Category Archives: military

Pinning hope on a hopeless constitution

constitution

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

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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

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

Questions, not dismay, over Tak Bai findings

tak bai truck

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

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