Burma Update

News and updates on Burma

21 October 2011


News on Burma - 21/10/11

  1. Burma to drop ban on satellite TV
  2. A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore
  3. Sixty-five percent of foreign investment concentrated in resource rich Kachin, Rakhine, Shan States
  4. Natural gas from new projects to be distributed for domestic consumption
  5. 'Serious' rights violations persist in Myanmar: UN
  6. 'Marching steadily along the path'
  7. 'The doctrine a person embraces is important'
  8. No let up in Rohingya forced labour
  9. China behind Myanmar's course shift
  10. Myanmar's Suu Kyi vows fight to free dissidents
  11. Health ministry urges doctors to return home
  12. When a multi-ethnic nation ignores ethnic rights
  13. Myanmar's token reforms
  14. Army committing abuses in Kachin State
  15. Burmese Army mounts multi-front offensive against KIA
  16. Ethnic parties back Suu Kyi to contest election
  17. Reforming Myanmar looks to India for enlightenment
  18. Japan to restart development assistance to Myanmar
  19. How far can Burma bend for change?
  20. CSW urges international community to address impunity and maintain pressure for real change
  21. India opens US$ 500 mil credit line for Burmese infrastructure, irrigation projects
  22. Myanmar engagement bearing fruit
  23. Democratic reform in Myanmar provides opportunity for India
  24. Time to lift Myanmar sanctions
  25. New law gives Burmese right to strike
  26. Myanmar tycoon's riches grow amid sanctions
  27. The Burma conspiracy: Sanctions debate intensifies

Burma to drop ban on satellite TV – Shwe Aung
Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 20 Oct 2011

Licences for satellite television receivers are likely to be issued again in Burma following a six-year ban claimed at the time by observers to be an attempt to control the flow of information into the country. The notification came from communications minister Thein Htun after a question about the possibility of reintroducing satellite permits was raised in parliament. The minister said the process would take time, although state media appeared optimistic that it would be successful.

Phone Myint Aung, an MP for the opposition National Democratic Force, quoted the minister as saying that that the law regarding the licences has already been drafted.

The move is part of a reshaping of the communications law, and follows introductions or amendments to a number of laws that signal the government is loosening its vice-like grip on Burmese society.

Most satellite users in the former capital Rangoon are without permits. Locals there welcomed the news as a sign that the media environment is further opening up, following the relaxing of an internet ban on certain news website, including DVB.

The ban in 2005 was not the first such restriction by the government – in 1993 it enacted a ban that wasn't lifted until 2001, and during those eight years only around 2,000 satellite dishes were legally in use, mostly by hotels and businesses.

Despite the periods of prohibition on satellite licences, exiled media such as DVB has still managed to broadcast into the country. Government ministers are believed to garner much of their information from these independent sources, and thus have been reluctant to block the service.

A lesson dam lobby looks set to ignore – Shi Jiangtao
South China Morning Post: Thu 20 Oct 2011

Halt to construction of a barrage in Myanmar should be an eye-opener for its Chinese builders, but it's unlikely to give dam boosters pause for thought. China's growing ambition to tap into the latent power of international rivers hit a major snag when one of its largest hydropower projects abroad was unexpectedly halted in Myanmar late last month.

The suspension of the Myitsone dam project on the Irrawaddy River was seen as a rare victory in a nation long ruled by an authoritarian military regime. It was also read as the latest step in a diplomatic balancing act by Myanmar aimed at wooing the West and its Southeast Asian neighbours by showing the country is no longer so dependent on China.

The controversy should sound all too familiar to mainlanders, aside from the relatively happy result – for the moment – in the Myanmar case. But what lessons should be learned from the dispute over the Myitsone dam?

The fact that China has been snubbed by a long-time political ally that was once dependent on its political and financial support is extremely telling for environmentalists about how unpopular China's reckless push for big dams and its keenness to flex its economic muscle beyond its borders have been.

Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, who visited China just five months ago after taking office in March, announced the decision to halt the US$3.6 billion project on the eve of China's National Day, saying the dam was "contrary to the will of the people".

The Myitsone dam, as part of a hydropower development deal including a further six mega dams on the Irrawaddy and its tributaries, was reportedly initiated in 2005 between Myanmar's then junta chief, Than Shwe, and President Hu Jintao .

At a cost of US$20 billion and with a total capacity of 20,000 megawatts, the dams, being built or planned by China Power Investment Corporation (CPIC), were seen as a symbol of China's growing regional influence. Mainland media dubbed them China's overseas Three Gorges Dam project. But the Myitsone dam, in the ethnic Kachin region near Myanmar's northern border with China, has long been a magnet for criticism, protests and even violence by local people and green groups.

Apart from concerns about potential ecological destruction on the Irrawaddy and the resettlement of 10,000 people, locals were aggrieved that 90 per cent of electricity generated by the dam was supposed to go to power-hungry China.

The dam, with a capacity of up to 6,000 MW, was allowed to go ahead in 2009 despite the CPIC and Beijing allegedly giving the cold shoulder to various local concerns.

Home to roughly half of the world's biggest dams, China is the world's largest producer of hydropower and the largest dam builder in the global market, according to International Rivers, a US-based NGO.

However, China's dam builders and financiers – usually power companies with a national monopoly and banks that are often criticised at home for their blind pursuit of economic profits at the expense of environmental and community welfare – seem to have made little, if any, progress when it comes to business dealings abroad.

Such insensitivity to local needs and environmental concerns, as well as a lack of transparency about dam construction projects on rivers that cross China's borders and in political hot spots, have not only provoked hard feelings that threaten to ruin their business opportunities but have also made China the unwanted focal point of numerous controversies in recent years.

Environmentalists have warned that China's global image and its friendships with affected countries, such as Myanmar – friendships that are often the result of years of political patronage – are also at stake.

Last year, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, one of China's Big Four state banks, made international headlines with its plan to help finance the controversial Gibe 3 dam in Ethiopia, the largest hydropower project in sub-Saharan Africa.

China's plan to build a cascade of eight dams on the upper reaches of the Lancang (Mekong) River in Yunnan , four of which are already in operation, has long been a source of tensions with downstream countries such as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
These countries have often accused China of manipulating water flow with its dams, which they blame for severe droughts in recent years, and say the Chinese dams are killing their mother river.

"The authoritarian government in Myanmar has taught China a lesson, as they appear to be willing to heed public concerns," Professor Yu Xiaogang , founder of the Yunnan-based Green Watershed NGO, said.

He noted that Chinese companies were used to pouring investment mainly into undemocratic countries, where they could focus on forging ties with authoritarian governments while ignoring environmental and social costs and public opinions. Yu said: "Things have changed a lot with the rising environmental awareness, and this type of business strategy has been subject to mounting challenges and is doomed to fail."

With increasing publicity and awareness about the grave risks inherent in the building of large dams, best exemplified by the Three Gorges Dam, dam construction has been one of the most contentious issues on the mainland in the past decade. Although it has slowed since 2004, Beijing has renewed its push for big dams to be built in the coming decade as hydropower has gained in importance as the pillar of China's clean-energy drive. As a result, hydropower capacity is expected to rise by half to 300,000 MW by 2015.

Despite growing public support, environmentalists have been largely unable to influence the decision-making process or help those affected make their voices heard.

Liu Shukun , a professor of hydraulics at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, said that unlike Myanmar, China was unlikely to see a victory of public opinion in the debate over hydropower, given the development-minded government and powerful interest groups.

"The Myanmar case is encouraging, but I don't think it can be replicated here in China or help prevent the social and environmental havoc, given the damage already caused by the damming of rivers," he said.

"We are good at talking about sustainable development, but it remains a question whether it has turned into reality."

Sixty-five percent of foreign investment concentrated in resource rich Kachin, Rakhine, Shan States – Marn Thu Shein + Chan Myae Thu
Eleven Media Group: Thu 20 Oct 2011

Sixty-five percent of foreign investment in Myanmar is concentrated in states that are rich in natural resources like Kachin, Rakhine and Shan while only eight percent was invested in the manufacturing sector in Yangon Region. "It became obvious when statistics about foreign investment in respective states and regions were released. About twenty-five percent has been invested in Kachin State where jade is mined and hydropower projects are located. Top three states for foreign investment include Kachin, Rakhine and Shan states. In Kachin State, foreign investment totals US$ 8.3 billion while that in Rakhine State amounts to US$ 7.5 billion. Shan State has received US$ 6.6 billion. Foreign investment in these three states makes up 65 percent of overall foreign investment in Myanmar. Foreign investment in remaining states and regions is only 35 percent of foreign investment of the country. This shows that foreign investment is injected mainly in places rich in natural resources and where hydropower projects are located," said an economist.

Although foreign investment is concentrated in exploration of natural resources and hydropower projects, only a little was invested in the agriculture sector relied on by 75 percent of the population of Myanmar. As a result, the main rice growing regions of the country like Ayeyawady and Bago stood at the bottom of the foreign investment statistics with only meager investment.

Similarly, major oil crops growing Magway Region received the third least foreign investment with only about 0.5 percent of the total.

"According to the statistics released, least foreign investment of only about US$ six million flowed into Ayeyawady Region. A total of US$ 70 was invested in Bago Region while Magway Region received US$ 169 million foreign investment. Another major agriculture region of Sagaing Region got US$ 2.7 billion foreign investment as there are gold mines in the region," said an export-import entrepreneur.

* Translated and Edited by Myint Win Thein + MYA

Natural gas from new projects to be distributed for domestic consumption – Wai Yan Phyo Oo
Eleven Media Group: Thu 20 Oct 2011

Natural gas to be tapped from two new offshore gas projects will be distributed for domestic consumption rather than for export, according to an official from the Ministry of Energy. To increase the domestic consumption of gas to 160 million cubic feet per day, natural gas to be tapped from two new gas projects as of 2013 will be supplied for domestic consumption.

In addition, a master plan is to be drawn to revamp the existing gas supply system in the country to distribute increased gas production from Aungthinkha Project- M3 in 2016.

Under the plan, about US$ 126 million and K 17 billion will be spent in two years on the substitution of iron pipes with PE coated steel pipes and the installation of new pipelines.

The plan to divert pipelines in salt-land areas and to substitute old and rusted 20-inch pipelines with PE coated steel ones in Kanbauk-Myaingalay and Yangon-Myaingalay sections and 14 inches and 10 inches pipelines Nyaungdon-Insein-Hmawbi section will start in November this year and will be completed in 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 fiscal years.

"Gas pipeline burst out and gas leaked out near Daka Village in Kangyidaunt Township in Ayeyawady Region at about 8 AM on 1 October. Some sections of the pipeline are old and rusted in that area. Responsible officials should repair the pipeline," said a resident.

Test wells are being drilled for natural gas in Maubin, Nyaungdon and Aphauk at present.

* Translated and Edited by Myint Win Thein + MYA

'Serious' rights violations persist in Myanmar: UN
Agence France Presse: Thu 20 Oct 2011

United Nations — Serious human rights violations persist in Myanmar despite a mass amnesty for more than 6,300 prisoners including some political opponents, the UN rights envoy to the country said Wednesday. "Despite these positive developments, many ongoing and serious human rights issues remain to be addressed," the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said in a report to the General Assembly.

Quintana said while progress had been made on the human rights front in recent months, he noted that ahead of by-elections expected by year's end, "there should be no prisoners of conscience remaining in detention."

"This is a central and necessary step towards national reconciliation and would greatly benefit Myanmar's efforts towards democracy," the UN envoy said.

Last week, the new military-backed government in Myanmar released thousands of prisoners including Zarganar, a prominent comedian and vocal government critic.

However, most of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, including key figures involved in a failed 1988 student-led uprising, remain behind bars.

President Thein Sein, a former general and senior junta figure, has surprised critics by signaling a series of political reforms since taking power following a controversial election last November.

Quintana called for the removal of restrictions on the activities of political parties, and said that "respect for the freedoms of expression, assembly and association should be ensured."

"I firmly believe that much more is needed," the envoy said.

He called on Thein Sein's government to address "ongoing tensions in ethnic border areas and conflict with some armed ethnic groups," which he said "continue to engender serious human rights violations."

Those violations include "extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced labor," he said.

Myanmar's democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi Tuesday pledged to work for the release of the country's remaining political prisoners following the amnesty.

'Marching steadily along the path'
Irrawaddy: Thu 20 Oct 2011

Last week, one of Burmese President Thein Sein's political advisers, Ko Ko Hlaing, told Radio Sweden that Burma has only around 600 political prisoners—a figure much smaller than the more widely accepted estimate of around 2,000 (of whom some 220 were freed last week). The Irrawaddy contacted Ko Ko Hlaing to ask him about this disparity, and for his response to critics who say that the relatively small number of political prisoners released suggests that recent moves toward reform are losing steam.

Question: In your interview with Radio Sweden last week, you said that there are only 600 political prisoners in Burma. Can you explain how you arrived at that figure?

Answer: I don't have exact figures for the number of prisoners of conscience. If you want that, you can contact the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHF), which is responsible for compiling a list.

Q: The United Nations and other organizations watching the human rights situation in Burma say there are around 2,000 political prisoners in the country. Why do you think their numbers and yours are so different?

A: It may be because organizations operating outside the country have little opportunity to collect the exact figures. I don't think they can compile an exact list. They may, for example, include some people on the list who they assume are in prison. It is also possible that they don't know about those who have already been released. The MOHF's list may be more exact, as people in the ministry have compiled it based on verifiable statistics. I think the differences may also depend on how people define prisoners of conscience and ordinary prisoners.

Q: We have heard that more prisoners may be released soon. Can you comment on that?

A: I don't know for sure, but authorities responsible for prisoners have said they will release more. We are advisers, so it is quite difficult for us to provide detailed information.

Q: The suspension of work on the Myitsone dam project was seen as a positive move by people within and outside the country, but many were disappointed by the small number of political prisoners who were released last week. Some are now saying that reforms seem to be stalling. As an adviser to the president, what are your views on this?

A: Many people want many changes to come quickly. I think the recent prisoner release was not the last. According to the Constitution, it is within the president's authority to grant amnesties, so more may come. I think it is premature to say that the pace of reforms has slowed. There are many other things we need to do. We can't just sit still and do nothing. So I think that whether reforms are slowing down or not is mostly a matter of perception.

Q: Another issue is armed conflict in ethnic areas. The government has come up with plans to stop the ongoing war in those areas, but ethnic groups say they want a nationwide ceasefire and an inclusive political dialogue, not just one-on-one talks with the government. What are your views on this?

A: There are demands from both sides in a dialogue. It's like bargaining—the seller has his price, and the buyer has his. But if both parties just stick to their demands and refuse to do anything unless their demands are met, an agreement cannot be reached.

What is happening is between brothers and between ethnic nationalities. I haven't heard any group saying that it will secede from this country if the government doesn't comply with its demands. Arguing is just a normal part of the process. I think they can come to an agreement if they negotiate. By exchanging their views, I hope both parties will meet half-way through a process of give and take.

Q: We've heard that Parliament is discussing an amendment of the political parties registration law. How much negotiation do you think will be necessary before the government and the National League for Democracy (NLD) can agree upon a registration process?

A: It's a bit difficult to make a guess from the outside. The NLD's Central Executive Committee members will have to discuss this among themselves and with other organizations. Likewise, the government will have to have to hold consultations within the administration and with Parliament. We have to keep an eye on this issue. I can't say exactly when both parties will finish their negotiations. I think we have to give a bit more time, but I don't think it will take too long, because both sides have already understood that it is necessary to negotiate.

Q: But isn't the government under pressure to achieve results within a fixed time, since it wants to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and convince foreign countries to lift sanctions—both of which depend on how much political reform the country can achieve?

A: In fact, according to the Asean Charter, Burma doesn't need to go through a placement test in order to become chairman of the bloc. The chairmanship is granted to every member state in alphabetical order. But for specific reasons, we once handed over this position to someone else. Now it is our turn to accept it.

We are not doing things just so we can become the Asean chairman. We are working in the interests of our people. We are steadily marching along the path, the way it should be. So it's up to regional organizations to decide for themselves whether Burma should be granted that position. If, after visiting the country and observing the overall situation, they believe that we are sincere us, they will hand it over to us. I think it is quite likely that Burma will be granted the chairmanship, because it is now on the right track. If Burma isn't given the chairmanship with the excuse that we haven't made enough improvements, I think it will reduce other Asean member countries' trust in the regional bloc.

Burma is not the only undemocratic country within Asean, so I think we have a good chance to be granted the chairmanship. But as I said, that's not why we're doing things. We are working for the good of the country and its people. We will move forward steadily. Making reforms is not like sitting an exam. Reform involves different circumstances and challenges. It also faces different kinds of opposition and resistance. The most important thing is that I believe that international and regional organizations will support our endeavors.

'The doctrine a person embraces is important' – Min Ko Naing – Zwe Khant
Mizzima News: Wed 19 Oct 2011

New Delhi – "The location of a person is not important, only the doctrine the person embraces is important." That's the 49th birthday message of 88-generation student leader Min Ko Naing, who is serving a 65-year prison term in Kengtung Prison. His 49th birthday ceremony, on Tuesday, was held at Thaminemyoma Monastery in Insein Township in Rangoon. He sent the birthday message from his prison cell, adding: "My birthday party should not be only for me; it should be a ceremony of remembrance for all."

Mi Mi Lwin, Min Ko Naing's sister, told Mizzima: "He wrote the message as a remembrance." Min Ko Naing was arrested on August 21, 2007, for leading massive protests against a hike in fuel prices. He was not included in the prisoners released under the recent presidential amnesty.

The birthday ceremony was attended by NLD leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, NLD Vice Chairman Tin Oo and central committee member Win Tin. The newly released prisoners Zarganar and rights activist Su Su Nway also attended. Also present were diplomats from France, Britain and the U.S. embassies, ethnic leaders, political parties and young people. About 2,000 people turned out for the event.

Mi Mi Lwin said, "I can't say how sad we feel because his birthday party was held without him. I hope we can hold his birthday party with him next year. We hope it every year."

During the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Min Ko Naing was elected chairman of All All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). He was arrested in March 1989 for his political activities and released in 2004. Then in September 2006 he was detained again and released in January 2007. He was arrested again during the protest against the hike in fuel price.

To mark the birthday, guests released helium balloons and doves and prayed for the freedom of political prisoners. Opposition leader Suu Kyi, comedian Zarganar and 88-generation student leader Phyo Phyo Aung spoke.

Suu Kyi said that she wished all political prisoners would be released and urged all people to work for their freedom, according to 88-generation student Myat Thu, who organized of the ceremony.

Families of political prisoners gave 5,000 kyat (about US$ 6) to each of more than 100 recently released political prisoners who attended the ceremony, which included a birthday song and poetry recitation.

Myat Thu said, 42 publishing houses donated books and the books will be sent to 42 prisons to open libraries. The total value of the books was more than 2.7 million kyat.

More than 20 portraits of Min Ko Naing were displayed at the ceremony.

"After the ceremony, only three portraits remained. Some people asked for the portraits by saying they loved Min Ko Naing. They asked for the portraits from other people, not from me. I'm sorry to lose the portraits," said artist Myo Yan Naung Thein, who painted the portraits.

The new ABFSU that was reorganized in 2007 also sent a message, saying "We students pay deep respect to Min Ko Naing; the role of the ABFSU is still active."

NLD-affiliated networks in Kachin and Karen states, Sagaing and Mandalay regions and Chauk and Yaynanchaung in Magway Region also held ceremonies to mark his birthday.

"According to the information we have, political prisoners will be released in three batches. In the first batch, Min Ko Naing was not included, but Zarganar was included. We heard that Min Ko Naing will be included in the last batch," 88-generation student Myo Yan Naung Thein said.

Burmese pro-democracy activists in New Delhi held a ceremony to mark the birthday in the office of the Women Rights and Welfare Association of Burma. Food was donated to Buddhist monks and prayers for political prisoners were recited by people of various religions.

No let up in Rohingya forced labour – Francis Wade
Democratic Voice of Burma: Wed 19 Oct 2011

Evidence from surveys carried out among the ethnic Rohingya population of northern Arakan state suggest that contrary to pledges made by the new Burmese government, forced labour has not abated.

Some communities in the impoverished region of western Burma claim that instances of forced labour had in fact risen since the elections in November last, as local authorities push ahead with the completion of infrastructural projects.

The surveys were conducted by The Arakan Project, which has a number of covert fact finding teams working in the area.

"During the period immediately preceding the elections, forced labour demands had noticeably decreased, raising hopes among Rohingyas for a better future under the new government, including some respite from compulsory labour," the report, 'Forced labour after the elections', says.

"Unfortunately, their expectations were short-lived. Within days, forced labour exactions did not simply resume but, by December, reached a peak unseen since the early 1990s due to extensive repair of the [Burma-Bangladesh] border fence."

Civilians are mainly sought to work on infrastructure aimed at securing the porous border between the two countries, and allowing for better maneuverability of Burmese troops close to the fence.

The eventual by-product of this, the report warns, will be an intensified militarisation of the region, where abuses of the Muslim minority at the hands of the army and local border guard force, known as NaSaKa, are already rampant. Moreover, the orders for civilians to join the workforce are given by a unit within the army known as Garrison Engineers (GE), reinforcing claims that discrimination against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma largely on the basis that they are Muslim, is state-sanctioned.

The report says that while enough government funds have been allocated for the labourers working on the fence and surrounding infrastructure, little of it reaches its supposed destination.

"GE subcontract most construction projects to the NaSaKa Sectors, who siphon off the budget earmarked for the manpower and use forced labour instead."

According to observations made by Arakan Project teams, children make up as much as 40 percent of the forced labour workforce in the region around Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the north of the state. Some of these may be as young as 10.

Reports emerged in Bangladeshi press earlier this week claiming that Dhaka had struck a deal with Naypyidaw to return the thousands of Rohingya refugees living in the two official camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara.

Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, however rubbished these claims, and said there was no evidence of any sort of bilateral agreement being struck. Moreover, the prospect of many of these people being forced to return to Burma to face a situation that has apparently not changed since they fled, will trigger alarm.

"The consequences of these Bangladesh statements are often renewed pressure and abuses on the refugees. Fear is already spreading in the refugee camps, and acts as a 'push-factor' for camp refugees to flee by boat to Malaysia," she told DVB.

Up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh, but Dhaka has allowed only 28,000 to be registered by the UN, leaving hundreds of thousands eking out a precarious existence in unofficial camps and on the fringes of towns. The Rohingya have been described by various groups as one of the world's most threatened minorities.

China behind Myanmar's course shift – Bertil Lintner
Asia Times: Wed 19 Oct 2011

Chiang Mai – Recent developments in Myanmar, including talks between new President Thein Sein and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, a relaxation of media censorship and the release of some political prisoners, have stunned many foreign observers and sparked speculation that the historically military-run country is on the verge of a new era of democracy and openness. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has published optimistic reports claiming that fundamental changes are under way in the country's political landscape, while Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide recently exalted after a mid-October whistle-stop to the country: "I almost left the country thinking they're moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar."

After decades of broken promises and fake reforms, Myanmar's population has been tellingly less enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Zarganar, Myanmar's most famous comedian, said in an interview shortly after his release from prison on October 11: "Originally, I was encouraged by the new government. But not anymore, not since I was released. We [jailed dissidents] are like hostages in the hands of Somali pirates. It now begs the question, for what ransom was our freedom secured?"

Indeed, what was the behind-the-scenes "ransom" paid for the release of approximately 200 political prisoners, and what is the reality behind recent seemingly daring moves by Thein Sein, a former general and prime minister under the old military junta?

As an army commander and later government leader, he was not known for his initiative, boldness or liberalism. In May 2001, for instance, while serving as chief of the Myanmar army's Golden Triangle Command, he said in a speech before local leaders in Mong La on the Chinese border: "I was in Mong Ton and Mong Hsat for two weeks. U Wei Xuegang and U Bao Youri from the Wa group are real friends."

Wei is named in several US drug reports as the kingpin of the Golden Triangle narcotics trade and both American and Thai law enforcement authorities have a bounty on his head. Both of Thein Sein's "real friends" have been indicted by US courts for their involvement in the Golden Triangle's narcotics trade.

There are also questions about the foreign company the supposedly reformist president keeps. On August 1 last year, the Pyongyang's official news service, the Korea Central News Agency, reported on a visit by Thein Sein, then prime minister of the previous military junta, where he "noted with high appreciation that the Korean people have made big strides in strengthening of the military capability and economic construction under the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il … The government of Myanmar will continue to strive for strengthening and development of the friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries."

These are less the statements of a reform-minded liberal and more of a puppet leader who takes and exercises obediently orders from above.

It is becoming clear that there are serious disagreements within the military over relations with North Korea, and more importantly Myanmar's heavy dependence on China. This became evident on September 30 when Thein Sein announced that he had decided to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion joint-venture Myitsone dam project in Myanmar's far north Kachin State.

However, the official explanation that the project was "against the will of people" is hardly credible in a country where popular sentiments have long been ignored and popular calls for political change met consistently with brute military force.

The dam would have flooded an area bigger than Singapore, 90% of the electricity was scheduled for export to China, and once online would have done grave harm to the Irrawaddy River, the nation's economic and cultural artery. A massive popular movement against the dam was gaining momentum and an escalation of anti-China tensions could have led to riots even more serious than in 1967, when angry mobs ransacked businesses and homes owned by ethnic Chinese in Yangon, then the national capital.

China's commercial presence is more pronounced nowadays, as tens of thousands of Chinese merchants and migrants have recently settled in the country, mainly in the old royal capital of Mandalay. China's domination of local commerce and rising ownership of local lands has stoked Myanmar nationalist sentiments and risks potentially destabilizing splits inside the still ruling Myanmar military.

It is this dynamic that is mainly driving Thein Sein's political course shift, not a newfound desire for democracy and human rights.

My friend, my enemy

The controversial dam project reflects the strained relationship Myanmar has always had with its powerful northern neighbor. From the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 until Myanmar's 1962 military putsch, Beijing maintained a cordial relationship with the non-aligned democratic government of prime minister U Nu.

Myanmar, then known as Burma, was in fact the first country outside of the communist bloc to recognize the new regime in Beijing. Trade was negligible, but the common border was demarcated and relations were friendly.

After General Ne Win's 1962 coup, the Chinese, long wary of the ambitious and sometimes unpredictable general, began to prepare for all-out support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The 1967 anti-Chinese riots in Yangon, orchestrated by military authorities to deflect public anger at a rapidly deteriorating economy, provided a convenient excuse for China to intervene directly in Myanmar's internal affairs. On New Year's Day 1968, the first armed CPB units entered northeastern Myanmar from China's southwestern Yunnan province.

During the decade spanning 1968-78, China poured more aid into the CPB effort than any other communist movement outside of Indochina. Assault rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, radio equipment, jeeps, trucks, petrol, area maps, and even kitchen utensils were sent across the frontier into the CPB's revolutionary base area.

Thousands of Chinese "volunteers" also streamed across the border to provide additional support to the CPB. Mao Zedong's death in 1976, and more importantly the return to power of the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping a year later, marked the beginning of the end of massive Chinese aid to the CPB.

It was no longer seen to be in Beijing's interest to support revolutionary movements in the region, but neither could the Chinese completely cut off the CPB, which still controlled most of the strategic border areas inside Myanmar. Chinese support continued, albeit on a much reduced scale, until the hill tribe rank-and-file of the CPB's army rose in mutiny in 1989 and drove the entire Maoist Burman leadership into exile in China.

The CPB subsequently split along ethnic lines into four different regional armies. All of them soon entered into ceasefire agreements with the government, which also made cross-border trade possible for the first time in decades.

It was also clear that China coveted Myanmar's forests and rich mineral and natural gas deposits, as well as its hydroelectric power potential. In fact, China first mooted its intention to build Myitsone in an article in the official Beijing Review in September 1985.

Entitled "Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion", the officially written article outlined the possibilities of finding an outlet for trade for China's landlocked southern provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan through Myanmar to the Indian Ocean. It also mentioned that the Myanmar railheads of Myitkyina and Lashio in the northeast and the Irrawaddy River as possible conduits for Chinese exports.

At the time those trade links were a remote dream, but the 1989 CPB mutiny ushered in a new, more cordial era in Sino-Myanmar relations. Apart from supplying Myanmar with vast quantities of military hardware at a time when the West shunned and sanctioned the military regime's abysmal human-rights record, Chinese experts also assisted in a series of infrastructure projects to rehabilitate Myanmar's poorly maintained roads and railways.

Chinese military advisers formally arrived in 1991, the first foreign military personnel to be stationed in Myanmar since Australia dispatched a contingent to train the Myanmar army in the 1950s. Soon after the Chinese officials arrived, cross-border trade between China and Myanmar began to boom.

By the late 1980s, China had begun to penetrate the Myanmar market through an extensive economic intelligence reporting system. This network monitored the availability of domestically produced Myanmar products as well as the nature and volume of trade from other countries in the region such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

When the border was opened for trade in the early 1990s, more than 2,000 carefully selected items were reported to be flooding the Myanmar market – among them bicycles, sewing machines, beer, soap, cigarettes, cheap textiles, stationery, spare machinery parts, radios, medicines, and petrol. These goods were priced deliberately cheaper than those from other neighboring countries and Myanmar-made products.

In March last year, China's official People's Daily Online reported that bilateral trade between the two countries hit US$ 2.9 billion in 2009, an increase of 10% over the previous year and up from virtually zero in the late 1980s. The trade balance weighed heavily in China's favor: in 2009, Chinese exports amounted to $2.3 billion, while its imports from Myanmar totaled a mere $646 million. More current trade figures are not publicly available, but are believed to be even higher and still weighted in China's favor.

While Myanmar has been denied access to international monetary institutions due to US and European Union sanctions, China has provided Myanmar with low interest loans and major investment capital. That is particularly true of the energy sector.

An agreement to build a gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal will be supplemented with an oil pipeline designed to allow Chinese ships carrying fuel imports from the Middle East to skirt the congested Malacca Strait. In September last year, China agreed to provide Myanmar with $4.2 billion worth of interest-free loans over a 30-year period to help fund hydropower projects, road and railway construction, and information technology development.

Myanmar's growing economic and financial dependence on China has caused considerable consternation its military leadership. Aung Lynn Htut, a former intelligence officer who sought political asylum in the US in 2005, wrote in a September 30 commentary for exile-run The Irrawaddy that the country's military leaders have not forgotten that they once fought against the China-backed CPB and that many of their comrades were killed by Chinese arms.

For instance, Tin Aung Myint Oo, the current first vice president, earned his title thiha thura (brave lion) in 1989 after taking part in heavy battles with the CPB just before the mutiny. According to Aung Lynn Htut, many of his officers and soldiers, including his commander, died on the battlefield.

Despite the deepening of Sino-Myanmar relations, China still maintains close contacts with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the main successor to the CPB. The UWSA is equipped with modern weapons, including artillery and anti-aircraft guns, obtained from what is euphemistically called the "black market" in China, but which is more a "gray market" as it is run mainly by former Chinese military officers.

The UWSA today is much stronger and better equipped than the CPB was in the last years before the 1989 mutiny. Chinese duplicity in maintaining relations with Naypyidaw and the armed militias opposed to its rule has made many Myanmar army officers wary of China's long-term intentions.

Survival instincts

According to many Western observers, recent positive developments in Myanmar reflect a power struggle between "reform-minded moderates" and "hardliners" within the government and the military that controls it. But the "moderates" have to tread carefully, one cautious step at a time, to avoid upsetting the "hardliners" waiting in the wings, the analysis goes. It may appear that way on the surface, but the political reality is far more convoluted and complicated.

Myanmar's new 2008 constitution and last year's rigged elections were not implemented to change the country's basic power structure that has been in place since the military first seized power in 1962, but rather aim to institutionalize it by creating a national parliament, regional assemblies, and a superficially civilian-led government.

Since 1962, Myanmar's military has viewed itself as the sole force capable of protecting the country's independence and unity. The ruling military is not divided over how much democracy should be allowed, or the degree of respect it should show for human rights. Rather, disagreements within Myanmar's military are more over questions of national sovereignty, internal security and, most importantly, regime survival.

Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo is often referred to in the Western media as a "hardliner". But that characterization is misleading as it is the state of relations with China, not degrees of democracy, that historically has caused the biggest rifts inside the Myanmar military. Apart from the Myitsone dam issue, sources familiar with the inner workings of the Myanmar military assert that hostility towards China is growing among the officer corps, especially when it comes to ongoing Chinese support for the heavily armed UWSA.

By suspending the controversial dam project, Thein Sein took the wind out of the sails of a situation that could have caused a serious conflict inside the military and been channeled to the public at large. For now, Thein Sein has weathered the storm, but by suspending rather than canceling the project he strategically left a door open for future negotiations with China.

Myanmar cannot turn its back to China: the two countries share a long border, while the United States and the European Union are distant powers of lesser importance to the long term survival of the regime.

The forces behind Thein Sein have skillfully played the China card vis-a-vis the West in a new bid to lessen the country's dependence on China and smooth over potential conflicts brewing within the armed forces.

On September 29, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin met in Washington with newly appointed US coordinator on Myanmar Derek Mitchell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and human-rights official Michael Posner. It was not a coincidence that the next day Thein Sein's government decided to suspend the Myitsone dam until 2015.

Even before Thein Sein started to send reform signals, the US had started to rethink its punitive policy towards Myanmar. Ever since the 1988 massacres of pro-democracy demonstrators in Yangon, Washington has been the military regime's fiercest international critic. When Barack Obama took over the US presidency in January 2009, a new policy of "engagement" was adopted to shift that course. In April that year, US senator Jim Webb, known to be close to Obama, became the first top-level US politician to visit Myanmar in years.

While paying lip-service to democracy and human rights during talks with then junta leader General Than Shwe, Webb revealed his real motives at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters in Washington after returning from his trip:

We are in a situation where if we do not push some kind of constructive engagement, Myanmar is going to basically become a province of China … we all respect Aung San Suu Kyi and the sacrifices she has made. On the other hand, how does the US develop a relationship that could increase stability in the region and not allow China to have dominance in a country that has strategic importance in the region?

That view, if widely held, represents a significant shift in Washington's perspective. In March 1989, a senior US diplomat in Yangon told the Washington Post: "Since there are no US bases and very little strategic interest, Burma [Myanmar] is one place where the United States has the luxury of living up to its principles."

With China's fast rise and US concerns about Myanmar's budding military relations with North Korea, strategic interests have now returned to the forefront of Washington's Myanmar policy.

Myanmar is now in the process of rebalancing its foreign relations to ensure the regime's survival and future cohesion of the armed forces. Thein Sein and the powerful military forces that back him realize that there must be some icing on the cake for the US and the European Union to accept his nominally civilian regime and consider lifting sanctions.

That is the "ransom" that has been paid for the release of dissidents like Zarganar and warming overtures towards Suu Kyi. While Myanmar may have embarked on a more palatable political course, it has more to do with regime survival than a desire to supplant military rule with democratic governance.

* Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

Myanmar's Suu Kyi vows fight to free dissidents
Agence France Presse: Tue 18 Oct 2011

Yangon — Myanmar's democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday pledged to work for the release of the country's remaining political prisoners following an amnesty that left many key dissidents behind bars. The regime pardoned 227 imprisoned critics, according to Suu Kyi's party, but kept most of its roughly 2,000 political inmates locked up, including key figures involved in a failed 1988 student-led uprising.

"Many (student leaders) have still not been freed from their imprisonment. We will continue our struggle for their release," Suu Kyi told supporters at birthday celebrations for Min Ko Naing, an 88 Generation leader serving a 65-year jail term.

"Why do I want the release of political prisoners? I want our country to become really free," Suu Kyi said at a ceremony at a monastery in Yangon.

Min Ko Naing, whose prison term stems from his role in the 2007 monk-led protests known as the "Saffron Revolution", saw in his 49th birthday in Kyaing Tong prison in Shan State, northeast Myanmar.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) said it was "frustrated" by the relatively small number of political detainees included in an amnesty for more than 6,000 prisoners last week.

Famous satirist Zarganar, who goes by one name, was among those released and has since spoken out against the regime's decision to leave many other critics locked up.

He now plans to organise a group of actors and comedians to visit jailed dissidents held in prisons around the country.

"I will try to visit to my friends who are still in the prisons," he told AFP at the Yangon ceremony.

Zarganar, who was held at Myitkyina prison in Kachin State in northern Myanmar, had been serving a 35-year sentence following his arrest in 2008 after organising deliveries of aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which left 138,000 dead or missing.

He said he would leave parcels for political detainees if he was not allowed to see them.

"They will be happy if they know that I have travelled to visit them in person, even though we cannot see each other," he said.

The fate of political prisoners in Myanmar is a key concern of western governments that have imposed sanctions on the isolated nation.

Some observers have said the amnesty could be one of several by a regime that appears eager to end its international isolation but is wary of potential unrest.

Health ministry urges doctors to return home – Cherry Thein
Myanmar Times: Tue 18 Oct 2011

THE Minister for Health has called on trained medical professionals living abroad to return to Myanmar and contribute their services to improve the health sector. Speaking at a meeting of the Myanmar Academy of Medical Science held at the University of Nursing on October 7, Dr Pe Thet Khin said President U Thein Sein, the government and the minister would welcome the return of all Myanmar medical experts living in other countries, regardless of their reasons for leaving Myanmar.

He said their expertise was sorely needed in community development programs but conceded that for many it would mean sacrificing higher-paid jobs abroad.

"We are now working to promote the development of the medical sector and need human resources – their ideas and techniques. I think it is time for all to contribute for the country's future," he said.

"Some of my friend inquired whether they would get the same salary and facilities they get in foreign countries. We can't guarantee that … but if they want to work for the country with us, please come and contribute," he said.

"There would be many doctors and medical experts in other countries … they went abroad for their career progression," he said.

"But now it is a busy time to work for the country," the minister said, adding that the new government was putting more priority on the health sector.

Myanmar Academy of Medical Science president Dr Myo Myint said the academy would invite both retired and working medical professionals to contribute to government health projects.

"In the past, when you were 50 or 60 you retired [from government service]. That usually meant you went and worked in the private sector or went abroad. It's a kind of brain-drain … we welcome all retired medical experts to contribute," he said, adding that most of the academy's members were retired.

The academy plans to undertake several projects in 2011-12, including an awareness raising program on medical ethics, a snake bite control pilot project and promotion of effective and affordable fluoride toothpaste.

When a multi-ethnic nation ignores ethnic rights – Saw Yan Naing
Irrawaddy: Tue 18 Oct 2011

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that Burmese government forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians since renewed fighting broke out in the northern state in June.

The international rights group estimated that some 30,000 civilians in Kachin State have been displaced by the conflict.

The Burmese government armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, said the HRW statement.

"Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers," said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Tens of thousands of people have fled through the mountains and jungle at the height of the rainy season, driven away by fear of army attacks."

The HRW statement backs up a claim made by the US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, who on Monday stated that the Burmese government has not made comparable progress in its relations with ethnic minorities in the north and east of Burma as it has with the democratic opposition—in particular noting that Naypyidaw had held high-level talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mitchell also noted what he referred to as credible reports of continued human rights abuses, including violence against minority women and children.

"We made it very clear that we [the US] could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur," said Mitchell.

The criticisms come at a time when Naypyidaw has enjoyed much high acclaim following a series of moves viewed by Burmese and the international community at large as being progressive reforms, most notably the easing of censorship on the Burmese media, the suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, and the release of 200 political prisoners.

The statements by Mitchell and by the HRW highlight growing concern that although reforms have been enacted in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, many observers see the government as being unable or unwilling to tackle issues in the ethnic areas.

Between 35 and 40 percent of Burma's 55-million population is non-Burman, and although many of the country's ethnic minorities have integrated into Burmese society over the years, many millions continue to live in the mountainous jungle that forms a natural horseshoe around the Burmese plains.

Ethnic minority groups include the Karen, the Shan, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Mon, the Chin and the Arakan, almost all of which have fought against the central government for independence or autonomy for decades.

Over the past 20 years, many ethnic armies have signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government, but conflicts have continued, exacerbated by overland deals with Burma's neighbors, especially China and Thailand, and a flurry of investment in natural resources within ethnic minority areas.

Over the years, the Burmese army has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses in ethnic areas, with several reports indicating that the abuses may be systemic, and indicative of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times on Oct. 6, Myra Dahgaypaw, an ethnic Karen woman wrote: "Burmese soldiers killed my parents, my brother and sister, and my uncle after they forced him to watch them rape his wife.

"If soldiers are able to use forced labor, sexual violence, forced relocation and other abuses as mechanisms of domination, why should [US] President Obama reward President Thein Sein?"

Her comment was written in response to an article titled, "In Myanmar, Seize the Moment," written by a well-known Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U.

In his article, the author urged the US president to publicly support the "reforms" that are taking place in Burma.

He also wrote that Thein Sein has spoken forcefully of combating poverty, fighting corruption, ending the country's multiple armed conflicts, and working for political reconciliation.

But despite the government's recent approval of a "peacemaking committee" in parliament to deal with the issues surrounding the ongoing ethnic conflicts, observers say no tangible progress has been made—in fact, hostilities have escalated in some areas.

Brig-Gen Johnny, the commander of the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7, told The Irrawaddy that fighting—whether simple exchanges of gunfire or intense hostilities resulting in many casualties—break out almost every day in Karen State even though the government has declared its intention to seek a peace deal with armed ethnic groups.

"The release of more than 200 political prisoners, the suspension of the Myitsone dam, the establishment of a peacemaking committee—these steps are all good news," said Johnny. "But these developments will not help our people and our soldiers in their daily fight for survival while government troops move into frontier areas."

With the exception of two ethnic rebel armies—the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army and its ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army, which are currently observing a ceasefire—no tangible results have come from negotiations with the other ethnic groups.

The New Mon State Party met government representatives recently in Ye Township, but the meeting concluded without an agreement.

Last Thursday, government troops began an assault on Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions in Kachin and Shan states. The KIA leaders said they believe that the attacks are aimed at seizing KIA strongholds and military bases.

KIA spokesman La Nan said that at least 82 armed clashes have broken out since June, when fighting took place near hydropower plants in Bhamo Township in Kachin State. Seventeen of the clashes have broken out this month alone, he said.

Aye Thar Aung, a prominent Arakanese politician based in Rangoon, said that although he welcomed the steps taken by the new government, he was still concerned with the ethnic conflict issues.

"We are very concerned when we hear the government authorities saying they are making peace with the Wa, but then increase their military efforts against the Kachin," he said.

"To build a developed country, peace is needed. The civil war needs to come to an end.

"There can be no peace in a multi-ethnic nation that ignores the fundamental rights of its ethnic minorities," he added.

Myanmar's token reforms – Editorial
The Jakarta Post: Tue 18 Oct 2011

The release of several hundred prisoners in Myanmar last week was another token gesture from the military junta, trying to convince the world of its intention to introduce some form of democracy in the country. As welcome as the gesture is — since any move in that direction in Myanmar at this stage is almost progress — we still have to take it with a grain of salt. Among those released in the first batch of 6,300 who received a general amnesty from the government were 80 political prisoners. Amnesty International says there are more than 2,000 prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, those imprisoned chiefly for their political beliefs, and it is uncertain how many of those were included in this round of amnesty.

Until a clearer picture emerges about the fate of those political prisoners in coming weeks, we should refrain from applauding the Myanmar regime. The Myanmarese, as well as people around the world, have become accustomed to the junta's empty promises. The farce election last year was a case in point and it served to undermine the credibility of its "road map to democracy".

Some may argue that these token measures of democracy would eventually amount to something, but so far they are not enough to even provide the Myanmarese with their fundamental rights. Other Southeast Asian nations are also moving slowly and cautiously in giving greater space for free expressions, but at least their people lead a decent life.

When Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa visits Myanmar later this month, he should convey the message to the junta in the strongest terms that it needs to do a lot more to convince the world. Releasing all the political prisoners would go a long way.

As chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia needs to pressure the junta to show that the regional group's constructive engagement all these years is actually paying off. No less than ASEAN's own credibility is at stake.

Myanmar itself is due to take over the rotating ASEAN chair in 2014, and the junta has somehow confidently expressed its intention to take it up. The ASEAN chairmanship, however, is not automatic. As the current chair, Indonesia should use this leverage to ensure speedier and bolder political reforms in Myanmar.

It may seem like a long shot, but it is worth trying.

Army committing abuses in Kachin State
Human Rights Watch: Tue 18 Oct 2011

New York – Burma's armed forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians in renewed fighting in Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said today. Since hostilities began over five months ago against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, which has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 30,000 Kachin civilians. On September 30, 2011, Burma's President Thein Sein suspended a controversial US$3.6 billion hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, which appears to have been one of several factors in the renewed hostilities between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Chinese-financed project was suspended after growing dissent in Burma over its current and potential environmental and social impacts.

"Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Tens of thousands of people have fled through the mountains and jungle at the height of the rainy season, driven away by fear of army attacks."

Fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA, Burma's second largest ethnic armed group, began on June 9, ending 17 years of ceasefire. The Burmese army first attacked a strategic KIA post at the location of another Chinese-led hydropower dam on the Taping River in Momauk township, Human Rights Watch said. The army subsequently launched a major offensive and moved in hundreds of troops to areas formerly controlled by the KIA. There have since been failed ceasefire talks and an unconfirmed number of skirmishes, ambushes, and battles involving heavy mortar shelling. The KIA subsequently destroyed several road and railway bridges to frustrate the Burmese army's advance and supply lines. The KIA reportedly began conscripting able-bodied men and women aged 18 to 55 for a two-month military training, in anticipation of protracted fighting.

Human Rights Watch conducted a fact-finding mission to the conflict areas in Kachin State in July and August, visiting abandoned villages and eight remote camps of internally displaced persons. Witnesses described serious abuses committed by Burmese soldiers, including killings and attacks on civilians, pillaging of villages, and the unlawful use of forced labor.

Fearing abuses from the Burmese army, tens of thousands of Kachin fled their villages, Human Rights Watch said. Before arriving at displaced persons camps in KIA controlled areas, several thousand villagers hid from the Burmese army in the jungle, in some cases for a month after the fighting began. Those who were able to visit their homes to get provisions told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers had occupied their villages and confiscated their property and belongings. Some described being held by Burmese soldiers, who interrogated them harshly for information about the KIA, including by threatening to kill them. Interrogations were particularly menacing for villagers who spoke Kachin dialects and very little Burmese.

Human Rights Watch documented the killings of three Kachin civilians by Burmese soldiers in June and is investigating credible allegations of other killings. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that on June 15, Burmese army forces entered Hang Htak village in Man Je township searching for suspected associates of the KIA. A Burmese soldier shot and killed a 52-year-old woman and her 4-year-old grandson in their home at close range as they tried to flee. On June 17, credible local sources told Human Rights Watch that a group of soldiers allegedly shot and killed Nhkum Zau Bawk, a farmer and day laborer, in Kawng Gat Ban Ma village as he stood unarmed with a group of friends at a cemetery. Local authorities reportedly provided financial compensation to the man's family, but no legal action was taken against the perpetrator.

According to the September 2011 report to the United Nations General Assembly by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Thomas Ojea Quintana, "Allegations of abuses against civilian populations throughout Kachin State include reports of 18 women and girls having been gang-raped by army soldiers, and of four of those victims being subsequently killed." While Human Rights Watch did not speak to any victims or witnesses of rape, community members confirmed such abuses had occurred.

Several people told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers fired on them as they were fleeing their village. For instance, in early June, Burmese soldiers twice fired on a 62-year-old Kachin woman and her three young grandchildren in Sang Gang village. She told Human Rights Watch, "In the morning when we were cooking rice, we heard gunfire and we left our food and went to the field, looking into the village the whole day before we fled. When we ran the soldiers shot at us. We were really afraid. We just ran and hid." She said that after two days in the jungle without basic provisions, they decided to return home to get food, at which point they were fired upon a second time. "We had already left the house and were on our way out of the village … and the soldiers opened fire on us [again]," she said. "No one was hit. When the soldier opened fire it made me shake and I didn't know what to do. We just ran."

Under the laws of war applicable in conflict areas in Burma, all sides are prohibited from mistreating persons in their custody, targeting civilians, or pillaging homes and other civilian property.

The Burmese army has unlawfully used Kachin civilians for forced labor, which has long been a serious problem in Burma's ethnic areas, Human Rights Watch said. Five civilians told Human Rights Watch that in recent months they had been forced to work for the military without compensation; several others knew of family or friends who had had to do so. A 36-year-old mother of six children who fled Lusupa village, a government-controlled area, told Human Rights Watch how she and other Kachin villagers, including children as young as 14, had been commonly forced to porter for the Burmese army. She said that her husband, who remained in their village to tend their crops and check on their home and belongings, was forced to carry out labor for the army twice, in late June and mid-July.

The laws of war prohibit the use of uncompensated or abusive forced labor, including work in combat areas.

Many Kachin recounted previous abuses at the hands of the Burmese army. A 58-year-old Kachin farmer, who said all his possessions had been taken by the Burmese army, told Human Rights Watch: "We lost our homes and properties to the Burmese soldiers several times. That is why I don't have hope in this situation."

Recent abuses in Kachin State highlight the importance of establishing a United Nations commission of inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Burma, Human Rights Watch said. The UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, first called for a commission of inquiry in March 2010, and to date 16 countries have publically confirmed their support for the initiative, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others, as well as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Pronouncements of political reform in Burma do not seem to have reached the army in Kachin State," Pearson said. "Ongoing abuses starkly demonstrate that until real steps are taken towards accountability, including an international commission of inquiry, minorities such as the Kachin will be a grave risk."

Burmese Army Abuses in Kachin State: June 2011
Attacks on Civilians, Forced Labor, and Mistreatment in Custody

A 51-year-old Kachin farmer from Sang Gang told Human Rights Watch that a government soldier opened fire on him on June 12, despite it being clear he was unarmed: "The soldier and I were around 50 meters apart, and between us was a small stream. The soldier said nicely, 'Brother, come, come,' and I pretended to come and then suddenly ran, and the soldier shot at me two times. I hid for one hour near where I escaped. After one hour it was getting dark and I ran. I was afraid of the Burmese."

A 48-year-old Kachin woman explained to Human Rights Watch how on June 13 the Burmese army opened fire into Kawng Ra Zup village, which sits in a valley below a mountaintop Burmese army post. "The Burmese soldiers shot their guns, so we were really afraid," she said. "We don't know what they were aiming at. The village head said we should run, so we just ran."

A 33-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that before the current fighting she was forced to carry provisions up a two-mile road to a Burmese army outpost while she was six-months pregnant. She said, "I had to do forced labor for the Burmese soldiers many times… [Before the fighting began] we carried rice and other things to [the Burmese army] post and walked back. It took three hours. The path is very steep, we had to climb the mountain and it was difficult to reach. From morning to evening we had to do it twice. The food we brought ourselves and we ate. They didn't feed us."

A 48-year-old woman from Kawng Ra Zup said the Burmese army's previous use of forced labor and other ill-treatment was an important reason those in her village fled: "Every villager in our village had to work for the soldiers in the last year. And they hit our village head with their guns and they punched and kicked him. They knocked him out. From the road to the post we had to carry rice. We could not refuse to do the work. We weren't paid anything."

A local Kachin carpenter who fled his village fearing attack from the Burmese army explained to Human Rights Watch how he had commonly been forced to work for the army. "I am a carpenter and I know how to make cement and how to build houses," he said. "When the army needs a weapons store and flagpole and boundaries, they ask me to work on these things. Everything they need, they ask me, but they never pay me the full amount…I cannot refuse to do this work. Sometimes they ask when I am very busy, but I have to do it."

A villager from Sin Lum described fleeing to the jungle: "We were afraid to live in the village so we went to hide in the jungle one mile from the village. It was 11 households, 58 people. We lived there for a month … and when we needed food and rice we secretly went back to the village and then came back. We lived [in the jungle] with plastic bags as shelter. When we were going back and forth secretly, the Burmese soldiers saw us and told us next time they saw us they were going to shoot us. After that, no one went back."

A 60-year-old farmer from Sin Lum told Human Rights Watch said that before he fled he was interrogated and threatened on a daily basis by the Burmese army, suspicious of his family's ties to the KIA. Fearful for his security, he finally fled to a displaced persons camp on July 23. "The soldiers shot their guns four times to the ground and threatened me and asked, 'Where is your son? What is he doing?' I can't speak Burmese well. I just told them I didn't know…. The soldiers would come in the daytime. Everyday [in July] they came and asked me questions and interrogated me, sometimes once, sometimes twice." This farmer described how in the past the army had forced him to porter several times, repeatedly beating and mistreating him. He told Human Rights Watch that in the early 1990s a Burmese soldier cut his throat, leaving a large scar that left him permanently fearful of the army's return.

A 30-year-old woman from Sin Lum told Human Rights Watch that she endured the same interrogation by the military every day for several weeks before she finally fled on July 15: "Every day the soldiers came and asked, 'Do you have a guest? Do you have a KIA soldier?' Every day they came and talked like that.…We couldn't sleep at night, whether the soldiers came or not.… At our house, at least three soldiers per day came and checked and asked questions since the fighting started. They would ask many questions. This made us afraid."

Another villager told Human Rights Watch, "I was very afraid when they [soldiers] came and asked questions. I was afraid they would kill us."

Property Confiscation and Destruction

A 65-year-old Christian pastor who fled his village on June 10 told Human Rights Watch: "The soldiers took all of our belongings. They took 18 motorbikes, one rice mill, and all the buffalo, pigs, chickens, everything. Some people were going to build a house and the soldiers took all their materials. I don't know how many soldiers are there now, but when the fighting started there were 500 soldiers who came, and now they are living in the village. They are living in our houses."

A 58-year-old woman who fled her home in Sang Gang was sobbing with despair when she told Human Rights Watch that her family had lost everything after the Burmese army entered her village on June 9: "My friends and I [secretly] returned to the house to give the pigs and chickens some food, and when we arrived all the houses [in the village] were messy and destroyed. We were very afraid and we wanted to take our food but we could not. Some villagers were in the jungle. We joined them … and then came here [a displaced persons' camp]. If we went to live in our village, we think we'd be beaten or tortured by the [Burmese army] soldiers. There are many civilians in our village sympathetic to the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization], so if we went back and stayed we would be killed."

In mostly Buddhist Burma, the majority of Kachin are Christian. A 65-year-old Kachin villager from Sang Gang told Human Rights Watch that when the fighting started in June 2011 the Burmese army uprooted a large Christian cross from a hilltop regarded by the villagers as sacred, and used it as a stand for their weapons. The villagers had planned to eventually construct a church on the site. "We villagers made a large cross for the [proposed] church [on the hilltop]," he said, "and the Burmese soldiers took it out of the ground and used it to prop up their big machine guns."


The renewed conflict in Kachin State is rooted in a long-standing political dispute and large-scale economic interests. In 1994, after decades of brutal fighting and widespread human rights abuses, the KIO and the Burmese military government signed a ceasefire agreement granting the KIO political autonomy over a Special Region in Kachin State, ending the fighting, and granting some latitude for the expansion of humanitarian assistance and development in the area.

Nearly every Kachin villager interviewed by Human Rights Watch described painful histories of forced labor, torture, killings, and other abuses by the Burmese army before and after the 1994 ceasefire. The Kachin, who are predominantly Christian in largely Buddhist Burma, also spoke of past instances of religious repression, which contributes to the collective fears of persecution and widespread feelings of ethnic and religious discrimination among displaced Kachin communities.

A 36-year-old woman from Hka Ya village told Human Rights Watch she was first subject to forced labor in 1983, at age 8. When she fled to escape forced portering for the Burmese army, soldiers shot at her and her aunt: "When I was 8 years old I had to carry things many times, and with the old people I secretly went and ran away into the forest, and when we ran the soldiers fired their guns at us….We didn't get hit."

A 54-year-old farmer from Sin Lum said that since the 1970s he had been forced to porter for the Burmese army "around 70 to 80 times, at least," and that he had "witnessed more than a hundred killings by Burmese soldiers. I can't even say how many. It's been so many."

A 58-year-old Baptist Christian farmer from Maisakba told Human Rights Watch how on three occasions from 2000 to 2009 the Burmese authorities forbade his community from constructing a new Christian church, in part because the proposed structure was in the shape of a cross. "The Burmese authorities banned this construction project," he said. "They wanted to avoid the religious symbol, the cross.… All three times we were rejected." A 48-year-old Roman Catholic villager from Loimawkyang likewise explained how in 2000 his community was forbidden from constructing a new church.

In 2008, Burma's military government announced that all armed groups under ceasefire agreements would have to transform into Border Guard Forces under the direct control of the Burmese army, as stipulated in the 2008 Constitution. The KIO rejected the proposal.

In October 2010, the Burmese state-run media for the first time since 1994 referred to the KIA as "insurgents" as opposed to a "ceasefire group". The Kachin were barred from registering political parties or independent candidates in Burma's November 2010 elections, pro-KIO candidates were removed from the ballots, and tens of thousands of Kachin in KIO-controlled areas were effectively barred from voting.

On June 9, 2011, the army entered and attacked KIA-controlled territory in Sang Gang and Bum Seng villages near the Taping #1 hydropower dam on the Taping River. The fully constructed Taping #1 dam is one of two proposed dams on the Taping River in Burma. It is a project led by China Datang Corporation in partnership with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power. According to state-controlled media, the Burmese army's offensive was an effort to consolidate power in the area and provide security for the hydropower dam. The KIA denied that the dam was ever under threat.

The recently suspended Myitsone hydropower dam at the confluence of the Mali and N'Mai rivers on the Irrawaddy in Kachin State also appears to have been a factor in the conflict. On March 16, 2011, the KIO sent a letter, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, to Chinese President Hu Jintao requesting that the Chinese authorities stop construction of the Myitsone dam because of several social and environmental concerns. The letter specifically named China Power Investment and the Burmese company Asia World Co. Ltd. as investing parties. The KIO wrote that it had informed the Burmese government it would not be held responsible if civil war broke out because of the dam project. Less than three months later, war broke out.

The fighting in Kachin State coincides with an increase in fighting in neighboring Shan State, where the Burmese government also has several economic interests, including dual transnational oil and gas pipelines to China, which will pass through territory claimed by the KIA and the Shan State Army– areas populated by a mix of Kachin, Shan, Burmese, and ethnic Chinese.

Burmese Army mounts multi-front offensive against KIA – Ba Kaung
Irrawaddy: Mon 17 Oct 2011

Deadly armed clashes between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) continued in Kachin and Shan states on Monday, according to KIA officials who said they believe the latest military offensives by the government side are aimed at taking control of their major strongholds. Since Thursday, fighting has been reported at a number of locations considered to be key defensive positions en route to Pajau and Laiza, the KIA's two most important bases of operations.

One focal point has been Lung Zep Kong, a hill near Waimaw Township in Kachin State that lies along the way to Pajau, while sporadic fighting has also been reported in the village of Nam Sen Yang in Kachin State and in Tamonye, near Kutkai Township in Shan State.

"Government troops have mounted three major assaults on this hill since Friday, the latest one this morning, when it sent a strong force of around 600 men in an effort to occupy it," said KIA Col Zau Raw, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday.

"We believe that these military operations show they intend to occupy Pajau." he added.

According to KIA spokesman La Nan, fighting continued today at all three locations, with heavy casualties reported at Lung Zep Kong, most of them on the Burmese side, as the KIA mowed down soldiers ordered to take the hill.

"The government soldiers simply charged up the hill, leaving our soldiers with no option but to shoot them down," said La Nan, adding that there were at least 30 bodies scattered around the area following fighting over the weekend.

The KIA spokesman said that at least 82 armed clashes have taken place since June, when fighting broke out near Chinese-built hydropower plants in Bhamo Township, Kachin State, ending a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement between the two sides. Of these, 17 have occurred so far this month, he said.

Even before this incident, however, tension had been growing over the government's insistence that the 10,000-strong KIA join a Border Guard Force (BGF) under Burmese military command—a demand the KIA rejected outright.

During two subsequent rounds of peace talks, the government offered the KIA a chance to renew the 1994 ceasefire agreement, but rejected the group's demands for a political dialogue between all ethnic armed groups and Naypyidaw.

The government has since then apparently shelved the controversial BGF plan, recently renewing temporary ceasefire agreements with the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army, the largest ethnic armed group in Burma, and another its much smaller ally, the Mongla group, based near the Chinese border.

Asked if the KIA would accept a ceasefire if government dropped the BGF demand, as it did with the UWSA, La Nan said the group would not accept another temporary ceasefire without achieving its political rights.

With much of the recent fighting taking place near the Sino-Burmese border, there have been reports that hundreds of Chinese army troops have been stationed along the border to prevent an influx of refugees and to maintain control over Chinese territory.

Ethnic parties back Suu Kyi to contest election – Ko Htwe
Irrawaddy: Mon 17 Oct 2011

The Nationalities Brotherhood which represents five ethnic parties has urged pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to form a legitimate political party to contest the 2015 general election.

The joint statement was issued on Saturday by the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, the All Mon Regions Democracy Party (AMRDP), the Phalon Sawaw Democratic Party, the Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP) and the Chin National Party.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Nai Ngwe Thein of the AMRDP said the group wanted to get behind Suu Kyi because she was best placed to exploit the common ground between different interest groups to challenge the government.

"[Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] is currently involved in politics outside Parliament, but is not politically recognized. So I want her to register and to contest the election. To do this legally is better," said Nai Ngwe Thein.

If Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) register and return to political work it can be more effective in trying to achieve peace and national reconciliation, he added.

The Upper House will discuss a bill to amend the Political Parties Registration Law which currently stipulates that those convicted by a court and serving a jail term are not eligible to form a political party.

In March 2010, the NLD decided against registering for the general election and Suu Kyi has rejected her party's participation in future polls without amendments to the 2008 Constitution. However, she said the final decision will be left to her party.

NLD spokesman Nyan Win said he thought the statement by the five ethnic parties urging Suu Kyi to contest coming elections strengthens the democratic opposition. But he declined to comment further on the issue as his party has not yet decided whether they will officially register.

Sao Hseng Merng of the SNDP told The Irrawaddy that Suu Kyi contesting the election would help Burma internationally and within Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but it is very important that she should not be taken advantage of by the government.

"All the ethnic peoples both inside and outside Burma support her so the conflict would stop inside the country. I think she will never misuse the faith of the ethnic people," he added.

The Nationalities Brotherhood statement also welcomed the release of 6,359 prisoners including prisoners of conscience and urged the government to immediate release Hkun Htun Oo, Min Ko Naing, other ethnic and student leaders, plus all political prisoners without conditions.

The five ethnic parties also called for the government to form a peace committee with representatives from the five ethnic parties as well as experts and reputable persons to form a workshop focusing on peace and resolving ongoing armed conflicts in ethnic areas in eastern and northern Burma.

Reforming Myanmar looks to India for enlightenment – Frank Jack Daniel
Reuters: Mon 17 Oct 2011

New Delhi – Traditional dress for men in Myanmar combines an Indian-influenced sarong with a Chinese-style coat — fitting, perhaps, for a nation trying to balance ties with two giant neighbours as it looks outwards and relaxes decades of tightly buttoned rule. Wedged between India to its west and China to its east, Myanmar will need to work hard on that balancing act as its military-backed government heads down the path of political reform to end the nation's pariah status and revive its economy.

Throttled by Western sanctions, Myanmar has long relied on Beijing to keep it afloat with weapons, loans and infrastructure projects. But it is now courting India, too, to reduce its dependence on China, which many in the country see as a semi-colonial power.

Myanmar is hoping competition between the two Asian rivals will earn it a better deal for resources such as gas and access to the Indian Ocean from its shores, for which China has so far paid bottom-dollar.

"There is an awareness they have a lot in common with two great nations, China and India, and they must learn to cooperate with both to derive the maximum benefit for themselves," said Lalit Mansingh, who was India's foreign secretary when relations with Myanmar began to warm in the late 1990s.

Broadly speaking, that seems to be the plan.

Two weeks ago, Thein Sein, a retired general who in February became Myanmar's first nominally civilian president in nearly 50 years, shocked Beijing by shelving a $3.6 billion dam project that would have supplied almost no domestic electricity and had come to epitomise the army's habit of kowtowing to China.

This week he visited India, the world's largest democracy, for a state visit that began with a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, the spot where the Buddha is said to have found enlightenment after meditating under a tree for three days and three nights.


"When Myanmar's government suspended the dam and went to India, it showed that it should not be underestimated," said Christopher Roberts, an Asia expert at Australia's National Security College. "It knows it has resources that many countries want and it is using this to full advantage."

Myanmar's new assertiveness towards Beijing and desire to return to the fold of nations give India a rare chance to steal a march on China in the regional jostle for maritime power and energy supplies.

But red tape-bound India's slow decision making and bureaucratic tangles mean it may fail to seize the moment.

The $110 million Sittwe port and transport hub it is building on Myanmar's west coast is unfinished. Meanwhile, China plans to build a much larger deep-water port just a few miles away.

"Our ability to execute projects on time needs improvements," said a well-informed official in the Indian government who declined to be named, noting China's better record on delivering promised projects.

"It is the challenge, we lose out. We have a different political system, they have deep pockets," said the official.

Also known as Burma, Myanmar's links with India stretch back for centuries, and both countries became independent from the British empire within a year of each other after World War Two. As Myanmar retreated into authoritarianism, however, it was rejected by its democratic neighbour and moved closer to China.

"When India withdrew it caused a vacuum in Myanmar: others stepped in, especially China," said Mansingh.

India realised in the 1990s that Chinese investment in Myanmar's military and infrastructure was giving Beijing a strategic advantage in the Southeast Asian nation, which straddles busy Bay of Bengal shipping lanes and has large energy reserves.

So India put its concerns about human rights abuses there to one side. Once an ardent supporter of the democracy icon and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who went to school and university in India, New Delhi quietly dropped its backing for her opposition party and began to court Myanmar's junta.

Hungry for energy supplies to fuel one of the world's fastest-growing major economies and wary of China's military and maritime expansion, India has for several years sold Myanmar military equipment and promised it roads and railways.

Until now, Myanmar's response has been lukewarm. While it has clamped down on separatist militants seeking refuge from India's restive northeast, it has so far refused to send any natural gas.

India has a 30 percent stake in two gas blocks in the offshore Shwe fields, but in 2007 Myanmar chose to sell the gas produced there to China via two huge pipelines.


Myanmar is vital for China's strategy of finding short cuts to pull energy into its populous south. Both countries will continue to work together, but maybe on a more balanced footing.

India worries China's "string of pearls" projects to build ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan could lead to its naval encirclement across the Indian Ocean and up to the Arabian Sea. Reports of listening stations on Myanmar's western coast and islands add to these fears.

Sein arrived in India hours after releasing about 200 political prisoners on Wednesday, part of a strategy aimed at ending Myanmar's status as an outcast and the sanctions imposed on it by the United States and Europe.

The retired general met officials on Friday in New Delhi, which opposes sanctions while being a major ally of Myanmar's fiercest critic, Washington.

"I think they will find India very helpful in projecting their national interest to the rest of the world," said Mansingh.

For its part, India is looking for a stake in any opening-up of Myanmar's gas fields and vast tracts of farmland.

"Energy cooperation is quite extensive and is expected to increase," Harsh Vardhan Shringla, joint secretary at the foreign ministry, said in a briefing. "The Myanmar government has put out tenders for additional onshore blocks for which Indian companies are also interested."

India may quietly take some of the credit for drawing Myanmar in from the cold. It says its policy of engagement and democracy promotion behind closed doors is more effective than Western governments' public admonishments.

"The last thing you want to do is wag your finger at a country publicly," said the government official. "Try doing that with your children, let alone a fellow nation."

($1 = 49.125 Indian Rupees) (Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie)

Japan to restart development assistance to Myanmar
Ashai Shimbun: Mon 17 Oct 2011

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba plans to announce the resumption of official development assistance (ODA) to Myanmar (Burma), which has been mostly suspended until now in response to the regime's anti-democratic actions, when he holds talks with his Myanmarese counterpart in Tokyo on Oct. 21.

Genba said on Oct. 14 he will meet with Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, which will mark the first time since 1995 that either a leader or a foreign minister of Myanmar will come to Japan on an official visit for a bilateral discussion.

The ministry plans to resume mutual visits by key government figures and make it clear that it wants to strengthen bilateral ties.

"It is essential to support Myanmar's reforms," a senior ministry official said.

The Myanmarese government began granting amnesty to thousands of inmates on Oct. 12, including hundreds of political prisoners, but the international community is yet to decide its response to the move.

Japan's foreign ministry released a statement on Oct. 14 saying, "We appreciate the move as a concrete step toward democratization and national reconciliation."

During the upcoming talks, Japan plans to propose reinforced cooperation in four fields: exchanges of personnel, ODA, economic relations and cultural exchange. With regard to ODA, Japan is to announce the resumption of both the rehabilitation of the Baluchaung No. 2 hydro power plant, which was suspended after democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained in 2003, as well as the construction of the Myanmar-Japan Center for Human Resources Development, which was suspended after anti-government demonstrations were suppressed in 2007. Japan plans to begin on-site surveys by the end of this fiscal year.

However, several pro-democracy groups in both Japan and overseas have argued that Japan should act more cautiously and confirm whether democratization is truly under way before taking action.

How far can Burma bend for change? – Peter Hartcher
Sydney Morning Herald: Mon 17 Oct 2011

One of the world's most famous champions of freedom, Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, spent most of the past 21 years under house arrest, considered a pariah by the military dictators who cancelled elections, shut down free speech and cut Burma off from the democratic world.

A year ago it was forbidden to print her name in a newspaper. But now, the long-suffering Nobel peace prize winner is not only allowed her freedom, she was invited to a well-publicised dinner with the President and his wife. The beginning of a liberalisation in one of Asia's most repressive countries, or a manipulative gimmick to trick the world into easing tough sanctions?

When Suu Kyi was released last November and the first "democratic elections" in 19 years were held, nobody believed that there was serious reform under way in the country that now calls itself Myanmar, population 55 million.

The elections were held under a new constitution that gives the military permanent dominance. As expected, pro-military parties won overwhelmingly. The whole exercise was dismissed by Western governments as a fraud. The ageing military dictator, General Than Shwe, handed power to a slightly younger former general, Thein Sein, in March, and nobody paid much attention.

The new President gave his inaugural address to Parliament declaring his intention to fight poverty, curtail corruption, end armed conflicts and achieve political reconciliation. But he was given about as much credence as the China's constitutional guarantees of democratic freedom.

But reforms have been flowing fast. The press has been freed up somewhat. Access to foreign news websites such as the BBC has been allowed. Suu Kyi has been allowed to travel and speak freely and widely and in security. A satirist who had bedevilled the regime for years, and been jailed for even longer, was released. Foreign journalists have been granted unprecedented access.

The UN's special envoy to Burma, Tomas Quintana, had been banned from the country after last year calling for a UN special inquiry into whether the regime was guilty of crimes against humanity. This year, he was not only allowed back and given all the access he asked for, the regime even took his advice and created a human rights commission. Remarkably, the commission has since issued a call for the release of political prisoners.

In July, Australia's Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, told President Thein Sein this would be the single most transformative step the regime could take to signal serious intent of political reform.

Thein Sein has now released some 200 to 220 political prisoners, according to the best estimate of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. About another 1800 remain, however, and activists are unconvinced: "Such amnesties are not new," Zetty Brake, of Burma Campaign Australia, says. "In the past, these releases have never been an indicator that change is on the way. They have been used by the dictatorship to try and secure positive publicity in order to ease international pressure."

The question of political prisoners will remain an acid test of regime intentions, and yet, with each passing day, it is becoming harder to sustain the argument that change in Burma is tokenistic.

State pensions for nearly a million people, mostly poor, have increased dramatically. Microfinance, the system for giving loans of as little as $20 or $100 to the very poor to allow them to start small ventures such as breeding chickens or opening stalls, has been legalised. Trade unions, long banned, have been legalised, a "momentous policy decision" according to the International Labour Organisation's representative in Burma, Steve Marshall.

Some reforms have been "previously unimaginable" in the words of a Burmese historian and former UN official, Thant Myint. "What we're seeing today is Myanmar's best chance in half a century for a better future," he argues.

One of the "previously unimaginable" decisions to emerge from Burma was the suspension of a $US3.6 billion project, financed by China, to build a major dam across the Irrawaddy River. This is a touchstone for both Burma's domestic politics and its international strategy and diplomacy. Certainly for China, Burma's biggest trading partner and chief ally and protector, this is a very serious matter.

It was not only the terms of the announcement. Thein Sein said in a note to the parliament that he was suspending construction for the duration of his term – to 2015 – because the dam was being built "against the will of the people." Since when had anything been done in Burma according to the "will of the people"?

It was also the importance of the project. The dam was to generate 6000 megawatts of electricity, 90 per cent of which was to flow across the border to China. So, too, according to activist groups, were 70 per cent of the profits. Beijing is unimpressed at this abrupt change in Burma's priorities. Its foreign ministry has expressed hope that any decisions on the project will be made "in consultation" with China.

For the Burmese people, it is one of the most potent political issues. The Myitsone Dam would have drowned fertile rice paddies, dislocated tens of thousands of ethnic Kachin people, and destroyed sites that archaeologists claim are the most important for understanding the origins of Burmese history and culture.

Thein Sein appears to have sided decisively with his people against Beijing. This seems the hardest evidence yet that he is not just an extension of the old repression but a new force seeking popular support and political legitimacy.

The world is now paying serious attention. The new US special envoy to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, said "if they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform."

Washington is now moving to improve diplomatic relations, but not yet to lift sanctions.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have long refused to aid Burma. Rudd told the Herald that "it's well worth reconsidering engagement with Burma" for the two biggest international lenders, but Australia was not yet ready to reconsider its own sanctions on Burma.

How far can Thein Sein go in offering Burma some real hope for freedom and prosperity? How far will Burma's military allow him to go? The world is pleasantly surprised but, like Suu Kyi herself, wary: "I'd like to see a few more turns before I decide whether or not the wheels are moving along."

* Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

CSW urges international community to address impunity and maintain pressure for real change
Christian Solidarity Worldwide: Mon 17 Oct 2011

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) today called on the international community to maintain pressure on the regime in Burma to implement significant and substantial change, release all political prisoners, stop war crimes and crimes against humanity and end impunity. CSW also urges the United Nations to adopt measures to address violations of international law and ensure justice and accountability in the forthcoming General Assembly resolution on Burma. In his report to the UN General Assembly, released last week, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, reiterated his call for a commission of inquiry into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. An investigation, he argues, "is not only an obligation but would deter future violations and provide avenues of redress for victims."

Since President Thein Sein took office on 30 March, at least 30 cases of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Burma Army soldiers have been reported, and the International Labour Organisation has received over 400 complaints of the forced recruitment of child soldiers. The regime has launched a new offensive against the Kachin ethnic people, breaking a 17-year ceasefire, while continuing attacks on civilians in other parts of the country, including Karen and Shan states, and severe violations of human rights in Chin, Arakan and Mon states. At least 35 civilians have been killed in ethnic states, and the widespread and systematic use of forced labour, forced displacement, religious persecution and torture continues.

On 12 October 6,359 prisoners were released, of whom only 220 were political prisoners. Almost 2,000 political prisoners remain in prison. CSW urges the Burmese regime to recognise the existence of political prisoners, erase the criminal records of activists wrongly charged under criminal law, and announce an unconditional general amnesty for all political prisoners. In particular, CSW reiterates its call for the release of 88 General leaders Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Mya Aye, Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD) leader Khun Htun Oo, and U Gambira, a Buddhist monk who helped lead the 2007 pro-democracy demonstrations. CSW also urges the regime to relocate prisoners currently in remote jails to prisons closer to their families prior to their release, so that they can be reunited with their families more easily and quickly.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) should be provided unrestricted access to prisons to assess the conditions, meet prisoners and provide assistance. The regime should also open unhindered access for humanitarian organisations to all parts of the country.

CSW's East Asia Team Leader Benedict Rogers said, "President Thein Sein has made a few encouraging gestures, taken a few symbolic steps and adopted some reformist rhetoric. Such steps, such as meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, suspending the construction of the Myitsone dam and releasing 220 political prisoners, are in themselves welcome and should be encouraged, but they fall well short of amounting to meaningful change. President Thein Sein now needs to match his rhetoric and gestures with significant and substantive action. If real change is to occur in Burma, the regime must release all political prisoners, stop violations of international law, declare a nationwide ceasefire and enter into a meaningful dialogue with the ethnic nationalities and the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi towards national reconciliation. Until these steps occur, the international community must maintain pressure, and consider measures in the General Assembly resolution on Burma for addressing violations of international law, ensuring justice and accountability, and ending impunity."

* Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) is a Christian organisation working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.

Notes to Editors:
1. In his report to the General Assembly, available here: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/66/365, the UN Special Rapporteur expressed concern that "a pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights has existed for many years and continues today, although a new political system is being established." He emphasised that "justice and accountability measures, as well as measures to ensure access to the truth, are essential". While responsibility for ending impunity lies primarily with the new regime in Burma, if it fails to investigate crimes, the international community has a responsibility to act. He reiterated his recommendation for the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry "into gross and systematic human rights violations that could amount to crimes against humanity and/or war crimes."
2. The 88 Generation Students Group includes student leaders who took part in Burma's pro-democracy protests in 1988. Those from the Group who are currently detained in Burma have some of the longest prison sentences of all Burmese political prisoners.

India opens US$ 500 mil credit line for Burmese infrastructure, irrigation projects – Ko Pauk
Mizzima News: Fri 14 Oct 2011

New Delhi – The Indian government announced a US $ 500 million credit line for developmental projects and agreed to expand security cooperation with Burma. At the conclusion of Burmese President Thein Sein's four-day visit, Burmese and Indian leaders also agreed to strengthen economic, agricultural, energy, education and security ties.

The Indo-Asian News Service reported on its website that the leaders issued a joint statement in which: "The prime minister of India congratulated the president of Myanmar on the transition towards democratic government and offered all necessary assistance in further strengthening this democratic transition."

"The two leaders reiterated the assurance that the territory of either would not be allowed for activities inimical to the other and resolved not to allow their respective territory to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by terrorists and insurgent organizations and their operatives," the joint statement said.

In September, during a visit by Burma's Commerce Minister Win Myint, the two countries agreed to double bilateral trade to US$ 3 billion by 2015.

The $500 million credit line follows a similar $300 million scheme last year. A portion of the money will be used on infrastructure projects involving irrigation, the statement said. India buys most of Burma's agricultural exports and wants its neighbour to raise output further by planting on idle land.

On Tuesday, The Times of India newspaper reported that Indian Maoist rebels, popularly known as Naxalites, had a plan to open training camps inside Burmese territory within weeks, according to seized documents. The Indian papers reported that at least eight Indian rebel groups were taking shelter in Burmese territory.

According to an Indian government report, Indian Minister of Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises Shri Praful Patel and Burmese Minister of Industry No.2 Soe Thein held discussions about mutually beneficial collaboration between Indian and Burmese companies and industries, in an effort to forge closer ties.

India has been wooing Burma through cooperation in joint energy projects involving oil and natural gas, infrastructure projects and strengthening security cooperation, in an effort to counter the dominant influence of China within Burma. China is scheduled to become the recipient of oil and natural gas, which will pass through a pipeline stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Sino-Burmese border. It is also financing the construction of at least seven dams on tributaries of the Irrawaddy River.

Observers say India is courting Burma in an effort to balance Chinese influence in the country, which is a natural geographic buffer between the two countries.

The Voice of America reported on Thursday that Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said New Delhi was pleased that ties with Burma are gaining momentum.

"Relationships are a process, it is a building process and I consciously did note that both in terms of content and substance and the sweep of the relationship, certainly it's an upwards trajectory, there is no doubt about that," he said.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Indian ties with Burma range from security, trade, energy, and infrastructure development, to education and agriculture. He said roads and a port being developed by India in Burma would give the remote northeastern Indian states easier access to port facilities and boost their economic development.

Myanmar engagement bearing fruit – Abdul Khalik
The Jakarta Post: Fri 14 Oct 2011

Skeptics can call it cosmetic change, but the positive trend in Myanmar has prompted many to score a victory for ASEAN's "constructive engagement" after years of tireless effort from Indonesia, the current chair of the 10-member group.

This week, the Myanmarese government released some 200 political detainees in a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners, eased some media controls and held further dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar's current government was also the result of a general election, although many dismissed it as a sham.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi was freed after 15 years of house arrest last year and was allowed to travel throughout the country.

"Although some say the progress in Myanmar is simply because the country wants to be ASEAN chair in 2014, I believe there are more fundamental changes happening," said University of Indonesia international relations expert Hariyadi Wirawan.

He said the gradual change in Myanmar had proven to the international community that the "constructive engagement" pushed by ASEAN and championed by Indonesia in lieu of the embargo proposed by Western countries, has worked.

"Now, ASEAN and Indonesia must maintain their momentum and continue pushing for more inclusive and transparent governance," he said.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene also welcomed the progress, stressing that the changes had come from within the country and Myanmar's government.

"We are pleased to see the development in the country in the recent years," he said.

However, critics have said that the changes in Myanmar were only gestures to appease ASEAN countries ahead of the ASEAN summit in November in Bali, where Myanmar's proposal that it serve as ASEAN chair in 2014 instead of 2016 as scheduled, will be decided.

The political prisoners were also released prior to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa's visit to inspect the progress of democratization in the country and its readiness to chair and host a series of ASEAN meetings.

"Pak Marty will visit Myanmar at the end of this month to survey the developments in the country, which will be presented as a report at the November summit," Michael said.

During the May summit in Jakarta, Myanmar officially lobbied to be ASEAN chair in 2014 instead of 2016, swapping with Laos.

However, some ASEAN members have been reluctant, concerned that Myanmar's chairmanship in 2014 would hamper ASEAN's target of becoming a fully fledged community by 2015.

Democratic reform in Myanmar provides opportunity for India – Sunrita Sen
Deustche Presse Agentur: Fri 14 Oct 2011

New Delhi – Democratic reforms in Myanmar have made it easier for India, the world's largest democracy, to engage with its smaller neighbour, until recently a military dictatorship.

Mineral and oil-rich Myanmar, which shares a 1,643-kilometre border with India's north-eastern states, has always had the potential to be an important business partner and a key gateway for India to South East Asia.

It is also a country of key strategic importance in view of China's growing influence in the region, as well as being a security issue since it serves as a natural shelter for rebel groups operating in India's north-east.

For years, India has had to fine-tune its policy towards Myanmar, balancing engagement with the military junta and its poor record of human rights with its support for pro-democracy activists and their leader Aung San Syu Ki.

President Thein Sein's four-day visit to India against a backdrop of the current democratic reforms in Myanmar has provided India an opportunity to push forward its engagement to its true potential, Indian diplomats say.

'There are winds of change in Myanmar,' India's former ambassador to Yangon, Aloke Sen said, listing the recent reform measures – release of prisoners, gestures of goodwill towards Syu Ki, freer debate in parliament, more freedom for the media, moves to bring transparency to an opaque business sector.

But given the junta's record and that the current government is packed with former generals including Thein Sein, is the democratic transition sustainable?

'Doubt over sustainability is legitimate, given Myanmar's past. But in India, we must take the shifting winds for real – these developments are both a challenge and an opportunity – and fine-tune our policy,' Sen said.

The diplomat, who spent years in Yangon, feels Thein Sein is sincere in his desire for change.

'But the situation in Myanmar is very complex. There are so many fault lines, ethnic, social issues. There have been so many years of distortion, the new leader has the will but not everything is in his hands,' Sen said.

India's pragmatic position on Myanmar over the past decade may well yield dividends today. The direct talks with Thein Sein Friday would help immensely, diplomatic sources said.

While engaging with Myanmar's military dictatorship to improve transport links and oil and gas exploration, Indian officials and leaders have for years been quietly telling the generals that in today's world, violence against monks or journalists and continued detention of political prisoners would have a deeply regressive impact, diplomatic sources said.

India has also always maintained that sanctions are not the way forward.

'We always believe that sanctions do not serve the desired purpose and they affect those sections of society which are as it is vulnerable,' India's Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said during a briefing Thursday.

For its part, Myanmar, engaged in its own balancing with the other major power in the region, China, has always been keen on upgrading relations with India.

Myanmar's military has responded positively to Indian requests to raid rebel camps located across the border and in recent years has encouraged investment in the oil and gas sector.

China, which has a privileged relationship with Myanmar, helping it economically at crisis points, may soon face competition as more and more nations rethink sanctions as and if reforms progress.

But China is unlikely to be usurped as Myanmar's pre-eminent external partner in the near future.

Myanmar recently suspended a controversial Chinese dam project in the north, but has announced that vice president Tin Aung Myint Oo would be visiting Beijing end-October, possibly to explain the decision.

Sen said Myanmar would need both its powerful neighbours, India and China, to make a quantum leap and transition, both economically and politically.

But the recent democratic transition process has given relations with India an upward trajectory both in terms of content and substance, Indian diplomats say.

Perhaps most telling of the winds of change was the reaction of pro-democracy protesters in New Delhi. Over the past years, visits to India by Myanmar's military leaders have been greeted with strong protests from these activists, but this time around the reaction was somewhat muted.

Tint Swe, one of the coordinators of the protests, said, 'This visit is a bit different. This president is not attracting as much attention as Than Shwe. They are doing cosmetic changes, we have to wait and watch, see if they are permanent, if more steps follow.'

Time to lift Myanmar sanctions – Editorial
The Straits Times (Singapore): Fri 14 Oct 2011

THERE is some basis for scepticism surrounding Myanmar's recent release of 300 political prisoners. The move still leaves about 2,000 behind bars. There is no assurance that it is not a shadow play to secure the 2014 Asean chairmanship. In the months ahead, hardliners in the military will also resist any form of political reform that would compromise their positions. Weary Myanmar watchers will also point out that previous reform and openings were only followed by subsequent crackdowns. This time, however, the scope and depth of the reforms have been sweeping, and warrant a serious look. The release comes in the wake of the government's increasing dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,

growing tolerance of criticism and calls for peace with ethnic minority groups. In November, the country held historic (albeit stage-managed) elections and released Ms Suu Kyi. Even the government's press censor has suggested that he put himself out of commission, given that censorship of the press is 'not in harmony with democratic practices'. Such a stab at reform is bold indeed in the Myanmar context.

This is where the West needs to play a role. For the longest time, the United States, Europe and Australia have said that the freeing of political prisoners is an essential step for the lifting of the vise of sanctions on Myanmar. No doubt, only a fraction of Myanmar's political prisoners were released, but the move – issuing as it does from the broader context of political reform – is certainly a step in the right direction. Last month, Myanmar suspended the construction of a China-backed dam worth US$3.6 billion (S$4.6 billion) – a move that could signal it wants the West to play a significant role in the country, no matter how useful China is as a strategic ally and investor.

It has already been proven quite conclusively that using punitive sanctions to change the behaviour of targeted states is ineffective. In Myanmar's case, sanctions have only made the junta more obdurate, lined the pockets of well-connected leaders and adversely affected the country's poor. As the International Crisis Group contends in a recent report, sanctions have encouraged a siege mentality among Myanmar's leadership and harmed ordinary Myanmarese. A faster pace of political change – as evidenced in Myanmar this year – would only undermine the case for sanctions, it argued.

In January, Asean was right on the money when it called on the West to lift the sanctions on Myanmar. Nine months is a long time in politics, and Myanmar has already gone a long way to show its sincerity. It is time for the West to reconsider.

New law gives Burmese right to strike – Joseph Allchin
Democratic Voice of Burma: Thu 13 Oct 2011

A new labour law signed this week by Burma's president is a "massive move for the country", which has long been beset by severe restrictions on the rights to strike and unionise, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Deputy Labour Minister Myint Thein confirmed to DVB today that President Thein Sein had passed the labour organisation bill into law "the day before yesterday [and] after 14 days it can be implemented for labour organisation".

The passing of the law brings to an end the draconian 1962 Trade Unions Act that effectively banned all trade unions in the country. Burmese workers can now legally go on strike, with the proviso that if they work in the private sector they give three days notice, and if in a public utility, 14 days.

Speaking to DVB before the bill received the president's signature, Steve Marshall, the country director for the ILO, said that "we have to say it is a massive move for the country in terms of the social development, and frankly, economic development.

"You don't join unions to simply be in a club – you join unions for collective bargaining and proper economic management of the labour market."

The bill allows for the formation of unions with a minimum size of 30 people, which members can join or leave of their own desire. Workers can legally go on strike and protest for workers' rights as long as it does not block transport or security infrastructure.

Unions will have to register with a national registrar appointed by the President, a condition that has caused some concern for the exiled Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), although Marshall noted that this was common in other countries.

"It will help us get more benefits for the economy because our labour organisation law means they can organise according to their will and our government transparency will attract foreign countries and therefore FDI [foreign direct investment] can flow freely," Myint Thein told DVB.

The bill however includes severe penalties for employers who breach its regulations, including a ban on the dismissal of "a worker for his membership in a labour organisation for the exercise of organisational activities or participating in a strike in accordance with the law."

If an employer breaches such legislation, they could "on conviction", face a fine of up to 100,000 kyat ($US120) or up to a year in prison, or both.

Workers in essential services however will not legally be allowed to go on strike, or if the strike is deemed to have endangered the health or life of people

Such laws will obviously hinge on the judiciary, which has arguably failed in upholding laws designed to protect children from, among other things, conscription into the military, despite Burma's ratification of the UN convention on the rights of the child. One stumbling block is the military's immunity from prosecution in a civilian court, which is guaranteed in the 2008 constitution.

However, Myint Thein asserted that "we must implement by the labour organisation rules; after that we can implement according to the laws."

Marshall continued: "As in every other country there will be unions associated with political groupings" which, he said, would be normal and expected "as long as there is no pressure being placed on people to join particular unions." As a result the ILO believes that educating workers on their rights will be important.

The bill has already passed in Burma's two national parliaments after being submitted to the upper house on 29 August after drafting ended.

Myanmar tycoon's riches grow amid sanctions
Al Jazeera: Thu 13 Oct 2011

Tay Za remains South-east Asian nation's richest man despite being banned from trading with the EU.Tay Za is known as Myanmar's richest businessman, although he says he is not.

An entrepreneur whose companies employ more than 60,000 people in the South-east Asian nation, Tay Za has continued to make money despite sanctions that prevent him from doing business with the European Union.

With leading dissident Aung San Suu Kyi saying the sanctions should remain until democratic values take hold in Myanmar, many are wondering they they have hurt people like Tay Za at all.

The Burma conspiracy: Sanctions debate intensifies
France 24: Thu 13 Oct 2011

The signs were clear the night I took my first stroll through the then Burmese capital of Rangoon – and they were in red. Gay Chinese lanterns dangled outside restaurants, neon signs in Chinese characters shone from street corners. Buntings and door tassels – in red and gold – swished in the mild coastal winter breeze. A famished visitor that night was more likely to chance upon Yunnan rice noodles – a staple of the Chinese province bordering Burma – than khau-swe, the Burmese condiment-speckled, noodles-in-broth concoction.

That was back in 2004, four years after Chinese businessmen in Rangoon allegedly lit firecrackers to celebrate the 2000 US Congress vote to extend China's PNTR (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) status.

I'm not sure if it's true – I wasn't there – but I heard that story so often in Burma that I figured there was a message in the sheer scale of retelling.

The irony of celebrating a US Congressional bilateral trade vote in sanctions-hit Burma was rich. My embarrassingly plush Rangoon hotel, for instance, could not honor US or European credit cards. Guests had to pay for their rooms in cash.

Chinese businessmen in Burma however had no such problems.

The 1990s economic reforms had parted the Bamboo Curtain shrouding a nation that was, for decades, hermeneutically sealed by the "Burmese Way of Socialism" – a paranoid, isolationist national policy.

The Burma-China border was reopened, Chinese businessmen were flocking into Burma, and their government had snagged massive infrastructure agreements and arms deals with the Burmese military junta.

I was in town with a group of four other US journalists on a rare UN-sponsored fellowship. Foreign journalists do not easily obtain visas to Burma and I haven't revisited the hauntingly beautiful Southeast Asian nation since.

But when I encounter anyone who has just returned from Burma, I invariably grill them for stories and insights of their trip.

From their accounts I gathered that the Chinese influence is growing in Rangoon, with Chinese goods flooding the markets and new shopping malls. As for Mandalay – the second-largest city with a blessedly exotic name – it has turned "totally Chinese," I've been told.

Solutions for the 'Malacca Dilemma'

Burma, a resource-rich, yet impoverished country with which China shares a 2,185-kilometer border, is enormously useful for resource-hungry, fast-developing China.

On the geostrategic front, Burma's importance was highlighted in 2003, when Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly used the term, "Malacca Dilemma" – a China policy wonk phrase to describe the marine chokepoint near Singapore through which 80 percent of China's oil imports pass.
Chinese officials have long worried that any conflict around the Malacca Strait could cut off their foreign oil supplies. The answer, strategists note, would be a land access, via Burma, to the warm water ports of the Bay of Bengal.

All this makes India, another rising Asian power on Burma's western border, ill with worry. But official Indian foreign policy is as ineffectual as China's is organized and although New Delhi has been opening up to the powers-that-be in Naypyidaw, Indian influence is a dull opening act to China's rock-star draw.

More than a decade after the US and Europe slapped economic sanctions on Burma following the military's crackdown after the 1990 elections, the West had lost the game to China. That was evident.

What was less evident though, was how ordinary Burmese viewed China's growing influence. From my conversations in Rangoon and the northern Burmese state of Shan, all I got was a sense of polite Burmese indifference. The Chinese? Oh yes, they're everywhere. No, Chinese investments have not changed our lives – for better or worse. The Chinese businessmen are just doing their thing, hiring their people, working hard, making money – as you would expect them to…

But then it's not easy getting a journalistic pulse of a nation ruled by an all-seeing, repressive military junta, and so I left it at that and proceeded to spend the next few years covering the usual hotspots.

Damning a dam, releasing prisoners

Imagine my surprise over last week's news that Burma had shelved a Chinese $3.6 billion dam project that many Burmese opposed.

Bowing to unprecedented domestic opposition, Burma's newly-appointed President Thein Sein announced that he was following "the will of the people" by stopping the controversial Myitsone Dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Burma's northernmost Kachin state.

Apparently many ordinary Burmese are a lot more resistant to ecologically damaging projects that solely benefit China than they led me to believe – or maybe the opposition has been mounting over the past seven years.

There's been a slow drum-roll of reforms since President Thein Sein, a retired senior army officer, took office in March.

Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released last year after 15 years of house arrest. Thein Sein, a retired military man who is nevertheless Burma's first civilian head-of-state in half a century, has started a cautious dialogue with Suu Kyi, the biggest thorn in the junta's side.

On Tuesday, the Burmese government announced it would release more than 6,300 prisoners in a mass prison amnesty. The news was greeted with cautious optimism, with activists wondering whether Burmese political prisoners – such as popular comedian and dissident Zarganar – would be released.

Wednesday dawned and the first batch of released prisoners featured prominent dissidents, including Zarganar and Buddhist monk Shin Gambira, a leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance.

Once again, cautious optimism greeted Wednesday's news, with some representatives of Burmese rights groups in exile warning that the junta had a "hidden agenda to appear credible and respectable to the international community" ahead of Burma's bid for ASEAN's rotating presidency in 2014.

All this sounded very familiar.

When I was in Burma back in 2004, the chatter was dominated by the junta's image-dressing ahead of the 2005 ASEAN presidency. We even wondered, in a pathetic display of self-importance, if our Burmese visas were part of the junta's public relations drive to secure that chair.

In the end it didn't matter of course. Faced with the likelihood of Malaysia blocking the bid, Burma withdrew its candidacy.

To go or not to go, that's the question

What is new though, is the change in Western discourse on Burma's economic sanctions.

"Over the past few years, there's been a greater awareness of the shortcomings of the sanctions policy," International Crisis Group's Asia Program Director Robert Templer told me in a phone interview from the US. "The international community has realized that the isolation has pushed Burma into the hands of the Chinese."

But don't expect the sanctions debate to go uncontested. This issue has been raging for a while now and there's a very vocal, very organized section of the Burmese human rights community opposing any talk of re-thinking the economic sanctions.

While Western governments have not gone so far as to impose a travel ban on Burma, there's a lobby discouraging tourists from visiting the land of the golden stupas.

My battered old Lonely Planet Burma guide had a chapter on whether tourists should travel to Burma that extensively featured the London-based Burma Campaign UK. It was so blunt and forbidding, I had visions of my dollars fattening the inscrutable generals' pockets as they lorded over starving forced laborers.

But that, it seems, was too "soft" for some UK-based groups. In 2008, the TUC (Trade Union Congress) along with Burma Campaign UK and a few other groups launched an online campaign calling for the boycott of Lonely Planet's Burma guide, claiming travel to the Southeast Asian nation was unethical and helped prop up the military.

Make no mistake, the Burmese military junta is a nasty piece of work. But the sanctions have not reduced their nastiness. Why should it when China is around the corner, ready to provide invaluable economic aid and political support at the UN?

Everybody I spoke to in Burma, to a man, told me the sanctions were defeating its purpose and they should be lifted because it was very difficult to make ends meet.

"Does that mean you disagree with 'The Lady'?" I asked, using the popular Burmese way of referring to Suu Kyi.

My Burmese interlocutors would invariably look pained and proceed to lecture me on the greatness of The Lady.

"But she does not support the lifting of sanctions," I pursued ruthlessly, "and I respect 'The Lady' – we all do. Should I be telling my audiences not to respect her views on the sanctions and travel to Burma?"

Quiet squirming seconds later, I would get an answer that basically went: Look, we respect The Lady, but on the sanctions and tourism issue, she's been too intransigent, which we can understand from a woman who has made such sacrifices for her country. But honestly, believe me, we need tourists, we need anything that will enable us to engage with the world. The military isn't going anywhere, we need to be realistic, we need reforms, not isolation.

Shortly after I returned from Burma, when a couple of friends asked my opinion about whether they should go to Burma, my response was an honest, "I really don't know."

But since then, I've read two highly recommended books by Thant MyintU, a former UN official who also happens to be the grandson of U Thant, the respected former UN Secretary General, who ran afoul with then Burmese dictator Ne Win before dying of lung cancer in New York.

Thant MyintU was a former supporter of the sanctions, but he now calls them "counterproductive and dangerous".

To be sure, MyintU has a number of vociferous detractors on the Web who accuse him of not "knowing" Burma. But I've read "The River of Lost Footsteps" and his recent, "Where China Meets India" and I think he's spot-on.

Even the Lonely Planet "Should You Go" chapter now is much more nuanced than it used to be. "Many locals point out that over the past decade and a half the tourism sector has become increasingly privatized – visitors can now choose from several hundred private hotels and keep up to 80 percent of expenses in private hands," it says.

The other day, a friend of mine told me he was planning a trip to Burma, but he wasn't so sure because of the "ethical issues" he explained. My answer was a prompt, "Just shut-up and go".


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