Daily News-August 01 - 2001- Wednesday

  • Myanmar journalists' plight remains alarming
  • Myanmar ethnic army frees detained Thai officials
  • Abduction revives border tensions
  • Shans claim Rangoon wishes to trade detained Thais with their leader
  • Rangoon daily says ASEAN partners unable to appreciate Burma's progress
  • 'Burma must cut fees'
  • Myanmar's central bank introduces measures to stabilise currency
  • Burmese Celebrate New Year in New York
  • Burma rebels deny charges of heroin smuggling
  • Myanmar Generates More Electricity in 1st Quarter
  • Myanmar Produces 811,000 barrels of Crude Oil in 1st Quarter
  • Burmese troops hold Missing seven Thais after abduction
  • Thailand optimistic to release of Thai anti-drugs officials
  • Burmese government rejects criticisms by press freedom group

  • Myanmar journalists' plight remains alarming, press freedom group says in urging sanctions


    BANGKOK, Thailand, July 31- Calling Myanmar ''the largest prison for journalists in Asia,'' an international press freedom group urged sanctions be maintained against the military government until jailed journalists are released and censorship is eliminated.

    The Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders, issued a 20-page report Tuesday documenting the plight of 18 detained journalists and the lack of press freedom in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.It said that despite nine months of closed-door negotiations between the military government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, ''the situation concerning freedom of the press has not improved one iota.''

    Myanmar's military regime has long been ostracized by Western governments for its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. The United States and European Union countries limit diplomatic and business contacts with the regime.

    Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in a 1990 general election, but the military never allowed parliament to convene, and subjected its opponents to severe harassment and detention.

    ''Torture is still commonplace in prisons and detention centers, and some journalists suffer from serious mental disorders resulting from long periods of isolation,'' the report said. ''Censorship, threats and arrests are still the routine for journalists working for the few private media in the country, and for political activists who speak out against the situation in Burma.''

    A request to the Myanmar government spokesman for reaction to the report went unanswered Tuesday. According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists have received long prison sentences for distributing information the regime deems ''hostile to the state'' as well as ''owning undeclared video cameras, talking with foreign journalists or sending information to Burmese media in exile.''

    Although prison conditions are very harsh, several detained journalists have put up resistance, smuggling out information to human rights groups, taking part in hunger strikes and even circulating underground publications, the report said.

    Government control of information is near-total, with major media controlled by the military and their families and rigorous censorship applied to the few independent private journals, the group said. Censors closely scrutinize any articles using words such as ''democracy,'' ''corruption'' or ''education,'' it said.

    Reflecting the government's sensitivity to the popularity of Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, favorable references to the opposition leader are ''clearly forbidden'' and it is impossible to publish an article about a female head of state. The group said some underground publications, written, published and distributed by opponents of the regime, circulate sporadically.

    The most common sources of uncensored information, however, are broadcasts by international radio outlets such as the BBC, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, and the Democratic Voice of Burma, which is based in Norway.

    The group said its report was based on interviews conducted in June with Myanmar exiles in northern Thailand, ''since it is impossible to carry out an unfettered investigation in Burma.''
    Myanmar ethnic army frees detained Thai officials

    By Nopporn Wong-Anan

    BANGKOK (Reuters) - Seven Thai anti-drugs officials detained by an ethnic minority army allied to Myanmar's military government have been handed over to Myanmar authorities and should be home soon, officials said on Tuesday.

    The military and civilian officials, missing since Sunday after crossing the border into Myanmar at the town of Tachilek, were initially detained by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a militia blamed by Thailand for producing most of the amphetamine pills flooding the country.

    "They have been released and are now staying at Tachilek under the custody of the Myanmar government, and we are contacting the Myanmar authorities to bring them back," an official at the office of Thailand's minister for drug suppression told Reuters.

    The seven officials from the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) and the Ministry of Defence, including one female Army colonel, went to Tachilek on Sunday after attending a drugs seminar in Chiang Mai, Thai officials said.

    Tumnu Sirisingha, head of the ONCB's northern office, said the Thai officials got permission from Myanmar police to enter Tachilek to survey drugs problems in the town, opposite the northern Thai border town of Mae Sai. Tumnu told reporters the group might have been captured because they were driving a suspicious looking vehicle which had heavily tinted windows and high powered radios.

    "The Wa may have suspected them of spying or committing a robbery, so they captured them," he said. The UWSA is said by Thai authorities to be a major producer and supplier to Thailand of methamphetamine tablets. Officials say as many as 800 million of the Myanmar-made stimulant pills could reach Thailand this year, after 500 million last year.Thai officials say most of the tablets are manufactured in makeshift laboratories in areas under the control of Myanmar ethnic minority groups which, like the Wa, have signed peace deals with the Yangon military government in return for relative autonomy.

    The region forms part of the notorious "Golden Triangle" -- where the Thai, Myanmar and Laotian borders meet -- and is believed by international agencies to be one of the world's top heroin-producing regions. Thai narcotics experts say production of methamphetamines is increasingly supplanting opium and heroin there as the main threat.
    Abduction revives border tensions

    Don Pathan
    The Nation

    Thai political leaders and top officials in Bangkok were tight-lipped as to how the kidnapping of seven Thai army and narcotics officers by a pro-Rangoon armed group could have occurred just weeks after the fence-mending visit by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to Rangoon.

    Few were without an opinion as to how such an incident would affect the waxing and waning of Thai-Burmese relations. All agreed Burma's help was necessary for securing the release of the seven captives.

    Thai officers on the front lines along the border, on the other hand, were not so optimistic. Many see the incident as retaliation against the recent arrest of seven people, reportedly their associates, in connection with the smuggling of 74 kilograms of heroin and Bt90 million in cash.Moreover, they said the kidnapping incident had not only strained working relations at the local level but more importantly, it had exposed the flaws in what has been billed as recuperating bilateral ties between the two governments.

    Needless to say, the "flaw" in this case is the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), dubbed one of the world's largest armed narcotics-trafficking groups. The UWSA operate somewhat independently in an autonomous zone along Burma's northeastern frontier.

    At the height of the mudslinging that was kicked off by day-long cross-border shelling between the Thai and Burmese armies earlier this year, top brass from both sides were trading vicious accusations, saying their counterparts were taking kickbacks from drug traffickers.Although the war of words may have quietened down following Thaksin's visit to Rangoon, feelings among border units remain tense, officials said. Many said it would take more than a "kiss-and-make-up" session between Thaksin and the junta to improve the situation on the front lines.

    For years, Bangkok has consistently held Rangoon accountable for the Wa's illicit activities, despite acknowledging that the UWSA operate independently from Rangoon. This independence is illustrated by the fact that Burmese troops are required to disarm before entering Wa-controlled areas.Two years ago, Thailand declared war on the UWSA, accusing them of regularly flooding the country with millions of methamphetamine pills. Economic sanctions were imposed against the Wa and a border checkpoint leading to Mong Yawn, one of their strongholds near the Thai border, was ordered shut.

    According to the US State Department, Burma continues to be one of the world's largest producers of illicit opium, accounting for 80 per cent of the total production in Southeast Asia. A great deal of the drug activities there is controlled by the UWSA. The group entered a cease-fire agreement, but not a permanent peace deal, with the military government of Burma in 1989.
    Shans claim Rangoon wishes to trade detained Thais with their leader

    Shan Herald Agency for News
    31 July 2001
    No: 07 - 18:

    According to a telephone interview at 20:00 with a Shan resistance source, Burmese authorities were demanding Shan State Army leader Yawdserk in exchange for the return of 7 Thai officials missing in Burma's Shan State since Friday (27 July).

    "I learned this from Saw Yawdserk himself this morning," said Yawdharn, one of Shan State Army's liaison officer. "This clearly proves that the Burmese are deliberately trying to confuse issues."

    Thai authorities have neither confirmed nor rejected the Shan army leader's claim. Col. Yawdserk was reported by Yawdharn to be at his Loi Taileng stronghold opposite Maehongson.

    The 7 officials, 4 military and 3 civilians, reportedly crossed the border from Maesai, Chiangrai Province, 250 km north of Chiangmai, into Tachilek, around nine in the morning on Friday in a Land-cruiser.

    "Nearly two hours later, they reported that they had been to the Hsaimong Temple of the renowned Khru Bar Saengla along with other worshippers and would be back in time for lunch. There has been no communications from them since," said a source close to the Thai military.The incident came at a time when some temporary checkpoints, including the one between Chiangmai and Mongton, were soon to be upgraded as permanent checkpoints, said a border watcher.
    Rangoon daily says ASEAN partners unable to appreciate Burma's progress

    BBC Monitoring Service - United Kingdom; Jul 31, 2001

    Text of report in English by Burmese newspaper The New Light of Myanmar web site on 31 July

    Whenever friends meet, they deliberate on issues at hand and also the future programme based on common values and mutual trust thus advancing from strength to strength. The 34th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM-34) ended in Hanoi earlier this week with foreign ministers reaffirming their commitment to strengthening unity and advancing ASEAN integration and cohesiveness.

    Before moving on to associated meetings within the ambit of ASEAN principles and practices, the meeting adopted the Hanoi Declaration on narrowing the Development Gap for Closer ASEAN Integration, which is aimed at actively implementing the Initiative for ASEAN Integration put forth at the fourth Informal ASEAN Summit in Singapore last November. The foreign ministers Tuesday [24 July] issued a joint communique at the end of their annual meeting, calling for active implementation of the initiative for ASEAN integration and closer cooperation in political, economic and security issues.

    ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to make concerted efforts to strengthen unity, enhance cooperation within ASEAN, deepen the partnership with ASEAN's dialogue countries and promote ASEAN's relations with other regions. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien said in a closing statement the income disparities and the development gap between and among ASEAN member countries have affected the efficiency of cooperation among member countries as well as the whole region. ASEAN foreign ministers have agreed to enhance the efficiency of cooperation and mutual assistance through promoting economic integration, trade, investment, human resource development, infrastructure and information technology, so as to narrow the development gap among ASEAN members.

    Myanmar [Burma], like all other ASEAN nations, fully adheres to the ASEAN's tenet of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and contributes towards regional harmony and wellbeing, for which she will tenaciously continue to strive. Myanmar was able to elucidate her stand concerning all issues that are of significance to the regional grouping and on global matters, development of relations between Myanmar and western nations and also the internal situation at the meeting and also at separate meetings with the dialogue partners who were able to appreciate the progress Myanmar has made in all aspects of human endeavour.

    Source: The New Light of Myanmar web site, Rangoon, in English 31 Jul 01
    'Burma must cut fees'

    By Piyanart Srivalo
    The Nation

    DEPUTY Prime Minister Pitak Intrawityanunt yesterday ordered the Fishery Department and Foreign Ministry to negotiate with Burma to drop all but one of its preconditions for the resumption of a fishery concession revoked two years ago in the wake of strained bilateral relations.

    Pitak, who oversees national fishery policy, said after a meeting with trawler-owners who work in the Andaman Sea that Thailand would pay only the licence fee on Thai boats. (This fee is Bt1,100 per tonne every 30 days. Thai fishing vessels displace between 60 and 150 tonnes.) Pitak rejected other demands for reopening Burmese waters to the Thai fleet.

    "It is true that Burma is the owner of the natural resources, but it should take into account that Thailand is an investor taking a risk. It would be better to think of it as mutual interest," Pitak said.

    Burma is also demanding 25 per cent of the total catch, saying Thai owners could repurchase this at an export price to be stipulated by Rangoon in US dollars. It also wants a 10-per-cent tax on the remaining 75 per cent catch. This is normally levied on Burmese exporters, but not on foreigners. Rangoon also demands that another vessel be dispatched to unload the catch from the trawlers and take it back to Thailand, which would increase cost and difficulty. Thai trawlers have previously taken their own catch back to Thailand after customs clearance.

    Pitak said the Thai industry could not comply with some of the new requirements given the dollar-baht exchange rate and Thailand would have to renegotiate the licence fee. The agreement was due to be signed during a visit to Thailand by Burmese intelligence chief Lt-General Khin Nyunt in September, if all goes well, Pitak said. To promote cooperation, he said, Thailand would support the establishment of fish-processing factories in Burma and press for proper registration of trawlers operating in disputed waters.

    The Thai fishing industry has also called for the setting up of impartial and independent arbitrators to resolve any problems emanating from the opening of Burmese waters. During a visit to Rangoon by Defence Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Burma said it had given all the concessions to Singapore but would try to discuss the prospect of Thailand sharing them 50-50. The concessions to Thailand were revoked after a group of Burmese dissidents.
    Myanmar's central bank introduces measures to stabilise currency

    by Indochina Bureau Chief Romen Bose
    Channel News Asia

    Deciding to dine out in Myanmar will no longer be a headache of currency proportions for many diners in the country.Hotels and food outlets are looking forward to the return of more local customers with new measures introduced by the Central Bank to stabilise the currency, the Kyat.

    The Kyat lost nearly 20 percent of its value over the last half year, causing many in the country to tighten their belts.Recent border closures with Thailand have hit the Kyat hard, prompting the Central Bank to announce a fixed exchange rate of between 490 and 500 Kyats to one US dollar.

    The authorities have also clamped down on black market currency operators, successfully closing down six big operations in the last few months.

    As a further step, bank officials have awarded licences to five more companies to issue Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs) in exchange for foreign currency brought into Myanmar.

    FECs have a US$1 value and aim to help Myanmar retain hard currency while enabling businesses to trade using US-dollar denominated prices. An older measure - tourists entering Myanmar have to buy US$200 worth of either Kyats or FECs, an amount that cannot be converted back when leaving the country.

    With the currency expected to stablise with these measures, businesses in Myanmar say it is good news for local consumers.

    Mr Duncan MacLean, General Manager of Hotel Equatorial in Yangon, said: "We've seen a drop-off in the number of our local people coming over the last couple of months because of this devaluation and the uncertainty in the currency."The people obviously (are) trying to hold on to their money until as such times as things balance out. But with this stabilisation, we should see things come back to normal," Mr MacLean said.

    With the exchange rate fixed at rates determined by the central bank, officials are hoping to ensure that business there carries on as normal. The question on the minds of many, however, is how the new currency laws will impact exchange rates with other foreign currencies that are already being used in the country.
    Burmese Celebrate New Year in New York

    By Marcie S. Gitlin
    The Irrawaddy News Magazine

    July 31, 2001-Kyaw Tha Hla, executive director and co-founder of "Thin Gyan Association—Burmese Arts & Culture", continued a seven-year tradition last week with a belated celebration of the Burmese lunar New Year in Central Park. Nearly four thousand members of the Burmese-American community, and three thousand members of the general public, turned out in full force for the event, which was held on July 22.

    The Thin Gyan Association, founded in 1992, is a group of artists and professionals dedicated to the preservation of Burma’s rich cultural heritage and uniting its expatriate communities. Under gloriously sunny skies, New York’s Central Park played host to a fun-filled afternoon at the Association’s Seventh Annual Rakhaing Thingyan (Burmese New Year) Water Festival, the largest and most elaborate Burmese event outside of Burma. Thingyan, which falls in April according to the traditional Burmese calendar, is Burma’s most festive occasion of the year. Burmese-Americans and friends from throughout the United States and abroad attended the event in record-breaking numbers.

    Highlights included Daw Mar Mar Aye gracing the event with her legendary singing, accompanied by dancing by Ma Tin Tin Htay. A parade of historic hairstyles from the Pyu Era to today was created and conceived by Ko Tin Maung Cho and Ma Khaing Zar Pwint, with costumes designed by Daw Htay Htay Bu.

    Solo and group yein performances of traditional New Years’ folk music and dance were also performed. Ko Yin Htwe and his group from Maryland performed thangyat with satirical lyrics and comments on current events. The young people paid their respects to an elder, Daw Khin Ti, at a respect-for-elders ceremony. Burmese and non-Burmese children played a traditional game, than-bone-yite. An extensive selection of culinary specialties, from mount-let-saung and shwe yin aye to Rakhaing mount-te and wet-thar dout-htoe, were savored by the attendees, and of course traditional Rakhaing Laung boat water play cooled the attendees on this hot summer day.

    As Association Executive Director Kyaw Tha Hla noted in the festival program, "The aim of this event is not only to encourage cultural understanding, but also to promote cooperation among our communities and celebrate our collective accomplishments. As the Thin Gyan Association looks ahead, we hope to serve ever larger numbers as a home away from home, and bring even more non-Burmese friends to an understanding and appreciation of our unique approach to life."

    The Association’s other well-attended events include dance and music concerts, educational seminars on navigating New York City’s public school and healthcare systems, and the dissemination of basic information on immigration to the United States. Its next gathering will take place on Saturday, October 27, 2001, with a performance of "Lights of Burma", celebrating the Thadingyut Festival of Lights, the traditional close of Burma’s three-month Buddhist Lent.

    Marcie Gitlin is a member of the Thin Gyan Association Planning Committe.
    Burma rebels deny charges of heroin smuggling

    Aizawl, July 31, 2001 Mizzima News Group (www.mizzima.com)

    A Burma rebels group today denies a newspaper report that accused the outfit of doing heroin smuggling from the Golden Triangle through Mizoram border. Mr. Sui Khar, spokesperson of the Chin National Front (CNF) told Mizzima News Group that his organization is not involved in any arms and drug trafficking activities in the Indo-Burma border areas.

    Citing the official sources in Mizoram government’s Excise Department, the news report recently said that trafficking in heroin by Burma rebels from neighbouring Burma to Mizoram has increased this year and there are evidence that militants belonging to Chin National Army (CNA), an armed wing of CNF are involved in the trafficking. The report that appeared on a daily published from Guwahati on July 18 pointed out an arrest of a Burmese national suspected to be a CNF member while smuggling of heroin.

    Yes, in the first week of June, a Chin national, Tial Kulh Thang, was arrested outside Aizawl with arms. But he is an ex-CNF member. He ceased to be a member of CNF since December 1992, said Mr. Sui Khar.Our organization has an official policy of fighting against drugs. We even do anti-alcohol and anti-drug activities inside Chin State, he added.

    The Chin National Front (CNF) is one of the armed groups, which remain fighting against the military junta in Burma and believed to have bases along India-Burma border areas.
    Myanmar Generates More Electricity in 1st Quarter

    YANGON, July 31 (Xinhuanet) -- Electric power generated by the state-run Myanma Electric Power Enterprise (MEPE), the main electricity supplier of the country, totaled 1.236 billion kilowatt-hours (kwh) in the first quarter of this year, 2.57 percent more than the same period of 2000, said the latest issue of the government Economic Indicators.

    Meanwhile, the installed generating capacity of the MEPE reached 1,172 mega watts (mw) at the end of the first quarter of 2000. Official statistics show that in 2000, electric power generated by the MEPE went to 5.028 billion kwh, 17 percent more than 1999.

    According to the MEPE, since 1988 Myanmar's electric power installed generating capacity has increased by 509 mw, of which that of natural gas power plants rose by 255 mw, while that of steam power ones by 143 mw and that of hydropower ones by 111 mw.

    Myanmar is implementing five more hydropower plants -- Paunglaung, Zaungtu, Mone, Thaphanseik and Maipan. Three of them are China-aided projects.

    Upon their completion, the five power plants will add 407 mw more to Myanmar's installed generating capacity and is expected to greatly ease the serious electricity shortage problem of the country.
    Myanmar Produces 811,000 barrels of Crude Oil in 1st Quarter

    YANGON, July 31 (Xinhuanet) -- Myanmar produced a total of 811,000 barrels of crude oil in the first quarter of this year, 11.94 percent less than the same period of 2000, according to the latest data released by the country's Central Statistical Organization.

    During the three-month period, the country yielded 347.08 million cubic-meters of natural gas, also falling by 10.3 percent from the corresponding period of 2000. In 2000, the country produced 3.538 million barrels of crude oil and 1.538 billion cubic-meters of natural gas.

    Since Myanmar opened to foreign investment in late 1988, investment in the oil and gas sector coming from oil companies of Australia, Britain, France, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the United States has reached 2.355 billion dollars in 51 projects, taking up 32.2 percent of the country's total contracted foreign investment.

    So far Myanmar's petroleum and its products are insufficient to meet the demand and the country still has to import 280,000 to 300, 000 tons of crude oil and 100,000 to 150,000 tons of diesel oil annually.
    Burmese troops hold Missing seven Thais after abduction

    Source : Bangkok Post

    Seven Thai security and drugs officials who went missing after entering Burma on Friday were yesterday reported safe with Burmese military authorities at Tachilek border town.

    Reliable sources said the group-which lost contact with the Thai side after entering Tachilek from Mae Sai checkpoint in Chiang Rai-had been handed over to the Burmese military and was expected to be freed soon, pending instructions from Rangoon.

    The seven missing Thais comprise four military officers and three civilians. They were believed to have been abducted by members of the Wa minority group after crossing into Burma.

    The military officers are Col Duangkamol Sukhonthasap, director of Division 12 of the Supreme Command's Armed Forces Security Centre; Lt-Col Domsak Khampirasaeng, chief of the Mae Sai-based Thai-Burmese border co-ordinating centre; and Capt Sanit Banthao and Chief Warrant Officer Sathit Sithiprasert of the Third Cavalry Regiment Task Force.

    The civilians are Seni Waiwattana, Surasak Chanthawong and Thanu Rangsee of the Office of Narcotics Suppression Board.

    The sources said the group attended a meeting on drug suppression on July 25 in Chiang Mai. On July 27, they crossed the border from Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district to Tachilek in a Toyota land cruiser of the ONCB.

    Lt-Col Domsak informed immigration officials they were to make an official contact with Burmese authorities in Tachilek.

    They went to Ban Mai restaurant south of Tachilek town where they had a luncheon appointment with Burmese border officials.

    They placed their orders and then visited Wat Sai Muang temple, from where Lt-Col Domsak made his last contact with his office in Mae Sai via mobile phone.

    The seven were to have returned to the restaurant but did not show up. It was believed they were taken away from the temple.

    Thamnu Sirisingh, director of the Northern Narcotics Suppression Centre, believed the seven might have been arrested due to a misunderstanding as the vehicle they were travelling in was heavily tinted and equipped with communications radio.They might have been suspected of being on a spying mission, Mr Thamnu said.

    Reports of their probable release came last night after authorities launched a co-ordinated attempt to secure their freedom.

    Gen Surayud Chulanont, the army chief, said Third Army commander Lt-Gen Watanachai Chaimuanwong had contacted Maj-Gen Thein Sein, Burma's Triangle Force commander, to help trace the seven.

    Supreme Commander Gen Sampao Chusri also ordered Gen Sommai Wichaworn, armed forces chief-of-staff, to co-ordinate with Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, secretary-one of the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

    Gen Surayud said it was not yet clear who had abducted the group, since Burma had neither denied nor admitted arresting them.
    Thailand optimistic to release of Thai anti-drugs officials

    BANGKOK, Aug 1 (AFP)

    Thai authorities said Wednesday they were optimistic that seven anti-narcotics officials taken captive by ethnic Wa fighters on the Burma border would soon be released.

    "All seven Thai officials, who have been seized by a minority group, are safe," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said.

    "The government is working closely with the Myanmar government. I don't know when they are expected to return to Thailand but the negotiations should not take too long," he said.

    Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said the situation would become clearer later Wednesday when a delegation of Burmese officials arrive at the Tachilek-Mae Sai border crossing to negotiate with the Wa.

    "I think that at the latest they will be freed tomorrow and then return to Thailand," he said, adding that the Thais would probably be interrogated by the Burmese team before they are released.

    The prime minister downplayed suggestions that the incident could harm ties with Thailand's military-run neighbour, saying that since his fence-mending mission to Rangoon in June, relations were at their closest.

    Border clashes earlier this year between the Wa and a Thai-allied ethnic militia provoked fighting between the two national armies and drove a serious wedge between the governments, which was only healed in recent weeks.

    The Wa, who have signed a ceasefire agreement with Burma's military regime, are reputed to control much of the heroin and amphetamines trade in the rugged border region abutting Thailand.

    The Thai officials, made up of four Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) staff and three army personnel, have been out of contact since Friday when they crossed into the drug-infested border area controlled by the Wa.

    Newspaper reports said Wednesday that they had been handed over to the Burmese army by their Wa captors and were due to be released shortly.

    However, Thamarak Issarangkul Na Ayutthaya, the minister responsible for the ONCB, said Myanmar officials were still unable to confirm their whereabouts.

    A negotiating team led by ONCB deputy secretary general Chatchai Suthiklom, the Defence Ministry's General Vichit Yathip, and Thailand's ambassador to Burma Oum Maolanon arrived in Rangoon late Tuesday.

    "At their first meeting in Yangon, Myanmar authorities were asked first of all to try to confirm the whereabouts of the group," Thamarak said.
    Burmese government rejects criticisms by press freedom group

    Source : MSNBC / AP

    BANGKOK, Thailand, Aug. 1---A Burmese government spokesman professed bewilderment Wednesday at charges by an international press freedom group that the country's military regime detains journalists in brutal conditions and tightly restricts freedom of information.

    In a report issued Tuesday, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders described Burma, as ''the largest prison for journalists in Asia.''

    It urged that international sanctions be maintained against the military government until 18 jailed journalists are released and censorship is eliminated.

    Asked for comment, the Burmese government spokesman said the government was ''confused'' by the charges because last year the group ''stated that 24 professional writers were behind bars but this time it is 18.''

    In a faxed statement, the spokesman said ''there are 84 journals and 141 magazines published by the private sector regularly with over 400 professional writers actively pursuing their profession.''

    ''Constructive criticism is welcomed and there are foreign and local organizations in the country exchanging views with government officials and also providing suggestions and advice on a regular basis which has been appreciated by the government,'' the spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.

    Commenting on the group's charge that journalists are tortured in detention, the spokesman said the government is working ''very closely and in full cooperation with the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) which has been visiting the correctional facilities in the country.''

    The press group's report, however, said Red Cross personnel do not have access to all of the country's 36 prisons and that three years after inspections resumed, ''food, health care and sanitary conditions have not changed significantly.''