than disquiet among Burmese, that prompted the country’s nationalistic rulers to (temporarily) jump ship on Myitsone, the Dawei decision is slightly more puzzling — the government doesn’t stand to benefit, economically or ideologically, unless it has really developed a conscience and translated that into policy.
What is being left out of the initial reactions, however, is the fact that a coal-fired plant will in all probability still be built, only its size will be dramatically reduced. The industrial site, which upon completion is set to be Southeast Asia’s largest, and which will forever reshape Burma’s Andaman Sea coastline, can survive on only 400 MW — the surplus 3,600 MW was due to be sold off to Thailand, which has provided the bulk of the $8 billion start-up costs for the project (which is expected to eventually reach $50 billion).
Pressure had been building on the Burmese government from a range of players angry at the health impacts synonymous with a project of this size — locals around Dawei, a sleepy fishing town, have vehemently rejected the venture, which it is estimated could displace up to 30,000 people (Ital-Thai put the figure at 10,000 last year). Moreover, the Karen National Liberation Army has actively resisted the construction of a road that will link Dawei to Bangkok (which will in turn feed other regional economies), and demanded recently that Ital-Thai carry out an environmental impact assessment before going any further with it.
The Karen army denies that the Dawei decision is linked to attempts to broker a cease-fire deal with the government: Its spokesperson, David Htaw, told me that while it had pushed for a survey of the road, the coal plant was not mentioned in discussions with government officials.
So where does that leave us? In something of a quagmire of contradictions and bemusement, to be frank. Any paean to public opinion in Burma by the government must be contrasted with its army’s ongoing, vicious attacks against civilians in the border regions, and the decision to allow only 32 political prisoners free earlier this month (despite the mother of all diplomats, Hillary Clinton, calling for giant steps in that department).
It may be that the combination of public animosity and the potential for military attacks on the Dawei project from the KNLA proved too portentous, as indeed was the case with Myitsone, which lay unnervingly close to Kachin rebel territory; even that the discrepancy between the amount of power needed for construction of the industrial complex, and the final figure of 4,000 MW, was always going to be something of a numerical buffer zone for the government, within which it could maneuver dazzlingly, but not lose out on the prized asset that is the industrial zone — perhaps the key indicator of its rising strategic status in the region.
This doesn’t factor in the likely fallout that will come as Ital-Thai, and indeed energy-hungry Thailand, formulate some sort of response to the cancelation, which will have also stretched Burma’s own Special Economic Zone laws to the fullest. For that we’ll just have to wait, but as the Burmese government showed after Myitsone, if it can quickly mend bridges with the aggressive powerhouse to the north, not to mention its adeptness at convincing the West that it is heading in the right direction, then its powers of appeasement are perhaps greater than it is given credit for.
Francis Wade is a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in northern Thailand.
By Luke Hunt January 17, 2012 It all sounds a little too fanciful. The idea of Burma as a regional role model for the treatment and release of political prisoners requires just too much of a leap in faith in the reforms that have swept that country, even after the release and pardon of more than 600 remaining dissidents.
But the government of Thein Sein could be setting a trend and perhaps unwittingly promoting regional dialogue. As Burma again grabbed the international spotlight with its latest releases and self-described reconciliation policies, Laos and Vietnam also announced they had freed dissidents.
The numbers were much smaller. Vientiane set seven Christians free, while Hanoi said it had released French-Vietnamese Pham Minh Hoang, who will still remain under house arrest for three years for trying to overthrow the government. He wrote 33 articles criticizing his country.
Their release also came as Cambodia injected some life into the perennial debate by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on whether it should institute a charter to protect human rights, hardly the type of document Burma would have signed up to three months ago.
The ASEAN Secretariat has promised but done little to deliver on the charter, while the 10 states that make-up the bloc notched-up a dismal track record on human rights, prompting Amnesty International to declare ASEAN had failed to share a “single piece of substantive information” on the process.
This was despite almost two decades of “considerations,” and there had been no official response to submissions made by a coalition of groups working on the declaration. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay added, “this is potentially a very important document which may set the tone for years to come.”
Cambodia has just assumed the annual rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, and according to Om Yintieng, Chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, a draft of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration will be agreed upon this year in order to build an ASEAN based on “one community and one destiny.”
His comment was as surprising as Burma’s reforms and the release of dissidents elsewhere. An agreement would lead to a declaration of principles, a commission to monitor and promote those rights and hear complains, and a court to render binding decisions.
There have been some suggestions that Burma’s rapprochement with the West has inspired an improved attitude to human rights across the region. Such arguments are the stuff of fairytales and don’t belong in the corridors of real power inside ASEAN.
However, Burma’s reforms should provide hope for optimists, like Om Yintieng, seeking regional consensus and momentum on issues like the ASEAN charter for human rights.
If that’s achieved, then ASEAN may well develop a real moral compass and turn out to be something more than a simple trading bloc of 500 million people.
09:48, January 17, 2012 BEIJING, Jan. 16 (Xinhua) — China said on Monday it is “glad” to see more contact between Myanmar and Western countries including the United States.
“We are glad to see the United States and other Western countries increasing contact; resuming and developing relations with Myanmar,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Weimin in response to a question on the relationship between the United States and Myanmar.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her country will exchange ambassadors with Myanmar in recognition of the reform pursued by the Southeast Asian nation.
Asia Times Online – The limits of reform in Myanmar
By Bertil Lintner
BANGKOK – The release of more than 200 political prisoners and a tentative ceasefire with the rebel Karen National Union represent the latest of steps taken by Myanmar president Thein Sein’s government to improve its international image and assuage its many critics at home and abroad.
The cosmetic change in the traditionally military-run country is unmistakable. In recent months, it has become easier for ordinary citizens to access the Internet and local magazines and journals are able to publish articles on topics that would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Pictures of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, are now for sale in markets not only in the former capital Yangon but also in small upcountry towns.
The United States government, for more than two decades the fiercest critic of successive military-dominated regimes in Myanmar, promised enhanced engagement in exchange for “further reforms” immediately after Friday’s prison release. As a first step, the US is going to send an ambassador to its embassy in Yangon, which has been headed by a charge d’affaires since Washington decided to downgrade relations with Myanmar in 1990 in response to a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Many Myanmar citizens undoubtedly welcome the easing of the extreme authoritarian pressure they have lived under as long as they can remember. But critics maintain the loosening is not tantamount to a “reform process”, which would require changes in the country’s fundamental power structure, and that the US may have other diplomatic objectives in mind over concerns for human rights and democracy.
Meanwhile, some Myanmar dissidents are beginning to ask, albeit in hushed tones, the hitherto unthinkable: is Suu Kyi being used by the Thein Sein’s military-backed, civilianized government as a pawn in its efforts to break the country’s long isolation from the West? And, has she come under pressure from the US and possibly other Western powers with a stake in Myanmar’s future geopolitical role to strike a deal with her former military adversaries?
Less than a year ago, Suu Kyi was known to have said to visiting foreign diplomats that she was apprehensive about talking to the new government that assumed office after a blatantly rigged November 2010 election. At the time, she reportedly said that the main problem was the new constitution, which was adopted after an equally fraudulent referendum in May 2008 and guarantees the military 25% of the seats in parliament.
For instance, the charter’s Chapter 12 lays out the complicated rules for constitutional amendments, which effectively give the military veto power over any proposed changes. The upper house currently consists of 168 elected representatives with a quarter, or 56 delegates, directly representing the defense services; the lower house is made up of 330 elected MPs and 110 appointed to represent the military. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), meanwhile, is widely viewed as a vehicle for the military’s political interests.
Minor constitutional changes may be considered by the bicameral parliament if 20% of MPs submit a bill. However, a tangle of 104 clauses mean that major charter changes can not be made without the prior approval of more than 75% of all MPs, after which a nationwide referendum must be held where more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots.
This complicated procedure, coupled with Myanmar’s record of holding bogus referendums – the first in 1973 for the 1974 constitution was as lacking in credibility as the one held in 2008 – make is virtually impossible to change those clauses, which in various ways and means legally safeguard the military’s now indirect hold on power.
For instance, one of the first sections of the constitution guarantees the military’s “national political leadership role of the State” and, in case of an “emergency”, the “Commander-in-Chief of the Defense Services has the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power” after consulting the president. “No legal action” can be taken against the military for what it does while exercising such emergency powers, according to the constitution.
Another clause bars anyone whose parents, spouse or children who “owe allegiance to a foreign power” from becoming president. Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, was a British citizen, as are their two sons. The military’s right to appoint a quarter of all seats in what is otherwise an elected parliament is also guaranteed, as is military control of one-third of all seats in local assemblies.
In 2008, Myanmar’s generals got the constitution they wanted and through rigged elections now controls a solid majority of all seats in the parliament. Consequently, they can now afford to make some minor political concessions in response to international pressure. Allowing MPs from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to take part in a by-election on April 1 for 40 seats in the lower house and six in the upper chamber left vacant by the appointment of ministers, will not affect Myanmar’s fundamental power structure with the military at its apex.
The semblance of reform, however, has improved Myanmar’s standing in the international community, as are other steps expected to be taken by Thein Sein’s government, including new laws allowing for limited public protests and the creation of labor unions.
Since the constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming president, some observers speculate that if she wins a seat in parliament she will be appointed minister of health or education, two positions which she would consider important but will not give her substantial political power and certainly no influence over the military.
“She would be an excellent choice for a person to be sent abroad to solicit aid for health and education programs and to attend international AIDS conferences and the like,” says a veteran Myanmar politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Few would doubt that Suu Kyi remains Myanmar’s most popular politician – and for many the country’s main hope for a better future. But for the first time critical voices of her role are also being heard. In an unusually candid interview with The Australian on January 6, Win Tin, one of the original founders of the NLD in 1988 who was imprisoned for 19 years for his beliefs, said that the “reforms” taking place in Myanmar “are a ploy by the country’s dictatorship to seduce foreign governments and neutralize Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Other dissidents – former political prisoners and leaders of local civil society groups – complain that Suu Kyi meets readily with one foreign visitor after another but has no time to see them. “One comment I hear frequently is, ‘what was the NLD fighting for if Daw Suu [Aung San Suu Kyi] will run for the by-elections and by that accepting the 2008 constitution’?” lamented one non-governmental organization worker in Yangon.
Ongoing fighting between ethnic rebels and government forces are another point of division. “In particular the Kachin are disillusioned that there is no compassionate speech or letter [from Suu Kyi] to their community, although some of the Catholic Bishops have explicitly asked Daw Suu to send such a message,” said one civil society activist. Since June last year, heavy fighting has been raging between government troops and the rebel Kachin Independence Army in the country’s far north.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting to the Chinese border, or taken refuge in churches and community halls in towns in the predominantly Christian state of the Union. Farmers have been forced to abandon their crops and most refugees are living as destitutes in border areas under constant threat of being pushed back by unsympathetic Chinese authorities.
Some critics argue that Suu Kyi has grown old and tired – she will turn 67 this year – and the present, slight opening, however flawed, may be her last chance to achieve her vision of a more democratic Myanmar. But it is equally plausible that Myanmar’s close relationship with China, and, more menacingly, its military partnership with North Korea, have prompted Western powers to push her into accepting some kind of accommodation with Thein Sein’s government. Without her engagement with the new regime, it would be hard for the US and European Union to justify a dramatic change in policy towards Myanmar.
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Thein Sein during her historic visit to Myanmar last December – the first by such a high-ranking US official in half a century – China was tellingly high on her diplomatic agenda. The first agenda item raised by Thein Sein during the meeting was the importance of Myanmar’s relationship with China, which Clinton apparently did not object to. However, she emphasized that relations with the US would “if reforms maintain momentum” – thus leaving the door open for Myanmar to diversify its foreign relations.
After Washington decided in mid-January to establish full diplomatic ties with Myanmar, Clinton said the US “will further embrace” Myanmar if “the government releases all remaining political prisoners, ends violence against minorities and cuts military ties with North Korea”. After her December visit, she said that the US would agree to and support assessment missions to Myanmar by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a first step toward renewed multilateral lending for badly needed infrastructure.
Myanmar’s staunchly nationalistic military may be willing to lessen its dependence on China, and even cut its ties with North Korea, provided the US and its allies can offer something substantial in return, including an eventual removal of economic sanctions. However, if one reads the 2008 constitution carefully, Myanmar will not become a genuine democracy any time soon, but rather a thinly disguised authoritarian state that the US and the West can cynically live with to counterbalance China’s influence.
That is not what many pro-democracy activists, both at home and in exile, have been fighting for since the bloody, nationwide uprising against military-dominated rule in 1988, when thousands of protesters were mowed down by the military, and when they overwhelmingly voted for the NLD in the 1990 election, a democratic result that the military refused to honor. In the case of any future “emergency”, the limited new freedoms that Myanmar’s people are now enjoying can also be curtailed, perhaps next time by constitutional means rather than the barrel of a gun.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (Published in 2011). He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.
Sasithorn Ongdee January 17, 2012 1:00 am
Hydrotek, an engineering firm, is taking steps to enter the waste-treatment and water-management business in Burma after the government there adopted a policy to open the country.
“We have more confidence to invest in Burma after [US] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Burmese leaders last month. This is a good sign,” chief executive officer Slib Soongswang said yesterday.
The move is part of the company’s expansion strategy in Asean that is initially focused on Burma and Laos, after it succeeded in mobilising funds from the public and listed on Market for Alternative Investment late last year.
Burma is interesting because it is similar to Thailand 30 years ago, in that it has a lot of manufacturers but lacks a wastewater-treatment system. A country with a growing industrial sector also normally lacks tap-water supplies. The Burmese government is planning to issue a regulation on restricting wastewater from manufacturers in a few months.
During his visit to Burma last week, Slib met with the head of the Rangoon City Development Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. He said after the meeting that the company would invest in water supplies for manufacturers in industrial estates besides wastewater-treatment systems. However, the policy on environmental regulation is still uncertain.
Water supply in Burma is 511,000 cubic metres a day, which reaches 60 per cent of the total population of 60 million people. Wastewater treatment runs at 12,360 cubic metres a day. About 80-90 per cent of manufacturers in Burma have not installed a wastewater-treatment system.
Hydrotek has hired a Burmese consultant to conduct market research on the water- and wastewater-treatment businesses in that country. The survey is expected to be completed in two weeks.
“The company will start entering the overseas market, focusing on Burma, then Laos and Oman,” he said.
The company will initially establish a joint venture of Thai firms and local partners.
It has recently opened a representative office in Rangoon.
In Burma, the joint venture will consist of three main parties – Thai partners with more than 20 years of experience in doing business in Burma, local partners and Hydrotek.
The investments in Burma and Laos are expected to realise income within 18 months after a contract is signed.
The Thai water-management market is expected to grow 15 per cent annually. Currently, the market is worth about Bt5 billion. Hydrotek, after raising funds, can now handle projects on the scale of Bt3 billion to Bt4 billion each.
The company aims to expand its backlog this year to Bt1.4 billion from Bt1.1 billion now. About 80 per cent of its backlog is expected to be realised as revenue this year. The company also expects to win more projects worth Bt1.5 billion.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 16:03 Kyaw Kha
Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – More than 150 child soldier and child labour cases have been documented in Yephyu Township, Taninthayi Region, in southern Burma, according to the Human Rights Foundation of Monland.
From May to October 2011, a total of 179 child abuse cases were found in Ye and Yephyu townships, of which 114 were child labour cases and 52 were child soldier cases, according to a survey. The area is near the Dawei deep-sea port special economic zone.
A report, “Coercion, Cruelty and Collateral Damage,” was released in Mae Sot, on the Burmese-Thai border, on January 13, which will be submitted to the U.N.
“Some children have to guard the gas pipeline, some were recruited to government troops, and some are working on road building projects as either wage workers or as substitutes for their parents,” said Thuta Zin of the Women and Child Rights Project, one of the compilers of the report.
The report also documents children killed and maimed by landmines and victims of sexual abuse. Both Burmese government troops, Karen National Union (KNU) and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) troops operate in the area.
Foundation director Nai Kasaw Mon said the government should emphasize the eradication of child soldiers and child labour in the territories concerned during cease-fire talks.
“After completing the cease-fire talks, it should work for the elimination of child soldiers and forced labor among children and then they should emphasize help for these children who are behind in education and health due to these conflicts,” Nai Kasaw Mon told Mizzima.
If a genuine cease-fire and peace cannot be built between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups, the child soldier issue, child labour and other human rights violations will continue to occur, Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) Director Aung Myo Min said.
Foundation director Nai Kasaw Mon said that their study on six points of child rights outlined in UN Security Council resolution 1612. Burma signed the UN Child Rights Convention in 1991, but the convention is still being violated by both government troops and ethnic armed forces, Nai Kasaw Mon said.
HURFOM will send its report to the Burmese government departments concerned, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), domestic human rights organizations and elected MPs from the constituencies concerned.
By BA KAUNG Tuesday, January 17, 2012 “Good intentions alone are not sufficient. We must give priority to those with capacities,” said Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a speech on Tuesday. The Nobel Laureate went on to outline specific benchmarks for prospective National League for Democracy (NLD) candidates wanting to contest the April by-elections.
The 66-year-old, who officially became NLD chairperson in a recent reshuffle, said that the party will choose 48 candidates among its members, with priority given to youth, ethnic minorities and women.
But she said that although prospective candidates should be chosen on their commitment to the cause of democracy and public respectability, they must all also be capable of serving the people, be well educated and have a good level of working experience.
Making a public speech in Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, Suu Kyi singled out Phyu Phyu Thin—a female NLD leader who has become a leading AIDS activist over the past decade.
“As you all know, Phyu Phyu not only possesses a desire to serve the people but also a proven capacity to do so,” said Suu Kyi, turning to her middle-aged follower in front of a cheering crowd.
“I may not guarantee that all our candidates have such qualities. But I can guarantee that about Phyu Phyu,” she added.
Although the NLD boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2010, it decided to contest the coming by-elections in response to recent democratic overtures by the new quasi-civilian government.
There are 48 seats up for grabs in the poll with 46 in the Lower and Upper Houses of the National Parliament and two more in the regional assemblies. The Parliament is dominated by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party led by former army generals, which is why some analysts believe there is little chance of the NLD having any substantive influence.
But in response to such criticisms, Suu Kyi said, “even a single person can move a nation if one desires to serve their country.” The remark prompted roaring applause from the crowd.
Suu Kyi recently said that Burma, which has long been oppressed under decades of military dictatorship, is on the verge of a democratic breakthrough. Echoing her voice, a top Burmese government official told Agence France-Presse on Monday that Burma has “no other way” but to embrace democracy.
“We are a former military country transforming into a democratic state, which is not easy,” said Thura Shwe Mann, chair of the Lower House of Parliament and a former top army general.
In exchange for its positive changes, the Burmese government is expecting to normalize long-strained relationships with Western nations. This includes the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Burma for more than two decades in response to its poor human rights record.
By PATRICK BOEHLER Tuesday, January 17, 2012
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé concluded his visit to Burma on Monday saying that France would triple its development assistance to Burma and work toward a step-by-step lifting of international sanctions.
Juppé’s visit was the first ever by a French foreign minister to Burma and a first ministerial visit since 1988.
He made his comments on a round-up conversation with the French press delegation that followed him on his trip which took him first to Japan then to Burma.
He announced that France will triple its development assistance to Burma, and will also consider allowing the French Development Agency to become active in Burma in the fields of education, health and agriculture.
Development aid to Burma will amount to roughly 3 million euros per year, according to the French newspaper Le Figaro.
France will “work with our partners in the European Union and our American friends towards a step-by-step lifting of sanctions,” Juppé told the French journalists, leading to a revision of the EU’s common position with regards to Burma at the end of April.
“One could doubtlessly look at removing the visa ban,” he elaborated. “One has to look at what can be done in terms of unfreezing certain assets, selectively of course.”
The imposition of the Generalized System of Preferences, reducing the level of tariffs on Burmese goods to most favored nation levels, “does not seem to be a problem,” Juppé said.
Juppé met with Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday in Rangoon conveying to her the distinction of commander of the French Légion d’Honneur, one of France’s highest honors.
Presenting the award to Suu Kyi, the minister said “his heart was beating faster than normal.”
Their talks were preceded by a telephone conversation between Suu Kyi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Jan. 13.
Juppé also met with various other dissident politicians in Rangoon, most prominently with Min Ko Naing, a student leader in the 1988 demonstrations, who had been freed three days earlier in a government amnesty.
He then went on to Naypyidaw to hold talks with President Thein Sein, his counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin and the speakers of both Houses of Parliament.
The meetings “have convinced me that there was a total convergence of views among the various authorities to go forward on the road to democratization and liberalization of the regime,” Juppé told the press delegation.
Juppé refused to speculate on the possibility of a military coup when questioned by one of the journalists. “Every democratization process, especially after such a long period of authoritarian rule, can face some difficulties,” he said, adding that he didn’t “see any reason for pessimism.”
Asked whether the constitutional reforms had been discussed, Juppé said that he had not obtained a time schedule for such reforms. “Our role,” he said, “is to keep up the pressure.”
France had already doubled its food aid to Burma from 2010 to 2011 to a total of 800,000 euros (US $1 million), according to the website of the French embassy in Rangoon.
The embassy also had a yearly cooperation budget of 350,000 euros ($450,000) as well as a small-grant program amounting to 80,000 euros ($100,000).
Juppé’s trip followed visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba, Chinese State Counselor Wang Qishan, and many other high-level international delegations in the last two months.
By PATRICK BOEHLER Tuesday, January 17, 2012
China’s South East Asia Pipeline Company Ltd (SEAP) signed a US $1 million pledge for funding 25 development projects in Arakan State and Magway Division last Saturday. The projects entail the construction of 21 schools, two clinics and two kindergartens, according to a press release on Monday.
The pledge comes as part of a development assistance package that includes a yearly $1 million transfer in addition to a multimillion-dollar aid program funded by the SEAP’s Chinese state-owned mother company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
SEAP is currently building massive oil and gas pipelines from the Burmese port of Kyaukpyu through the border town Ruili to the Chinese border province of Yunnan and beyond to China’s energy-thirsty southern industrial hubs.
The pipelines are expected to provide 22 million tonnes of crude oil and 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually.
SEAP “plans to initiate further assistance projects along the route of the Sino-Burmese pipelines, including helping temples, orphanages and nursing homes solving practical problems, providing local villagers with new agricultural technologies, funding the training of local medics, etc.,” the CNPC press statement said.
CNPC had announced that SEAP will provide $1 million a year to support development projects to communities along the route of the pipelines at the end of its second yearly board meeting in August 2011.
SEAP donated $750,000 to the Burmese Ministry of Health to build 19 health clinics last month.
This was the first transfer of a $6 million medical aid package, initiated on April 4 on the occasion of the visit of Jia Qinglin, the fourth-ranked leader in the Chinese Communist Party, to Burma.
The package is aimed at upgrading medical facilities in Kyaukpyu and clinics along the route of the pipelines as well as provide medical training.
An education aid program had kicked off in October; roughly $2 million had been transferred up to December 2011, according to a CNPC press statement.
Whereas the Burmese government mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar and some Chinese media reports cite the educational aid package as part of the medical aid package, the CNPC press release indicates that it is a separate program.
A general outline of the overall development assistance provided by SEAP has not been published.
SEAP was founded in June 2009 as a joint venture between majority stakeholder CNPC and Burma’s state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). CNPC has been active in Burma since 2001.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and then Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein witnessed the signing ceremony for the $2 billion pipeline project on June 3, 2010 in Naypyidaw.
It marked the end of a six-year-long negotiation process, which the Chinese news agency Xinhua described as “difficult.”
The idea of building pipelines linking China’s landlocked western interior directly to the Bay of Bengal first attracted official attention in 2004, when Chinese energy experts submitted a “Recommendation to construct an oil pipeline from Sittwe (Kyaukpyu) to Kunming” to the Yunnan provincial government.
The Yunnan University professors Qu Jianwen, Wu Wei, Li Chenyang, all based in Kunming, suggested the construction of the pipeline to circumvent the “dangerous, fragile Strait of Malacca.”
In June 2004, Li Lianzhong, the head of the economic department at the Policy Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, announced a 10-point strategic program to guarantee Chinese energy safety at a conference in Beijing. It included for the first time the construction of the Sino-Burmese pipelines.
The announcement of plans to provide aid to communities along the pipelines’ route comes amid a flurry of visits by Western foreign ministers offering to increase development assistance in response to recent reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners last Friday.
China has, however, taken pains to assert that it is not concerned about the growing Western influence in Burma, a country that has long depended heavily on China for political and economic support.
“We are glad to see the United States and other Western countries increasing contact, resuming and developing relations with Myanmar,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters on Monday.
Chinese scholars even more dismissive of suggestions that China is concerned about being replaced as Burma’s chief patron. The idea that Clinton’s recent visits to Burma and Cambodia will challenge these countries’ relations with China “is just laughable,” international relations scholar Shen Dingli wrote in a commentary published in Monday in the Shanghai daily Wenhui Bao.
For Jin Canrong, a leading Beijing foreign-policy adviser and commentator, the Western relations with Burma “only develop to a certain extent. No other nation can replace China in terms of its economic relations with Burma,” he told the Xinhua news agency in December.
By THE IRRAWADDY Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Friday’s release of many prominent political dissidents from prisons across Burma was welcomed around the world and celebrated with jubilation across the country; but as the dust settles, confusion and controversy arise as to how many political prisoners—if any—are still behind bars.
The current estimates of political prisoners in post-Friday-13 Burma ranges from none (President Thein Sein) to 128 (Burma’s home minister) to around 300 (opposition National League for Democracy or NLD) to 1,260 (campaign group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners or AAPP).
According to Thailand-based AAPP, which has been monitoring the situation for years, only 287 of the 651 prisoners released on Jan. 13 were political dissidents.
Based on its most recent nationwide survey in 42 prisons and 109 forced labor camps and an unknown number of secret detention centers, the AAPP said there were at least 1,547 political prisoners in Burma. Its report, which gives details of each of the 1,547’s incarceration, was updated on AAPP’s website the day before the Jan. 13 amnesty.
Of those released last Friday, the most prominent dissidents were arguably: 88 Generation Students Group leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi; Htay Kywe; Mya Aye; Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira; ethnic Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo; journalist Zaw Thet Htwe; and blogger Nay Phone Latt.
“Although Ko Min Ko Naing, Hkun Htun Oo and other prominent dissidents have been freed, many political prisoners—such as U Myint Aye, Ko Than Zaw and Ko Aye Aung—are still in prison,” said Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the AAPP.
Myint Aye was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, charged with carrying out an explosion. Than Zaw, a member of the NLD, and Aye Aung were charged with having connections to illegal organizations.
According to the NLD’s figures, there were 604 political prisoners prior to Jan. 13, around half of whom were released in the government amnesty on Friday.
The opposition party’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, vowed to continue working for the release of the remaining dissidents, according to NLD spokesman Ohn Kyaing.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for an independent group of former political prisoners in Burma told The Irrawaddy that according to their figures around 300 out of 604 dissidents remain in jail after Jan. 13.
Spokesman Ba Myo Thein said, “We thank President U Thein Sein. But the less well-known political activists remain in prison. All of them should be freed.”
He said Saw Tin Oo, Sai Phone Tint and a group of ethnic dissidents remained in Thayet Prison where Min Ko Naing was released from.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday soon after his release, Min Ko Naing claimed that many political activists had not been released from Thayet Prison.
“Some are members of ethnic armed groups,” he said. “NLD member Ko Than Zaw is also locked up in Thayet Prison.
“It is debatable whether some of these detainees count as political prisoners, but the fact remains that they were locked up for their political stance,” said Min Ko Naing.
From the government’s perspective, the precise number of political dissidents is fuzzy.
Ko Ko Hlaing, an advisor to the Thein Sein government, told a Swedish radio station in October that Burma only had around 600 prisoners of conscience, half of whom were released at the beginning of that month.
Based on his numbers, following the release of about 300 political prisoners on Jan. 13, very few remained inside.
However, President Thein Sein sparked controversy in November when, speaking at an Asean meeting in Bali in November, he said that there were no political prisoners in the country, and that those who were listed by exile groups as imprisoned dissidents were, in reality, nothing other than convicted criminals.
The confusion was compounded when Home Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko, speaking the day after the release, said that of the 604 names listed by the NLD as dissidents, 430 were located and confirmed to be in prison, and of that number, 302 were freed on Friday.
Therefore, according to the home minister’s calculations, 128 dissidents remain in prison.
Burma watchers have urged caution amid the euphoria, citing the fact that all 651 prisoners released in the amnesty—criminals included—are widely believed to have been freed under Section 401 of Burma’s Code of Criminal Procedure, essentially meaning that they can be rearrested and forced to serve out their original sentences if they violate any law in the future.
Article 3 of Section 401 states that the president has the power “to cancel that suspension and order re-arrest of a person at any time without a warrant, requiring that he or she must serve the remainder of the original sentence.”
The question of how many political prisoners are still behind bars is unresolved. Clearly, the sets of figures by AAPP and the government will never meet in the middle.
Tate Naing, the secretary of AAPP, asked commentators to remember that it is not only detained politicians that constitute political prisoners, but anyone who has been detained on political grounds.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 17:12 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – People in two townships in Arakan State are protesting, calling for the Burmese government to supply more gas to the region as a fuel to provide more electricity to the state which lacks sufficient electrical power.
Activists delivered an open letter to the Arakan state minister on Monday with the demand, said a statement by the Shwe Gas Movement, an activist group based in Thailand.
Last week, the Minister of Energy claimed it would make an agreement with firms to supply the gas for the region, but local activists are skeptical because of unfulfilled promises and the destructive impact the gas pipeline project has already had on local communities.
“The military government is trying to convince Arakan people that they will benefit from this project with construction jobs or a small share of revenue,” said Wong Aung of the Shwe Gas Movement. “The demand for 24-hour electricity before any export [of gas] shows that the Arakan people are not going to be bought off so cheaply.”
Currently, Burma’s new government is set to continue with a contract signed by the previous military junta to export 9.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas extracted from the Shwe gas fields to China.
“When it emerged that 90 per cent of the electricity produced by the Myitsone Dam would be sent to China, Burmese people rallied against the project due to severe energy shortages at home. The same anger is growing against the Shwe Gas Pipeline project,” the statement said.
Burma does not have an enforceable democratic legal structure to ensure revenue transparency and contract accountability or to ensure that its citizens receive tangible benefits from foreign investments in the extractive sector.
“At the moment there is only one way to ensure local people see real benefits and that is to allocate 100 per cent of the Shwe gas towards meeting domestic energy needs,” said Wong Aung.
Burma ranks 10th in the world in terms of natural gas reserves yet its per capita electricity consumption is less than 5 per cent of neighbouring Thailand and China, because the government exports most of its energy.
The Thailand-based Shwe Gas Movement has called for the Burmese government to suspend the Shwe natural gas project in Arakan State.
“Exporting the huge natural gas reserves from the Shwe Gas fields off Burma’s western coast will perpetuate the chronic energy shortages domestically,” it said in a statement in October, reported in Mizzima.
“The regime will earn an estimated US$ 29 billion from the sale of the gas, yet these revenues will not be used for social improvement. The revenues will disappear into a fiscal black hole that omits gas revenues from the national budget, clearly to the benefit of the regime and investors,” the statement said.
An underwater gas pipeline would carry offshore gas from block A1 and A3 to Kyaukphyu. About 40 per cent of the project is completed and the deep-sea port at Maday Island is about 80 per cent completed, according to the Shwe Gas Movement.
Gas reserves in the two blocks are estimated at 4.5 to 7.7 trillion cubic feet. Burma will earn an estimated US$ 29 billion from the sale of the natural gas to China over a 30-year period starting in 2013, say government officials.
The deep-sea port project and the joint pipeline for oil and natural gas will be completed in 2013. An electric railway for transporting goods is expected to be completed in 2015.
The offshore blocks in the Shwe Gas field, the biggest natural gas field in Southeast Asia, has an estimated 200 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The gas blocks in the western sea of Burma was discovered in late 2003. The cost of the gas pipeline linking Kyaukphyu and the Maday Island deep-sea port to Yunnan Province in China is estimated at US$ 3.5 billion.
In addition to the natural gas pipeline, an oil pipeline will be built to transport oil from Africa and the Middle East to China through the Kyaukphyu-Maday port passing along a route running through Minbu, Mandalay, Gokteik, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Lashio, Kutkai, Muse and Kyuhkok. The oil will then be transported to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012 21:18 Aye Lae
Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – It is more urgent to talk about political issues, a cease-fire agreement can wait, says the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
The KIO said that it would meet with Burmese government peace delegation members on Wednesday to talk about the problems that led to renewed fighting in the first place.
KIO spokesman La Nang said its peace team would meet with a 13-member Union-level peace led by Aung Thaung in Ruili, China.
Unlike other ethnic armed groups, the KIO said it would not agree on a cease-fire first, La Nang told Mizzima.
“A cease-fire is only the political consequences,” he said. “We will focus on political talks which will be transparent, concrete and offer a clear path, and we will discuss how to resolve these political issues,” La Nang said.
The KIO signed a cease-fire agreement with the government in 1994, but renewed fighting erupted in June 2011.
“We had a lesson in the past,” said La Nang “After getting a cease-fire agreement first and resolving political issues later will have had no guarantees. This is the bitter lesson we learned from our experience.”
A KIO central committee on Tuesday, said, “The KIO will start talks with the Union Government Peace Making Group to achieve equality and self-determination rights through political means and political negotiations.”
Secretary Pado Saw David Taw of the Karen National Union (KNU), which signed a cease-fire agreement with the government on January 12, said, “I wish the KIO would consider a cease-fire because negotiations while fighting will have difficulties. I think a cease-fire first and political issues later would be a better way for them.”
This will be the first talk between the KIO and the government following the latest round of fighting.
Burma political affairs observer Aung Naing Oo said, “After reaching cease-fire agreements with the KNU, the KIO will be left as the sole fighting force against the government in practice. So the KIO is isolated and pressure is increasing.
“Both sides are trying to talk, but the difficulties still exist. The government and KIO have their own positions and policies, but the field-level troops also have problems and difficulties too. It’s difficult to say whether this talk will succeed or fail,” he said.
The KIO delegation has left for Ruili. The government delegation will arrive on Wednesday, La Nang said.
He said the two sides had to arrange a neutral venue on foreign land because the fighting is continuing around KIO headquarters in Laiza on the border.
The Union Peace Making Group formed by the Parliament is led by Aung Thaung; a second peace-making group formed by President Thein Sein is led by Railway Minister Aung Min.
The peace-making group led by Aung Thaung has signed cease-fire agreements with the United Wa State Army and the Mongla group.
The peace-making group led by Aung Min has signed cease-fire agreements with the KNU, the Chin National Front, and the Shan State Army (South).
The following are members of the two Union peace-making teams:
Union Level Peace Making Group (Parliament):
1. Aung Thaung (Team leader)
2. Thein Zaw (Ethnic Affairs and Domestic Peace Making Committee Chairman) Deputy team leader
3. Aung Kyi
4. Ohn Myint (Cooperatives and Livestock Minister) member
5. Win Tun (Environment Conservation and Forestry Minister) member
6. Lajun Ngan Sai (Kachin State Government, Chief Minister) member
7. Major General Zaw Win (Deputy Minister, Border Affairs Ministry) member
8. Brigadier General Aung Myat Oo (Deputy Commander, Northern Region Command) member
9. Tun Thein a.k.a. Tun Tun (MP, Manhsi constituency) member
10. Khet Htein Nan (House of Nationality MP, Myitkyina constituency) member
11. Colonel Kyaw Soe Win (Office of C-in-C of Defence Services) member
12. Colonel Than Aung (Kachin State government Border Affairs Minister) member (not included in this group constituted by President Office)
13. Colonel Win Then (General Staff Officer, Northeast Command HQ)
Union Level Peace Making Group constituted by President ‘s Office on December 12 for holding peace talk with ethnic Kachin armed groups
1. Aung Thaung (MP) Team leader
2. Aung Min (Railway Minister) Deputy team leader
3. Thein Zaw (Ethnic Affairs and Domestic Peace Building Committee chairman) Deputy team leader
4. Ohn Myint (Cooperatives and Livestock Minister) member
5. Win Tun (Environment Conservation and Forestry Union Minister) member
6. Lajun Ngan Sai (Kachin State Government, Chief Minister) member
7. Major General Zeya Aung (Commander, Northern Regional Command) member
8. Major General Zaw Win (Deputy Minister, Border Affairs Ministry) member
9. Tun Thein a.k.a. Tun Tun (House of People MP, Manhsi constituency) member
10. Khet Htein Nan (House of Nationality MP, Myitkyina constituency) member
– Colonel Kyaw Soe Win (Office of C-in-C of Defence Services) member
By AFP Published: 17 January 2012
Burma has “no other way” but to embrace democracy, a key regime figure said Monday, following a series of dramatic reforms by the new government that have been hailed by the West.
“We are a former military country transforming into a democratic state, which is not easy,” Shwe Mann, a former general who is considered one of the most powerful men in the current regime, told AFP in an interview.
“It’s a genuine conviction. There is no other way than a democratic system,” Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Burma’s parliament, said in the capital Naypyidaw.
“It’s very difficult to say how long it will take to become a democratic system. We cannot say the timeframe exactly but we will quickly try our best to achieve our goals,” he added.
A nominally civilian government which took power last year has surprised even critics with a series of reformist moves, including dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in late 2010.
In a move hailed by the West, Burma on Friday released about 300 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents, a day after signing a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic minority group.
“We hope that these new developments will reinforce the process of democratisation and national reconciliation,” Suu Kyi said on Sunday after talks with visiting French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
But the acclaimed dissident said it was unclear whether the military was fully behind the changes.
“Certainly there is always a theoretical, and perhaps not so theoretical, danger of an army coup by those who do not approve of the process of democratisation,” she said. “We hope very much that we will not come to that.”
Shwe Mann, however, dismissed the idea of the military seizing power back.
“I don’t think it will happen in the future. We really understand the situation of the people and the country.”
The army “also has a strong desire for the interests of the people and the country,” he added.
Friday’s prisoner pardon was welcomed by Western powers, which have long demanded the release of political detainees languishing in jail before they will consider lifting sanctions on the regime and its cronies.
The amnesty release was the most significant yet by the new government, whose ranks are filled with former generals including President Thein Sein.
It is not clear how many more political prisoners are still behind bars but some activists estimate about 1,000 remain locked up.
Even critics, however, have been surprised by the pace of change in the country.
The regime froze work on an unpopular dam supported by powerful neighbour China last year, and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic Karen group involved in one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts.
The country recently announced plans to hold by-elections on 1 April and Suu Kyi plans to stand for a seat in parliament in a constituency near the main city Rangoon.
“I guarantee the elections will be free and fair,” Shwe Mann said. “If she [Suu Kyi] wins in the April by-election, we’ll have to a chance to discuss and talk. I’ll be waiting for her.”
The number of seats available in the polls is not enough to threaten the resounding majority held by the ruling party, but the participation of Suu Kyi’s opposition party could boost parliament’s credibility.
Suu Kyi on Sunday hinted that she could take a position in the new government but said it “depends on the circumstances”.
Her party boycotted a November 2010 election that was marred by complaints of cheating and was won by the military’s political allies.
By NAW NOREEN
Published: 17 January 2012
Key discussions on the division of territory in Karen state will soon take place between government officials and the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) following tentative steps taken last week towards peace in the war-torn state.
A delegation of KNU officials who on Thursday signed an historic ceasefire deal with the government returned to their base in the Thai border town of Mae Sot yesterday. There they debriefed senior officials on what is being hailed as the most significant move towards a truce in more than six decades of fighting.
“Both sides agreed on the 11 conditions proposed by us and the four proposed by them [government] – it’s not exactly a formal ceasefire agreement yet but only an tentative one based on principles. We still have to discuss the division of territories and so on,” said Saw Thamein Htun from the group’s Central Committee.
The carving up of Karen state will likely be a painstaking task, given a history of shifting territories and the government’s desire to secure areas rich in natural energy potential, particularly hydropower. What may also play a factor is the discovery last week of Burma’s largest gold deposit, much of which lies in Karen state.
The positioning of troops will also be a concern of both sides. Karen army territory is scattered across the eastern state, with troops active as far south as Tenasserim division where they have been resisting the construction of the Tavoy industrial complex. Pockets of territory also lie unnervingly close to areas controlled by the Burmese.
“The [Burmese army] has to work out whether to keep their troops in [the Karen towns of] Hpa-an or Kawkareit and they must tell us where their units are positioned,” Saw Thamein Htun said.
“They must draw out regulations to prevent conflict in the future and direct their soldiers to follow these regulations. Also, we have to work out whom to appoint to sit in the liaison offices [as agreed in the ceasefire] and when we are satisfied with the every condition, we will sign the formal agreement.”
He said the deal made on 12 January could still be withdrawn until further agreements are signed. There is a window of 45 days for both sides to make additional demands.
Meanwhile, KNU spokesperson David Htaw told DVB that leading KNU member Mahn Nyein Maung, who was detained in Rangoon’s Insein prison after being deported to Burma from China in July last year, could be released last week.
A renewed push for peace in Kachin state in Burma’s north is also underway. Delegations from the Kachin Independence Army and the government are due to meet for talks in the Chinese border town of Ruili on Wednesday, although they were still awaiting permission from China.
Since June last year, when a Burmese army offensive against the KIA brought to an end a 17-year ceasefire, the intensity of fighting has reached levels unprecedented in Burma’s recent history. La Nan, spokesperson for the KIA, was however quick to dampen expectations of an immediate result from Wednesday’s talks.
“We don’t want to emphasise the ceasefire too much but would like to focus more on implementing a path for political dialogue. If we can go through political talks smoothly, step by step, then we may not even need to sign an agreement for a ceasefire – things may even work out by themselves,” he said.
By DVB Published: 17 January 2012
Government-backed militias in Shan state have reportedly demanded that village headmen in several townships appoint up to 25 locals to join their ranks, with those who refuse threatened with a hefty fine.
Locals in Manparng village, close to Shan state’s Tangyan township, said a militia based there had summoned headmen to select would-be fighters. Small villages were required to hand over 15 men, and larger villages 25.
The group warned that should the village headmen fail to do so, it would send their own recruitment teams and demand a fee of 3.8 million kyat ($US4,470).
“These militias get funding from the government so there’s no reason to extort money from us,” said one aggrieved inhabitant of Manparng. “We are afraid of armed groups close to our areas and we are unable to file a complaint about this – we don’t know where to complain.”
He said that locals were forced to give into the demands of “different militia groups”, many of whom have close links to Burmese government officials and who are rapidly becoming key players in Shan state’s lucrative narcotics market. The Manparng militia is thought to have around 1,000 troops and also operates in Lashio and Mongyai townships.
Residents of southern Shan state’s Lai-Hka township have also spoken of an apparent forced recruitment drive by members of the former Wan Pang militia, which was overrun by the Shan State Army last year.
The number of personnel in the militia dropped from around 800 to 30 following the defeat, and it has regrouped in Nam Hu Pra Htam village. Locals in nearby Kone Mai Hike village say each household was told to pay 60,000 kyat so the militia could recruit more soldiers, likely to compensate for the loss of manpower.
The Wan Pang militia was believed to have been heavily involved in the drugs’ trade, and ran a heroin factory in the state’s mountainous southern region. A ceasefire deal struck last year between the SSA and government included an agreement that the SSA would hand over drugs seized from the Wan Pang.