Daily News-June 22 - 2001- Friday

  • Burma releases more political prisoners
  • US Congressman marks Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday with import ban bill
  • Let time be judge’of PM’s overtures with Burma
  • Signs of Peace Return to Thai-Myanmar Border
  • Burmese trade unionist thanks Total for acknowledging its use of forced labour
  • Annan welcomes release of 5 parliamentarians
  • Burma's Win Aung on visit
  • Thailand Set To Lift Ban On Strategic Supplies To Burma
  • Thai-Burma border crossings set to re-open

  • Burma releases more political prisoners

    By regional analyst Larry Jagan

    Secret talks may be bearing fruit

    Burma's military authorities have released another five pro-democracy MPs from prison.The military authorities said the five are all members of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). More than a dozen political prisoners were freed last week. These releases are seen as a sign that talks between Burma's military rulers and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which started last October, are beginning to make progress. The NLD convincingly won the 1990 elections but have never been allowed to govern.

    Secret talks

    The talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military authorities have been held in strict secrecy, with neither side making any public comment on the details of the dialogue. So analysts are always looking for signs that the talks are making progress. The military authorities' release of political prisoners is seen as one of those signs. Sources in the military government have also hinted that more releases are likely in the next few weeks. A senior opposition source told the BBC that more than half the NLD offices in Rangoon have also been allowed to reopen.

    UN demands

    These measures were high on the list of demands the UN special envoy, Razali Ismail gave the generals earlier this month to prove that the talks were making progress. The issue of political prisoners has been at the heart of the dialogue process between Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's generals for sometime now. The opposition leader has continually asked the military authorities to release political prisoners as a gesture of good faith. According to opposition sources, Aung San Suu Kyi has urged the generals to allow the NLD to function normally and wants the restrictions on her and other senior opposition leaders removed. She also wants other members of the NLD to be involved in the dialogue process.

    Confidence building

    Diplomatic sources in Rangoon believe the release of prisoners is part of a confidence-building process. They will be more inclined to believe the talks are making real progress when the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi are lifted. Sources in Rangoon believe this may happen next month around the time the UN envoy is due to return to Rangoon .
    US Congressman marks Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday with import ban bill

    Agence France Presse
    June 20, 2001, Wednesday

    A leading human rights activist in the US Congress on Tuesday marked the 56th birthday of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi by introducing a bill that would ban all imports from the military-ruled country.

    "The Rangoon regime rules with an iron fist, routinely abusing its own citizens, cracking down on democratic opposition leaders, and flouting all international human rights standards," said Democrat Congressman Tom Lantos, the bill's sponsor.

    "The sanctions regime currently in place bans US investment in Burma but permits Burmese imports to the United States," Lantos said, using the country's former name, which was changed by the ruling generals.

    "The Burmese regime is exploiting this legal loophole to bankroll its forced labor camps and other repressive activity."

    Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in elections in 1990 but the junta failed to recognise the result.Since then she has faced periods of house arrest, and hundreds of opposition activists have been jailed and harassed by the authorities.

    Recently the NLD leader has been engaged in a secret dialogue with the junta, but few details of the progress of the talks have leaked out.Aung San Suu Kyi was born in Yangon, then known as Rangoon, on June 19 1945.
    Let time be judge’of PM’s overtures with Burma

    source : The Nation

    Burma observers were cautiously optimistic yesterday about Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’ s visit to the country, saying it looked good on paper but adding it would take time before any substantive results could appear.

    Thaksin’s selfstyled diplomacy was put to the test when he made his first visit to Burma on Tuesday in an effort to salvage bilateral ties. Relations between the two countries sunk to their lowest ebb in years during his first four months in office, mainly due to accusations over responsibility for drug flows along their common border.Speaking after his return on Wednesday, Thaksin vowed after a summit meeting with the Burmese junta that all lingering misunderstandings had effectively been dispelled and the two nations would be able to look forward to a brighter future.

    Former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan agreed Thaksin’s mission should be given time to yield results.However, Surin, who heads the Democrat Party’s foreign affairs committee, warned that the Thaksin administration’s apparent decision to make resolving the drug issue a bilateral issue risked losing Thailand’s leverage with its neighbour.

    Our friends who shared our position on the drug problem at the regional and international levels will back off, and we will lose the alliance [that has been formed] on the drug issue,” he said. Surin was referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ enhanced antidrug efforts, which have received the backing of the international community and were recently joined by China.

    A noted Burma observer said he was not convinced Thaksin’s visit would fundamentally improve the problems plaguing ThaiBurma ties, solutions to which are typically complicated by political instability in Burma and vested business interests in Thailand.The observer said Rangoon’s priority was not the drug issue but enforcing security along the border and consolidating its strength in talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on national reconciliation. The regime does not have the resources to tackle the drug trafficking problem, said the observer, who insisted on anonymity.Describing the talks as old wine in a new bottle, the observer said Thaksin had achieved nothing more than his predecessors in putting efficient border security mechanisms in place and getting Burma to agree to cooperate seriously on antidrug efforts.

    While the trip appeared to arrest the alarming tensions sparked in part by Thaksin’s highprofile antidrug campaign, whether it would deliver lasting result remained to be seen, he said.The fact that the Mae SaiTachilek border checkpoint remained closed despite the proclaimed success of Thaksin’s visit was a case in the point. According to common practice, it should be reopened after the neighbouring leader’s visit to reflect the normalisation of ties, he said.Defending the claims made for the visit, Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said he believed Rangoon was sincere in addressing the drug and border problems. He said mechanisms are being incrementally developed to solve all the problems, adding they would not be resolved overnight.

    Surakiart will today meet with Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung, who was expected to follow up on the cooperation framework agreed upon by the Thai and Burmese leaders. The minister will call on Thaksin before holding a meeting with his Thai counterpart. Among the issues likely to be discussed are ways to follow up Thaksin’s visit and enhance bilateral relations, as well as border checkpoints and narcotics.

    Win Aung is expected to be granted an audience with His Majesty the King at the Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin, during which he is expected to extend an invitation to Their Majesties the King and Queen and other members of the Royal Family to visit Burma. He will stay at the seaside resort overnight and leave for Rangoon the next morning.

    Foreign Ministry spokesman Norachit Sinhaseni said the agenda would be allencompassing, with emphasis given to developing peopletopeople relations in the fields of culture and the study of history. Outstanding issues including the Mae SaiTachilek border crossing, border demarcation, and quadrilateral cooperation on fighting narcotics between Thailand, Burma, China and Laos would also be discussed in detail, Norachit said.
    Signs of Peace Return to Thai-Myanmar Border

    Yang Qingchuan

    MAE SAI, Thailand, June 21 (Xinhua)--After months of unrest and conflicts along the northern Thai-Myanmar border, signs of peace and order are returning, amid renewed diplomatic efforts from both sides to mend relations.

    In the surroundings of the checkpoint of the northmost Thai border town of Mae Sai, some 1,000 kilometers north of Bangkok, everything seems normal now, from the crowded border market, full of traders speaking Thai or Myanmar, to booming restaurants whose owners keep wooing tourists, and not a single military personnel is in sight.Only the still-closed iron door of the checkpoint on the Myanmar side, only 5 meters away from the Thai immigration-control station across a stone bridge, suggested a passing-away hostile atmosphere which was caused by frequent skirmishes between armed forces from the two countries during past months.

    Standing at the top of the hill which overlooking the shallow-narrow border river and the Myanmar border town of Tachilek, Samak Pohsra, chief Thai intelligence officer at the checkpoint, recalled that on February 11, the Myanmar government troops chased rebellious Shan State Army (SSA) across the border, took some positions on border hills and fired 38 shots of gun and artillery into Thai soil. That incident led to civilian casualties and property damages in the border market of Mai Sai town, which is often crowed with peddlers from both sides, he said.The Third Army Area of Thailand then sent reinforcements to Mae Sai and other points along the border, firing shots into Myanmar side and pushing back Myanmar troops.

    During the following months of stand-off, the three checkpoints along northern Thai-Myanmar, including Mae Sai, were all closed. And some time later, the Thai authorities permitted entry of pedestrians but still banned all motor vehicles to pass through.The two sides managed to hold a border talks in April, but it turned out to be fruitless. Now things have changed after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's recent visit to Myanmar between June 19 and 20. As a result of the barrier-breaking trip, the joint Thai-Myanmar Township Border Committee will meet soon to discuss theunconditional reopening of the border checkpoints.

    Back in Bangkok, the Thai prime minister described his visit to Myanmar as a very successful one, and said that lots of misunderstandings and pending issues, including drug control and border conflicts, had been given a fresh momentum towards a quick settlement. The Myanmar side also responded with a positive gesture to invite the Thai king and queen to pay a state visit to the country.

    Conflicts Stem From Drugs, Border Disputes, Immigrants Generally speaking, the Thai-Myanmar conflicts stem from three aspects, namely, illicit drugs, border disputes and immigrants, Vuttiqari Phalino, deputy commander of Thai forces in Chiang Rai Province, where Mae Sai and other north border areas are located, told Xinhua during an interview.The Thai authorities have long accused the Myanmar government of supporting the pro-government United Wa's State Army (UWSA) which is allegedly fgeply involved the drug production and traffic along the border. Myanmar, on its part, blamed Thailand of backing the anti-government Shan State Army which is considered as another active drug-trader. ...another active drug-trader.

    Wisitworanit Wattana, spokesman of the Mekong Operations Unit Squadron (MOUS), a Thai taskforce suppressing drug traffic and closely monitoring the situations on the north border area, told Xinhua that Thaksin's visit to Myanmar is expected to ease the drug problems affecting both countries.However, he said, due to loopholes in border control and insufficient law enforcement, the drug influx from Myanmar, which is expected to grow to 700 million methamphetamine tablets this year, cannot be stopped entirely within short time.

    At a port called Buk, few kilometers down the river from Mae Sai, there is not a single border guard in sight. Local people said citizens from both Myanmar and Thailand have been always travelling freely across the river. without holding any documents. And that is because a tradition dated back from ancient times and an obscure concept of border line. Also, with limited personnel (the MOUS has only 120 men), it is virtually impossible to control all the points along the border.

    Myanmar and Thailand share an over 2000-kilometer-long border line, but the frontier demarcation is yet to be completed, hence the frequent disputes and controversial claims of territory intrusions.

    The issue of illegal immigrants is another big concern. According to the Thai government, Myanmar nationals account for the majority of illegal immigrants in Thailand, who are reportedly involved in many criminal activities. Two hostage incidents and one jailbreak, which were linked to Myanmar citizens, happened in Thailand during past two years and drew international attention.

    Historical Misunderstandings Historians said the misunderstanding between Thailand and Myanmar can be traced back to centuries before when the two nations were arch-rivals competing for dominance in their region. Myanmar troops had sacked Ayutthaya, the former Thai capital for three times between 15th and 17th centuries, and Thais also had succeeded in pushing back Myanmar forces and even penetrated deep into Myanmar soil. These memories have been passed down to the current time, which contributes to the rows in bilateral relations. A Thai box-office-hit film, BanRajarn, released earlier this year, described a fabricated story about how ancient Thai villagers managed to win a glorious victory against Myanmar troops.Some Thai scholars worried that the success of the movie could flame ultra-nationalism and add mistrust between the two neighboring countries.

    Then an official newspaper in Myanmar had reportedly criticized an ancient Thai king and a Myanmar text book blamed Thais as lazy and comfort-seeking people. Both provoked strong protests from Thai society and government.

    As Narin Srinatee, chief of staff of the Third Thai Army Area pointed out, the two countries need to look to the future and put down radical tones, then the bilateral ties could be mended and strengthened in the years to come. He also told Xinhua that he believed the bilateral ties can also be improved through cooperation on broader international arenas. I think when Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and China join together in Kunming later this year for the anti-drug talks, the Thai-Myanmar cooperation on drug-suppression will also be enacted, said the senior official.
    Burmese trade unionist thanks Total for acknowledging its use of forced labour

    Vincent Riou et Francis Christophe c digipresse, translated by Brigitte Revol (with light editing by David Arnott)

    Burma-Total : A Burmese trade unionist thanks Total for acknowledging its use of forced labour

    "Thank you, Total" declared Mr Than Lwin, a leading member of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB, the only --free and underground -- trade union in Burma) in Paris on June 19.

    Mr Than Lwin, Administrative Executive Officer of FTUB, was responding to the petroleum group's recent acknowledgment of the use of forced labour linked to the construction of its pipeline in Burma. The trade union leader had been invited for a European information tour by several European trade unions affiliated to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

    Digipresse met him in the Paris offices of Danielle Mitterrand's Foundation, France Libertes, where he had been invited by Info-Birmanie.After the interview, Mr Than Lwin was to take part in a demonstration held by Total's French trade union members outside the oil giant's headquarters 5 km west of Paris.

    In his interview with Digipresse the Burmese trade union leader explicitly referred to a statement by Jean-Pierre Cordier, president of TotalFinaElf's Ethics Committee. On June 14, during a debate "For or against a boycott of Burma" organised by the leading Paris bookstore FNAC St Lazare, Mr Cordier had stated: "When a case of forced labour is brought to our attention, we make every effort to offer compensation".

    The group's head of public relations, Mr Delaborde, attended the debate and did not deny his colleague' s statement. This public recognition, by a member of TotalFinaElf's management, of the use of forced labour linked to its Burmese pipeline construction will have long-lasting effects. This reaction by the FTUB leader is just a beginning.

    Mr Than Lwin continued (listen to video -- see below), pointing out that this recognition will have to be considered in the appeal of Burmese plaintiffs against Unocal* pending in a federal court in California.

    Re Unocal

    *Unocal, Total's American partner in the construction and exploitation of the Burmese pipeline, is being sued by Burmese forced labour victims, and various human rights violations in an American court of justice. The case was initially brought against both partners, Total and Unocal. However in September 1997 the French government intervened with a Brief Amicus Curiae declaring the Los Angeles tribunal incompetent with regard to Total.At present, although Unocal was found not guilty in first instance,conclusions by the judge have paved the way for the pending appeal procedure.

    In Paris, beside Mr Than Lwin, one of the Burmese plantiffs against UNOCAL faced French journalists for the first time, and joined the demonstration with French oil union members.
    Annan welcomes release of 5 parliamentarians

    source . UN newscenter

    21 June Secretary-General Kofi Annan today welcomed the release in Myanmar of five more Parliament Members from the National League for Democracy (NLD).

    A spokesman for the Secretary-General said in a statement that Mr. Annan hoped that the release of the five MPs on Thursday would provide a new impetus to the ongoing talks between the Government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for democratization and national reconciliation in the country.

    The spokesman said that Mr. Annan was encouraged by a series of recent developments -- including the release last week of a dozen political prisoners and the opening of some NLD offices in Yangon -- that had unfolded since the visit to the country of the Secretary-General's Special Envoy, Razali Ismail, in early June.

    "[The Secretary-General] calls on the two sides to build on this momentum to achieve further progress in their dialogue process," the spokesman said.
    Burma's Win Aung on visit

    source: Bangkokpost
    Achara Ashayagachat

    Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung visits Thailand today, a follow-up to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's trip to Rangoon.

    As part of his 25-hour visit, U Win Aung will call on the prime minister before holding talks with Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai. He then goes on to Klaikangwon Palace in Hua Hin for an audience with His Majesty the King.

    The ministers are due to discuss cultural and technical co-operation, road links and preparations for the drugs summit in Kunming also to be joined by China and Laos."We will discuss how to expedite the Kunming talks, which will be preceded by senior officials' and ministerial meetings," Mr Surakiart said.

    The ministers also would discuss the timing of the next Joint Border Commission, which last met in Rangoon two years ago, and the Joint Boundary Committee, he said.
    Thailand Set To Lift Ban On Strategic Supplies To Burma

    BANGKOK (AP)--Thailand may soon lift a ban on strategic supplies to Myanmar, which was imposed five months ago after a border clash, the army spokesman confirmed Friday.The issue will be discussed at a meeting of the local Thai-Myanmar Township Border Committee to be held over the weekend, said the spokesman, Col. Somkuan Saengpattaranetr.

    This follows a reconciliation visit to Myanmar this week by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first by a Thai premier to the military state in four years.

    The Thai army banned the export of supplies - including fuel, rice and construction equipment - through the main crossing point at the northern town of Mae Sai to Tachilek in eastern Myanmar in February following border skirmishes between the armies of the two countries. The clashes plunged bilateral relations to their lowest point in years.

    Thursday, army chief Gen. Surayud Chulanont indicated that the ban on supplies may be ending soon. "For the ban of the strategic goods, it may have to lift," Surayud told reporters. He added that smuggled goods were still getting over the border despite the ban.

    The army claimed the goods were supplying the Myanmar military and the jungle stronghold of the United Wa State Army at Mong Yawn, which it says produces most of the illegal methamphetamine drugs smuggled into Thailand. A Thai army official said that lifting the ban was the Myanmar government's main condition in reopening the Mae Sai-Tachilek checkpoint. Thailand has reopened its side of the border, but Myanmar has yet to follow suit.

    In a bid to improve relations, Thaksin offered to extend trade privileges to the military state similar to those Thailand grants to its poorer neighbors Cambodia and Laos, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported Friday. He asked Myanmar leader Gen. Than Shwe to submit a list of goods to the Thai Commerce Ministry for preferential treatment, the report said.

    In a follow-up visit, Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung met with Thaksin in Bangkok Friday. He is also scheduled to visit his Thai counterpart, Surakiart Sathirathai.The drug trade is at the root of the tensions between the two countries. Thailand contends that Myanmar is turning a blind eye to the Wa's drug dealings. Myanmar says Thailand has been supporting anti-Myanmar guerrillas.
    Thai-Burma border crossings set to re-open

    G. K. GOH

    BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Friday that Myanmar would reopen its three main border gateways with Thailand at the weekend, after having closed them in February amid tension between the two countries.

    Thaksin told reporters after meeting visiting Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung that the border passes in Thailand's Chiang Rai, Tak and Ranong provinces would be fully open for all commercial products, including exports of "strategic items" such as fuel which were previously banned.He said Thai and Myanmar border officials would meet on Saturday to work out regulations on traffic crossing the border.

    "At 6 a.m. on Sunday, the border passes will be opened unconditionally. There will be no limitations on strategic supplies. We will renew our friendly relations at this most favourable time," he said.

    The border reopening comes after Thaksin returned from an official visit to Myanmar this week. Fighting between Myanmar government troops and ethnic minority guerrillas in northeastern Myanmar's Shan State spilled over into Thailand's Chiang Rai province early this year. The clashes prompted exchanges of mortar and artillery fire and border skirmishes between Thai and Myanmar forces before Yangon closed the key checkpoints.Relations worsened in the following months, with each side accusing the other of backing the drugs trade.

    Bangkok says the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ethnic minority militia group allied to the Yangon government, is the main producer of heroin and the hundreds of millions of methamphetamine pills flooding Thailand. But Myanmar denies the UWSA is involved in the drugs trade and says the rebel Shan State Army (SSA) is the region's main drug producer. Yangon has accused the Thai army of backing the SSA and profiting from the drugs trade.

    Thais were outraged when articles in official Burmese-language newspapers last month criticised one of Thailand's former kings, and when a school textbook was released this month in Myanmar describing Thais as lazy and opportunistic.But on Friday, Thaksin said he was confident friendly ties would be fully restored, and both sides could co-operate in fighting drugs.