BurmaNet News, February 19, 2010
editor at burmanet.org
Fri Feb 19 14:19:04 EST 2010
February 19, 2010, Issue #3900
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Despite anticipation of landmark elections this year, I have not received
any indication that the military government is willing to release all
prisoners of conscience
Without full participation of the people including
the 2200 prisoners of conscience and the environment that allows the
parties to engage in the range of electoral activities, the elections to
be held will not be credible. Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN Human Rights
AFP: UN envoy slams Myanmar for refusing Suu Kyi visit
AFP: Myanmar jails Buddhist abbot for seven years: opposition
ON THE BORDER
TIME: For Rohingya in Bangladesh, no place is home
Reuters: Myanmar's Rohingyas - who are they?
DVB: UN expert warns of mass deportations of Burmese
SHAN: Wa leader declines meeting junta yet again
BUSINESS / TRADE
Wall Street Journal: Myanmar moves to privatize key state enterprises
Narinjara: Dhaka lures ADB for road to Burma
Irrawaddy: Swine Flu reported in Nyapyidaw
OPINION / OTHER
The Nation (Thailand): Burma's continued tricks: the same old story
Irrawaddy: Than Shwe's 'discipline flourishing democracy' fools no one
February 19, Agence France Presse
UN envoy slams Myanmar for refusing Suu Kyi visit
Yangon A UN envoy said Friday he "deeply regretted" that Myanmar's
ruling junta had refused to let him meet democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi
and called for her immediate release ahead of elections this year.
Tomas Ojea Quintana criticised the military regime as he ended his latest
mission to Myanmar, a five-day trip focused on inspecting the human rights
situation ahead of the country's first polls in two decades.
"I deeply regretted that my special request to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
was not granted," Quintana told reporters at Yangon international airport
before flying to Bangkok. Daw is a Burmese-language term of respect.
"I am disappointed that even this time I was unable to meet her at this
crucial time in this election year, the first national election in 20
years," said Quintana, making his third trip to Myanmar.
He was also refused access to reclusive junta chief Than Shwe and instead
met Foreign Minister Nyan Win, Home Affairs minister Maung Oo and the
chief justice, attorney general and police chief in the capital Naypyidaw
Quintana said that during the meetings he was given no idea of a date for
the elections that the ruling generals have promised to hold this year, or
even when long-awaited electoral laws would be announced.
He added that elections required the release and participation of all
"prisoners of conscience" to be regarded as fair, but that the Myanmar
government refused to acknowledge the existence of such detainees.
"Despite anticipation of the landmark elections I have not received any
indication that the government is willing to release all prisoners of
conscience," he said, adding that Suu Kyi's should be freed "immediately".
The envoy also urged the government to allow the full participation of
ethnic minorities, whom rights groups say are persecuted by the regime.
Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi has been in detention for 14 of the last 20
years. She had her house arrest extended by 18 months in August after a
bizarre incident in which an American man swan to her lakeside home.
Quintana was allowed to meet key figures from Suu Kyi's National League
for Democracy (NLD) during his visit, including vice chairman Tin Oo, who
was freed from house arrest on February 13 after seven years in detention.
Tin Oo said at the meeting late Thursday they had told Quintana of their
request for a meeting between Suu Kyi and Than Shwe and between her and
the NLD's central executive committee.
The NLD has not yet said whether it will take part in the polls, the first
in Myanmar since 1990 when the NLD won by a landslide. The military
subsequently annulled the result.
Myanmar's new constitution, voted through in a 2008 referendum just days
after a devastating cyclone killed around 138,000 people, effectively bars
Suu Kyi from standing and reserves a quarter of legislative seats for the
The junta has also continued a crackdown on dissent ahead of the polls.
A court at Yangon's notorious Insein prison sentenced Buddhist abbot Gaw
Thita to seven years in jail on various charges on Wednesday, the
opposition said, the fifth dissident to be imprisoned during Quintana's
Four women activists were sentenced to two years each with hard labour on
Monday, the same day Quintana arrived in Myanmar.
The United Nations says there are at least 2,100 political prisoners in
Myanmar's notorious jails.
Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma, has traditionally been loath
to allow UN officials to meet Suu Kyi, even refusing to let UN chief Ban
Ki-moon see her when he visited the country last year.
US officials have however received a warm welcome since President Barack
Obama's administration began a dual track of engagement alongside
US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell met Suu Kyi last year, as
did US congressman Jim Webb when he visited Myanmar to secure the release
of John Yettaw, the American who swam to her house.
February 19, Agence France Presse
Myanmar jails Buddhist abbot for seven years: opposition
Yangon A Myanmar prison court sentenced a Buddhist abbot to seven years
in prison, an opposition source said Friday, as a UN rights envoy wrapped
up a visit to the military-ruled nation.
Gaw Thita was arrested in August as he returned from a trip to Taiwan and
convicted at Yangon's notorious Insein Prison on Wednesday on three
charges including unlawful association, the source said.
"He was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment on Wednesday at a special
court in Insein Prison," Aung Thein, a former lawyer for the opposition
National League for Democracy party, told AFP.
"He was sentenced to three years under the Immigration Emergency Act, two
years under the Unlawful Association Act and two years under the Foreign
Exchange Regulation Act. He has to serve the prison terms consecutively,"
Seven other monks arrested with Gaw Thita on August 26 at Yangon
International Airport were later released without charge and the reasons
for his initial detention were not clear, Aung Thein said.
"His lawyer says he will appeal for U Gaw Thita soon," Aung Thein said. U
is a Burmese-language term of respect.
"He did not break any immigration law as he used his valid passport. Also
there was no evidence of unlawful organisation," he said.
Myanmar's military regime has handed out dozens of tough jail sentences to
people involved in the so-called "Saffron Revolution" led by Buddhist
monks in 2007.
At least 31 people were killed as security forces cracked down on
protesters after the biggest threat to the junta's grip on power in nearly
The sentencing came during a visit to Myanmar by UN envoy Tomas Ojea
Quintana, who is in the country to inspect the regime's progress on human
rights ahead of elections promised later this year.
ON THE BORDER
February 19, TIME
For Rohingya in Bangladesh, no place is home Misha Hussain
Kutu Palong Hundreds of children flock at the site of a stranger in the
Kutu Palong makeshift camp in southeastern Bangladesh, near the border
with Burma. Some are wearing salvaged clothes; mostly, they are naked.
"Hello, how are you?" they shout, repeating the one phrase they have
picked up from the few aid workers that have gained permission from the
Bangladesh authorities to enter the unregistered camp.
These kids are all Rohingya, a religious and linguistic ethnic minority
from Burma's northern Rakhine State, who have been fleeing state-sponsored
persecution in their homeland since 1978. In 1991, when the population
experienced widespread repression and abuse from security forces posted in
Rakhine, a quarter of a million crossed the border to Bangladesh seeking
asylum. Most of them still live there today. Some 28,000 have been
officially recognized as refugees and are living in a U.N.-run camp,
waiting to be relocated to a third nation. Hundreds of thousands of others
live outside these grounds, in the district of Chittagong or in unofficial
camps, stateless and hopeless.
In recent months, Kutu Palong has become a refuge from a brutal crackdown
on the Rohingya, according to a report issued Thursday by Médecins Sans
Frontières (MSF). More than 6000 people have arrived in the camp since
October as police and border authorities have launched an unprecedented
crackdown in Bangladesh, pushing over 2,000 Rohingya back across the
border into Burma. More than 500 were arrested around the country in
January alone. MSF doctors working in Kutu Palong say they have been
treating Rohingya who have been beaten and raped. "[Border guards] broke
my fingers and then they threw me into the river and told me to swim
back," says Ziaur Rahman, a 23-year-old who managed to escape and walk for
three days to get medical care at the MSF clinic based outside the Kutu
Palong makeshift camp.
About 30,000 Rohingya now live in the makeshift camp, in crude huts thrown
together with bin liners, sticks and mud. Sanitation is minimal. Sewage
facilities, hugely inadequate in the monsoon season, run alongside the
housing. An earlier March 2009 MSF survey found that 40% of those who died
in this unregistered camp in the first part of that year died from
diarrhea. The government, however, has forbidden further development of
the camps' infrastructure, so as not to attract any people more to the
improvised settlement. "There is just one toilet between every 10
families," says Ziaul Haque, 40, who acts as a kind of camp administrator.
Bangladesh, like India, Thailand and Pakistan, is not one of 147 nations
to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, the global treaty that defines who is
eligible for refugee status and what rights they are guaranteed. As a
result, Dhaka has not registered a single refugee since 1991, and, as one
of the most impoverished nations in the world, does not have the financial
resources to cope with such a huge number of people. "We are a poor
country and we have our own issues to deal with," says one local from
Cox's Bazaar district, where the greatest concentration of Rohingyas live.
Though half of the Rohingya who make their way to Bangladesh are taken in
by local families until they find their feet, it's been a fragile
relationship. Many are competing for jobs with the Rohingya, who are often
willing to work for less than Bangladeshis. Others worry that armed
extremist gangs are radicalizing the youth of this marginalised,
leaderless community, and suspicions of drug smuggling and an increase in
petty crime in the camps have been recorded in the local press. With a new
round of elections slated for later this year in Burma, locals are
increasingly concerned that another exodus from its neighbor state may
ensue and the situation in Bangladesh might further deteriorate.
The official channels of moving refugees to new homes has been slow. Since
2006, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has
resettled 749 Rohingya from the registered camp. Five hundred were
relocated in 2009 and another 190 are pending departure for the United
Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the U.S. It's a rate of departure that
barely covers the population growth of 2.9% within the registered camp;
right now, the system is simply paying off the human interest.
Meanwhile, thousands wait, unregistered, and unsure of what their future
holds. A visit of European Parliament members to the country this week to
assess the situation may help highlight the suffering of a community and
provoke a regional response to a challenge that today is being left to
Bangladesh alone to grapple with. Leaving Kutu Palong, the children are
still smiling, the chorus of 'hellos' replaced with 'goodbyes.' Many lives
have begun in this camp in the last decade. Many will end here, too,
without a birth or death certificate to prove that they ever existed.
February 19, Reuters
Myanmar's Rohingyas - who are they?
Rohingya refugees who fled oppression in their native Myanmar are facing
similar abuse at the hands of Bangladeshi authorities, who rights groups
say are trying to drive them out of the country.
Tens of thousands of Rohingyas, who are not recognised in their homeland,
live illegally in Bangladesh and face attacks by police and the
destruction of their homes, according to medical charity Medecins Sans
Here are some facts about Myanmar's Rohingya people.
-- The Rohingyas are a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar,
formerly Burma. The military government does not recognise them as one of
the country's roughly 130 ethnic minorities.
-- Most Rohingyas come from Rakhine State, also known as Arakan State, in
northwest Myanmar, abutting the border with Bangladesh.
Their roots are thought to date back to 1821, when Britain annexed the
region as a province of British India and brought in large numbers of
Bengali-speaking Muslim labourers, who later called themselves
-- When Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the Bengali-speaking
Muslim population near the border exceeded that of the Buddhists, leading
to secessionist tensions.
This translated into harassment following a 1962 coup that has led to
nearly five decades of military rule by the ethnic Burman majority.
Thousands fled to Bangladesh to escape a 1978 military census of the
Rohingyas called "Operation Dragon".
-- In 1991, another wave of refugees fled to Bangladesh, where the United
Nations refugee agency UNHCR says 300,000 Rohingya now live a perilous,
-- Rohingyas in northwest Myanmar are restricted from travelling inside
the country, and those already in Bangladesh have little prospect of ever
returning home as long as the army runs the country.
As a result, thousands have fled to try to start new lives, chancing their
luck in rickety wooden boats they hope will get them to Malaysia, home to
14,300 official Rohingya refugees and maybe half as many again
-- The Rohingyas seldom hit the headlines. One exception was in April
2004, when a group armed with axes and knives burst into the Myanmar
embassy in Kuala Lumpur, attacked embassy officials and set fire to the
-- In January 2009, Thailand's military was accused of towing 992 Rohingya
boat people far out to sea before abandoning them to their fate with
little food or water in boats without engines. The Thai government said
its investigations were inconclusive.
A Rohingya human rights group and the testimony of survivors to Reuters in
Aceh, Indonesia, and Indian police in the Andaman Islands suggested as
many as 550 may have died.
(Compiled by Ed Cropley; Editing by Martin Petty and Bill Tarrant)
February 19, Democratic Voice of Burma
UN expert warns of mass deportations of Burmese Joseph Allchin
Jorge A. Bustamante, a UN expert on the human rights of migrants has
expressed concern about the millions of migrants in Thailand who face
deportation if they have not registered biographical data by the end of
the month to governments in their nations of origin.
The independent expert urged Thailand to abide by the notion of
refoulment where by deporting many put them at risk and would thereby be
knowingly putting them in danger.
Thailands nationality verification process seeks to register the millions
of migrant workers and refugees from neighbouring countries but requires
that foreign nationals have proof of their nation of origin.
The lack of bureaucracy in Burma and fear of authorities has prevented
many migrants from Burma registering, thus making them unable to apply for
the Nationality Verification process in Thailand.
I reiterate my earlier messages to the Government to reconsider its
actions and decisions, and to abide by international instruments,...If
pursued, the threats of mass expulsion will result in unprecedented human
suffering and will definitely breach fundamental human rights
obligations. Mr. Bustamante told the UN web site.
A labour activist in Mae Sot recently told DVB that; there are rumours
that local authorities will threaten and extort money from the families of
Furthermore many migrant workers come from ethnic areas that are not in
SPDC control. These workers will then be deported as they will have no way
of proving their country of origin. While archaic bureaucracy means that
many longer term migrants will no longer be on local authority family
lists that every village peace and development council keeps of
Workers in Mae Sot have detailed to DVB how deportations occur whereby
migrant workers are handed by the Thai authorities to non government
armies such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). If the deportees
are unable to pay a fee dependent upon where they were detained by the
Thais they are put into forced labour by the group which has been
regularly criticised for human rights abuses and severely lacking
Mr Busamente was further quoted on the web site saying that; I am
disappointed that that the Government of Thailand has not responded to my
letters expressing calls for restraint,.
The UN web site also noted that Mr Busmanete is not paid by the UN and is
an independent expert.
February 19, Shan Herald Agency for News
Wa leader declines meeting junta yet again
For the third time in two months, Bao Youxiang, leader of the United Wa
State Army, has rejected the invitation by junta chief negotiator Lt-Gen
Ye Myint for a meeting in the Shan State North capital Lashio, according
to sources from the Sino-Burma border.
The first time was on 6 January, the second on 6 February and the latest
on 14 February. Bao, citing his poor health (he has been suffering from
trichinosis which he got from eating uncooked meat during his days with
the Communist Party of Burma) had invited Ye Myint to visit him in
Panghsang tomorrow, 20 February, So far Ye Myint is yet to respond.
He has almost made a stream by going back and forth between Panghsang and
China, one junta officer was quoted as saying. Why couldnt he come to
Lashio is more than 200 miles from Panghsang. The nearest Chinese town
Meng A (Mong Nga in Shan) is just across the Namkha that flows through it.
Some have also wondered why Ye Myint is insisting on meeting Bao, though
he could have invited a delegation led by Baos deputies. Previous Wa
delegations were mostly led by Vice President Xiao Minliang.
We are a ceasefire army, Bao said during one of the daily television
broadcasts in Panghsang. We cannot be treated like a defeated enemy.
However, despite strong words thrown at each other and preparations along
the front, the Wa are not going to make the first hostile move, fearing
China will join forces with the Burmese Army against them, according to
sources in Panghsang.
BUSINESS / TRADE
February 19, Wall Street Journal
Myanmar moves to privatize key State enterprises
BangkokA flurry of privatizations of key state enterprises in Myanmar is
raising speculation about whether the country's military regime is
planning more market reform or simply trying to cash out before an
election expected later this year.
The Myanmar government plans to sell a number of major assets, including a
network of 250 state-owned gas stations, and ports handling a large
percentage of the country's trade, according to local industry officials
and Reuters news agency. It also is planning to sell factories, cinemas
and warehouses, and may be contemplating a sale of the country's
international airline, among other assets.
Obtaining complete information about the moves is difficult, as it is with
any government activity in Myanmar, a country notorious for its secrecy.
The regime rarely speaks to foreign journalists, and attempts to reach the
government to confirm details, such as as sales prices and buyers, were
unsuccessful. Than Shwe is the country's top military leader, but he
doesn't often speak openly on policy, and it isn't clear which senior
junta members are driving the latest privatization push.
But core elements of the push, including the sale of ports and gas
stations, were confirmed by the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of
Commerce and Industry, which represents Myanmar's business sector, and by
economists and dissidents familiar with the government's plans.
"We expect more" privatizations to come, said Maung Maung Lay,
secretary-general of the federation, in a telephone interview. "The
government wants to go according to international norms" and expand the
role of the private sector, he said.
Local media have reported that Myanmar's Kanbawza Bank, one of the many
private banks that proliferated amid reforms in the 1990s, will buy up to
80% of state-controlled Myanmar Airways International, while the
government would hold the remaining 20%. An employee at the airline said
only that a deal was "not officially announced yet." Efforts to reach
Kanbawza were unsuccessful.
Buyers of the newly privatized assets are expected to be mostly local
companies, Mr. Maung Maung Lay said. U.S. companies are, for the most
part, prohibited from operating in Myanmar because of sanctions against
the regime, which is accused of an array of human-rights violations. But
other investors, especially in Asia, may seek to play a role.
Asian companies have entered a number of joint ventures with Myanmar's
government over the years and are keen to expand in the country because of
its vast natural resources and potential consumer market of 50 million
The privatization effort appears to be an acceleration of market reforms
started in the late 1980s. At the time, the goal was to undo socialist
policies imposed after the military took over in 1962including the
nationalization of key industriesthat held Myanmar back while neighbors
such as Thailand boomed.
Since then, privatizations have helped to boost growth and have brought
more efficiency to some industries. But momentum has ebbed and flowed over
time, depending on the whims of the regime, and the government has refused
to let go of many of its most lucrative assets, including investments in
infrastructure and natural resources.
A broad array of critics of the regime have long complained that the
program lacks transparency, which increases the odds that assets wind up
in the hands of allies of the regime. Many of Myanmar's biggest private
companiesincluding some believed to be in the running for the latest
assetshave close ties to military leaders and are targeted by U.S.
sanctions. Myanmar consistently ranks among the most corrupt nations in
the world, according to annual indexes produced by Transparency
International, an advocacy group.
Momentum for the program appears to be building again, though, most likely
because of national elections planned for later this year. Analysts
generally believe the regime is holding the election as a bid to boost its
legitimacy in the eyes of residents and foreign governments. Few expect it
to be a free and fair vote, given the country's record of abuses.
The last vote, in 1990, was won by opponents of the regime led by famed
dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. But the regime ignored the result and now
holds Ms. Suu Kyi under house arrest. Officials on Saturday released Tin
Oo, a leading dissident who helped to found the National League for
Democracy opposition party along with Ms. Suu Kyi.
Still, some observers have predicted the election may trigger more
economic reform, as the regime looks to curry favor with supporters. Other
analysts suspect officials simply want to cash out now, in case the
electionwhose date is still unknownhas an unexpected result.
Even if the vote is rigged, it is widely believed some top military
figures will retire or leave office, resulting in a possible leadership
shuffle that could lead to instability or other changes.
If it is possible to sell assets, "while you're utterly in control of the
country, with soldiers in the streets and everything locked down, why not
do it?" says Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar's economy at Macquarie
University in Australia. "This is about locking up wealth now."
The proposed sale of fuel stations is particularly sensitive given the
importance of fuel costs in the local economy. In 2007, a government
decision to cut fuel subsidies helped trigger protests that ended in a
harsh government crackdown, killing at least a dozen people.
According to Irrawaddy, a Myanmar-focused news organization based in
Thailand, a contract to operate at least some state fuel stations has
already been awarded to local entrepreneur and alleged arms dealer Tay Za,
who is targeted by U.S. sanctions because of ties to the military regime.
The publication cited unnamed business sources in Myanmar.
Attempts to reach Mr. Tay Za were unsuccessful. Mr. Maung Maung Lay at the
Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry said the stations, which
are owned by a state vehicle under the Ministry of Energy, hadn't been
sold yet but that the fuel-station privatization would be complete soon,
possibly by the end of March.
Other planned privatizations include three Yangon ports owned by Myanmar's
Port Authority under the Ministry of Transport.
At least one other port in the region already is operated by a private
company, Asia World, a Myanmar conglomerate whose managing director also
is on a U.S. sanctions list.
February 19, Narinjara
Dhaka lures ADB for road to Burma
Dhaka Bangladesh's dream of a road connection with Burma has remained
unrealized for nearly a decade due primarily to problems finding funding
for construction. The current Bangladesh government, however, is keen to
build the road to Burma to further strengthen regional cooperation among
the South Asian nations, report official sources.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated her will regarding the road
to Burma to Sultan Hafeez Rahman, director-general of the South Asian
Department of the Asian Development Bank on Wednesday, said the source.
She emphasized the need for further strengthening regional cooperation and
connectivity to reduce poverty and accelerate development among the South
The prime minister approached the Asian Development Bank during a meeting
in her country office for assistance with building a road to Burma. The
road is to connect from Bangladesh's southeastern city Cox's Bazar to
Kyauktaw in Arakan State, where an existing highway connects to Burma
Dhaka wants to use the road, dubbed the Burma-Bangladesh Friendship Road,
to promote trade with China and Southeast Asian countries such as
Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Bangladesh has for some time been
pursuing talks with Burma and China regarding overland access to Kunming
in China's Yunnan Province.
The previous Bangladesh government tried to construct the road link with
Burma but was unable to get the project off the ground due to financial
problems and other obstacles.
Burma and Bangladesh have signed many agreements related to construction
of the road after high officials, including Senior General Than Shwe and
Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, traded several diplomatic visits.
The current Bangladesh Prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has plans to visit
military-ruled Burma in 2010 but the schedule has not been finalized.
Officials from Burma and Bangladesh are consulting on her visit to Burma,
says a Bangladesh foreign ministry source.
The Bangladesh prime minister is likely to discuss the issue of road
construction with her Burmese counterpart, Senior General Than Shwe, when
she visits Burma. She also has plans to sign several agreements during her
According to source, the road will be constructed in two phases. The first
phase will include construction of 43 kilometers from Cox's Bazaar to Kyin
Chaung in Burma is estimated at US $27 million.
The cost of 110 kilometers of the road from Kyin Chaung to Kyauk Taw in
Burma, is estimated US $128.
February 19, Irrawaddy
Swine Flu reported in Nyapyidaw
Cases of A/H1N1 swine flu have been reported in Naypyidaw, the Burmese
capital, following a similar outbreak in Rangoon earlier this month,
according to sources in the former capital.
A number of people, including government employes, in Naypyidaw have been
diagnosed with A/H1N1 swine flu, and the authorities are providing
vaccines and medicine, said a journalist in Rangoon.
About 30 civil servants who attended ceremonies for the 63rd Union Day in
Naypyidaw were reportedly quarantined in the capital, according to one
report, which could not be confirmed.
It was not clear if those quarantined had already contracted the flu or
only had been exposed to people with the flu.
An outbreak of A/H1N1 flu was reported in Rangoon in early February when
dozens of students contracted the disease.
According to a physician at the Ministry of Health, 27 cases of the
disease have been confirmed since Feb. 7. The total number number in Burma
now stands at 31, although the official number is 29, according to
All 27 cases were students from primary and high schools in North Dagon
Township in Rangoon. The infected students were admitted to the Wai Bar Gi
infectious disease hospital. Seventy-three people with whom they had
contact were quarantined.
On Feb. 5, four people in Chin State also tested positive for the A/H1N1
Cases of the H5N1 virus and A/H1N1 flu have both been reported in Rangoon,
Meanwhile, sources in Rangoon said that Burmese authorities have banned
the sale of eggs in some markets in Rangoon Division after the discovery
of the H5N1 virus at a chicken farm.
Last year, 69 cases of the disease were confirmed.
OPINION / OTHER
February 19, The Nation (Thailand)
Burma's continued tricks: the same old story Editorial
The junta will delay and rig its proposed election once international
observers are out of the way
No country in the world today spends more time hatching new political
ploys, on a day to day basis, to fool the world, as much as the current
military regime in Burma. The recent release of senior leader U Tin Oo, of
the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was good news amid a
more opaque political situation. The opposition senior has spent too long
since 2003 under house arrest, along with the NLD's figurehead and Nobel
laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. It is strange that, every time the junta
releases a prisoner, it becomes headline news around the world. In the
case of Tin Oo, he should not have been under house arrest in the first
It is obvious to all that the Rangoon junta continues to manipulate
international public opinion, especially the influential Western media, on
the situation in Burma. After all these years, the game of cat and mouse
continues unabated. Despite the initial goodwill encounters between US and
Burmese senior officials, both in the US and Burma, in the last quarter of
last year, the prospect of moving toward national reconciliation and free
and fair elections is now as distant as ever.
Washington has learned firsthand that by bending a bit in favour of a
broader dialogue with the regime, it has been used and manipulated to the
utmost by Rangoon. This should hardly come as a surprise after decades of
Burmese manipulation. Now the US has learned the hard way that when
dealing with the regime, one needs more than just goodwill and good
rationales. Washington's hope that Asean - of which Burma is a member -
would do more to help with the Burmese crisis, has also been dashed for
the time being. Indeed, with Vietnam as the new Asean chair, Burma is no
longer under its peers' microscope or pressure.
It was almost a hellish experience for Rangoon under the Thai chair
because Bangkok constantly put the regime under pressure to free political
prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei
refused to back the Thai initiatives, which should highlight the concerns
of all Asean members. So, this year, under this chair, Asean is not
expected to call upon its members to ponder possible joint statements
pressing for Suu Kyi's freedom, or advocating free and far elections, or
national reconciliation, as the regional grouping has done since 2007.
>From now on, the Burmese junta will be free to continue with its own
propaganda, using its membership of Asean for publicity. Vietnam will not
want to get involved in this mess - or, for that matter, allow Asean to do
so - as Hanoi has its own skeletons in the closet. The arrest recently of
Vietnamese human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, and other activists, has
greatly tarnished Hanoi's once excellent image and its reservoir of
goodwill in Washington and the rest of the world. In the remaining months
of 2010, Vietnam wants to steer clear of any controversy among the Asean
Doubtless, Rangoon will continue with its intransigence. It is currently
not willing to reveal the date of its proposed election this year. It will
probably be a surprise to all when the generals do finally make an
announcement. The trick, for them, is to ensure that the poll date will
benefit the regime and its candidates the most. At the moment, the
election timeframe is a lethal weapon in the junta's armoury. Obviously,
the poll will be held in the second half of the year, when the
international relief organisations and their representatives have left the
country, with the post-Cyclone Nargis relief and rehabilitation plans
supposedly to end by June. There will thus be no local or international
scrutiny of the poll.
It is a win-win situation for the Rangoon generals. Again.
February 19, Irrawaddy
Than Shwe's 'discipline flourishing democracy' fools no one Dr. Zarni
The release from house arrest of the 83-year-old co-founder and Deputy
Chairman of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD), Tin Oo, has
failed to impress the international community or the Burmese opposition,
who view it as a calculated act of regime magnanimity.
One of Tin Oo's first acts after his release was to appear on the Voice of
America's Burmese Service, discussing the NLD's official stance on the
planned general election.
Tin Oo said the NLD is sticking with its Shwegondaing Declaration, adopted
as its forward-looking, official political platform in 2009, which inter
alia calls for the release of all political prisoners, a substantive
review and amendment of the 2008 Constitution, and a solution of the
country's long-standing political problems through a process of dialogue
It's widely known that rights violations and systematic political
repression are not confined to the heartland of Burma. The day after the
UN human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana's arrival in Burma this week,
Amnesty International released a 58-page report entitled Myanmar: End
repression of ethnic minorities before elections, in which it highlights
the continuing, systematic political repression in predominantly minority
Drawing on accounts from more than 700 activists from the seven largest
ethnic minorities, covering a two-year period, the AI report is the latest
in the long series of indictments against Than Shwe's regime.
Understanding how the regime attempts to play pro-democratic change
elements at home and abroad requires adopting a big picture perspective
while remaining attentive to seemingly isolated political events across
Than Shwe and his leadership may be suffering from delusions of national
and personal grandeur, with the despot and his immediate family displaying
royal pretensions. But they are certainly adept at stringing along various
parties at home and abroad that are pushing for change.
The tactical moves that Than Shwe has employed since coming to power
nearly 20 years ago include: well-publicized and well-timed prisoner
releases; facilitating important foreign visitors such as UN human rights
envoys to visit prisons in far-flung places; permitting UN officials and
senior western diplomats and politicians to meet with jailed or detained
prominent dissidents, most specifically Aung San Suu Kyi; issuing
strategically placed foreigners such as Joseph Stiglitz and prominent
Burmese expatriates entry visas and giving them VIP treatment; playing
different western governments and organizations against one anotherand so
Fortunately, the NLD leadership sees through the fog of regime deception
when it calls for the release of all political prisoners, not just NLD
members. Considering that Burma has a total of more than 2,100 political
prisoners who are being released at an excruciatingly slow rate of 20-30 a
year, Than Shwe's regime, as well as the next generation of military
rulers, can keep on using this strategy of prisoners as bargaining chips
or public relations tools well into the 22nd century.
The generals also reserve for themselves the right to restock and recycle
this pool of human bargaining chips in the land where the
commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not the elected institutions or
leaders, has the final say over the issues that matter most.
Indeed, no self-respecting dissident, at home or in exile, is prepared to
swallow the junta's plan to replace the existing crude and semi-feudal
rule of Than Shwe with its new electoral authoritarianism, the primary
purpose of which is to ensure smooth transition from one military regime
to the next while keeping the aging despot's power intact until his death.
Tin Oo may be on the verge of losing his sight in one eye, but he was
certainly not blinded to the junta's old tricks by his regained freedom.
As the former highest ranking soldier in the land, Tin Oo obviously knows
that, whatever the form and justifications, the Nargis Constitution and
the promised election this year are designed to institutionalize a
two-class system which will be established with one set of rules,
privileges and rights for the ruling military elite and another for the
rest of the societyconsidered by the former as a lesser breed and
Nor will ex-General Tin Oo buy into the faddish but well-worn legitimizing
discourses, bordering on sycophantic apologias, which assert, without any
empirical basis, that the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, under Than Shwe's
leadership, have remained statically nationalistic, operating with an old
sense of honor, duty and country. Aung Naing Oo's Why the 2008
Constitution is the Junta's Holy Grail (The Irrawaddy online, 1 Feb 2010)
springs to mind.
Talk to any military officer with a strong conscience and independent mind
in private, and one quickly learns that the Burmese armed forces have
taken a tragically regressive evolutionary path under exceedingly
self-serving generals who wrap themselves in the flag. Once a distinct
source of national pride amongst the Burmese majority, the Tatmadaw has
long since degenerated into a mafia-like organization rotten to its core,
as the officer corps has allowed itself to be used as a personal
instrument of power, wealth and repression by the top generals.
Today's Tatmadaw is held together by neither patriotism nor sense of dual
duty to rule and defend, but rather by a mixture of factors including
complex patron-client ties, personal power, economic privileges, fear of
severe punishment for disloyalty and Pavlovian conditioning, which
guarantees complete and total obedience on the part of the subordinates
in the chain of command. But that's a story for another day.
The crucial issue here is that democratic change in Burma is not about the
falsely constructed binary opposition between normative expectations
versus pragmatic considerations regarding the anticipated electoral
process. Democratic values and practical (and immediate) interests of the
electorate in Burma are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, pragmatism is not devoid of norms. The current system of despotic
rule under Than Shwe displays ideological elements and governmental
practices which can only be described as neo-fascist and neo-totalitarian
in that only one national vision is acceptable to the ruling military
junta and only one national institution is constitutionally entitled to
rule the country. Pragmatism in the face of such neo-fascism and
neo-totalitarianism all but amounts to collaboration.
As Than Shwe's regime force-marches the country towards a discipline
flourishing democracy, western governments are, for heaven knows what
reason, hesitant to delineate benchmarks against which anticipated
democracy in Burma may be assessed. Regarding democratization, a
mountain of literature, theoretical and empirical, has been generated
since democracy's defining days of the French Revolution in 1789.
One need not wait until Than Shwe's democracy (or more accurately,
electoral authoritarianism) merges from Naypyidaw in order to imagine,
and articulate, what a real democracy for the Burmese voters should look
In his essay, Our Incredibly Shrinking Democracy, TruthOut, 2 Feb 2010),
a former secretary of labor under ex-President Bill Clinton and professor
of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley argued
succinctly that any political system that describes itself as a
democracy requires at least three things:
1. That important decisions are made in the open;
2. The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them,
so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and
3. Those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.
Whatever its shortcomings in other areas of policy and politics, by
sticking with its Shwegondaing Declaration, the NLD leadership has
demonstrated that it is not allowing itself to be fooled by Than Shwe's
Most important, democratization in Burma is Doh A-yay or Our business,
not foreign governments' business. It would be a grave historical error
for us, the Burmese who clamor for genuine change in our own country, to
allow western powers to define democracy's benchmarks for us or formulate
the solutions to our society's challenges. The duty, the honor and the
country are all ours and ours alone.
The Nargis Constitution and the 2010 elections may be the only game in
town. But the NLD and the electorate are not required to play the game.
Under the grinding wheel of history, Burma's feudal, colonial, fascist and
military regimes of the past, including Ne Win's 26-year disastrous rule,
have all vanished. Than Shwe's discipline flourishing democracy will in
due course also be buried in his neo-fascist capital known as the Abode
of the Kings.
We Burmese may not be known as capable nation-builders. But we certainly
are capable of burying tyrannies, foreign and domestic. That's a start.
Dr Zarni (m.zarni at lse.ac.uk) is a columnist for The Irrawaddy and a
research fellow on Burma at LSE Global Governance, the London School of
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