Friday, February 27

From Associated Press: Denis D. Gray

Reforming Myanmar’s harsh military rule may not rank at the top of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals, but it’s one he will find among the most difficult to achieve.

For half a century, formidable forces rebel armies, uprisings, economic sanctions, pressure by the United Nations have attempted to dislodge or at least temper Myanmar’s ruling junta. All have failed.

The generals of Myanmar, also known as Burma, continue to crush popular protests with guns, commit atrocities against ethnic minorities and currently hold more than 2,000 political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the past 19 years.

So can any new approach by Obama effect meaningful change in Myanmar?

Options in his arsenal appear limited, but some will be tried, and they could prove important.

“If there is going to be any change in international policy which will make a difference, it’s going to have to come from Washington. The U.S. remains a key player,” says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and former U.N. official. “For the Burmese government, the U.S. holds out what they want, which is international acceptability and respect, and an end to its pariah status.”

A prominent Southeast Asian politician agreed.

“Obama could be a pivotal leader (on the issue) because of his high concern for democracy and human rights,” Philippine Senator and former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel told the Associated Press.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on her recent Asian swing, indicated Washington was “looking at what steps we might take that might influence the current Burmese government and we’re also looking for ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people.”

Analysts foresee more carefully crafted U.S. sanctions, greater cooperation with the United Nations and others to forge a common front on Myanmar, and trying to convince China to exert influence on its close ally. But employing a carrot and a stick, humanitarian aid may also be increased.

“Obama’s approach to foreign policy, a stress on common action among allies and negotiation, will be more effective than Bush’s unilateralism and moralistic hectoring,” says Donald M. Seekins, a Myanmar expert at Japan’s Meio University.

Obama’s new U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice has said there remained “scope for greater regional and international action to pressure Burma’s dictators,” including multilateral sanctions and getting Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors to support tougher action.

But she warned Myanmar may represent “one of the most intractable challenges for the global community.”

In a country where many still regard the United States as a potential savior, there is skepticism that the new president can loosen the junta’s grip on power but also some hope.

Myanmar, under the military’s grip since 1962, may be one of the few countries where many say they would welcome an invasion by the United States or at least a bombing of the junta’s remote, bunker-like capital of Naypyitaw.

Although censors banned the publication of Obama’s inauguration speech, many managed access and interpreted his remarks about the world’s dictators as an open message to Myanmar’s generals.

“President Obama was referring to Myanmar. He is willing to help the Myanmar government if they are ready to accept American assistance, but also gave a strong signal that America will not tolerate corrupt regimes,” said lawyer Maung Maung Gyi, citing Obama’s warning to those “who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” and Washington’s readiness to assist those who would “unclench your fist.”

has come out in support of sanctions against the junta, and during the presidential campaign likened Suu Kyi to the late American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The sanctions, which have strong bipartisan backing, include a post-1997 ban on all U.S. investments in Myanmar and the freezing of U.S. assets of junta leaders.

In the past, Washington has also tried to exert some pressure through the United Nations and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Myanmar. But China, Russia and India all with economic or strategic interests in Myanmar have blocked such moves while ASEAN’s policy of noninterference has hindered reform in Myanmar.

The annual summit of ASEAN leaders, hosted by Thailand later this week, is almost certainly to be another case of what the Burmese jokingly call “NATO” No Action, Talk Only on the Myanmar issue.

But some Southeast Asian figures are pressing for both more ASEAN as well as U.S. action on Myanmar.

“ASEAN has to flex its muscle more. ASEAN should be in the forefront of the struggle for human rights in Myanmar but probably the European Union and the United States can impose some measures that will compel Myanmar’s military rulers to address the plight of its people,” Pimentel said in Manila.

This history caused Clinton to lament: “It is an unfortunate fact that Burma seems impervious to influences from anyone. The path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta, but … reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”

Washington currently applies political and economic sanctions against Myanmar because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government.

Thant Myint-U of Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, said the sanctions would make sense “if the U.S. was willing to make Burma it’s No. 1 priority and use all its leverage with China and India to make them global and that’s not going to happen.”

Washington instead should move ahead with direct talks and real engagement in an effort to influence the next generation of military leaders, he said, because they hold the key to change.

Tuesday, February 24

From Tim Patterson

Campfires twinkle along the Chinese border as soldiers sing raucous freedom ballads and strum beat-up old guitars. They sing in Jinghpaw, the main language of the Kachin people, and their joy is irrepressible on this cold night in the Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar.

The far north of Myanmar — formerly Burma — is home to the Kachins, a group of predominantly Christian tribes whose struggle against the military government of Myanmar is now in its fifth decade. As ethnic and religious minorities in one of the most repressed and impoverished countries in the world, the Kachins are fighting an uphill battle to achieve political autonomy throughout their homeland.

The Myanmar military government, dominated by ethnic Burmese, has long sought to suppress insurgencies led by ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Karen and Shan. Like many conflicts worldwide, the struggles between Myanmar’s minority ethnic groups and the central government are exacerbated by the inherent wealth of the contested lands.

Kachin state is lightly populated but rich in natural resources, which include timber, gold and the world’s only significant deposits of high quality jade. Most of these resources are exported to China, which is the biggest provider of arms to the Myanmar military. Ordinary Kachins must look on while the wealth of their land is sold out from under them, financing their oppression.

“The prosperity of Kachin state has been seized by the junta,” said Seng Maw, 23, one of two female students at a leadership training academy run by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). “We don’t own the rights to our own resources.”

A 1994 ceasefire agreement between the KIO and the Myanmar military ended active hostilities, but the political situation remains tense. The ceasefire froze the conflict in place without addressing any of its causes. Many civilians anticipate a renewed outbreak of war in 2010, when the government has scheduled elections that few believe will be free or fair.

Kachins see their freedom struggle as separate from political opposition on the part of the ethnic Burmese majority. Even if a democratically elected government were to replace the junta, the Kachins doubt any Burmese government would respect their autonomy.

“The Burmese political system has always been top down,” explained Daw Kong, a KIO volunteer. “Democracy will be very hard for them to put into practice.”

Anger at the Myanmar government runs deep, especially among young people.

“I have a university degree in economics, but there is no job for me,” explained a 22-year-old who joined the Kachin Independence Army after failing to find employment in the state capital of Myitkyina. “There are no good positions for Kachin people.”

For now, the KIO maintains a shadow state in pockets of territory along the Chinese border. Although the area under exclusive KIO control amounts to less than 10 percent of Kachin state, peace has provided the breathing room to build institutions of self-government and civil society. The KIO has its own police department, education system, television station and immigration department, and levies taxes at border crossings with China.

Much of the KIO’s funding comes from business deals that facilitate the exploitation of natural resources by Chinese and Burmese companies, and its own human rights record is mixed.

According to a 2007 report by the monitoring organization Human Rights Watch, the KIA accepts minors who volunteer for military service, but no longer recruits soldiers who are under 18 years old.

The KIO’s opium eradication program has drawn recognition from international observers.

“The KIO are one group that is clearly sincere about eradicating drug production,” said David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. “The international community has to recognize the good intentions of the KIO.”

The KIO leadership has relocated from a windswept mountaintop base to modern headquarters overlooking the bustling border town of Laiza. The new facilities feature concrete office buildings equipped with internet connections and a large meeting hall used for Sunday church services.

The 5th brigade of the Kachin Independence Army is stationed near Laiza, next to a golf course where KIO officials host members of the Myanmar government’s northern command. A misplayed shot here could end up in Chinese territory — totally out of bounds.

This fairway diplomacy is a meager substitute for genuine political dialogue, but the Kachins take it seriously. Golf is taught alongside jungle survival skills at the Kachin military academy, where a putting green is just steps away from a map depicting fortified positions.

Veterans of the guerrilla war attend officer training school at the military academy, alongside a new generation of soldiers who profess an eagerness to fight for their nation. Soldiers are paid 10,000 kyat per month, less than $10.

“My generation thinks there will be a war,” said a young academy cadet. “We don’t know what the leadership will decide. We will follow their orders.”

Some Kachins feel the KIO sold out by agreeing to a ceasefire.

The ceasefire “was the best chance for KIO leaders to corrupt the natural resources such as gold mining, jading and logging for their own comfort,” wrote a former KIO official who requested anonymity.

Such high-level corruption might hamstring the KIO’s ability to rally support among ordinary Kachins.

“In Myanmar we have three in one – government, military and business,” explained Dtoi La, a trainee journalist. “That’s true for the junta and the KIO.”

For now, Kachins prepare for the future as best they can. Their dream is not a return to the old ways of subsistence agriculture, but rather a chance to develop as other nations do.

“We don’t want to be left behind,” Dtoi La said. “Keep an eye on Myanmar. There will be war in the future.”

Chin National Day turns into Chin State Day celebration in Burma

Note: The Chin people of Burma are overwhelmingly Christian, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and numerous other denominations.


New Delhi (Mizzima) - With the Burmese military junta's profound objection to the celebration of Chin National Day, ethnic Chin in Rangoon are albeit being forced to mark the day under different banners, organisers said.

On Friday, Chin people in Rangoon, celebrated the 61st anniversary of Chin Nation Day under the banner of 'Fresher Welcome' of University students.

"We requested the local authorities in the township and district levels in Rangoon but they rejected our request to allow us to hold the Chin National Day celebration," an organizer said.

"So, we had no choice but to celebrate our national day under a different name."

But in Hakha, capital of Chin State, authorities forced Chin community leaders to observe the Day as 'Chin State Day', a local resident said.  

"Actually, we prefer to use the actual name 'Chin National Day'. But the authorities do not allow us to do so. So we have no choice," she added. 

Chin National Day was adopted at the first Chin National Conference held on February 20, 1948 in Falam town in Chin state. During the conference, Chin leaders agreed to abolish the use of the chieftainship system of administration and agreed to form a democratic system of governance.

However, the Chin National Day was later renamed as the Chin State Day during the rule of the Burma Social Programme Party (BSPP) regime led General Ne Win, who assumed power in a military coup in 1962.

Salai Kipp Kho Lian, a Germany based Chin activist, alleged that changing the Chin National Day into Chin State Day is part of the junta's nationalization policy to eradicate the identity of ethnic minorities in Burma.

Kipp said it was on January 3, 1974 that the Burmese regime declared the Chin Special Division into Chin State so February 20 cannot be in anyway observed as Chin State Day.

"It does not make any sense to change Chin National Day into Chin State Day," Kipp said. 

"It is a part of the Burmese regime's Burmanization campaign to eliminate ethnic groups," Kipp alleged.

But he said, "The more they [the regime] oppress us, the more we become active to promote our national identity."

On Friday, Chin people around the world including New Delhi, Denmark, and Malaysia marked the Chin National Day. 

In New Delhi, more than 1000 Chin communities gathered in the western region of the city to celebrate the Chin National Day, where they performed traditional dances and sang folk songs to depict the culture of various ethnic groups among the Chin community.

Saturday, February 21

A Sign of a Fist Unclenching?

From The Associated Press (AP):

Myanmar’s military government announced an amnesty Friday night for more than 6,000 prisoners but did not mention whether any political detainees will be among those released.

State radio and television announced that the convicts from various prisons would be released starting Saturday. The brief announcement said that 6,313 prisoners were being freed in recognition of their good conduct and so that they would be able to participate in a general election planned for next year.

Human rights groups estimate that the regime holds more than 2,100 political detainees, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention without trial.

When the junta freed 9,002 prisoners last September, only about a dozen were political detainees.

In recent months, the junta’s courts have sentenced more than 100 dissidents, including some of the country’s most prominent activists, to prison terms that would keep them incarcerated well past the 2010 polls. The junta says the elections will restore democracy, but critics charge they will be a sham to keep the military in control.

The top U.N. envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, who recently visitied the country, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that he had not received any official communique from the government and was waiting to see how many of the prisoners were criminals and how many were political prisoners.

“At the same time I believe it’s fair to welcome the release of prisoners, particularly political prisoners,” Gambari said.

Asked for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s reaction, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas echoed Gambari, saying “it still remains unclear whether and how many political prisoners this deal may include.”

“We encourage the government to release all political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said.

Myanmar, which has been under military rule since 1962, is shunned by Western nations because of its poor human rights record. The ruling generals came to power in 1988 after crushing a pro-democracy uprising and killing as many as 3,000 people.

The junta called elections in 1990 but refused to honor the results when Suu Kyi’s party won overwhelmingly.

Opinion Against Sanctions

By Stanley A. Weiss

Watching President Barack Obama’s inauguration from my hotel room in Yangon, in Myanmar, I doubted whether his promise of change was meant for Myanmar as well.

U.S. relations with this country have stagnated for years, as Washington strives to sanction the country’s brutal leadership into submission. Meanwhile, the misery of Myanmar’s 54 million people deepens by the day.

Yet, the ice may be cracking. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Washington “is looking at steps that might influence the current Burmese government” and “ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people.”

Meanwhile, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, issued a statement of willingness to begin dialogue with the regime without preconditions.

But it is time to admit that the regime’s full acquiescence to U.S. demands is not a requirement for improving people’s lives. That does not mean the United States should cease supporting the democratic aspirations of Myanmar’s people, or that Washington should embrace a regime that has driven a resource-rich country into poverty, used violence to stifle dissent, jailed more than 2,000 political prisoners, deprived its citizens of education and health care, and conscripted children into military service.

But the U.S. policy of isolation is only making the junta more recalcitrant. A member of a foreign intelligence service told me of speaking with a top general, who said, “We are not scared of Western sanctions; we will survive as long as we have rice, salt and ngapi (fermented fish paste).”

Myanmar has endured colonial rule, foreign invasion, civil war and armed insurgency; its intensely nationalistic leaders are paranoid and proud in equal measure. Besides, the junta can count on more than fish paste to see them through: Myanmar has significant natural gas reserves and neighbors happy to trade and invest.

Proponents of sanctions counter that the policy needs more time; that critical loopholes have only recently been tightened; that the answer isn’t to lift the sanctions but to bring more countries - especially China - on board. Yet there is no reason to think Beijing would be susceptible to U.S. pressure on Myanmar.

Meanwhile, as Brahma Chellaney, one of India’s top strategic thinkers told me, the United States “doesn’t have to live with the consequences of its actions,” but neighboring countries “will not escape the effects of an unstable Myanmar.”

Sanctioning Myanmar may make Americans feel good, but feeling good and doing good are not the same. If the U.S. intent is to improve people’s lives in Myanmar, it must find a new way forward.

First, to succeed in Myanmar, U.S. officials must think like the Burmese. Not only have punitive sanctions and relentless public condemnation failed to moderate the regime’s behavior, they have pushed the junta further away from the West and into Chinese arms.

Too close a relationship between Myanmar and China is in neither the generals’ nor Washington’s interests, but the United States has offered only the back of its hand. The U.S. won’t even call Myanmar by its name, even though “Myanmar” is the Burmese named for their country, while “Burma” was the name imposed by British colonizers.

As a former Asian diplomat with deep knowledge of Myanmar told me, the people at large “see the West’s persistence in calling the country ‘Burma’ not only as childish and petulant but also as a disrespect to the country and its people.” Using “Myanmar” in recognition of the country’s difficult history and independence struggle is a gesture that might alleviate some of the junta’s suspicion of the outside world.

Second, the United States should increase humanitarian assistance, channeled via the United Nations and NGOs. Myanmar’s people endure grinding poverty; their leaders spend only 0.3 percent of GDP on public health, as many as 6 million people lack access to food, and UNICEF reports that 50 percent of infant deaths are from preventable causes. Yet the country receives less than $3 of official development assistance per capita - as compared to $38 for Cambodia and $49 for Laos.

A range of Western donors are already working successfully in Myanmar. In less than two years, the Three Diseases Fund has reached over 93,000 people with HIV prevention activities, provided antiretroviral treatment to 5,500 people living with HIV, supplied over 800,000 people with bed nets, and supported drug distribution to 123,000 tuberculosis patients.

As British Ambassador Mark Canning told me, humanitarian assistance “not only helps people in need, but acts as a medium through which to engage the more constructive elements in government, exposes thousands of young people to the way the foreign relief community works, and reminds them that the international community is out there and there is the promise some day of a more normal relationship.” It offers both moral and material solidarity with Myanmar’s people.

And they want our help. In my quiet conversations with taxi drivers, shopkeepers and tour guides in Yangon, no one spoke to me of politics. Instead I was asked, “How can I go to your schools? Will America help us get medical treatment?” Ma Thanegi, a former aide to Aung San Suu Kyi who now advocates against sanctions, told me there were only two functioning radiotherapy machines in this Texas-sized country.

Last year, the major headline out of Myanmar was a deadly cyclone. This year, let’s hope it will be the winds of change.

Stanley A. Weiss is founding chairman of Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington.

Friday, February 20

From The Washington Post

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western governments had failed to pressure the repressive Burmese government, signaling a potentially major shift in U.S. policy.

Clinton, at a news conference here, did not deny that easing sanctions was one of the ideas under consideration by the Obama administration as part of a major review. “We are looking at possible ideas that can be presented,” she told reporters and said that she had discussed the issue with Indonesia officials here.

“Clearly the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” she said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world’s most oppressive nations. The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, which the military leadership refused to accept. She has been held in confinement repeatedly since then.

Any move by the Obama administration to scale back sanctions on Burma could face strong opposition in Congress, where lawmakers have imposed a series of increasingly tougher restrictions on the Southeast Asian nation. The Bush administration also invested significant diplomatic capital into moving Burma for the first time onto the agenda of the United Nations Security Council, although proposed resolutions criticizing the junta’s behavior have been vetoed by Russia and China.

Vice President Biden last year was the key mover in the Senate of the Block Burmese JADE act, which renewed restrictions on the import of Burmese gems and tightened sanctions on mining projects there. The act also imposed new financial sanctions and travel restrictions on the junta’s leaders and their associates and created a post for a high-level envoy and policy coordinator for Burma.

But some humanitarian organizations have begun to question the sanctions policies. In an influential report issued in October, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group argued that humanitarian aid should begin to flow into the country and bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.

“It is a mistake in the Myanmar context to use aid as a bargaining chip, to be given only in return for political change,” the report said. “Twenty years of aid restrictions — which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries — have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change.”

While Clinton has been careful not to tip her hand on the direction of the policy review, she has used strikingly mild language about the Burmese government, describing “the unfortunate path” taken by Burma, leaving it “impervious to influence from anyone.”

From BurmaNet

The United Nations’ human rights envoy for Myanmar headed on Wednesday for the country’s new capital, Naypyidaw, for possible meetings with senior junta figures.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Human Rights Rapporteur for Myanmar, arrived on Saturday for his second mission to the country and visited political prisoners earlier in the week.

“He left for Naypyidaw this morning but we are not sure who exactly will receive him,” a diplomat based in the main city, Yangon, told Reuters.

The U.N. says Quintana had asked the military government for access to “a number of prisoners of conscience” but it was unclear if he would be able to visit opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest in Yangon for 13 of the past 19 years.

The generals moved the capital to Naypyidaw, about 380 km north of Yangon, in 2005.

Quintana was in eastern Kayin State on Sunday and Monday, visiting the prison in the local capital, Pa-an, and meeting leaders of ethnic groups opposed to the junta.

Later on Monday he went to the notorious Insein Central Jail on the outskirts of Yangon, where he met political prisoners including Tin Min Htut and Nyi Bu, elected MPs from the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD).

They were sentenced to 15 years in prison in a closed trial on Friday, the day before Quintana arrived.

The two men had been arrested last August after they wrote an open letter to the U.N. criticising the military regime’s proposed political reforms.

State media made no mention of the U.N. envoy’s visit.

Under a new constitution brought in last year, multi-party elections are to be held in 2010, although the generals will be handing over little real power to the elected leadership.

Suu Kyi’s NLD believes the results of the last election in 1990 should be respected and form the basis for any transition to democracy. The NLD won a landslide victory, only to be denied power by the military, which has run the country since 1962.

The NLD has not said publicly whether it will take part in the election but it has called on the regime to set up a multilateral commission to review the constitution.

All three state-owned papers, which are generally considered to be the mouthpiece of the junta, urged the opposition on Wednesday to take part in the 2010 vote.

“If they really want to serve the interests of the nation and the people, they should recognise the benevolent attitude of the government and stand for elections fairly in line with the law,” the English daily New Light of Myanmar said in a commentary.

The NLD for its part issued a statement on Tuesday calling for a meeting between Suu Kyi and regime supremo Senior General Than Shwe.

“It will be the best way to bring about significant advantages for the country if the two leaders, who have the decisive power, meet and talk immediately without any preconditions instead of arguing with each other,” it said.

From Khin Maung Soe Min

Locals in Chin state’s Htantalan township are being forced to work on the reconstruction of an old road and donate money towards the project in order to gain favour with authorities.

An ethnic Chin local in Hakha village said that Dr Mu Htan, who was elected by Htantalan as an independent representative for the people’s parliament in 1990, is making locals work on the reconstruction.

“He is forcing locals to contribute one head per household for one week for the road construction with no meal provided,” said the man.

Mu Htan is known to have close business deals with the government. It is thought that locals are being forced into the work to gain favour with Chin state’s Peace and Development Council chairman colonel Hon Ngai.

“Also he is aiming to collect 62 million kyat donation money for that project and has been pressuring parents of local youths who are living abroad now to ask for money from them,” said the man.

The reconstruction is being done on an old road linking the state’s capital Hakha to Hmandaw village in Sagaing division, halfway between Kalay and Gantgaw townships.

Hakha locals have said they were worried they might miss the marking of the Chin national day on 20 February because they had to do work for Mu Htan.

Mu Htan was unavailable for comments.

Wednesday, February 11

From the Thai Border

[The Nation] The Thai Foreign Ministry’s permanent secretary Virasak Futrakul yesterday told US actress Angelina Jolie to mind her own business and demanded an explanation from the UN agency for refugees why it brought her to a refugee camp here in the first place. The Interior Ministry supervises refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border and the UN refugee agency has stepped out of line by taking the Hollywood star there, Virasak said. He also reminded the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the UN has no mandate in these camps and therefore should not be saying anything. The agency said that Jolie and her partner Brad Pitt visited the camp on the Thai-Burmese border after receiving permission from the Interior Ministry.

So much for the diplomatic jargon and necessities, but excuse us for reminding the world that the international community has a major problem on its hand. It concerns the Rohingyas, a stateless people who reside in Burma’s Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.

But while no one can fully control the words and actions of Hollywood celebrities, the fact of the matter is, when they speak, just about everybody listens.

Thailand’s claim of sovereignty over this matter is understandable given the fact that the country is not a signatory to any refugee convention. But hiding behind diplomatic protocol doesn’t hold water, especially when the country is in a public relations mess following reports that our security forces have pushed hundreds of Rohingya boat people back out to sea. Some have been left unaccounted for while others have given heartbreaking accounts of mistreatment by the Thai military, which towed them back out to sea in ill-equipped boats with little food and water. Another blow to Thailand’s image is the fact that the Indian navy, which has rescued Rohingyas, repeated their stories to the world.

We don’t need to dance to Jolie’s tune just because she is a Hollywood superstar. What we need to do is come up with a sound policy that is based on legal and humanitarian principles. Instead of blaming Jolie, who has the luxury of walking away from this after a few days of photo ops, why don’t we start talking about the root cause of the problem? Or is that against the unwritten rules of Asean when it comes to “domestic matters” in a neighbouring member country?

This particular problem is caused by the Burmese junta - a source of headaches and heartache for Thailand, all Asean members and the international community.

Monday, February 9

Chin Children Being Conscripted Into Army

Under age boys are being recruited forcibly as soldiers in the Burmese Army in Chin state, western Myanmar.

Three boys, about 13 years of age in Paletwa town were forcibly recruited in the army on January 28 by Commander Maung Than and seven soldiers from the Lisin Army camp of IB (304). They are still at the military camp, a local said.

He said the victims are NguiTheing (13) son of Pa Net, In Thawng (14) son of Khipui, and Sawng San (13) son of Khan Kung of Lung Zaw Kung village. They were taken from their homes..

“Ngui Theing was taken from his house. He was reluctant to go and cried out but even village heads were afraid to stop the forced recruitment, he told to Khonumthung News.

A report said that five boys from Matupi and Paletwa townships ran away to Mizoram state between December 2008 to January 2009 as they were afraid to join the army.

A local in Matupi said that if soldiers in Matupi IB (304) can recruit children, they will be promoted to a higher rank. So army people are searching for boys in the villages.

“When the authorities constructed the Matupi army camp in December 2008, they were trying to persuade a boy who was not attending school to serve as a soldier. But he refused and he was put in the lockup for a whole night as punishment,” he added.

Regarding this matter Terah of Chin Human Rights Organistaion(CHRO) said, “Actually the government should protect children from forced recruitment as child soldiers, but they doing this disgusting thing for their own interest and it violates human rights,”

The military junta is a signatory to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) paragraph (38) which mentions that it has to protect under 15 year-old children from forced recruitment to the military

Friday, February 6

Monks Supply Electricity Where Government Will Not

Electricity is flowing from two monk-led local development projects as the government continues to leave much of the rest of southern Burma without power.

The projects, in Chaung zone and Paung Townships, Mon State have both been organized by monks or former monks, and are now bringing electricity to over 600 households, with capacity for hundreds more.

“Our village has electricity now, because of the efforts of the monk and monastery donors,” said a woman from Dare village in Chaung zone Township, on Belukyn Island. “If we just hoped for electricity from the government, our village would never have electricity.”

The project in Dare was spearheaded by the abbot of the Mingalala Thu Kat Monastery, who organized a group of 15 laymen that purchased a generator from Rangoon in December. About 120 of Dare’s 200 households are currently drawing power.

“Paung Town has electrical wires from the government, but it is rare that we get any power,” added a resident of Paung Town. “That’s why some villages try to get electricity themselves. Even if they get electricity from the government, it is not enough power to do anything.”

The project in Paung Township is centered in Mu Naing village, where former monks from the local monastery raised money to buy a hydroelectric generator in November. The project has capacity for more than 1,000 households, with 514 currently connected.

Less than a kilometer away in Moulmein, Mon State’s capital city, residents have been complaining about the decreasing wattage of the power they receive. Last week, Mon State officials extended electricity to villages in nearby Mudon Township. They did so, apparently, without increasing the power output from Ngante station at Moulmein.

The wattage from the project on Belukyn Island, meanwhile, has residents raving. “The power supply is very good,” said the Dare resident. “We can cook, we can iron. We can use a refrigerator, fill batteries or even watch TV.”

Electricity in most parts of Burma is non-existent or inconsistent at best, with even major cities like Rangoon suffering from limited supplies and frequent outages. In Mon State, residents are often promised electricity contingent on bribes, but still fail to receive power.

Land Siezed for Arms Depot: Man Arrested On State Secrets Charge

Statement Before UK House of Commons

Bercow, John

That this House expresses deep concern at recent events in Burma with authorities in Rangoon ordering that services cease in at least a 100 local churches with a threat of prison for non-compliance; notes the concern of some of the local Christians who believe that the immediate cause of the crackdown is church involvement in providing relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis; further notes continued widespread discrimination against religious minorities and in some places violent persecution of Christians and Muslims in other parts of Burma; calls on the Government to raise concerns about religious freedom with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC); urges the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief to investigate violations of religious freedom in Burma; and calls on the United Nations Secretary General to increase and intensify efforts to urge the SPDC to cease its widespread violation of human rights, including violations of religious freedom, to release all political prisoners, to open all parts of the country to unhindered access for international humanitarian organisations and to engage in meaningful tripartite dialogue with the National League for Democracy and the ethnic nationalities.

Opium Growers Return To Their Fields

by Larry Jagan

Opium poppy cultivation in Burma has increased alarmingly in the past two years amid fears that region's worsening economic crisis will encourage an even greater spurt in growth, warns the United Nations.

Falling international commodity prices and increase political instability in Burma's border area has fuelled fears that many of Burma's poppy farmers will find it impossible to resist the temptation to return to their old ways. In the past few years there has been a dramatic fall in the area under poppy cultivation and opium production, but these gains have been reversed in the past two years, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) annual survey just released.

"The problem of poppy production in the region has been contained but not solved," the UNODC chief in Bangkok, Gary Lewis told Mizzima. "There have been significant increases, especially in Myanmar, which are threatening to rise further because of the worsening economic conditions faced by former poppy farmers."
More than ninety percent of the poppy grown in south-east Asia – Burma, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – is grown in Burma's north-eastern Shan State, though significant strides have been made in Burma over the past decade to dramatically reduce the cultivation of poppy and the production of opium.

Poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares under poppy cultivation to around 30,000 in 2008 in Burma. Opium production has fallen from more than 1300 metric tonnes to 410 during this period. This is the equivalent of producing 40 tonnes of heroin. This reduction has been largely the result of international pressure on two of the largest opium producers in Burma's Golden Triangle – which borders China, Laos and Thailand -- the Kokang and the Wa. Both are rebel ethnic groups, with large guerrilla forces, but have ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government.

The Kokang virtually ceased opium production in 2003 and the Wa in 2006. But in the past two years both poppy cultivation and opium production have begun to grow again. "The trend is certainly upwards with a significant increase in the land under cultivation in Myanmar," said Leik Boonwaat, UNODC chief in Laos, who has also been stationed in Myanmar. "For former opium farmers who already live in dire poverty are facing twin levers of increasing opium prices and falling commodity prices that may encourage them to reduce poppy growing."

The prices of most commodities grown or produced in Burma as alternatives to poppy, particularly maize and rubber, have fallen by more than fifty percent, according to the UN's annual drug report. Tens of thousands of former poppy farmers are facing a bleak future, according to an ethnic leader in northern Burma, who declined to be identified. They are almost certain to resume growing poppy, simply to survive, he said.

Most of the Wa and Kokang's alternative crops -- tea, rubber and fruit – are sold to traders across the border in China. But these merchants are no longer interested in buying these products from Burmese producers as demand in China has all but dried up.
Chinese traders are not even buying jade from the Pangsan market. There are even tougher times ahead for the Wa in particular, a source in their capital told Mizzima on condition of anonymity. The leaders are really worried about the future, he added.  

"The price of opium has more than doubled in the past few years – from $153 a kilogramme in 2004 to $ 301 currently on the Myanmar market – making it hard for former opium growers to ignore this incentive to return to poppy cultivation," Leik Boonwaat told Mizzima.
With declining prices for their substitute crops and soaring market prices for opium, thousands of former poppy growers are at risk of returning to their traditional crop to produce the extra cash income they need.

Already there are significant signs that Burma's poppy growers are returning to their old trade. In the past two years there has been a distinct upward trend, according to the UN's latest annual report. Although opium production fell a little last year compared to the year before, this is because the yield was worse.

The greatest increase has been in Southern Shan state, where the Wa leadership is in the hands of the Chinese gangster Wei Xiao Gang – who is wanted on trafficking charges in the United States.
While the UN survey suggests that in the main Wa area – Wa Special Region 2 – there has been no resumption yet of poppy cultivation, there has been a steady increase in both eastern and northern Shan state. More worrying is the steady increase in poppy cultivation in both Kachin and Kayah states.

The fragile situation in the northern Wa areas is also of great concern to international anti-drug agencies, according to senior Thai intelligence officers. So far the Wa ban on poppy production, punishable by death, is holding but this may not be the case in the year.

Wa leaders have always know that the situation remained precarious – the ban was never a popular move – and depended on the poor Wa farmers having greater food security and an alternative source of a cash income.

"The Wa leaders may even be forced to renege on their promises to the UN and international community if the economic and security situation deteriorates further," a UN drugs official familiar with the problems in Shan state told Mizzima, but declined to be identified.
The current political problems in Burma – the planned elections in 2010 and the junta's efforts to disarm the ceasefire groups, especially the Wa -- is dramatically increasing instability in the border regions, which have been traditional opium producing areas and this mounting uncertainty is also going to increase the pressure on former opium growers to return to their poppy fields.   

Aware of these problems – and the danger of more former growers resuming poppy cultivation, the UN believes there is an even greater need now to step up action against the drug smugglers.

"Already there are important measures in place for the cooperation and exchange of intelligence between drug enforcement agencies in the region – through the border liaison offices that were established several years ago," said Mr. Lewis.

Smuggling routes have changed in the past few years, with tighter border controls especially along the Myanmar border with China. "Certainly traffickers have had to change their transport methods and routes – much is now being moved through Laos from Myanmar, to meet the demand of the drug addicts in southern China, Thailand and Vietnam," said Mr. Boonwaat.

But some of the Golden Triangle opium production is heading out to India, Europe and the United States through the Rangoon port, according to Burmese government officials.

Last week the authorities seized some 118 kilogrammes of heroin stowed away on a ship, the Kota Tegap, headed for Italy via Singapore. It was hidden between planks of timber that was part of an export consignment.

The ship is owned by the ethnic Chinese Burmese businessman, Kyaw Sein and left the Asia World terminal, owned by the son of the notorious former drug baron Lo Hsing Han. Tun Myint Naing is also targetted by US sanctions. So far no arrests have been made, but investigations are continuing, according Burmese officials.

The ship had actually sailed, before it was ordered to return to port. It was Chinese intelligence who alerted their Burmese counterparts.
"This type of intelligence sharing is happening on a regular basis," Pithaya Jinawat, the deputy Secretary general of Thailand's Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) told Mizzima.

"The Chinese have tipped off the Thai authorities and Lao officials on several occasions in the past couple of years that have resulted in seizures of illicit drugs and the arrest of many traffickers," he said.   

"There is no room for complacency," said Mr. Lewis "There is much more that needs to be done." In particular, to combat the money laundering of the proceeds of illegal activities and the illicit drugs trade.

Not all countries in the region have put anti-money laundering legislation in place. But then law enforcement agencies, judges and advocates all need to be trained. In this regard Asia has a long way to go.

But perhaps UNODC's biggest problem in trying to stamp out drug production and trafficking in the region is the lack of funds. The agency needs more financial support from donors to be able to effectively carry out all its work – especially in Myanmar," Mr. Boonwaat confided.

For the donors who provide these funds, there is a much greater concern: the spiralling growth in meta-amphetamines (ATS). As the UN tireless tackles the problem of opium production – the Chinese gangsters in the Golden Triangle have turned increasingly to yaa baa (as ATS is commonly known in this region). 

Our fear is the production of yaa ba has become the most effective crop substitution for the Red Wa and the Chinese gangsters who back them," said a Thai military intelligence officer on condition of anonymity.

Tuesday, February 3

From Bahrain "Gulf Daily News"

Myanmar's detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday met visiting UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, outlining conditions for dialogue with the junta as the diplomat struggled to make a breakthrough. Gambari is in Myanmar to try to push all sides in the military-ruled nation toward dialogue on democratic reform, after his last visit in August ended in deadlock with Suu Kyi refusing to meet him.

The junta has also shown little sign of embracing the Nigerian troubleshooter's role, and he is not expected to meet reclusive head of state Senior General Than Shwe during his four-day visit, which began on Saturday.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi was allowed out of the lakeside home where she has been kept prisoner for most of the last 19 years to meet Gambari and five senior members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Suu Kyi expressed frustration over the world body's failure to persuade the junta to give up their monopoly on power, her party said.

She told Gambari that any visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should be conditional on the release of her and all political prisoners, NLD spokesman Nyan Win said, while the party also reiterated its stance.

"Our demands are the release of all political prisoners, a review of the constitution, call the People's parliament and also dialogue," said Nyan Win.

People's parliament refers to the landslide election victory by Suu Kyi and the NLD in 1990 - an outcome that was ignored by the junta, with the military instead cementing its now nearly five-decade grip on power.

Nyan Win said Suu Kyi also raised the plight of more than 270 pro-democracy activists recently jailed for up to 104 years.

"She pointed out that the long prison sentences, such as 65 or 100 years, were handed down with no defence and no lawyers allowed," Nyan Win said.