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Unity Must Prevail

26 April 2012 By Zaw Zaw Hlaing DVBAfter its organizational conference held on a Thailand-Burma border area, disagreements between the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the Karen National Union (KNU) has led to the KNU suspending its’ membership of the UNFC, a setback for the peace process. While this strikes a blow into the government engineered narrative that the peace process is making substantial progress, it is particularly worrying for the ethnic communities that have been suffering from this conflict for decades.

Ostensibly, disagreements over organizational structure have caused this rift, although there are also disagreements within the KNU leadership itself over its position in the UNFC, leading to fears of a split within what has traditionally been the most prominent ethnic armed group. Previous Burma regimes have used divide and rule tactics to weaken armed resistance and to sabotage ethnic unity and it is imperative that this does not happen now. As ethnic leaders squabble over leadership structures, surely much to the delight of the leaders of the Burma Army, it is the most vulnerable populations who feel the pressures, while the government manages to convince elements of the international community that a peace settlement is just around the corner. It is crucial that whatever reason for the KNU’s withdrawal from the UNFC, they must put the ethnic communities at the forefront of their decision making [...]

September 9, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Draconian Sentences of Unity Weekly Journalists Must at the Very Least be Drastically Reduced

10 July 2014 Photo Lwin Lwin Myint IrrawaddyOn Thursday 28 August, lawyer Robert San Aung submitted to Magwe regional court the final appeal against the harsh verdicts brought against the five Unity Weekly journalists on10 July. They were sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labor following the publication of a report in January of this year that gave details of an alleged chemical weapons facility in central Burma. They were charged for trespass and for “disclosing state secrets” in violation of the 1923 Official Secrets Act (OSA). Robert San Aung submitted the appeal on the grounds that the four reporters are innocent and should therefore be released from prison, and that the sentence of the journal’s executive be reduced by half. The Magwe regional court is expected to issue a decision within a month.

While the offense under Section 3(1)(a) of the OSA is a strict liability offense – meaning that the prosecution only has to prove that the defendants were in the vicinity of the prohibited place for them to be found guilty – in order for the other convictions to stand, the burden is on the prosecution to show that the secrets alleged to have been leaked were intended to or were likely to have breached state security or assisted an enemy. The journalists must be shown to have leaked detailed and useful information, to have done more than just report that the facility was a weapons factory. It is not clear that the prosecution ever satisfied this requirement.

Even so, if the appeal submission fails to convince the court either that the journalists are not guilty of any substantive offenses, or that there are specific and legitimate defenses under the OSA that can be relied upon, then at the very least the appeal should be successful on grounds of mitigation regarding the alleged offenses, meaning that the sentences should at a minimum be drastically reduced [...]

September 2, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Elusive Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement Continues to Distract from Substantial Peace Talks

4 November 2013 Jpaing IrrawaddyAs talks over the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) are delayed once again, thus pushing substantive dialogue further into the future, Burma’s decades long civil war rages on in Kachin and Shan States.
Talks over the signing of the NCA have now gone on for nearly 18 months and the situation on the ground has still not changed. The Burma Army continues to attack ethnic armed groups in areas where ceasefires have been signed, such as those of the Shan State Army South and Shan State Army North, as well as continuing offensives against the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLA) where there is no ceasefire. On Monday 18 August, a civilian in Namkan Township, Shan State was shot dead and another hospitalized after a clash between the TNLA and Burma Army. Human rights violations such as sexual violence, arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killing continue in these active conflict areas, while in areas where individual ceasefires are holding, the Burma Army is entrenching its power both militarily and economically through land confiscation and reinforcement of its positions.

The aim in this pursuit of the NCA is questionable as it distracts from the real issues at hand that prevent the ethnic people of Burma from enjoying genuine peace. Let us not forget that the Burma government has already signed ceasefire agreements with most ethnic armed groups. But has this stopped the attacks and human rights violations inflicted on local communities by armed forces? This question cannot be answered in the affirmative. Just ask the villagers who live in Murng Hsu, Shan State, whose homes came under artillery attack, and were forced to act as guides for the Burma Army in June of this year in a supposed ceasefire area. If all groups sign on to the NCA, the biggest question is how can they trust that the Burma Army will actually cease its attacks. There is scant evidence of this from current and previous ceasefires [...]

August 26, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Reform of the Police and the Judiciary is a Matter of Urgency

Polices stand guard in Monywa townshipOver recent weeks, there has been a spate of unprovoked attacks by the Burma Police Force on peaceful, innocent civilians. On 14 August, nearly 50 police personnel in Mandalay Region shot at a group of around 200 farmers from Nyaung Wine Village, Singu Township. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a 30-year-old mother of two, Ma San Kyin Nu, is allegedly one of the victims, and has been admitted to Mandalay General Hospital for urgent medical treatment as a result of her injuries. The farmers were protesting against the fact that over 6,000 acres of their land was confiscated in 1991 by the 121 Logistic Battalion of the Burma Army – without any compensation being provided – by continuing to plough their fields.

After the police violence, the protesting farmers prevented police from making any arrests; however, later, another 100 police arrived and blockaded the entire village. Local residents then took matters into their own hands and briefly detained about 40 police officers, angered at the brutal approach of the police to the land conflict. Although the policemen were eventually released after negotiations, the dangers and risks of uncontrolled police violence and impunity are evident: blood has been shed and anarchy has prevailed. Even if police allegations that the protestors were armed with slingshots is true, under no circumstances is the use of live ammunition by police or other state security forces on civilian protestors proportionate or justified.

Furthermore, on 14 May, All Burma Federation of Students Union (ABFSU) member Kaung Htet Kyaw was beaten by police during a suppression of a farmers’ protest in Thegon Township in Pegu Region. Kaung Htet Kyaw sustained severe head injuries. ABFSU responded by releasing a statement denouncing police mistreatment [..]

August 19, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Political Opposition in Burma Must Ignore Distractions and Focus on Policy

19 May 2014 Teza Hlaing The IrrawaddyThe main opposition party in Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), said last week that almost 5 million people signed the petition calling for constitutional reform that did the rounds from 27 May to 19 July. The petition pushed for the removal of the Burma Army’s veto on constitutional change that they have by virtue of Article 436 of the Burma Constitution. This campaign has been widely praised as a shrewd tactical move, because it would in theory unlock the door to amendments of any offending articles of the Burma Constitution that undermine democratic values and infringe upon the fundamental rights of the people. Most notably – though by no means exclusively, as the NLD and others are at pains to stress – amendment of Article 436 will in turn enable amendment of Article 59(f), which in practice bars Daw Aung San Suu Kyi running for President in the 2015 elections.

While such a public initiative is to be applauded, and the weight of support for the petition is to be welcomed, the political opposition in Burma must not allow itself to be distracted by such diversionary machinations on the part of the Burma Government and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The NLD is right that constitutional reform is essential to the establishment of genuine democracy in Burma. However, it is also time for the political opposition to test the limited democratic space that now exists in Burma, and time to start outlining a viable policy platform for government. The burden rests with the NLD and other democratic opposition parties to engineer a seismic cultural and political shift: away from politics traditionally centred on personalities and fear, and towards politics based on actual policies that will resolve people’s grievances and promote and protect their political, economic, social and cultural rights.

August 12, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Move to Proportional Representation a Power Grab by the Military-backed USDP

4 August 2014 Kaung Myat Min IrrawaddyThe debate over a potential change to Burma’s electoral system, from a First Past the Post System (FPP) to a Proportional Representation System (PR) is gathering momentum, with a new committee formed by the Parliamentary lower house speaker, Shwe Mann, to discuss whether this is appropriate for the country. While the general debate over suitability of differing electoral systems is complex and broad, if seen through the eyes of the context in Burma, there is one clear winner if this change is implemented before the 2015 general election: the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) which is unsurprisingly supportive of this change.

The argument for Burma to change to PR is certainly compelling. Theoretically, it will give smaller political parties, such as the NDF who proposed the motion, more chance of representation in the legislature, while the same goes for smaller ethnic political parties. Yet it is much more complex than this. For constituencies in ethnically concentrated areas, where there is a dominant ethnic political party, for example the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) in Arakan State, FPP is more advantageous for that dominant ethnic political party, as seen in the RNDP’s dominance of the Arakan State legislature. Focusing on winning seats in ethnically concentrated areas might be the only way that ethnic political parties guarantee representation under the first past the post system. Yet under PR, if the total population of a certain ethnic group is under the 1% threshold of votes needed to gain a seat that is typical of PR, then that party will not win any seats at all, even if the ethnic nationality it represents is dominant in certain constituencies.[...]

August 5, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

New Special Rapporteur, Familiar Human Rights Abuses

28 July 2014 Eskinder Debebe UN PhotoThe new Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yang Hee Lee, concluded her first visit to the country on 27 November, and unsurprisingly, found the human rights situation troubling, warning of the potential of backtracking on initial reforms, an analysis that resonates with many Burma followers. She outlined her initial findings at Rangoon airport in a statement just as she finished her mission, highlighting the shrinking of democratic space, the ongoing religious violence and discrimination, the deteriorating humanitarian conditions for internally displaced persons (IDPs) – especially Muslims – in Arakan State, the severe human rights abuses in Kachin State, the urgent necessity for legislative reform and the rule of law, the lack of involvement of women in both the peace process and governance, the exclusion of local people in large scale development projects and the impact of such projects on vulnerable communities, and the continuing incarceration of political activists, among other issues.

We welcome Ms. Lee’s open and honest discussion of the term “Rohingya” and her pledge to be guided by international human rights law as regards the use of this term. This was despite the insistence of government officials not to use the word “Rohingya” throughout her trip to Arakan State. On the basis of this principled stance, we are reassured that Ms. Lee will not flinch from using the term when appropriate in the future. After visiting two camps for IDPs, one for Arakan Buddhists and one for Rohingya Muslims, Ms. Lee was troubled by both the terrible conditions in the camps and the lack of humanitarian access that is resulting in people dying due to insufficient medical assistance. She also acknowledged that this situation is “undeniably worse” in the camp for Rohingya. While she did not explicitly state that this is a situation engineered and maintained by the authorities, it is obvious that the unequal treatment of Buddhist and Muslim IDPs is a deliberate policy by the government that further punishes the Rohingya simply due to their ethnicity.

July 29, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Flurry of Rumor and Counter Rumor Regarding Repatriation is Detrimental to Refugees

20-June-2011-SIMON ROUGHNEEN-The IrrawaddyA week ago, rumors began doing the rounds that the Thai military plans to repatriate the 130,000 or so displaced persons from Burma living in nine camps in Thailand along the length of the Burma-Thailand border in the relatively immediate future. The rumors started when General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), mentioned that the refugee issue had been discussed with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander-in-Chief of the Burma Army. On 14 July, the Bangkok Post then quoted an unnamed Thai military source saying that working teams have sorted 130,000 refugees into three groups as part of preparations to send them home, a process expected to take around a year or more. A Burma Border Guard Force officer also told Mizzima on 15 July that armed ethnic groups in Karen State would allegedly cooperate in the resettlement of refugees on their return home.

However, according to DVB, Colonel Weerachon Sukondhadpatipak, a spokesman for the Thai military, refuted the rumors: “I don’t think this [repatriation] will happen at this moment. It is an issue we need to solve, but it doesn’t mean we are sending the Burmese people back to [Burma],” Weerachon said. “It is a long process that needs to be discussed with all concerned parties.” Indeed, nationalities would first need to be verified and people head-counted [...]

July 22, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

A Return to the Bad Old Days for Freedom of Expression

12-July-Sai-Zaw-The-IrrawaddyIn a scarcely believable and punishingly harsh act of repression, four journalists and the CEO of Unity journal were sentenced by a Magwe Region court on 10 July to ten years imprisonment with hard labor for reporting on a story on a chemical weapons factory, giving a damming indictment of press freedom in Burma today. This occurred just days after President Thein Sein described Burma as “one of the freest in Southeast Asia” due to media reforms.

In January 2014, Unity journal published an investigative report on a chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region, central Burma, with accounts from factory workers, local villagers and photos of the site. While the Burma government eventually admitted it is a ‘standard ordnance factory’ that produces ordinary military equipment, an analysis of the images by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies concludes that there is strong evidence that this isn’t just a normal arms factory, and is consistent with chemical weapons factories in other places, such as North Korea. It is ironic that the journalists who published a story on chemical weapons are jailed for ten years under the State Secrets Act, while the Burma government denies it is making chemical weapons. Related to this, a point that has been overlooked slightly over the past week is that Burma must implement the measures of the Chemical Weapons Convention that it signed in 1993 and thus clear up the issue of whether Burma does have the capability to manufacture such equipment, as the Unity journalists reported and are now in prison for. [...]

July 15, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>

Burma Must Find a Path to a More Tolerant Society

7 July Kyaw Thu Yein The IrrawaddyThe streets of Mandalay, which just recently drew over 20,000 people in support of National League for Democracy and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society’s joint campaign to amend Section 436 of the Constitution in support of democratic reform, remain deserted this last week as many business owners closed their shutters in fear, following serious unrest in the city. In the second largest city in Burma, violent mobs took over the streets, leaving two people dead and dozens injured. Some stated that over “70 police were here but did nothing,” as Buddhist mobs torched a school in a Muslim area. Ironically the international community has mostly stayed silent in the wake of the recent events when their actions are needed to protect the people of Burma, especially the most vulnerable communities, more than ever.

The series of events began on 1 July, just hours after the extremist Buddhist monk, and leader of the anti-Muslim 969 movement, Wirathu, picked up a questionable post from the social media site Facebook that highlighted an alleged rape of a Buddhist woman committed by two Muslim brothers. According to David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, Wirathu, who is based in Mandalay, appeared to have played “a pivotal role” in inciting the unrest, fanning tensions by spreading accusations with religious inferences, while calling for action against the two Muslim brothers who own a teashop in the same area where his monastery is located [...]

July 8, 2014 | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read more >>
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