A token release from a growing gulag

The Economist, UK
February 19, 2010

Tin Oo gives thanks where it is due
he generals who rule Burma do not care much for outside scrutiny. So the country is hardly fertile ground for Tomas Ojea Quintana, a United Nations envoy for human rights, who arrived on February 15th for a five-day visit to check on political prisoners and their beleaguered colleagues on the outside.

On the eve of his trip the junta freed one prominent detainee after seven years of house arrest. Tin Oo, a former army chief and co-founder of the opposition National League for Democracy, now aged 82, was detained in 2003 along with the League’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, after a pro-junta mob attacked their convoy, ending a political thaw.

Might Miss Suu Kyi’s release be next? Much hinges on the timing and scope of Burma’s long-awaited election, the first since an annulled 1990 vote won by the League. The junta has promised to hold polls in 2010 and return the country to semi-civilian rule. But there is still no election date and no rules laid down for political parties who want to contest. Some observers are predicting polls by October, one month before Miss Suu Kyi’s current term of house arrest ends. Her party is divided over whether to compete in the election.

As quickly as it empties, Burma’s gulag fills. On February 10th Kyaw Zaw Lwin, a naturalised American citizen, was sentenced to three years in jail for fraud, a ruling that the State Department criticised as politically motivated. Indeed, the gulag may be larger than had been previously thought. Exiled activists have identified over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma’s jails, a number commonly cited by international agencies. But Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher for Amnesty International, a human-rights watchdog, reckons that the number is probably much higher. Ethnic minorities locked up in remote areas often go uncounted.

In a new report Amnesty found that activists in minority areas face predictably harsh retaliation from the authorities, including torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings. These violations are in addition to those meted out to civilians accused of sympathies to ethnic armed groups, such as the Karen National Union, fighting along the Thai-Burmese border.

By focusing on the war of attrition between Miss Suu Kyi and the junta, it is easy to overlook the role of ethnic minorities in opposition politics, says Mr Zawacki. Some pay a heavy price for their activism. Amnesty found cases of minorities punished merely for talking to exiled journalists. During his visit, Mr Quintana travelled to Rakhine state in western Burma to investigate alleged abuses, including of Rohingya Muslims. It was there, in the town of Sittwe, that 300 Buddhist monks marched in August 2007 in protest over fuel prices. It was the first act of defiance in what became the failed Saffron Revolution.

Burmese Army in north told to be ready for combat

In a significant development an order has been released to all Burmese Army divisions and battalions in Shan State and Kachin State to prepare for combat, said sources close to a local Burmese military unit.

The order is meant for all Burmese troops in the two states and was dispatched from capital Naypyitaw, and the headquarters of Burma’s ruling junta on February 15, sources close to the Burmese military in the two states said.

The order instructs military divisions and battalions in the two states to be ready for combat. Interestingly, the name of the enemy to be taken on, is not mentioned in the order, added sources.

A Burmese military analyst on the Sino-Burma border told KNG today, the junta’s order is meant to prepare for an offensive against the two largest ethnic armed groups— the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) based both in Kashin State and Shan State, and United Wa State Army (UWSA). Both have rejected the Burmese Army-controlled Border Guard Force proposal by the junta.

Burmese junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe wants to wrap up the contentious BGF issue, which is a proposal for all ethnic armed groups to transform to the Burmese Army-controlled BGF, before he announces the exact date for general elections this year, reliable local sources said. Continue reading “Burmese Army in north told to be ready for combat”

Crucial Mon monk test draws unexpectedly large number examinees

Independent Mon News Agency
FRIDAY, 19 FEBRUARY 2010 14:48

In an unexpected turn, the number of participants of the Remonnyanikaya monk test for all of Mon State, has been higher then test administrators anticipated.

The exam Rahmonnya Nikaya Dhamma Sariya, which was carried out from February 12th to the 16th , is crucial for the rank advancement of all Mon monks.

What was initially expected to be a decreased turn out due to the increase in political tension in the area, turned out to draw a higher number of participants then last year. This year 1,293 monks registered while 1,138 actually sat for the test. Last year 1,116 monks registered but only 975 took the monk exam.

“We thought that because of the political security [situation], less monks would come to take the test, but [instead] we have more than last year,” explained a presiding monk at the examination. “Also the examination was carried out until its completion. We didn’t see any problems during the exam.” Continue reading “Crucial Mon monk test draws unexpectedly large number examinees”

Headman’s home bombed in Ye Township

Independent Mon News Agency
FRIDAY, 19 FEBRUARY 2010 14:43

According to reports, a bomb exploded at 8:45 pm yesterday, February 18th, in the home of U Thet Cho, headman of Ye Township’s Duya village in Mon State. An 18 year old university student from Duya sustained back injuries from the blast, and is being treated at Duya hospital. No suspects have been detained.

“An 18 year-old boy was hurt by the bomb. Not the headman’s son. While he [the victim] was visiting the headman’s home, it exploded. The bomb hurt his back,” a Duya villager told IMNA.

According to this Duya villager, Duya residents suspect that the bomb was thrown into U Thet Cho’s home through a window, but this theory has yet to be confirmed. The case has no known suspects.

According to a second Duya resident, whose home is located near that of U Thet Cho’s, Infantry Battalion (IB) No. 61 Commander Cho Tun Aung, and 4 privates from the battalion, arrived in Duya on the same night as the blast from their base in Ye Town, located roughly 3 miles away from Duya. The soldiers investigated the site of the explosion, as well as homes in the immediate vicinity of the blast.

“After bomb exploded, after a little while the privates arrived here [in Duya]. I was afraid that they [the battalion privates] would investigate us, so I closed my door early, “ he added.

According to a Duya native currently working in Malaysia, U Thet Cho has held the post of Duya village headman for 8 years; he earns his living by cultivating a rubber plantation, while his wife, Daw Khin Than Htay, sells textiles. The couple has one son and one daughter.

“He has been on duty as a headman for a long time. Some villagers like him, but some do not. This event was caused by someone who does not like him, they threw it [the bomb] I think” he opined.

UN Envoy “Regrets” Not Meeting Suu Kyi

UN Human Rights Envoy to Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana expressed “regret” that he was not given the opportunity to meet with Burma’s detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as he concluded a five-day visit to the country.

At a press conference at Rangoon’s international airport, he said that it will be difficult to hold free and fair elections in Burma and that he saw no signs that Burma’s more than 2,100 political prisoners will be released. Quintana concluded his five-day visit to the Southeast Asian Nation to study the human rights situation ahead of the election later this year. He reportedly waited for the regime’s last-minute response to his request for a meeting with the detained pro-democracy leader, but the request was not granted. Neither was he permitted to meet with Suu Kyi on his previous visits to the country. Continue reading “UN Envoy “Regrets” Not Meeting Suu Kyi”

Two Bombs Explode in Kawkareik Market

Two bombs exploded on Friday around noon at a market in Kawkareik Township in southern Karen State, leaving three people injured and causing minor damage, according to sources in the area. One undetonated bomb was also discovered.

According to a staff member at the hospital in Pa’an, one of the victims later died. The hospital employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the victim was a man who had lost both his legs in the blast.

Police in Kawkareik confirmed the blast, but gave no details about the casualties. Local sources said the victims had been hospitalized in Pa-an, the capital of Karen State.

The sources said that a rumor about possible bomb attacks had circulated in Kawkareik two days before.

The Kawkareik explosion brings the total to four incidents of bomb blasts this week in ethnic Shan and Karen states. Continue reading “Two Bombs Explode in Kawkareik Market”

Returned Burmese Migrant Killed by DKBA

An illegal Burmese migrant was was returned by Thai authorities was shot dead by Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) soldiers on Tuesday at Zero Gate in Myawaddy Township opposite Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border, according to a witness.

Zero Gate, a border crossing point on the Burmese side, is controlled by the DKBA, an ally of the Burmese regime.

“DKBA troops shot the man after they tortured him because he tried to escape from Zero gate,” the witness said.

The man, about 17 years old, was a Burmese Muslim who was arrested by Thai immigration officials at Mae Sot and returned back to the Burmese side to DKBA Zero Gate during the second week of February, according to the source, who said he witnessed the incident. Continue reading “Returned Burmese Migrant Killed by DKBA”

The UN envoy Quintana met with Ko Htay Khwe, Ko Mrat Tun, Ko Kyaw Min, Miha Ahmad, and Ko Tun Nyo in the special hall at Buthidaung prison

Buthidaung: Visiting UN Human Rights Envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana met with political prisoners at the infamous Buthidaung prison in Arakan State during his tour to the township on Wednesday, said an official from the prison.

He said, “The UN envoy Quintana met with Ko Htay Khwe, Ko Mrat Tun, Ko Kyaw Min, Miha Ahmad, and Ko Tun Nyo in the special hall at Buthidaung prison. But we do not know what they discussed.”

Mr. Quintana came to Buthidaung from Sittwe in a speed boat owned by the UNHCR and arrived in Buthidaung at 10 am. Nasaka Commander Colonel Aung Gyi received him at the Buthidaung Jetty.

“He spent at least three hours in meetings with political prisoners. He left the prison at 2 pm,” he said.

Quintana also met with some political prisoners at the Sittwe prison on Tuesday soon after he touched down in Arakan from Rangoon.

According to a source, he met with Ko Than Tin, Ko Pyi Pho Hlaing, Ko Aung Tun Myint, and U Sanda Thiri.

At Sittwe prison the authority put up barriers at many entrance roads to prevent people from getting near the prison, but all the barriers were moved by authorities prior to Quintana’s visit.

Quintana will leave for Rangoon on Thursday and will fly to Naypyidaw on Friday.

According to local community sources, many Arakanese welcome his visit to Arakan, where human rights violations are widespread.

A politician from Sittwe said, “Everybody knows of his visit to Arakan, so the people of Arakan are closely watching the situation in the state to see what would be changed after his visit.”

Human rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday released a report saying many ethnic politicians are oppressed by the military authority and more than 700 activists from Burma’s largest ethnic minorities – including the Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Chin – have been detained in several prisons since August 2007.