Category Archives: army

Sons of sorrow

sons of sorrow

Accompanying all the latest to-do over whether or not Burma’s regime is trying to obtain nuclear weapons has been the usual background noise about the menace of its conventional armed forces. Foreign pages’ editors excitedly describe the army as having half a million troops, as if they are all poised on the border to spill over into neighboring territories at a moment’s notice.

Nobody knows the real size or capability of the army in Burma, although that doesn’t stop analysts the world over from sifting through secondhand sources for something with which to make a claim about this or that. Not even the army itself is likely to know precisely how many personnel it actually has, given that unit commanders play with numbers to satisfy the requirements of their superiors.

But one thing we do know is that not all of these soldiers are adults. Last week a Thailand-based group released a new report on the recruitment of children to the Burma army. The report, entitled “Child soldiers, Burma’s sons of sorrow,” explores government claims to be addressing the problem of child soldiers, and presents evidence to the contrary. Continue reading

Questions, not dismay, over Tak Bai findings

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It took five years for a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand, to hold an inquest into the deaths of 78 men after they were detained along with over 1,000 others outside the Tak Bai police station in October 2004. But for all the time spent and witnesses heard, the findings [in English] handed down on May 29 obscured as much as they revealed.

By law, the inquest was supposed to identify who died, where, when, how, why and thanks to whom. The judges omitted most of what the court was told about the how and why, and failed to name any specific responsible persons in their closing remarks.

They also tried to excuse those involved by pointing out that they had been performing their duties under difficult circumstances, even though this is a matter for a trial court to consider, not one for a post mortem inquiry.

While the court failed to do the minimum expected of it under law, it could not deny that the 78 men had all suffocated to death in trucks en route to an army camp. That the men were stacked onto one another like pigs being taken to slaughter slipped from the narrative, but that they were in military custody and died of unnatural causes is now on the judicial record. Continue reading

Double legal standards jeopardize Thailand

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"We want to complain about a missing husband. He left home to join the Red Shirts and went missing." "He went missing on the day the army broke up the mob?" "No. On the day the police summoned him."

At a meeting of lawyers and jurists in Hong Kong this week a participant from Thailand identified the key issue for her country’s legal system as political control of the judiciary. Her statement was remarkable not because it revealed something that other participants didn’t already know, but because not long ago few professionals from Thailand willingly admitted that their laws and courts operate according to double standards. Now, few can deny it.

The double standards have been all too apparent this month. Following protests that forced leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and partner countries to flee from a summit venue in Pattaya, the incumbent prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, imposed a state of emergency as blockades and violence spread in Bangkok. The army deployed. A court promptly issued arrest warrants for the red-shirted demonstrators’ leaders. Some were quickly rounded up and detained, while others went into hiding.

By contrast, the yellow shirts that took over Government House and two international airports for an extended period last year were allowed to stay put until the government was forced out through a court ruling on a narrow question under the army-imposed 2007 Constitution. No soldiers came to eject them. The legal process took weeks to move against the organizers. When the new prime minister was questioned on the authorities’ inactivity he disingenuously said that it was a matter for the police, not him. The criminal inquiries have been repeatedly postponed and at no time have the yellow shirts’ leaders been held in custody. One of them, businessman Sondhi Limthongkul, last week survived a shooting attack on his car.

Although the ousted Thaksin Shinawatra regime undermined the work of the upper courts, it was the 2006 military coup that brought them back firmly and openly under executive control. The coup leaders shut down a senior court, appointed a tribunal in its stead, had it go after the former premier, declared themselves immune from prosecution and proclaimed all their orders lawful. After voters re-elected Thaksin allies to the lower house of parliament (top judges are now responsible for the upper), it took two absurd legal cases against successive prime ministers for the coup-makers to finally get a government after their own heart, rather than one that the electorate wanted. The judges responsible for the verdicts included men who owed their jobs to the generals.

The double legal standards in the handling of rival political camps have done nothing to diminish the likelihood of further bloodshed and uncertainty in the near future. On the contrary, the obvious differences in how the yellow shirts and red shirts have been treated will only encourage government opponents to resort to increasingly extralegal means to get their way. Both sides and their backers have the aptitude and means for violence. Thanks to the politicizing of Thailand’s courts, now they have more appetite for it too.

Source: Thai courts’ use of legal double standards encourages extralegal means by opposition

The first casualty

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As troops and antigovernment protestors clashed on Bangkok’s streets again this week, a furious battle also played out in the media over casualties. Government spokespersons and army officers insisted that bullets had not been fired into the crowds. Their opponents said the opposite.

Soldiers had at times pointed their weapons at people, and some of the red-shirted demonstrators had been shot, but there were few reliable details of who was hurt, how, where and why.

Staff at the prime minister’s office blamed Red Shirts on motorbikes for a melee with local residents that left two dead. Other sources were less certain about the identities of the protagonists, but doubtful voices were drowned out as local outlets obligingly reported the official version. Meanwhile, emailed narratives of battles around the city had it that the Red Shirts’ rivals were in some areas backing up the army, but there was no immediate evidence to support this claim either.

What all this goes to show is not which side is to blame for the street blockades and bloodshed of the last few days, but how difficult it has become to believe Thailand’s media. Since 2006, when domestic news agencies and many overseas ones fell over each other to enthuse about the army’s latest power grab, the biases of newspapers, magazines and broadcasters have become more pronounced, their coverage more partisan, and their opinion-makers seemingly more sure of themselves even as things get less certain.

In normal times, the impoverished domestic journalism which has become a hallmark of Bangkok has made following current affairs there difficult; with the city under siege and a state of emergency declared, it has made following them all but impossible. Continue reading

Rights envoy takes new approach on Burma

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A week or so from now the representative of the United Nations to Burma on human rights will present his annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. It should make interesting reading.

[Update, March 17: Advance copy of report available here]

The report follows Tomas Ojea Quintana’s second visit to the country since he came into the job last year, at the end of which the regime even allowed him a press conference inside the Rangoon airport, rather than back in Bangkok.

His careful remarks on the “challenging” rights situation were quoted in the state media, which also gave what by its standards was an unusually detailed account of his meetings and travels in February.

In the following days it also made out that the release of thousands of prisoners, timed to coincide with Quintana’s departure, had something to do with his visit rather than overcrowded jails.

Contrary to official news reports, the rights representative did not get everything he wanted. The government declined to let him meet with political party leaders. Because of this, U Win Tin, former long-term prisoner and National League for Democracy executive council member, refused to meet with Quintana individually.

And the rebel Karen National Union was irked that Quintana went to see leaders of splinter units that have gone over to the government side but didn’t call on it. As the envoy’s remit is to study and report on human rights abuse perhaps it should be relieved that he did not pay a call.

Ironically, the people whom Quintana could not or did not see got more press outside the country than those whom he did. Among the latter were the chief justice, attorney general, bar council members, home affairs minister and police chief.

These meetings are important because they speak to the new approach that Quintana has taken to the mandate, which distinguishes him from his predecessors. Continue reading

Breaking Burma’s official secrets

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When some villagers in Natmauk, central Burma, made a complaint last year that the army had illegally occupied land they had been farming, they probably hoped for a more sympathetic response than what they received.

The army unit concerned – which had set up an arms depot and allowed the farmers to return to their fields only upon payment of special fees – promptly detained and interrogated four of those who complained. After it got what it wanted from them, it illegally arrested another four, keeping them at its base and allegedly torturing them.

Two were also later released, while the other two were brought to court to be charged. One of them became a witness for the prosecutor, and in the end only one person had a case brought against him.

That person is Ko Zaw Htay, a 43-year-old who had previously been detained over an accidental death on a road being built with forced labor – in breach of a government agreement with the International Labor Organization to stamp out the use of unpaid conscript workers on state projects.

Evidently, the local powers-that-be had it in for Zaw Htay. What really annoyed them was not the new complaint, but the fact that he had supposedly sent video footage of the confiscated land abroad, two-and-a-half minutes of which were broadcast on an overseas news website. Continue reading

The ties that bind Thailand’s Burma policy

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When Abhisit Vejjajiva slipped through the back door and into the prime minister’s seat in Thailand late last year, exiled democracy advocates from Burma welcomed him. Over a week after reports broke of the Thai navy forcing boatloads of people from Burma back into the ocean to die, they should be thinking again.

Abhisit’s maneuvering into the leadership spot – made possible only after military and royalist intrigues and the three-month illegal takeover of the offices that he now occupies – prompted lots of excited talk about nascent change in Thailand’s policies on Burma.

That was never going to happen. At no point in the last two decades has there been a meaningful shift in Bangkok’s approach to dealing with the generals to the west, neither under Abhisit’s Democrat Party or any other. There have been a few changes in style, but none in substance.

This is because the strongest ties binding Thailand’s policies on its neighbor are not from ministerial offices, but from military bases. And as the prime minister owes his job to the people that decide those policies, rather than the electorate, there is no advantage to him if he tries to do things differently.

The strength of these ties could not have been more apparent than in the handling of news that perhaps thousands of people from western Burma travelling to southern Thailand in boats have been repeatedly forced back out to sea since last December. Continue reading