82 and going strong: Than Shwe on Facebook

On Thursday, March 26, Than Shwe’s grandson posted a Facebook photo of Than Shwe and his granddaughter. An Irrawaddy article, “Former Burma Supremo Seen in Rare Photo With Granddaughter,” first brought this to my attention.

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Why I disagree with America’s Burma policy

‘National Tribes of Burma’

Is the Burma of yesterday bound to become the Burma of tomorrow?

The United States, in the past few years, has developed a bad habit of failing to consider all the avenues when it comes to troubled countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Burma. One of the primary reasons I disagree with pro-democracy organizations like US Campaign for Burma and Burma Campaign UK are their strong pro-sanctions stance. I remember reading a paper somewhere about how sanctions let a nation not put its hands in another country’s affairs while allowing it to take the moral high road, essentially that in this case, the U.S. can ignore theproblem of Burma but act like it’s doing beneficial for the country.

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Yellow journalism: all hype and no substance

Kenji Nagai shot point blank

Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai lying dead on a street in Rangoon.

A reader has just e-mailed me the following post from LAist, a blog specializing on Los Angeles, my hometown. The post “U.S. Media Blames Santa Monica College Professor for Burma Web Blackout,” describes the unfair sensationalizing of an innocent professor at a local community college who dutifully uploaded a video of the Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai killed by Burmese troops. The newswires, like Reuters (with its headline “L.A. professor triggers Myanmar Web shutdown”), directly connect the professor’s decision to upload the video to CNN to the shutdown of internet inside Burma. It states:

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Thugocracy = Burma’s (future) disciplined democracy

The following is a good article from The Economist on Burma’s completion of its first step on its Roadmap to Democracy:

A charter for thugocracy
Sep 6th 2007 | BANGKOK

The curtain falls on a long-running farce, with Myanmar no nearer democracy

AFTER 14 years of intermittent meetings and tortured prevarication, a constitutional commission appointed by Myanmar’s junta has come up with the answer it first thought of: to entrench military rule in the benighted country. This week the 1,000 members of the National Convention wound up their work, producing a document outlining the principles to underpin a new constitution. It will give a thin democratic façade to continued military rule. After the actual drafting of the constitution, it will be put to a referendum—probably next year, say officials. Elections would then be held in 2009.

At the closing session of the convention, Myanmar’s acting prime minister, General Thein Sein, presented its conclusion, offering what the regime regards as “disciplined democracy”, as a roaring success. Yet the country’s most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), is under house arrest and has in effect been excluded from the process. So have the numerous groups representing ethnic insurgencies.

Under the guidelines, a quarter of the seats in parliament will be reserved for military appointees. The president will be a military man, and the army will control important ministries, including defence and home affairs. The army would set its own budget, and would retain the right to declare a state of emergency and seize power whenever deemed necessary.

The charter would ban Miss Suu Kyi, as the widow of a foreigner, from holding elected office. It has also disappointed the hopes of the country’s various rebel ethnic groups for greater autonomy. Most of these used to wage armed insurgencies but now have ceasefires with the junta. Many are now so dissatisfied with the charter that they have begun to rearm and are threatening to resume fighting.

On the pretext of “national security” the guidelines also severely curtail civil liberties and the rights of political parties, which, as yet, are unable to operate openly in Myanmar. With the exception of its headquarters in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, the offices of the NLD have been shut by the junta for years. Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, estimates there are more than 1,000 political prisoners in the country.

On a secret visit to Beijing earlier this year, the country’s army chief, Thura Shwe Mann, told Chinese leaders that Miss Suu Kyi could not be released as she remained a big security risk. It is still unclear whether her party, the NLD, will be allowed to run in the elections. Last November, Myanmar’s most senior general, Than Shwe, said it would be allowed to field candidates. Most probably, however, the generals will find a pretext to disqualify them.

The NLD convincingly won the last elections, held in May 1990, taking more than 80% of the seats. But the army refused to recognise the results. Now the regime insists it is committed to introducing multiparty democracy. But diplomats in Yangon and the pro-democracy opposition in Myanmar think Miss Suu Kyi got it right back in 1995, when she called the convention “an absolute farce”.

Recent protests against rising fuel and food prices were put down brutally. Several thousand vigilantes, armed with wooden batons, attacked protesters in Yangon, leaving them badly beaten. The authorities have arrested hundreds of people for organising or taking part in small protests that have taken place all over Myanmar in the past few weeks. This week around 1,000 marchers joined the latest demonstration, the biggest so far, in central Myanmar, before pro-government thugs dispersed it.

The vigilantes are part of a pro-government “community group”, the Union Solidarity and Development Association, whose thugs attacked Miss Suu Kyi in 2003, when she was touring in the north of the country. The regime that deploys them seems little interested in democracy. But nor does it seem self-confident.

I wrote about the the constitutional charter a few months back, and it seems the latest version is no different, at least according to The Economist. Except for one thing: the Burmese national flag’s star is in the center, not on the upper left-hand corner, as I had written earlier this year (and the colored stripes have switched places).

I guess the government really does believe it can fool the world by presenting a ‘disciplined democracy.’ I read an article in The Irrawaddy some time back about how the SPDC had studied Indonesia’s dwifungsi doctrine (according to GlobalSecurity.org: a doctrine of their own evolution, under which they undertook a double role as both defenders of the nation and as a social-political force in national development.), to allot military participation in politics. The Burmese government’s reasoning is this: without the military, Burma as we know it today would fall apart, with the Shans, Karens and the myriad of other ethnic minorities calling for independence and dissolving, “the Union [of Burma].” Also, the military justifies its presence in politics to make sure Burmese voters don’t elect charlatans and what have you, sort of like how Americans indirectly elect the President, because the Founding Fathers believed voters might not elect proper people for the position.

But I have to ask one question: has the military government ruled to the benefit of the Burmese people? It may have created temporary stability, by brokering a series of tentative ceasefires with ethnic militias, but throughout the course of its rule, has only worsened Burma’s economic state. Inflation has increased. Unemployment has increased. Drug use has increased. The majority of people have not benefited from a more open economy. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees, millions of people without citizenship and scores of people with HIV/AIDS (Burma is #3 in Asia for HIV/AIDS cases, after Cambodia and Thailand).

How long will the military government think it can fool itself? Its leaders are uneducated but very clever. They have little experience in policy-making and good governance. But there’s a general misinterpretation of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) leaders. They have been able to retain power for so long because they are smart and calculating. Each move they make is done for a good reason. I personally believe that the increase of fuel prices in Burma was done so that pro-junta parties can use this as a political platform for lowering prices. Or it may be used to rouse the Burmese people.

But protests continue, sprouting like mushrooms throughout the country. In a very recent one, 500 Buddhist monks in Pakkoku protested, only to be met with brute force by USDA and Swan Arr Shin members. A day later, Burmese officials went to the primary monastery to apologize for physically assaulting monks, but the monks took the officials hostage, in exchange for 10 monks in jail. Things may be getting out of hand and I pray they don’t. The last thing the Burmese people need is another repeat of the 8888 uprisings or something similar. The government cannot repeal the fuel price hikes–it would prove that protesting works.

A twist on the Burmese fuel price hikes

Mizzima News has a very interesting article on an alternative explanation for the sudden price increases of fuel last Tuesday. To put it shortly, the article claims that an anonymous group named “Counter Strike Group” said that the recent price hikes of Burma’s diesel, gasoline and natural gas are to invoke civil unrest in Burma. It claims that this maneuver was deliberately done by the Burmese military government, to create an atmosphere similar to that of the 8888 uprising, during which the military usurped power and has held on since.

Burma’s military government has many factions, all vying for power. With the top generals, Than Shwe, Maung Aye and a few others who are now old, a new band of generals and commanders may be inching toward seizing power, through civil unrest and claiming to do so for “national security.” This could be likely, since any major unrest and dissidence would be a good cloak for Burma’s younger and more educated military leaders to stage a coup.

It does seem odd to me that the government did not arrest Rangoon protesters demanding the lowering of fuel prices on Sunday. Even activists who have staged innocuous acts of defiance have been arrested or severely harassed. Anything is possible–and Burma’s military élite are not as insipid as pro-democratic movements like to depict them: they are conniving and very clever.

Mizzima News’ analysis can be found here.

UPDATE: Mizzima followed with news today that a number of student leaders in the 88 Generation Students Group have been arrested by plainclothes officers and USDA (Union Solidarity and Development Organization) members, following protests in Rangoon. The Irrawaddy also reports that number of National League for Democracy activists have also been harassed by the USDA and a paramilitary group that dubs itself “Pyithu Swan Arr Shin.”

A tribute to the men and women of Burma’s 1988 uprisings


On the eve of the 19th anniversary of the events of August 8, 1988, I would like to pay my respects to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burmese who rallied for change in a country so deprived of basic rights and shut from the rest of the world and especially to the thousands of civilians who were killed by gunfire during these protests. 1988 marks a defining point in Burma’s history, as the cry for democracy was heard by the authorities, who finally promised a multiparty democracy, after years of stubbornly ignoring the ongoing economic and social crises in Burma for many years.

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The very sketchy road to democracy

Yesterday, National Convention (NC) delegates reconvened for a final session at Nyaunghnapin. There, NC chairman Thein Sein reiterated and stressed the need to stick to the ‘basic principles’ made in 1996 and the need to follow the six objectives, 5 of which are honorable (on keeping Burma together, creating a multi-party democracy, and nourishing justice, equality and liberty in Burma) and the last one, on ensuring that the Armed Forces will retain leadership in national politics.

The Irrawaddy reports that:

The current final session of the National Convention marks the completion of the first stage of the seven-step road map laid down by the regime in 2003. Though the regime has said a referendum and elections will follow “quickly,” the road map’s second step lacks any clear indication of what the regime will do next.

Currently, Burma is on its first step (reconvening the NC) in its road map to democracy. After the draft proposals and the basic outline are completed, ‘disciplined’ implementations will be made to begin democratizing the country. After that, a constitution, based on the very detailed outlines of the draft proposals will be created. Then, it is up to the voters to decide whether they want such a constitution through a referendum.

But what if the voters reject the Constitution? What will happen next? Will it be fixed and altered to suit what voters want, or will it just be put into effect? It seems that referendum is not far off, so there must be a backup plan in this so-called road map. It seems interesting that Naypyidaw has already been furnished with a multitude of ministry buildings which may not exist in the future (the executive is responsible for tailoring what ministries are needed).

My suspicions are that the Constitution will be passed overwhelmingly, either through pressure or through the open-ballot system (opposite of the Australian ballot system, where voters’ choices are confidential). I think that a non-governmental body needs to oversee elections so that they are fair, and that people should not be pressured, either by the State Peace and Development Council’s civilian body the USDA or by fear of being ostracized. And if it does not pass, there will be repercussions. After the 1990 elections of MPs for the Burmese parliament, the junta rephrased what they had originally said, stating that the elections had been for National Convention delegates to draw up a draft constitution.

And I highly doubt that the National League of Democracy, at least in its present form, will be allowed to participate in future elections (step no. 5 on the road map: holding free and fair elections for [Legislative bodies] according to the new constitution).

A 2004 article on Burma’s democratization from the Institute Of Strategic Studies, Islamabad concludes that:

There are positive indications, so far, that the regime in Myanmar is willing to accept a multi-party political system with a permanent political role for the military not subservient to the civilian political authority, owing to the complex issues of national security and cohesion.

Perhaps the new Armed Forces will become less belligerent and powerful; this is all I can hope for. I’m skeptical of how the new Burmese government will work (if it ever does come to life), but there is some promise for a ‘democratic’ Burma.

How the new Burmese government will work

National Convention

Acting Prime Minister Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, who is the chairman (thabapati) of the National Convention (Amyotha Nyilagan).

Tomorrow, Burma’s military government reconvene its final meeting and wrap up the writing of the constitution at the National Convention, which began nearly 18 years ago. Note that only 11% of the original MPs elected in 1990 are participating in the National Convention. State Peace and Development Council members and selected persons oversee National Convention and regulate it.

Click for a larger version.

The basic structure of the government in the draft constitution.

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The Burmese Armed Forces has its eyes on legitimacy

Roadmap and generals

The road to legitimacy. What the Armed Forces wants and will get.

The Armed Forces has been eying for a legitimate place in the Burmese government. Now, it will get it. With the final National Convention meeting beginning tomorrow, the Constitution will soon be put to referendum.

The basic principles, adopted by the National Convention in the 1990s, are the foundation of the new constitution. Reading what it has to say, the Burmese military will play an enormous role in the new government. It will have influence in all three branches of the government, in various ways.

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