Friday, December 26, 2008

A Brother's Plea: Remember Burma

Opinion, The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2008

A Brother's Plea: Remember Burma
By Min Zin

The Saffron Revolution must not be forgotten.

On Nov. 28 my brother, Thet Zin, a Burmese journalist brave enough to remain in his country, was sentenced to seven years in prison by the military junta there. His crime? Possession of a U.N. report about the military's crackdown on demonstrations by monks and democracy activists in September 2007 -- known around the world as the "Saffron Revolution."
He's not alone. In the past two months the junta has sentenced more than 230 political detainees to lengthy prison sentences, some as long as 68 years. The total number of political prisoners in Burma is now more than 2,100, up sharply from nearly 1,200 in June 2007, before last year's protests, according to Amnesty International and other human-rights groups.
The terrible irony is that when I tell my Burmese friends and colleagues about my brother's sentence the typical response is, "Only seven years?" How far we've fallen that we consider anything less than decades in prison to be somehow a blessing.

My brother is the editor in chief of a weekly journal you've likely never heard of called the Myanmar Nation. On Feb. 15, the military raided his office and dragged him and his office manager, Sein Win Maung, away. They were eventually charged with crimes against the state under the regime's Printing and Publishing Law. All this for being in possession of a U.N. report widely available on the Internet.
Torture and interrogations followed. He was sent to Burma's notorious Insein prison. He nearly died there when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May, claiming more than 80,000 lives. Now he's facing a term in a filthy, disease-ridden prison that could result in his death.
The reality is that my brother did get a lighter sentence -- the maximum under the law which he was charged with violating. Nowadays, high-profile dissidents usually receive prison sentences from 20 to 70 years. Since November, the special courts held inside the Insein prison compound have rushed to complete the hearings against Burmese democracy activists, Buddhist monks, student leaders, ethnic minority youth, labor activists, journalists, poets, bloggers, and even comedians and musicians who were arrested during and after last year's peaceful protests.
These hearings and sentencing continue in the absence of their attorneys. Worse yet, three defense lawyers were imprisoned for between four and six months for contempt of court after transmitting their clients' complaints of an unfair trial. (Another defense lawyer convicted of contempt of court fled to the Thai border to evade arrest.) Four other defense lawyers were barred from representing their clients.
The military is immediately transferring those who receive sentences to prisons in remote areas. Earlier this month, my brother was sent to a prison in Kalay, 680 miles from his home in Rangoon in Burma's northwestern frontier -- far from all those who care about him.
The goal of such harsh punishments is clear: to eliminate potential opposition in the run-up to the 2010 election, which is the last step in the junta's "Seven-Point Roadmap to Democracy."
The junta is mocking the U.N. Security Council, which issued a statement in October 2007 calling for the release of all political prisoners, including Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. In response, 112 former presidents and prime ministers from more than 50 countries signed a letter this month urging U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to return to Burma for the first time since his visit after Cyclone Nargis and press for the release of political prisoners.
Indeed, Mr. Ban, who recently expressed his "disappointment" and "frustration" with progress in Burma, should go back and tell junta leader Gen. Than Shwe what he told the press not long ago -- that the "status quo ante is not acceptable and politically unsustainable," and that all political prisoners must be released by 2010.
Meanwhile, my brother and thousands of other political prisoners in Burma continue to languish behind bars. The world was watching during the "Saffron Revolution." Is it still?

Min Zin, a Burmese journalist in exile, is a teaching fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Journalism.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Min Zin: Burmese activist crosses boundaries


The Jakarta Post Fri, 10/31/2008

Min Zin:

Burmese activist crosses boundaries

Moch. N. Kurniawan

When applying for his masters degree at the University of California (UC) Berkeley this year, Min Zin, a 35-year-old Burmese dissident, encountered a big problem.

He had never finished high school.

Min Zin was kicked out of high school in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1988 for his political involvement against the military junta.

After this, Min Zin had gone into hiding to avoid arrest until 1997 before fleeing overseas where he worked as a journalist for years, voicing democracy for the Burmese people.

"So when I applied for a masters degree in Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley, I had no high school of undergraduate diplomas, and that caused headaches for the faculty," he said.

However, UC Berkeley showed its grace. Endorsed by five professors at the university, Min Zin was eventually accepted as a graduate student despite some concerns over the issue of favoritism.

"This might not have happen at other universities or in other countries. I was so grateful with UC's decision," Min Zin said in the courtyard of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

The opportunity to study at UC Berkeley means a lot to Min Zin. It means he could gain access to tons of books and other material on his and other Southeast Asia countries, and regularly discuss it with experts on the region.

"I am always interested in Southeast Asian studies, particularly on Indonesia because it has a lot of similarities to Burma," Min said explained.

"As a neighbor, Indonesia is doing a good job managing the transition from an authoritarian rule to democracy. Indonesia is fighting hard against its deep-rooted corruption, and is dealing well with multi-ethnic and religious radicalism issues -- all of which could be studied by my home country."

It is not without good reason Min Zin suggested Indonesia was a good example of an authoritarian-turned-democratic country, since millions of Burmese people have been fed with news that "democracy will only lead to separatism and the collapse of a country, just like in the Balkans".

"Indonesia is really a good case study for us to examine, not the Balkans," he said, admitting that reading books about Indonesia had always thrilled him.

Min Zin's reflections on his country showed that his mind and heart remained their, despite the fact he is now living far away in the U.S..

"If I could return home today, I would go. I belong to Burma. My family is there. I want to dedicate myself to establish good journalism and education, because I realize that education is the key to developing Burma."

Min believes that journalism -- through radio, print and television -- could be a vital tool for the informal dissemination of educational material to the Burmese people, since the formal education system there is very limited.

"Even if there was a political change tomorrow, our formal education wouldn't be available for everyone in the country within 10 or 15 years. People will remain reliant on informal education. That's why the media people are very important," he said.

Min Zin may be far from home, but he is holding on to a message Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent him in early 2003, urging him to continue with his education and emphasizing that it would be a valuable investment for Burma.

The message was not given by chance, as Min Zin has known Suu Kyi since 1988 when he arranged for Burmese student unions to join peaceful democratic protests against the military junta. He witnessed the latter responding brutally with bullets, killing some 10,000 civilians.

Suu Kyi was put under house arrest later in 1989, as the military junta launched raids against democratic activists. Min Zin managed to escape, but his father, who passed away a few years ago, was imprisoned.

Ever since, Min Zin has moved from one place to another in Burma, hiding from the military searches, and after Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995, he has communicated with her regularly to exchange ideas.

In December 1996, Min Zin was one of the key organizers of massive student demonstrations, demanding better education and democratic reforms.

Instead of fulfilling the call, the military junta cracked down on the protests, arresting Min Zin's student activist colleagues, however they still could not find him.

As the military continued to hunt for him, Min Zin decided to leave the country, sneaking out to neighboring Thailand by trekking through the jungle for five days, in 1997.

In Thailand, he began his career as a journalist in Radio Free Asia (RFA Burmese Service) and the Irrawaddy English magazine.

Then Min Zin got an opportunity to be a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, in 2001. He went back to the U.S. again in 2004, this time to work full-time at RFA, whose headquarters are located in Washington D.C.. Min once appeared in an MTV documentary celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela that allowed him to talk with the prominent world figure.

Since leaving RFA in late 2007, Min Zin is now working as a freelance journalist, contributing articles to the Thai-based Bangkok Post newspaper, Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and The Irrawaddy online and magazine.

Min still maintains his status as a Carnegie teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, and is currently studying in the University's Southeast Asian studies program.

Those are the long and dynamic journeys Min Zin has made, his best assets to help rebuild Burma.

Min Zin believes that the only way to solve Burma's protracted crisis is that the military open a political dialog with the democratic opposition parties and ethnic groups.

Min says the military-drafted constitution and follow-up elections in 2010 would not bring about the much-needed state-building process, a process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard.

Instead of state-building, the country is now crumbling with repression, poverty and a humanitarian crisis, he said.

Min said the UN-led international community -- especially countries like Indonesia -- should not give up their attempts to enforce an inclusive political resolution in Burma by 2010.

"Of course, I am not optimistic," he said.

"But if the international community lets the generals in Burma continue their unilateral 'road map', the country will experience a crash landing."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Reflections on Burma's Uprising

August 2008

Reflections on Burma's Uprising

by Min Zin

Posted August 8, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Twenty years have now passed since Burma started its struggle for democracy in what is famously known as the “8-8-88 Movement.” It was a nationwide uprising calling for the removal of the military dictatorship and a restoration of the democratic government.

Back in 1988, I was a 14-year-old high school student. Two of my older siblings had been arrested and tortured for their involvement in the initial student protests and another brother was expelled from school. This shocked our whole family.

It was then that my political activism began. We distributed pamphlets and leaflets in our schools, staged hit-and-run protests in neighborhoods afterwards, and contacted other high schools and went together to universities to join their protests. Later on I became one of the founding leaders of the nation-wide high school student union in Burma, a place where unions are illegal and just being a member of one could result in long-term imprisonment.

It was these student-led protests that eventually snowballed into a nationwide popular uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88).

However, the military staged a coup on September 18 and responded with bullets. When the troops started firing on protesters that night, I was with hundreds of fellow high-school students in Rangoon, participating in a hunger strike. In the following days, I found myself in the thick of the shootings and saw students killed before my very eyes. According to independent estimates, at least 10,000 people were killed in the August and September of 1988.

Even in the aftermath of the crackdown, I still felt awed and shocked. I reflected hard on what had happened. We had stood for principles of truth and justice and the whole population had supported us. So why hadn’t we succeeded? It was a question that took me a while to answer.

After the military coup, I continued to engage in clandestine political activities for reform with other political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become an icon of the Burmese democracy movement. Because of my activities, the military intelligence arrived at my house to arrest me on July 18, 1989. Since I was not at home, they arrested my father instead.

Despite being hunted by the military and threatened with the imprisonment, death and harassment of my family, I decided not to give up and went underground. This is where, despite moving from place to place, I remained for more than eight years.

As time passed, especially during my time on the run, evading arrest, I came to resolve my confusion and realize that though it is important to stand up for one's principles in politics, principle alone cannot guarantee political victory. Political activists need to understand what distinguishes the principled who succeed from the principled who fail. The common complacency about being on the ‘right’ side actually accomplishes little unless coupled with a sound strategy for achieving concrete goals. Our idealism even runs the risk of blinding activists from what is actually happening, and, when push comes to shove, may leave them stranded in irrelevance.

In this way, the central reason for the failure of 1988 uprising was that the opposition did not provide the leadership to “close the deal.” When the street protests reached their highest peak in late August through September 18, the government had become defunct. The opposition leadership, however, would fail to take advantage of the emerging power vacuum. Neither did they unify themselves to push for regime change, nor did they negotiate a transition of power.

After I fled to the Thai border in late 1997, I decided that journalism was the best way for me to support Burma’s pro-democracy movement, since it allowed me to reach people inside Burma as well a growing international audience which follows Burma's affairs. In time, my perspective has also broadened and I have been more and more convinced that the Burmese opposition has no “end game” strategy. They have often confused the means—mass movements—with the ends—victory itself—and in doing so failed to achieve the intended result when protests actually reached their peak. This lack of planning was shown again in last September’s demonstrations.

The fact that we are still unable to translate principle into victory is more than frustrating for me, since it always comes with unspeakable costs. More than ten thousand peaceful protesters have been killed since the 1988 uprising and about two thousand political prisoners, including my brother, remain in jail. Moreover, the plight of the ethnic minorities under the military's oppression has been immeasurable in its cruelty.

But, despite all this, a specific memory keeps me going, something from the 8-8-88 uprising. When we were marching during the 1988 democracy movement, most of us had nothing to eat. Yet some in the crowd would make rice bags for us so that we could keep marching. When we collected those rice bags, we would promise them, "you will get democracy one day".

Yet I have not kept my promise.

Whenever I feel dejected by the lack of progress, I tell myself that I must fulfill the promise that I gave to my people—I owe them for the rice bags I ate. This is a very simple thing, but it has kept those feelings of responsibility for all these years. The rice bags I received 20 years ago still give me power and energy to keep going on.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Was Burma's 1988 uprising worth it?

BBC News

Was Burma's 1988 uprising worth it?

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

On 8 August 1988 cities across Burma were packed with demonstrators.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched through the then capital, Rangoon, calling for a transition to democracy and an end to military rule.

They were the largest mass protests in the country since independence in 1948 - and it looked for a while as though they might achieve results.

But six weeks later, at least 3,000 protesters were dead, thousands more were jailed and the military was firmly back in control.

Aung Din, then an engineering student at Rangoon Institute of Technology, was involved from the start.

Like many, he was angry about tight military control, economic crisis and nonsensical currency reforms that had wiped out most people's savings.

On 13 March 1988, he took part in a protest at his university. Riot police reacted with force. Three students were shot, and one, Phone Maw, was killed. Three days later, another student demonstration was brutally crushed.

Universities were shut, but the students were angry and determined. When they reopened in June, rallies gathered pace.

"We had to hide, but we had lots of meetings," said Aung Din. "We felt that there was no justice or freedom. So we decided we had to bring about an uprising that would end single-party rule."

A massive rally was planned - and 8/8/88, with its instantly recognisable numbers, emerged as the date to hold it.

"It was amazing," said Aung Din. "Columns of people came from all over, and where we met in downtown Rangoon, there were about 500,000 people. At the same time, in other townships, everywhere people were marching for the same things, for democracy and human rights."

Another of the marchers was 14-year-old Min Zin. His older brother and sister had been arrested after the March protests, his brother tortured.

"I was too young - I didn't know much about democracy and human rights. I only knew that this was really wrong, so it was really a spontaneous response," he said.

He helped organise a high school students' union and produced pamphlets calling for an uprising.

"We were so confident when we saw the people really took to the streets and joined the demonstration. It was quite wonderful," he said.


Then it turned bloody. Near midnight, troops opened fire on protesters at City Hall. The next day, they targeted crowds at Shwedagon Pagoda, where Min Zin was.

"It was the first time I saw my friends and colleagues - including some even younger than me - get killed in front of my eyes."

Hundreds of people are thought to have died - but protests continued. Civil servants and monks joined the demonstrators as the government floundered.

Then the movement found its public face in Aung San Suu Kyi.

On 26 August, the daughter of Burma's independence leader stood outside Shwedagon Pagoda and addressed a huge crowd on the need for democracy.

At that stage, said Aung Din, victory appeared possible.

But it was not to be. On 18 September the army struck back. Soldiers fired repeatedly at crowds. Hundreds more were killed. Some fled, others were arrested.

So began a crackdown on the protesters. Even as the military promised democratic elections, its agents hunted opponents.

They came for Min Zin, but he was not there, so they arrested his father. Min Zin went into hiding for nine years.

Aung Din, by then vice-chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was working to organise parties into a united front for the polls. He was arrested on 23 April 1989, tortured and jailed for four years and three months.

While he was in prison, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the elections - but the military ignored the result.

'Fulfil my promise'

Twenty years on, what has changed? The military remains firmly in control. Troops violently crushed anti-government protests in September 2007, with the loss of dozens of lives. Most of those who led the 1988 protests are either in overseas exile, in hiding or in prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, while the military has just forced through a new constitution that further cements its grip on power. Despite Burma's natural resources, millions live in abject poverty.

But, said Aung Din, there is still reason to hope. He is still involved in the pro-democracy movement, as executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

"Many thought that what happened in 1988 would stay in 1988. Nobody expected that it would continue, but it has survived to this day."

He was encouraged at the sight of young people on the streets in September last year.
Min Zin wants to see more strategy from the opposition

"We need a new generation of leaders to hold our flag - and 2007 created that generation of students inside the country. They are smarter than us and they are growing now."

Min Zin had to leave Burma in 1997. He was an activist and journalist for several years, but is now going to university in the US.

He wants the new generation of activists to learn from the past.

"You can expect spontaneous demonstrations against the military - but the problem is that you have to be organised. My concern is whether it can lead to a genuine political change."

Part of the reason the 8/8/88 uprising failed was because the opposition had no "end-game" strategy, he said. They lacked unity and so failed to seize their opportunity.

He worries that even today, many of the activists "do not try to translate principle into victory".

Sometimes, Min Zin says, he feels frustrated. "I spent all of my adult life in the democracy movement and I haven't seen any concrete results towards a transition to democracy."

But a specific memory keeps him going. On 8/8/88, despite their poverty, people gave rice to the demonstrators so that they could keep on marching.

"When we collected the rice bags, we always promised them: 'You will get democracy one day'. So I never met my promise."

"I need to fulfil my promise that I gave to my people."

Sunday, July 27, 2008




Instead of enforcing an inclusive political resolution, the international community appears set on urging the Burmese generals to conduct a 'credible and inclusive election' in 2010. If so, it would be a moral misery and strategic blunder


July 27, 2008 - Burma's conflict is moving into a new phase of intractability. In other words, the conflict will become institutionalised in 2010.

The military has unilaterally set the rules of the new game with the ratification of its constitution and is preparing to hold elections in 2010 as part of its seven-step "road map". But the new constitution will not bring about much-needed state-building, a process in which all parties rally together and make their voices heard.

Instead of entering into the state-building process, Burma ranked 12th out of 177 states in order of their vulnerability to violent internal conflict and societal deterioration in the 2008 "failed state" index, presented by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. In the 2007 index, Burma was designated 14th in failed state rankings. The country is crumbling.

"I can't really see anything happening that will be positive for the country's better future at this stage," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert from Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

The incompatible goals of the military elite and the opposition, including ethnic minorities, will not be transformed by the new constitution and the 2010 election.

The opposition will continue to fight for the goal of national reconciliation, but is likely to find itself ineffective within the new institutional procedures that favour the military's exclusive domination. As a result, the opposition will have to pursue an alternative course of action - such as public mobilisation and international advocacy.

On the other hand, since the military continues to impose its one-sided goal of exclusive domination with the new constitution and elections, it cannot expect to minimise the cost of conflict. The most visible costs of this approach will be the continuation of international isolation and further damage to the country's economy.

"We do not accept the junta's unilateral solution," said Aung Din, a former political prisoner and executive director of the US Campaign for Burma. "Until and unless there is a negotiated political settlement, made by the military, the National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and ethnic representatives together, the US-led western sanctions against the junta will not be lifted."

Sein Htay, a Burmese economist in exile, goes further, saying: "No matter whether there are western economic sanctions or not, the regime's policy failure and mismanagement will damage the prospect of development and public welfare. The country's economy will continue to worsen after 2010."

The threat of renewed public uprisings will still be present, since the military's intentions do not facilitate a reconciliation of interests. More repression will result, increasing existing grievances and public hostility towards the military.

"As the generals will use the same methods of coercion against the people even after 2010, the existing public anger that reached an unprecedented high level during the crackdown against monk-led protests last year and the regime's negligence of cyclone relief in May will be compounded," said Win Min, a researcher in civil-military relations in Burma. "Antagonistic civil-military relations will continue."

Military remains enshrined

Apart from being unable to transform incompatible goals and relations, the new, post-2010 regime will not change any salience of the issues that the country has been facing and which have earned it pariah status.

According to the military's new constitution, a military chief will independently administer military affairs, including recruitment and expansion of troops, promotions, troop deployment, budget, military-owned businesses, purchase and manufacture of weapons, etc.

Consequently, the issues of child soldiers, forced relocations, forced labour, landmines, internal displaced person, the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries, rape and other rights violations - all of which are associated with the military's unchecked interests and behaviour - will continue unresolved, especially in ethnic areas such as the eastern areas of Burma.

Since the elected parliament's legislative power will be restricted, and because it will not be able to oversee the military, no civilian mechanisms will be available to redress the military's excesses. Military personnel accused of crimes will be tried by a court-martial appointed by the head of the armed forces, the Tatmadaw - effectively allowing the military to continue its violations with impunity.

The 2010 elections could, however, contribute to leadership changes, at least on a nominal level during the initial stage. Two power centres will be created - military and government. Aside from the 25 percent of parliamentary seats reserved for the military, and its power to appoint the three most important cabinet ministers (Defence, Home and Border Area Affairs) in the Cabinet, the generals are determined to fill the remaining government portfolios and parliamentary seats with members of the military sponsored civilian thuggish movement, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

The election is sure to be marked by vote rigging, intimidation and bullying attacks orchestrated by the USDA and its affiliates against opposing candidates. Given the record of USDA violence against Suu Kyi's entourage in 2003 and opposition activists in subsequent years, the world will witness an election model of goon-squad democracy - comparable to the travesty of recent elections in Zimbabwe.

The new post-election power arrangement will nonetheless create conflict between two power centres over the command structure and personal interests. Even now, various reports confirm that there is serious animosity and tension between military personnel and USDA members regarding the latter's interference with the military's administrative mandate and other issues of self-interest.

Given the military's lack of experience of sharing power, it will be harder for the generals to accept being outshone by the USDA.

"Many officers in the military hate the USDA and believe it will go down when Than Shwe goes," said a source close to the military establishment.

The government's operation with two centres of power - no matter who pull the strings - could lead to either a serious internal split or miserable inefficiency of the ruling body.

Evolutionary shift?

Some advocates expect it will take an evolutionary shift toward liberalisation. They believe the military's constitution, although flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. They suggest "using the generals' flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution."

However, the nature of the power rivalry within a post-2010 regime will not necessarily lead to a new opening and democratisation in the long run. Even if it does so, the question is: how long is the long run? It may be too long to have any strategic relevancy for the opposition movement, within the country as well as abroad.

In fact, political transition is not likely to take place within the framework of a military-imposed constitution. Even amendments made to the constitution in the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within military-dominated parliamentary debate and a new power arrangement. It could happen only if the status-quo is challenged by public pressure and a negotiated settlement is reached with the military. Otherwise, the post-2010 prospect remains bleak.

The UN-led international community, therefore, must double its efforts to push for an inclusive political resolution in Burma before 2010, mediating for meaningful political dialogue among all key stake holders by using coercive diplomacy, rather than pleading to the regime to conduct elections that are just "credible and inclusive."

The international community must be fully aware that the result of the election will be in accordance with the military's constitution. Otherwise, it will make the same major mistake committed by EU leaders at their July 19 summit in Brussels when they called on the military junta "to ensure that the elections announced for 2010 will be prepared and conducted in a way that contributes to a credible and fully participative transition to democracy." Without considering contextual and consequential dangers, the EU leaders just pushed for the 2010 election and perhaps felt they were serving the cause of Burmese democracy. Moral misery and strategic blunder!

UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, who is planning to return to Burma soon, should be especially cautioned not to lend legitimacy to the regime's constitution and elections in 2010. The UN, which once supported the junta's seven-step "roadmap" as a potential for an inclusive transition, must now say clearly that the map is no longer relevant since it has failed to incorporate key stakeholders. In brief, the UN-led international community should not give up its attempt to enforce an inclusive political resolution in Burma before 2010.

Min Zin is a freelance journalist.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

American Federation of Teachers convention

American Federation of Teachers convention, Chicago (July 10-14, 2008)

Keep up the pressure on Burma
Activist Min Zin honored at human rights luncheon

They are called the “88 generation,” and
for the past 20 years they have helped lead
the fight for democracy in Burma. At the AFT
Human Rights Luncheon on Saturday,
Burmese activist Min Zin accepted our
union’s first Presidential International
Freedom and Democracy Award on behalf of
those Burmese students who launched their
struggle for democracy on Aug. 8, 1988.
We must continue to “call attention to
the atrocities still being committed in
Burma” by the military junta, Min Zin said
in accepting the award.
Min Zin, who was a 14-year-old high
school student at the time of the 1988
protest, said he was accepting the award on
behalf of “all of those who continue to risk
their lives for democracy in Burma.”
AFT president Edward J. McElroy, who
introduced Min Zin, noted that, as educators,
AFT members are familiar with guiding
young people. At key moments in history,
however, he said, “those roles have been
reversed, and young people have really
been the ones reminding us about the need
to speak out against injustice.”
Youth in Burma, McElroy added, “are
serving as the conscience of the nation,
risking their lives and safety to break the
reign of terror their parents have endured
and construct a new reality based on
human rights and respect for liberty.”
Teachers in Burma, Min Zin said, are
under the thumb of the repressive regime,
which forces them to wear military
uniforms and sing military songs. “Teachers
are punished if they fail to prevent their
students from taking part in the protests.”
Min Zin was expelled
from school after participating
in the student protests
and spent the next nine
years hiding inside his own
country. During that period,
he continued to work with the Buddhist
monks, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung
San Suu Kyi and other student leaders to
“keep the democracy movement going
He eventually fled Burma following the
December 1996 student demonstrations
there and, after several years in Thailand,
came to the United States. Today, he is a
student at the University of California,
The importance of collective strength
and solidarity is something that those in the
trade union movement understand well,
Min Zin told the packed luncheon. “I am so
proud to be here today on behalf of my
friends and family who are still in the
struggle. I hope that you will all do what you
can to link arms with the democratic
movement in Burma and lend your strength
to our cause.”

Sunday, June 29, 2008

All of Burma Is a Prison

All of Burma Is a Prison

by Min Zin

Posted June 29, 2008 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

Much has been written about Cyclone Nargis and the failure of Burma’s military junta to respond adequately. But what of the hundreds of political prisoners held in Burma, many in areas devastated by the storm? When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma in the late night hours of May 2, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein prison, where hundreds of political prisoners (including my brother) are locked up, was one of the hardest hit places in Rangoon.

Why is my brother in Insein? On Feb. 15, the military raided the offices of the Myanmar Nation and took my brother, the weekly journal’s editor in chief, to jail. His crime? Possession of a U.N. report on the military’s brutal crackdown on last September’s demonstrations by monks and democracy activists—known around the world as the “Saffron Revolution.”

My brother’s name is Thet Zin, and he is one of hundreds of Burmese citizens who struggle to tell the truth about what is happening in their country—whether through traditional forms of journalism or through the Internet—under threat of arrest or worse by the military regime. Along with my brother, his office manager, Sein Win Maung, was also arrested.

When Cyclone Nargis hit, it uprooted trees; rain flooded the prison cells and the power was cut. A fire broke out in one of the prison wards, filling the prison with smoke. The flames triggered a riot. The guards started shooting.

Suffering from asthma, my brother was choking with smoke. His former office manager and fellow inmate, Sein Win Maung, passed out. Some sympathetic prison guards rushed to the cells and managed to push aside fallen trees and move the political prisoners to a prison hospital.

“Many political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue was delayed one more hour,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who now works with Thailand-based Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP-Burma).

It is still hard to know how many died or were injured during the havoc. But according to AAPP at least 36 prisoners at Insein were shot to death when the cylcone hit. Some prisoners, like many of their countrymen, lost their entire family to the cyclone. Thiha Thet Zin, a political prisoner in Insein, was informed that eight out of nine of his family members—including his son, his parents, his grandmother, and all his siblings—were swept away by the storm. His wife was the only survivor.

This is hell on earth. Still, Insein prison and the injustices that take place there are but a microcosm of what’s taking place throughout Burma. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all of Burma is a prison.

Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 138,000 lives and left millions homeless. Still, the junta denied millions of Burmese people the basic right to food by blocking foreign aid workers and supplies in the weeks immediately following the storm.

Indeed, the misuse of international aid is by now well documented. Aid supplies ended up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police officers and members of pro-government civilian groups instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors. Soldiers even looted jewelries from dead bodies.

Moreover, the junta forced survivors to take part in the reconstruction of military sites and conscripted male orphans into the army, which before the storm was already notorious for its tens of thousands of child soldiers. All of these reports have been confirmed by sources both inside and outside Burma.

Clearly, the junta’s inability and unwillingness to care for the Burmese people is tantamount to “crimes against humanity.” Cyclone Nargis has exposed the failures of the regime and brought forth a defining moment in Burmese history with inevitable, if yet unpredictable, political consequences.

“Things will not return to status quo ante,” says Priscilla Clapp, a U.S. diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002. Post-cyclone Burmese politics will be a humanitarian politics—pressuring and arguing about mobilizing aid and its delivery. Political goals will be set aside at least for the medium-term, and more consideration will be given to humanitarian works.
The junta continues to ensure that the cyclone will not have an effect on its “Road Map to discipline flourishing democracy.” But there are pressures within the junta itself that could eventually lead to change. “We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military,” said David Steinberg, a Burma expert from Georgetown University. “But I don’t know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is at a high enough level to threaten present leadership.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has approved millions in aid for Burma and now has hundreds of aid workers from member countries in storm-stricken areas. This could serve to expose to the outside world the prison state that is Burma. Still, despite a visit last month by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the demands of dozens of heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s opposition Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest—long after the May 24 deadline for her release.

What’s most important here is to assure the aid money is not used by the junta to retrench and tighten its grip on the Burmese people. Foreign aid runs the risk of being a “jackpot for the military junta, who will be the sole beneficiary of the international donation in the name of the cyclone victims” says Aung Din, a former political prisoner and director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

The outside world must demand more transparency and accountability when it comes to aid money and how it is distributed. So long as the world allows itself to be co-opted and outfoxed by the junta, political prisoners—including Aung San Suu Kyi and those in cyclone-ravaged Insein prison—will continue to languish in Burma’s gulags, and the Burmese people will remain shackled.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist in exile.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Renew Focus on Burma

NEWS ANALYSIS, Irrawaddy Online, Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Renew Focus on Burma


As Aung San Suu Kyi quietly spends another birthday under house arrest on Thursday, the UN Security Council will sit down to a debate on women’s rights, while the European Council is scheduled to examine the role of the European Union (EU) in international affairs. Perhaps the conjunction of events on June 19 will mark a perfect date to start refocusing on Burma’s political crisis.

At her home on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon, the only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the world, Suu Kyi, will turn 63 on Thursday, having spent almost 13 of the last 19 years under detention.

On the same date on the other side of the world, in New York, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will sit to examine the global progress on Resolution 1325, which was passed unanimously in October 2000. The resolution specifically addresses the impact of war on women by protecting them from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, and addresses women's contributions to conflict resolution and creating sustainable peace.

“There is no more opportune and timely an international gathering to raise the issue of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's unlawful detention and the plight of women in Burma than at this significant occasion,” said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the National League for Democracy.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will chair the debate, as the US holds the presidency of the UNSC for June 2008. According to sources close to the US state department, Rice is expected to highlight the situation of Suu Kyi, as well as the plight of women political prisoners and ethnic women in Burma.

There are about 154 imprisoned women activists languishing in Burma's jails, out of almost 2,000 political prisoners. Last week, at least three women volunteers distributing relief supplies to cyclone victims were arrested by Burmese authorities.

Meanwhile, the situation for women and girls in many ethnic areas in Burma is critically serious. In conflict areas such as Karen, Karenni and Shan states, ethnic women and girls, some reportedly as young as 10 years old, are raped by Burmese soldiers during military operations in these areas.

This issue commands not only debate, but urgent action from the Security Council. Also on June 19, the European Council will meet in Brussels and the 27 heads of state will discuss the role of the EU in international affairs. The issue of Burma should be high the agenda of EU leaders.

In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, many analysts observe that the regime's handling of the humanitarian crisis in the country was tantamount to a “crime against humanity.” France, one of the leading members of the EU, correctly invoked the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine to intervene in Burma on humanitarian grounds.

“We demand the EU's heads of state bring Than Shwe before the International Criminal Court to be tried for his crimes against humanity, as recommended by the European parliament,” said Aung Din, the director of the US Campaign for Burma.

Of course, such a demand may not find an immediately positive reception in the halls of the parliament in Brussels. However, the bottom line is that the international community must renew its focus and prioritize Burma's underlying political crisis.

To this end, the date of Suu Kyi's birthday in conjunction with two major international meetings would be a symbolically good start. One of the key obstacles in reorienting the international community's focus on the political crisis in Burma is the UN principle of keeping humanitarian aspects totally separate from political aspect.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Issues of assistance and aid in Myanmar [Burma] should not be politicized,” he said before his first meeting with the regime’s leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, to plead for international access to the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy delta.

“While the UN secretary-general, the Burmese regime and allies of the junta have urged that the question of humanitarian aid not be 'politicized,' the regime itself is taking every advantage of the cyclone to cement its grip on power to the exclusion of helping its own people,” said Jared Genser, attorney for Suu Kyi. “As is often the case, distraction and delay in discussing the fundamental issues in Burma only serve the interests of the regime.”

Some sources close to the UN said that Ban is considering a proposal to the Burmese military government that a political solution in Burma be implemented as an integral part in the coordinated reconstruction phase of the cyclone disaster.

However, the prevailing attitude and insistence among some key officials from the UN and INGOs is that even any tough talk from the international community could upset the generals and make the continuation of current access to the country impossible.

During last week's panel discussion in New York convened by the Asia Society and the Open Society Institute, Holmes said that further international sanctions or the threat of force would only have kept aid from the people who so desperately need it.

However, many Burmese opposition groups say such an attitude is appeasement. “How inhumane are they?” asked Aung Din. “They are trying to reward Than Shwe and his clique in the name of humanitarian access. Actually, they have become complicit in allowing Than Shwe to commit crimes against humanity.”NLD spokesperson Nyan Win said that the party always views the issues of politics and humanitarian crises as interrelated."A softly-softly policy has never yielded any solution in the past,” he said. “Nor will it in the future.”

Several UN officials expect the Burmese military may be more confident in dealing with the UN when they come to realize that the UN avoids politicizing humanitarian issues. It could create a better mutual understanding and ultimately lead the junta to become more receptive in cooperating with the UN, even in a political area, said a UN source in New York.

If there were an implicit expectation behind such a jealously guarded humanitarian attitude, it would be dead wrong.

The mentality of the Burmese generals will not allow such tactical optimism feasible. Recently, the junta's top leaders—especially Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye—declared war on UN and INGO officials during the regime's relief-related meetings in the delta area.

According to sources close to the military, Maung Aye said that the foreigners are attempting to enslave the country. He also noted that it was China and Russia, not the UN, that helped convince the US and France to withdraw their naval vessels from international waters off the coast of Burma. The general also gave instructions to stamp out local NGOs and volunteer groups who, in his words, were “like slaves” receiving support from international donors.

Nonetheless, it should always be welcomed that the international community uses persuasion, not force, to achieve its goals, in this case opening up the delta in the aftermath of a devastating cyclone.

However, the tactic of persuasion should not undermine the strategic goal—that of facilitating an acceptable political transition in Burma. Engaging in humanitarian work and pushing for genuine political transition should not be mutually exclusive. Avoiding tough talk and action against a brutal regime out of a fear of upsetting that regime is morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable.

The international community must renew its attention on Burma’s political crisis. Otherwise, Suu Kyi will be blowing out the candles on her birthday cake alone in her house for many more years to come.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Post-cyclone Politics

Post-cyclone Politics

Friday, May 30, 2008

When Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma, it did not spare political prisoners. The notorious Insein Prison, where hundreds of political prisoners are locked up, was one of the hardest-hit sites in Rangoon.

The wind uprooted trees, rain flooded prison cells, and electricity was cut. Many prisoners, wet and cold, began screaming in the dark. The storm’s wrath triggered a riot and guards started shooting. Criminal prisoners in one ward set the building on fire, causing smoke to fill neighboring prison cells.

Suffering from an eye-infection, the most prominent jailed student leader, Min Ko Naing, was choking from the smoke and his eyes were burning. Some of his fellow inmates had passed out. A few sympathetic prison guards managed to push aside fallen trees that blocked the entrances to the cells and moved the political prisoners to the prison’s hospital.

"Min Ko Naing and many other political prisoners in the cells could have died from smoke if the rescue had been delayed," said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner who heads the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP).

There are no official figures for how many prisoners died and were injured during the havoc, but the AAPP believes at least 36 prisoners were shot to death.

In the cyclone’s aftermath, many political prisoners who had family living in the storm-stricken areas learned they had lost family members. One political prisoner, Thiha Thet Zin, was told that eight of nine family members, including his parents, grandmother, a son and siblings, were swept away with the storm. His wife was the only survivor.

In fact, what happened in Insein Prison during the killer storm could be seen as a microcosm of Burma's political landscape.Since Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 134,000 deaths and at least 1 million homeless, the world has seen that the unwillingness of the Burmese junta’s disaster response is antamount to a “crime against humanity."

The cyclone has placed the country in a defining moment with inevitable political consequences, but just how events may play out is anybody’s guess.

"Things will not return to a status quo," said Priscilla Clapp, a US diplomat who served as Chief of Mission in Burma from 1999-2002.While the military tries to exploit the world's generosity, it will also ensure that the cyclone will not have any effect on its "road map to a discipline-flourishing democracy.""The rush to complete the referendum and declare victory was a defensive move, in recognition that the whole scheme could be derailed by the storm if it was not wrapped up immediately," said Clapp.

Unbelievably, the junta claimed that the constitutional referendum was approved by 92 percent of the voters. "I think the whole business of the ‘road map’ is no longer relevant in Burmese politics after the cyclone," said Moe Thee Zun, a well-known former student leader. "The most important thing we need to watch is how Nargis will test the army's loyalty to the leadership and expose dissension within army."

Some observers, perhaps wishfully, believe that the regime's failed response could weaken the junta, especially Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Significantly, the junta’s current public failure follows its ruthless crackdown on the "Saffron Revolution" last September.

"We have heard that there are considerable tensions within the military," said David Steinberg, a Burma expert at Georgetown University. "But I don't know whether the tension is strong enough to split the military and at what level it exists, and whether it is a high enough level to threaten the present leadership. If change comes, it has to come from within the military itself."
Many military observers doubt that Than Shwe would be challenged by his immediate subordinates. Change after his death is a more likely scenario, they say. However, many opposition leaders prefer to place their hopes for change on public actions. They say that unless a mass movement challenges the corrupt military leadership, divisions in the military will not surface.

"Whether or not the military will take sides with the public is the defining issue in Burmese politics," said Po Than Gyaung, a spokesman for the Communist Party of Burma. "A mass movement is the most likely trigger for change within the military."

However, there are few public signs that the junta has been weakened by either the people’s uprising or the cyclone’s aftermath. The regime sits on more than $4 billion in foreign exchange reserves and earns more than $150 million a month in natural gas sales. Observers say it is unlikely any government money will be used for humanitarian aid or reconstruction. The regime donated US $ 4.5 million immediately after the cyclone, but the money largely came from donations by regime supporters.

On the other hand, Burmese civil society clearly has been weakened, both physically and psychologically. The economy will suffer for an extended period of time. On the Cyclone Nargis frontlines, many ordinary citizens responded to the call for aid, but their efforts cannot replace the need for a professionally organized, long-term relief effort. A significant portion of the country could experience food shortages, say UN agencies.

Though people are angry with the junta, the grip of fear appears to be stronger than anger and any attempt at mass action in the near future most likely would end up in abortive protests and violence. In addition, the role of the opposition will continue to be marginalized as long as leading figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing remain in detention or unless a new community-based leadership emerges out of the cyclone relief efforts.

The prospect of growing community-based leadership is a possibility, but it is not likely to yield any immediate political impact. More importantly, such new initiatives can be nipped in the bud by the regime's repression and intimidation.

At the same time, the UN has proven to be unresponsive to the idea of its "responsibility to protect" principle.

The West will continue to champion the cause of democracy in Burma in moral and rhetorical terms, but it is likely to act only in the most practical terms, relying largely on cooperation and pressure from China and Asean.

Meanwhile, the regime clearly sees the likelihood of international humanitarian aid as a "jackpot,” and will try to include only enough relief workers to keep the flow of aid and reconstruction money coming.

The fate of the Burmese people and the political prisoners in Insein Prison remain in limbo. While there are no immediate signs of political storms brewing, we know the water is always rough and there are few safe harbors in Burma.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Bangkok Post, Perspective >> Sunday May 18, 2008


In the history of humanitarian intervention, unilateralism is far more common than UN-led multilateral action. US-led Western countries must act now to save lives in Burma, writes MIN ZIN

Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.

The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to aid agencies. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country's civil war.
However, the country's ruling junta has blocked foreign relief workers from bringing much-needed aid to survivors.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon clearly said that "Myanmar cannot do it alone" in setting up major logistics operations to deliver supplies to the most affected areas. Ban said much needs to be done, immediately.

However, the head of the Burmese Navy, Rear Adm Soe Thein, told Adm Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific fleet, that the basic needs of storm victims were being met and that "skillful humanitarian workers are not necessary."

According to several reliable sources in Rangoon, Burmese Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein, told a meeting of business people on May 12 that no foreigners were being allowed into the hardest-hit Irrawaddy delta region.

"Thein Sein said 'No foreigners, no cameras!"' said a well-known journalist in Rangoon.

Many foreign aid workers, including volunteers from "friendly" Asian countries, are being asked to stay away from actual aid distribution.

"We can't go to Pathein (Bassein), capital of the delta region," said a Thai non-governmental organisation aid worker. "Even relief trucks were stopped on the way down to the delta and had to drive back to Rangoon."

Moreover, several reports confirmed misuse of international aid. Supplies were reportedly ending up in military warehouses, local markets and the homes of police and members of pro-government civilian groups, instead of reaching starving and disease-stricken survivors.

As another storm front heads towards Burma's already devastated coastal areas, bringing heavy rain and strong winds to add to the misery of cyclone survivors, the regime's increasing restrictions on international aid workers are now tantamount to a "crime against humanity."

A humanitarian catastrophe is escalating for 2.5 million survivors who live in Burma's "rice bowl", and for whom aid must be viewed in the perspective of long-term rehabilitation and rebuilding.

However, the inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.

The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.

Responsibility to Protect

Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages - the leadership of opposition activists and public influences such as Buddhist monks - that could connect the disaster to mobilisation of discontented groups.

Meanwhile, the international community has shown its generosity in helping the people of Burma.

France suggested invoking a UN "Responsibility to Protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
However, in the history of humanitarian intervention, examples of unilateralism such as Kosovo in 1999 are far more common than UN-led multilateral action. Burma should now be added to this history.

Since the ideal scenario of UNSC-endorsed intervention was not possible, US, France, Britain and other like-minded countries should take the lead as the situation in Burma is extreme enough to justify international humanitarian intervention.

Even Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, an organisation that usually promotes a policy of engagement with the junta, recently wrote that "if the intransigence of the Burmese generals continues, it is a very real issue whether in the name of humanity some international action should be taken against their will - like military air drops, or supplies being landed from ships offshore - to get aid to the huge numbers who desperately need it right now, in the inaccessible coastal area in particular."

However, a few top UN humanitarian officials including John Holmes, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, still place their hopes on negotiations with the junta.

The military, which is well experienced in defusing international pressures, will, of course, make nominal gestures and on-and-off concessions in order to divide international public opinion and strategy.

The most demonstrative example is the regime's "selective opening up to international staff" as the junta invited its immediate neighbours - China, Bangladesh, Thailand and India - to send 160 international workers to join the relief effort.

Although the invitation has yet to yield results, the message itself could create ultra-optimism among the regime's international cheerleaders, including Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who went to Burma on a mission to persuade the generals to allow international relief workers but returned empty-handed.

Samak said on his return: "From what I have seen I am impressed with their (Burmese military's) management."
The UN secretary-general, at least, appears to grasp the gravity of the situation.

"Even though the Myanmar government has shown some sense of flexibility, at this time, it's far, far too short," Ban said. "The magnitude of this situation requires much more mobilisation of resources and aid workers."

Use 'all means' to aid

Junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, who has sole responsibility to make any decision in autocratic Burma, remains indifferent to international concern, and even ignored attempts by Ban to contact him. He also snubbed Samak, who met only Burma's prime minister, and is likely to ignore an upcoming "coalition of mercy' from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and a visit by the UN humanitarian chief.

Although the junta will continue to refuse to open up the country to a full-scale relief effort, this doesn't mean that all diplomatic efforts should be set aside. It is a reminder, however, that the international community must use "all means" to get aid through to cyclone victims, as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has advocated.

Meanwhile, some US congressional leaders are organising a letter to President Bush urging him to "work with the British, French, German, Danish and other supportive and regional governments to immediately intervene in the Irrawaddy delta region to provide urgent life-saving humanitarian aid to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis". However, initial enthusiasm of the White House interventionist approach appeared to dwindle after the junta authorised entry of five US Air Force C-130 flights but still restricted foreign aid workers' involvement in actual delivery.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Burmese exiles in the United States staged a demonstration outside UN headquarters in New York, chanting: "UN waits. Burma lies. How many people have to die?" The chanting expressed the desperate frustration of cyclone survivors in their home country. Good intentions and endless calls to do something must be supported by concrete actions to stem the rising death toll. The time is way overdue. Although the road ahead is rocky and the White House may be wavering to make a moral decision, US-led Western countries must take action now to save lives.

Min Zin is a Burmese journalist.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Further Stormy Prospects for Burma

News Analysis, Irrawaddy Online, Saturday, May 10, 2008

Further Stormy Prospects for Burma


Since security is all about preventing any major threat to human life, the effect of the deadly cyclone that hit Burma last Saturday must be seen from a serious human security perspective. However, the Burmese military junta is far from comprehending such a humane concept.

The tragic toll exacted by Cyclone Nargis could exceed 100,000 deaths and a million homeless, according to a US diplomat. There has been nothing like it in Burmese history, neither during colonial rule nor in the country’s civil war. Some older residents of Rangoon say they have seen nothing like it since the city was severely bombed in World War II.

Many aid agencies worry that disease and starvation will claim thousands more lives in the next few days. World Food Program spokesman Paul Risley said aid agencies normally expect to fly in experts and supplies within 48 hours of a disaster, but nearly a week after the cyclone the Burmese authorities are still refusing to let foreign relief workers in.

Although the regime says it welcomes all forms of international help, in reality it only accepts donations of cash or emergency aid such as medical supplies, food, clothing, generators and shelters. A foreign ministry statement on Friday said: "Myanmar (Burma) is not ready to receive search and rescue teams as well as media teams from foreign countries." The military even deported some aid workers on Wednesday.

The junta said it can deliver foreign aid "by its own labors to the affected areas."According to a reliable source, it was junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe who decided to bar international aid workers, although there had been a signs of initial flexibility from Prime Minister Gen Thein Sein and the foreign ministry.

The source added that Than Shwe believes he has already distributed 5 billion kyat (4.5 million dollars), which he mostly extorted from Burmese businessmen as "donations", and he also has more than US $30 million from international assistance pledges. He then decided to use his own Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and army to distribute aid.

"What Than Shwe doesn’t understand is that his $4.5 million can only be used for food for 12 days, and all the promised dollars from the world may not come if the international experts are not allowed into the country," said Win Min, a Burmese analyst in Thailand.

Moreover, Burmese businessmen cannot afford to donate much more cash, and overworked Burmese doctors have run out of resources.

Non-government organizations (NGOs) and international non-government organizations (INGOs) within Burma, who had to sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the regime to begin their projects, defining the nature of their work and their areas of operation, have now found themselves restricted by those same MOUs.

Since many NGOs do not have projects in the Irrawaddy delta, they are not allowed to do any aid work in the devastated region since they were not authorized to do so in their MOUs.

According to inside sources, NGOs are now trying to work under the UN's umbrella in order to reach into the delta.
Meanwhile, the military and its thuggish USDA members are intimidating private donors who provide rice and clothing to cyclone victims in the suburban townships of Rangoon. Many donors are reportedly being asked to hand over their relief supplies to local USDA members for them to supervise distribution.

"Instead of protecting the people, the military and its thugs are looting from us," said one businesswoman.
Some sources closed to the military suggest that world leaders—particularly those from China, India and Thailand, and even US President George W Bush—should tackle Than Shwe directly as the junta leader’s subordinates might not be giving him a full picture of the crisis.

This approach appears to be based on a false assumption, however—namely, that dictators allow themselves to be manipulated by their subordinates.

Nor could this approach work in practice. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently spoke directly to Than Shwe and called on him to postpone the constitutional referendum and "focus instead on mobilizing all available resources and capacity for the emergency response efforts."

Than Shwe ignored him and decided to go ahead with the referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country. For Than Shwe, regime security is more vital than human security, although people are dying in massive numbers.

One military source said that Than Shwe stopped the planned dispatch of troops to the disaster zones in the wake of Cyclone Nargis because he wanted them to guarantee the security of the referendum.

The inability of the regime to respond to the cyclone crisis is now self-evident and clearly demonstrates that Burma is a failed state.

The devastation caused by the cyclone will very likely have immense social and political consequences. The limited or inequitable distribution of assistance and outright bullying by government "thugs" could outrage discontented victims and lead to social unrest and even violence.

Whether or not the cyclone disaster could lead to political change in Burma depends on intermediary linkages—the leadership of opposition activists and public influencers such as Buddhist monks— that could connect the disaster to mobilization of discontented groups.

Meanwhile, the international community has done its best to help the people of Burma.

France suggested invoking a UN "responsibility to protect" provision to deliver aid to the country without the regime's approval, although that possibility was rejected in the Security Council by China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia.
A top US aid official said the US may consider air-dropping supplies for survivors even without permission from the junta, though geopolitical considerations make such action difficult. The junta agreed to allow a single US cargo aircraft to bring in relief supplies, but it isn’t clear how the aid will be distributed.

Eventually, Than Shwe may negotiate with UN aid agencies to conduct limited distribution work inside Burma in order to prevent direct intervention by the US and other western countries. Some inside sources indicate that a few top brass officials, including Gen Thura Shwe Mann, the third most powerful man in the military hierarchy and a former regional commander of the Irrawaddy delta, persuaded Than Shwe to cooperate with the international community.

Of course, Than Shwe will delay permission as long as possible since he likes to show who’s in charge. Meanwhile, people will continue to perish hourly.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power

Irrawaddy Online, Thursday, May 1, 2008

Burma's Political Transition Needs People Power


The notion of political transition initiated by a country’s elite has been a dominant discourse in Burmese politics since the late 1990s. The model advocates that a peaceful transition can be facilitated by negotiations between the regime’s “doves” and opposition moderates. It would involve the opposition initiating a concrete proposal to the military in order to persuade the latter to sit at the negotiating table.

This political strategy gained currency in the early 2000s since it coincided with the political ascendancy of former Intelligence Chief Gen Khin Nyunt. At the time, talks between opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta seemed to offer a glimmer of hope. However, simultaneously, the opposition movement was losing its strength in "people power" campaigns, such as the unsuccessful Four Nines (September 9, 1999) Mass Movement, and in armed struggles due to ethnic armies signing ceasefire agreements and the fall of the Karen National Union stronghold in 1992.

Any optimism in Burmese politics is never sustained for long. However, the transitional model remained popular as the only way out for the Burmese people. Proponents claimed there was "No alternative!"

"Many diplomats who we met always encouraged and even pressured us to initiate a proposal to the regime," said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). "In fact the party has always called for dialogue and has always been ready to negotiate."

In early 2006, the NLD proposed a transitional plan urging the junta to convene parliament with the winners of the 1990 elections in return for giving the regime recognition as an interim executive power holder. Though the party's call for a negotiated transition was rejected by the regime, the opposition forces—including the 92 MP-elects from the 1990 election and notable veteran politicians—continued to offer flexible transitional packages to the junta. None of them worked.

The proponents of the transition model often downplay the role of public action and mass movement. Some believe it will not happen because more than 20 percent of the population has been born since the uprising in 1988 and are therefore much less affected by the people’s power movement of those times. Others worry that mass movement could be counterproductive to a possible negotiated transition—often the momentum of a protesting crowd will spiral out of control and threaten the careful process of negotiation. They all conclude that the army doesn't respond to public pressure.

Then, all of the sudden, the September protests broke out. The so-called “experts” and “policymakers” failed to see it coming. In the wake of the crackdown, UN-led mediation efforts were revived and Snr-Gen Than Shwe and his generals, once again, were called on to sit at the negotiating table. And once again they declined.

The question now to the advocates of the elite-driven transition model is what to do when the regime refuses to negotiate with the opposition? What it is to be done when the military insist on a referendum to approve a constitution that will allow the perpetuation of military rule in the country?

Almost all supporters of the model say the people of Burma must accept whatever offer the junta makes. They say "something is better than nothing." Some suggested using the generals’ flawed model of democracy as a starting point from which to pursue a more acceptable long-term solution.

"We must give consideration to possible generation change within the military," said Harn Yawnghwe, a well-know lobbyist and director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma office. "The new blood of the army must have options available on the table when their time comes. This constitution and referendum, though they are flawed, can give reform options to a new generation of military officers. It will create a new dynamic for the country to get out of the current deadlock."

That’s why many advocates of the elite-initiated transition advise the Burmese public to accept the constitution and hope it will lead to amendments with the objective of the military's gradual withdrawal from politics at a later period.
Tun Myint Aung, a leader of 88 Generation Students group, disagrees.

"It is such disgraceful advice. The so-called experts and policy makers are pushing our people to live in slavery," he said from his hideout in Burma. "We do not accept the military's constitution; not because we don't want gradual transition, but because the constitution is too rigid to make any change possible. The military holds a veto over any amendments."

Critics said it is now clear—after a series of rejected proposals from oppositions groups and the UN—that rather than political carrots, it is much more likely that effective public action will compel the new military generation to choose the path to reform.

"Unless a mass movement challenges the corrupted military leadership, divisions within the military will not surface," said Kyaw Kyaw, head of the Political Defiant Committee under the National Council of Union of Burma, the umbrella opposition group in exile. "Besides lacking local and international legitimacy, the corrupt leadership is now losing its loyalty from within military ranks since the September protest. In a historical Burmese context, public action, or mass movement, has played a decisive role ever since the struggle for independence to the 1988 democracy uprising to the monk-led protests last September. It will continue to do so until we gain a genuine resolution."

In fact, only when mass movement with strategic leadership rises up against the current military top brass, then the elite’s calculations, regime defection and international pressure will become relevant issues in facilitating a negotiated transition. In other words, political transition is not likely to take place within a framework of proposed constitutional means. Even amendments to the constitution with the hope of gradual reform will not be possible within a military-dominated parliamentary debate. It will happen only when the people challenge the status quo with public pressure.
However, although mass action is believed to be necessary to bring about change in Burma, its inherent dangers mean the possibility of its success remains a big question.

"The calls for public action are getting louder since the prospect of elite-initiated negotiation became impossible," said Nyan Win. "If the regime rigs the referendum result, it could spark mass protests."

A recent history of democratization shows that vote-rigging and stealing elections create favorable conditions and the opportunity for the outbreak of a democratic uprising or, in a worst case scenario, violence.

In fact, vote rigging might not only trigger public outrage in Burma, but also test the loyalty of the regime's staff. It could create divisions and weaken the standing of Than Shwe, who is solely responsible for the decision to move ahead with the unilateral implementation of the current political process by ignoring the UN's call for inclusiveness.
Whether or not public action leads to a negotiated transition depends on the opposition's leadership. No process of democratization has evolved purely and solely from a civil movement or people’s uprising.

It would nevertheless be shortsighted to exclude the role and power of the people in a Burmese political context where elite-driven transition is no longer relevant.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time’s up, Gambari

Irrawaddy Online, Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time’s up, Gambari!


The United Nation's mediation efforts in Burma have become snared in a trap. The special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is now caught between an unsuccessful mediation and his reluctance to admit failure.

Frustration abounds. Gambari appears to have become the target of mounting disappointments. Most Burmese opposition groups would say he deserves it.

During his briefing on Burma with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on March 18, Gambari seemed anxious to prove how important his role as special envoy really was. Though he admitted his efforts had yielded “no immediate tangible outcome,” he insisted the efforts of the UN good offices were “relevant” to both sides—the opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military regime. Gambari even said in his briefing that he had reason to believe that the Burmese government attaches importance to his mission and "continues to value the Secretary-General's good offices as the best prospect for further cooperation through mutual trust and confidence, and constructive suggestions."

Unfortunately, the facts do not allow the special envoy grounds for such optimism. According to highly publicized state media reports, Burmese Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan urged him to support the junta’s “Seven-step Road map” and stop pursuing alternatives suggested by Western democracies.

The regime's information czar added that if Gambari tried to force the country to meet Western calls for reform, “We would be concerned that your task of offering impartial advice may be undermined.” As a clear indication of the regime's lack of cooperation, military chief Than Shwe, the only true decision-maker in Burma, shunned Gambari on his last two visits.

In fact, the junta has already rejected the UN's key proposals. It turned down suggestions that Burma should set up a broad-based constitutional revising commission in order to ensure an inclusive political process, and establish a poverty alleviation commission. After the two proposals were rejected, Gambari, on his last trip to the country, put forward one more suggestion to the junta—that Burma invite international observers to the upcoming referendum.

Reportedly, the junta's information minister responded with a blunt “no.”

Additionally, senior Burmese military officials announced that the new constitution would bar Aung San Suu Kyi from running in future elections because she was previously married to a foreigner, a British scholar, who died of cancer nine years ago.

Gambari's failure has become so severe that he could not even manage to persuade the Security Council members to release a much-anticipated Presidential Statement after his briefing. However, the Council may release a Presidential Statement on Burma next week, thanks to the hard work of US-led Western democracies. Council members are now negotiating the language of the statement. However, no one should expect a strong statement from the UNSC, a diplomat warned. "It will be a statement with a very mild tone," said a source close to the UN.The faith of Burmese dissident groups in Gambari's mission is about to hit rock bottom.

"We hoped he (Gambari) would ask the Council to strengthen the mandate of the Secretary-General in pressuring the junta for an all party-inclusive, transparent and democratic process of national reconciliation in our country. However, to our surprise and sadness, he misled the Council," read a joint statement issued by the All Burma Monks Alliance and the 88 Generation Students group on March 26.

In fact, there may be a valid reason to consider broader factors for his ineffectiveness and do justice to Gambari.

"Mr Gambari's efforts should be understood in a larger context, instead of over-focusing on his diplomatic skill. The success of Gambari's mission depends on the readiness of key international players to use their leverage over the Burmese junta," said Dr Thaung Tun, UN representative of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma—effectively the Burmese government in exile. "At the same time, we also need to review how Gambari engages the junta; whether or not he adheres to the line of principled engagement."

UN officials maintain that "the role of the good offices is still very intact" and "very much a work in progress."

"I do understand there is the expression of frustration, but you can't expect miracles to happen to a situation that has been going years and years," said Choi Soung-ah, a UN spokeswoman. "Mr Gambari currently is the world's only tie into the government of Myanmar [Burma]. From the UN perspective, it is very important not to take drastic action immediately because we don't want to shut down the only channel."

This channel, however, can prompt disservice to genuine international mediation efforts on Burma. According to senior diplomats in Europe, the argument prevailing among Asian countries—including China and even some European nations—is that they support the UN special envoy's mediation. So long as Gambari says his mission is relevant and can yield positive results, they will not undermine him. They will support him—and wait and see.

"In fact, they justify their handoff policy by hiding behind Gambari's mission," a senior diplomat from the EU told The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity. "Unless Gambari admits that he can't do anything with the present mandate, he is unwittingly dragging the mediation effort into the swamp. No better alternative will be found."

Aung Din, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, agrees."Burma is now being hijacked by Gambari," said Aung Din. "His effort has failed miserably again and again and again. Unless the mission is enhanced and strengthened by the UN Security Council, nothing positive can be expected. But instead of admitting that, he is still acting like he remains relevant and can do magic. It is a high disservice to international mediation efforts. For the people of Burma, we feel betrayed."

In fact, Gambari has already exhausted his capacity for persuasion, the principal source of leverage that a mediator wields. Instead of drowning himself further in quagmire, he may want to use another source of leverage—his own termination. As a mediator, he can say "I withdraw now. I can't make any progress with the current mandate. I need stronger Security Council support to deal with the Burmese generals."

Of course, his withdrawal will not have a direct impact on the military junta—the generals in Naypyidaw are not so sensitive to such threats. But it will make China and Asean feel more pressured to cooperate with Western democracies to resolve Burma's crisis.

At least, it will be easier for US-led Western democracies to compel China and Asean (especially two current Council members: Indonesia and Vietnam) to approve a stronger Council mandate for the UN special envoy. All in all, if Gambari uses the threat of withdrawal skillfully it could yield a greater opportunity to raise the Burma issue in the UN Security Council.