Burmese junta defiant despite fresh sanctions
As a UN special envoy tours region to drum up support, authorities say they are still detaining protesters.
The military junta in Burma (Myanmar) remains defiant despite announcements of tighter sanctions by the European Union and the United Nations, as well as cuts in aid by Japan.
Burmese authorities said Monday that they are continuing to seek and detain protesters who took to the streets in large numbers last month to protest a doubling of fuel prices. Almost 3,000 people were detained and nearly 500 are still being held, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported, citing a statement in an official newspaper.
… "Those who led, got involved in and supported the unrest which broke out in September were called in and are being interrogated," (the statement) said.
The number of arrests is an increase of almost 800 since the government's last official figures on 8 October.
Those released had been required to sign "pledges". The statement did not explain what these were, but some reports suggest they were a promise not to participate in further protests.
On Tuesday the Red Cross said it was appealing to Burma for access to the detainees, but said it had yet to establish a meaningful dialogue with the country's leaders.
UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari is visiting Burma's neighbors and key trading allies for talks before a planned return there later this month, said the BBC.
Monks, once a common sight in Burma, are now seen only rarely, despite the restoration of a semblance of normalcy, says The Irrawaddy, a Chang Mai, Thailand-based news magazine run by expatriate Burmese. Thousands of monks had led peaceful protests last month.
Until a few weeks ago, Burma had a very visible community of about 400,000 monks. Now they are a comparatively rare sight in the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities. Residents are asking: where have all the monks gone?
Unknown numbers were rounded up in the recent demonstrations that rocked Rangoon and elsewhere. Many are still in detention, and others are confined to their monasteries. The authorities say they have released several hundred. But large numbers are very evidently still missing.
A resident of Mandalay, the historic heart of Burmese Buddhism, said: "Mandalay is now a city without monks."
At the height of the demonstrations, the authorities banned the monks of Mandalay's monasteries from continuing with their daily alms rounds, and a resident told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the groups of monks who had resumed their early morning tours of the city had shrunk from more than 50 to fewer than 10.
"When we asked the monks where the others were they didn't dare answer," she said. "We don't know whether they [are] still alive or not."
A group of six Burmese dissidents, including one monk and two members of the 88 Generation Students Group, recently arrived at Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border, said another report in The Irrawady.
A 31-year-old monk who recently fled from a monastery called State Pariyatti Sasana University in Kabar Aye in Rangoon's Mayangone Township told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, "The soldiers raid homes, especially at nighttime. They compare suspects with photos of those who were involved in the protests. Also, they employ an increased number of soldiers when they raid monasteries."
"In the daytime, it is fine," he said. "But at night the monks are living in fear. They worry that the troops will raid their monasteries. Some people are afraid of accepting monks in their homes."
The security forces also patrol the streets with loudspeakers, announcing that homeowners should not take in monks and that, if found out, the authorities will take action against the homeowner, said the monk who requested anonymity for his family's safety.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont responded to Mr. Gambari's mission by suggesting "his own version of the six-party talks with Burma in response to the United Nation's plea for Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] nations to make more of an effort to change the behaviour of the Burmese military junta," reports the Thai daily The Nation.
In a related commentary, The Nation pointed out that the biggest investors in Burma are companies in neighboring countries such as China, Thailand, Singapore, and India, that are not under the same activist pressure as Western companies.
Firms from China and Singapore don't face such scrutiny; firms from Thailand and India, while investing abroad, have not yet aroused the attention of local activists about their activities overseas.
This allows Chinese firms, often state-owned entities, to act exactly the way their owners want. Such investments prop up unrepresentative regimes. Last year, a senior executive of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg lamented that its standards on environmental and social issues were so high that it regularly loses business to Chinese lenders, often in the least-developed countries. Western firms and governments are powerless in this regard. Burma's leaders know this.
Gambari also stopped in Malaysia, where the government ruled out sanctions against Myanmar but backed UN efforts to stop the junta's crackdown, reports Bloomberg.
… The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations won't eject Myanmar, [Malaysian foreign minister] Syed Hamid said today. Asean admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, against U.S. and European wishes. The bloc has been criticized by Western nations for not doing enough to promote democratic change in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Malaysia's trade with Myanmar in 2006 was worth 1.06 billion ringgit [$313 million], the third-smallest total among Malaysia's Asean trading partners, the Malaysian government said.
Japan, meanwhile, has halted a multimillion-pound humanitarian project in protest at the bloody suppression of last month's pro-democracy protests, reports The Guardian.
Japan, once Burma's largest aid donor, said it had decided to cut the funding in response to international outrage over the crackdown. It hoped the move would encourage the regime to change course and work on moving toward democracy.
Tokyo had been considering its course of action since the killing of a Japanese video journalist, Kenji Nagai, at the height of the protests. Film of the killing appeared to show him being shot at close range by a soldier.
The foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, said Japan was cancelling a £2.3m grant it had been discussing with the Burmese regime for a business education centre at Rangoon's university.
The funding cut represents only a small proportion of the £13m in humanitarian aid the Japanese government gave to the regime last year, but the minister said further grants would be reviewed on a case by case basis in future.
The move sends a strong symbolic as well as economic message to the Burmese leadership, and may yet encourage other countries in the region, said The Guardian.
The EU also widened sanctions against Burma Monday, "adding a ban on imports of timber, gemstones and precious metals," reports The Independent. The ban includes exports of equipment used in the timber and mining industries, and come on top of existing travel bans on Burmese officials, an arms embargo and a freeze of Burmese assets. But the "EU shied away from targeting Burmese oil and gas exports or preventing European companies from operating in those sectors. It also said EU humanitarian aid will continue," The Independent said.
Despite these moves, the Burmese junta remains defiant. It criticized last week's UN Security Council statement deploring the regime's crackdown and calling for the release of political prisoners, reports Mizzima News, an online news portal run by exiled Burmese groups in New Delhi. According to an article in the official newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, the junta has said that the UN statement, which was also backed by China, "does not derail their plan," reports Mizzima.
"The situation in Myanmar [ Burma] does not constitute a threat to the regional and international peace and security," the article said.
The junta also flatly rejected that there are no political prisoners in Burma and reiterated that it will continue with its planned seven-step roadmap to democracy despite pressure by the international community.
"We will March On," said the article written under a pseudonym – Banya Aung. "There is no reason to change the course. We warmly welcome those who join us with genuine goodwill. We will remove all the hindrances and obstacles that may lie ahead."