Category Archives: dictatorship

Unwanted news, Rangoon electricity & irrationality

rangoon electricity

Burma’s government claims to welcome complaints about malpractice, inefficiency and corruption against those in public service. But a recent case of a man imprisoned for repeatedly complaining about electricity problems speaks to how easy it is in an irrational system for the complainant, not the government officials, to wind up in trouble.

In early August, U Khin Maung Kyi called the electric supply corporation in his suburb of Rangoon a number of times to complain about a surge in power at his house. It was not the first time that he had called to make a complaint, and the township supply director had already lodged a criminal case with a local court, alleging that the 45-year-old’s repeated calls were obstructing his staff from performing their duties.

This time, Khin Maung Kyi argued with the duty officer, who refused to give his name or let him speak with his superior. Khin Maung Kyi then threatened to make a complaint to higher levels. Later, when asked about this in court, the official admitted that the caller had not used offensive language or made unlawful threats, but testified that his manner was impolite and that his calls were an inconvenience.

The director might have thought that, by lodging a case in court, he would put Khin Maung Kyi off making more calls. In any event, after this latest incident, he put the local state apparatus into movement against the annoying resident. Continue reading

Pinning hope on a hopeless constitution

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Last year, amid the death and debris in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, Burma got a new Constitution. Now people inside and outside the country are readying themselves for a general election of some sort, followed by the opening of a new Parliament, which is when the charter will take effect.

The ballot is expected in 2010, although so far no details have emerged of how it will be run. The regime could yet give any number of excuses to postpone it if Senior General Than Shwe or his astrologers decide the time is not right.

Some analysts – including former diplomats and others who move in their circles – see hope for change in the 2008 Constitution and the anticipated elections. Their argument is that even though the parliamentary system will be under military control, it will still provide space for people that have not had a chance to participate in government for the last few decades.

One way or another, they say, power will be more diffused and that will create opportunities. And like it or not, they figure, the junta’s electoral circus is the only one in town.

But, in a statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council this month, the Asian Legal Resource Center has given a starkly different opinion. The Hong Kong-based group has argued that in its current form the 2008 charter cannot be called a constitution at all, let alone one that will permit people in Burma to shape their future. Continue reading

Sound and fury after Suu Kyi verdict

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The verdict handed down against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her co-accused in Burma this week surprised no one. The trial was throughout political, not legal in character. The only real question has been what, if anything, anyone else will do about it.

A chorus of angry statements from across the world quickly followed the end of the trial. Most of these were probably prepared weeks before, given that the final date for the judgment was delayed several times. In those weeks of angry statements smouldering on desks, waiting for the final details to be inserted, nobody did anything. Now that the trial is over, there is little evidence that they will either. The matter is being put to the UN Security Council, and it will most likely end there. A few countries may tinker with ineffectual trade embargoes and leave it at that. The sound and fury will go on for a while and then fade away, like it did following the protests of 2007 and the cyclone of the year after. Detailed reports of groups like the Asian Legal Resource Centre on the farcical cases against detained demonstrators, much like that launched against Suu Kyi, have not made news. Agencies involved in the cyclone recovery effort are having trouble to raise even a quarter of the money that they have sought to continue their work in the next two or three years, although the amount is miniscule in comparison to what was given for the Indian Ocean tsunami recovery effort over three years before.

Some commentators have pointed to noises coming from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a cause for hope, but that body consists of people who are experts at discharging smokescreens to confuse and demoralize others. Continue reading

Six men, two years, Hinthada

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Two years ago a court in Burma sentenced five farmers to four years’ jail for allegedly causing a public disturbance; a sixth man received eight years for two counts of the same offence. Tomorrow, on July 24, the five will have served half of their terms. In all likelihood, they will have to serve the other half before being released.

The six were imprisoned because they had the audacity to talk about human rights and tried to help people where they lived who had problems with the local authorities.

In April 2007, a group of thugs under orders from the village council attacked Ko Myint Naing, the one who was sentenced to eight years. He suffered serious injuries and was hospitalized in Rangoon. He responded by laying charges against the attackers. After that, he and the five farmers – U Win, Ko Kyaw Lwin, U Myint [above left], U Hla Shein [above right] and U Mya Sein – were accused of stirring up trouble and jailed.

A lot has happened since. The men were in prison throughout the historic monk-led protests of August and September 2007. They were in prison during Cyclone Nargis and the farcical constitutional referendum of May 2008. They have been in prison through two birthdays of their children, two harvests of wet season paddies, two of dry. They will probably still be in prison when some kind of general election is called next year, and when a parliament of sorts sits for the first time in over two decades after that.

All of these things would have happened with or without the six being behind bars. Their captivity is immaterial to the state as a whole. None are prominent political activists whose lives are celebrated abroad and whose circumstances provoke serious responses from international agencies. None would have made a difference at a national level. They were neighborhood activists, concerned with the things that mattered in the lives of people around them.

It is for precisely this reason that their stories deserve to be recalled and their names known. Continue reading

Ban’s visit a watershed moment

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Political analysts and international journalists have criticized the visit of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to Burma last week. Various observers have described it as ill-advised and fruitless. Some have remarked that Ban risked his reputation to achieve nothing.

What was striking about his visit was the level of negativity that accompanied it from the moment it was announced, not only among overseas pundits but also among people in Burma and political opponents of the military regime abroad.

Most speakers on Burmese radio programs and writers of commentary on news websites and blogs predicted that the generals would thumb their noses at the U.N. secretary-general irrespective of whether he was sitting in New York or in front of them. As expected, he made no discernible progress on any substantive issues and was unable to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

Perhaps at no other time in the last two decades have people been so pessimistic about the role of the United Nations in pressing for political change in Burma. This is in stark contrast to a few years ago, when exiles and many in the country nursed ridiculously high hopes that the international community could somehow sweep in and clear things up if only enough important people would take an interest.

For this reason, Ban’s trip is a watershed moment. Thanks to him, most folks now understand that the United Nations isn’t going to appear magically and hold the regime to account for its multifarious wrongs.

But this needn’t give rise to the high level of cynicism about the U.N. failure to promote change in Burma. The current stasis is as much a result of domestic as it is international affairs, and everyone shares some responsibility for it, even if many people would prefer to just blame Ban and the body that he represents. Continue reading

Politics, not law, will determine Suu Kyi’s fate

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At a meeting of lawyers in Hong Kong this April, Aitzaz Ahsan described how as counsel for the Chief Justice of Pakistan in the petition against his unconstitutional removal from office during 2007, neither the president nor any other senior official had even read the charges brought against the judge, which they had signed. Had they done so, they would have noticed that the charge sheet was full of blank paragraphs with the word “deleted” alongside. And anybody looking more closely should also have found that the petitioner had not even presided over an appeal in which he was accused of having struck a deal with one of the parties; yet a number of the judges trying him had.

Although the charges against the Chief Justice of Pakistan were framed in legal terms, neither their factual accuracy nor formal correctness was supposed to have mattered. Politics and military power, not laws and civilian authority, were meant to have determined the judge’s fate. Yet to his credit, as well as to that of his advocate, the Supreme Court bench and the legal community of Pakistan, the court reinstated the judge despite the wishes of a dictator.

The case now running against Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is of the same type. Continue reading

Visit to UNDP ends in prison

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Among the many people in Rangoon’s central jail who shouldn’t be there are a couple of journalists. These two did not write or say anything against the government. They didn’t do anything that constituted a threat to the army or its hold on power. Yet they were imprisoned on a charge of inciting others to “commit an offence against the state.”

How this happened illustrates the difficulties faced by people in Burma wanting to improve their society without putting themselves at risk.

The story begins just after Cyclone Nargis hit the country last May. The house of 24-year-old reporter Eint Khine Oo in the outer suburbs of Rangoon was not too badly damaged. After she and her family had patched it up, she started travelling around nearby areas to see how she could help. She worked with the local Red Cross, and sent some news to her journal, Ecovision.

Around a month later she ran into 29-year-old Kyaw Kyaw Thant, another reporter and a former editor of the popular Weekly Eleven journal. He had also been looking around to see what was going on and what he could do about it. Like so many people, he brought food and money to cyclone victims. He gave the money to Red Cross personnel to pay for some medicines.

The two of them got talking. Local authorities were trying to force a group of homeless people staying at a religious hall to go back to their now nonexistent houses. The people didn’t want to stay in the hall, but it was raining and they had no materials with which to make temporary shelters back where they had come from.

The reporters spoke with Red Cross country staff and agreed to go to the International Committee of the Red Cross in town, in the naive hope that they might be able to get some assistance there. But rather than going by themselves they decided it would be better if some of the people in need of the materials came too.

Continue reading

Cyber-thought crime in Bangkok and Rangoon

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A court in Rangoon on March 5 sentenced three men who didn’t know each other to a decade’s imprisonment for a crime that they never committed – or rather, for a crime so nebulous that if any of them had ever used a computer he wouldn’t know if he had committed it or not.

The three, Win Maw, Zaw Min and Aung Zaw Myo, were accused of sending news about the September 2007 protests in Burma through the Internet. All were already in jail for other purported crimes.

The next day, police in Bangkok came to one of Thailand’s few outspoken and credible media outlets, Prachatai, searched the premises and arrested its director, Chiranuch Premchaiporn. She is accused of having failed to patrol, censor and delete the comments that readers left on a news website.

The police have charged Chiranuch under the Computer Crime Act 2007, which is only an “act” to the extent that the assembly of handpicked military stooges that passed it could be considered a legislature. According to this law, the importing of “false computer data, in a manner that is likely to cause damage” to a third party or the public or “is likely to damage the country’s security or cause a public panic” can land the accused a five-year jail term.

Now let’s compare that with Burma’s Electronic Transactions Law 2004, 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

Unhappy Human Rights Day in Burma

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While governments and groups around the world made effusive statements and gave awards to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, the Asian Human Rights Commission struck a more somber note.

“The celebration,” the regional body said, “is a grim reminder that even after 60 years of the adoption of this great declaration, the gap between what is declared and what is actually achieved … is enormous. Both in the field of civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights, people in Asia … have so little to celebrate.”

The downbeat mood was certainly shared in Burma. There, a handful of people belonging to local group Human Rights Defenders and Promoters gathered in Rangoon to mark the date.

Their International Human Rights Day event was muted by comparison to most around the world, and even compared to the one that they had held the year before. But that they got together at all demonstrated their commitment to what the day represents. Continue reading

Frantic week behind Burma’s court doors

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It has been a frantic week in Burma’s closed courts. At least 60 people have in the past few days been sentenced for their roles in last year’s mass protests, including high-profile activists, monks, a blogger and a poet.

The blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was given a sentence of 20 years and six months for having defaced images of national leaders, writings and cartoons in his email inbox, and for having had contact with other people involved in the protests.

The young man’s mother cried when she heard the verdict. She had been told to expect a sentence of around 10 years, but on just one charge under a new hold-all Internet law he was given 15.

The poet, Saw Wai, was sentenced to two years on a much more old-fashioned charge of upsetting public tranquility, which can be thrown at just about anyone for anything. He got it for writing a concealed anti-dictator message into a Valentine’s Day poem.

It wasn’t very well concealed. But well enough that the censors missed it and the magazine went to print before he was found out.

Then there was Ma Su Su Nwe, who received 12 years and six months for being at the forefront of protests that began after the government increased the price of fuels in August. Continue reading