Category Archives: UPI

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

Thai lottery not child’s play in Burma

April Htun-Thuza Khaing1

The Supreme Court of Thailand on Wednesday found that a former deputy minister and two ex-officials had failed to comply with a number of laws when they set up a scheme to legalize two- and three-digit lotteries.

The politically motivated case has attracted a lot of media interest and online commentary. By contrast, the judgment this August of a court in Burma – also in a two-digit lottery case against three people who should never have been brought to trial – has not had any coverage at all.

The defendants in the latter case were not Bangkok bigwigs, but rural teenage girls. And unlike the group of accused who are in the news, they were not given suspended sentences but were immediately sent to prison for a period of one year with hard labor. 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

Thailand’s “unsubstantiated” police abuses

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Thailand’s representatives to the United Nations still cling to the outdated idea that if they turn up at a big get-together and make nice comments about how they cherish human rights, then everyone will think things are fine in the land of smiles.

Not surprisingly, they are unhappy when other people tell a different story. So last March, when the Asian Legal Resource Centre addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council concerning Thailand, they weren’t at all pleased.

The Hong Kong-based group told the council that the police are the top abusers of human rights in Thailand, for which they enjoy impunity. The center did not make this statement frivolously. It has for years worked closely with people in the country on dozens of cases that speak to this fact, and it is aware of and has documented hundreds more. Many cases it cannot publicize because to do so would put lives at risk.

Notwithstanding, the government representative, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, claimed that the center’s remarks were “unsubstantiated.” Although his defense of his country’s record was not in itself surprising, the vehemence of his response was remarkable given the piles of evidence to the contrary which groups have accumulated and presented to international bodies over the last decade.

This week the center had a chance to rebut his claim. Continue reading

Thai police put crime report before medical help

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A television station in Thailand broadcast an interview early last month with Nuch Phosri (above), a mother who is raising two sons alone on a meager income. Nuch is having an especially hard time because one of her sons is paralyzed. But he wasn’t born that way. He was shot.

Nuch’s boy, Virjit Sriraksa, was riding home from his job as a guard at an air force facility in Phitsanulok on June 24 last year, when some teenagers came up to him on another motorcycle. They goaded the 19-year-old, perhaps because of his uniform.

Then there was an exploding sound. Virjit thought it was a firecracker. Stunned by the sound he kept riding until he fell from the bike. Blood was seeping from holes in his neck and shoulder where 17 shotgun pellets had penetrated.

So far it is a distressing story of a senseless gang attack. Then the police arrived. They took Virjit to a hospital, as would be expected. Then, Nuch says, despite a doctor’s request that the young man be admitted, the police insisted on taking him back to do a crime scene report. Continue reading

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

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

Torture still a dirty secret in Thailand

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(การทรมานยังเป็นความลับที่สกปรกในเมืองไทย)

A little over a week ago, the Bangkok Post reported that a special inquiry unit under Thailand’s Justice Ministry had asked the public prosecutor to lodge charges against six police officers for allegedly torturing a man in their custody.

The police in Ayutthaya, near Bangkok, hooded Ekkawat Srimanta and beat him all over his body to force him to confess to a robbery that he did not commit. Then they repeatedly electrocuted his genitals and groin.

Unlike many victims of police torture in Thailand, Ekkawat survived. And unlike most, he was released shortly afterward and admitted to hospital. The next day, photographs of his damaged body were published in major dailies. Senior officers rushed to his bedside, pretended that they cared if he lived or died, and made phony promises to look into things.

All that was five years ago. What happened since demonstrates the utter failure not only of the government of Thailand but also of its society to come to terms with the blight of torture, or do anything much about it. 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

Thailand’s anti-human rights commission

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Despite concerns from human rights defenders at home and abroad, Thailand’s upper house on May 1 approved the seven nominees for the country’s National Human Rights Commission. The seven consist of a top cop, a judicial administrator, a civil servant, an industrialist, an academic, a former senator and a road safety advocate.

Only the ex-senator and academic have experience and knowledge to warrant their appointments, although critics observe that both also are tainted by their links with an army-installed government after the 2006 coup. The civil servant is a social worker who has some idea about children’s and women’s rights. The other four have no clue.

The policeman says that due process in some cases should be balanced with crime control, like in the country’s restive south. As a representative of Thailand’s preeminent agency for human rights abuse, he is now situated to block inquiries into security forces that abduct, torture and kill people on this pretext, be they near the Malaysian border or anywhere else.

The court administrator counts his human rights experience as having been involved in the drafting of a number of constitutions, including a couple written for the benefit of military dictators. He also reckons that he contributed to verdicts favorable to rights, although this is an odd and unsupportable claim from someone whose role is not supposed to include telling judges how to decide cases.

The road safety guy seems unaware that the body to which he has been appointed is a human rights commission, not a rights and duties commission, as he has so far been unable to talk about one without remarking on the other.

The businessman describes human rights as a tool for international groups to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, such as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency backing the spiritual group Falun Gong to cause trouble for China. He also says that other countries are violating the rights of Burma’s military regime by imposing sanctions. And that’s not even the start of it.

A more ugly lot of rights commissioners would be hard to find. But now they’re in, can anything be done to get them out again? Or is Thailand saddled with an anti-human rights commission for the next six years? Continue reading

Thailand’s new rights commission is a joke

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(คณะกรรมการสิทธิมนุษยชน ชุดใหม่ ของประเทศไทย เป็นเรื่องตลก)

This week the Asian Human Rights Commission issued three open letters on the selection of candidates for the new National Human Rights Commission of Thailand. The regional body has warned that if the Senate goes ahead and accepts the seven current nominees then the commission may cease to meet international standards, causing it to lose its status before the United Nations.

The seven candidates have been thrust forward after a hurried selection process about which almost no one in Thailand knows anything. The process began only in March after a long delay. It is set to be completed Friday, when the country’s upper house of military and bureaucratic yes-men will consider making the appointments. [UPDATE: The Senate on Friday elected all seven candidates to the NHRC. See further below.]

While few people in Thailand know that new commissioners have been nominated, few of the nominees know about human rights. Only one of the seven aspirants, Nirand Pithakwachara, formerly an elected senator under the repealed 1997 Constitution, has practical experience. Nirand has worked with environmental and citizens’ groups on a variety of issues, and was on Senate committees that inquired into rights abuses prior to the 2006 military coup.

The other six include Police General Vanchai Srinuwalnad, who states that he has conducted various human rights training courses but does not indicate from where he has obtained his knowledge on the topic; Constitution Court Secretary Paibool Varahapaitoorn, who claims to have participated in the making of judgments favorable to human rights, even though his role is administrative, not judicial; and Taejing Siripanich, head of a group that does good work in discouraging drunken driving but which has little if any relevance to the job for which he is applying.

The worst of the lot is Parinya Sirisarakarn, an industrialist who was a part of the undemocratic assembly that drafted the regressive 2007 Constitution. Not only does he have nothing to suggest himself to the post of rights commissioner, he was himself named in a 2007 NHRC investigative report as responsible for causing environmental damage in the northeast, where he holds a license to extract salt. Continue reading