Daily News- August 16- 2002- Friday

  • Thailand, Myanmar to open border crossings as early as Sunday
  • Dressed-up KNU helpers discover war is for adults
  • Wa-specific policy urged by academic
  • MWVO downplays hopes on Malaysian jobs
  • Mahathir to make business visit to Myanmar, no talks with Suu Kyi
  • Mahathir-Suu Kyi talks likely-Malaysian officials
  • No contact with Israeli diplomats, Aung San Suu Kyi complains
  • Activists fear press ploy to appease junta
  • Burma frees prominent political prisoner

  • Thailand, Myanmar to open border crossings as early as Sunday

    BANGKOK, Aug 15 (AFP) - Thailand and Myanmar will begin reopening their border checkpoints as early as Sunday, ending a three-month closure sparked by skirmishes that kicked off a diplomatic row, officials said Thursday.

    "Myanmar said it will definitely reopen the border checkpoints but there is no date set yet," government officials quoted Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai as saying.Surakiart added that the checkpoints, which Myanmar slammed shut after its troops clashed with ethnic rebels in May, were to reopen one by one, with the first to be cleared as early as Sunday.

    Sources on the border said the high-level Thai-Myanmar Township Border Committee (TBC) will convene in the Myanmar town of Tachilek, opposite Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district, on Sunday for a meeting of at least two days.

    "It is likely to address the re-opening of the checkpoints", the source said. Yangon suspended all TBC meetings after unilaterally closing the border.

    Moves to reopen the checkpoints follow Surakiart's successful fence-mending mission to Myanmar last week, after which he announced that relations between the historic adversaries were "normalized".Bilateral ties had been in crisis since the border clashes which pitted Myanmar government forces against ethnic militias that Yangon accuses Thailand of assisting.The two countries exchanged protest notes, and Myanmar sealed all border gates and barred official visits. In the ensuing weeks it mounted a verbal tirade against Thailand and urged a consumer boycott of Thai-made good.

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    <Dressed-up KNU helpers discover war is for adults

    The Bangkokpost

    Two self-proclaimed foreign supporters of the anti-Rangoon Karen National Union have landed themselves in trouble by appearing in military uniform at the rebels' headquarters opposite Tak.

    The two _ a female Swedish volunteer and a Scottish man _ were photographed wearing KNU military uniform and carrying war weapons during the rebels' celebration of Martyrs' Day on Aug 12.

    A KNU leader said yesterday the Swedish woman, identified only as Vanja, had already been made to leave Karen territory.

    The Scotsman, David Fisher, 47, who claimed to have set up a clinic to treat injured Karen troops and sick villagers, was being sought by immigration staff after he showed up in Bangkok to deny his link with the anti-Rangoon group.

    Pado Mahn Sha, KNU secretary-general, said Vanja had been told to leave because her appearance in KNU uniform could send the wrong message to the world community.Vanja was a missionary and had been at KNU headquarters since June, teaching English language to villagers, he said.

    Pol Maj-Gen Manote Sattulee, chief of the 3rd Immigration Division, who oversees border checkpoints nationwide, said investigators were looking at whether Mr Fisher had breached immigration law in crossing into Burma.Mr Fisher would face legal action if inquiries found he left the kingdom for Burma and then re-entered the country without going through proper immigration channels.Mr Fisher was seen at KNU headquarters wearing the rebels' full military uniform and carrying an M-16 assault rifle.

    He told the Bangkok Post and a Mae Sot-based correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation that he was a KNU health officer who had set up a clinic at the Karen headquarters two years ago to treat injured Karen troops and sick villagers.The man twisted his tale when he showed up in Bangkok on Wednesday. He denied he had ever given an interview to reporters.He said he had put on the KNU uniform and carried a rifle just for ``a joke'' and described the story published about him as a lie.

    Bangkok Post reporter Supamart Kasem stood by his story. ``I treated the information he gave me as something he wanted to tell the public,'' he said.Also present when Mr Supamart interviewed Mr Fisher were reporters from television channels 3, 5, and 9 and Mae Sot-based stringers for international news agencies.

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    <Wa-specific policy urged by academic

    Achara Ashayagachat
    The Bangkokpost

    The government should consider the possibility of forging a separate policy for the Wa ethnic group, which was increasing in importance both economically and politically, a researcher said yesterday.

    Pornpimol Trichote, from Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Asian Studies, said the Wa leadership enjoyed administrative autonomy, while relying culturally and economically on China's Yunnan province.The researcher spoke about the ethnic group during a seminar on ``Thinking of People in Burma,'' which was held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Thammasat University's faculty of liberal arts.

    She said the government should lay down a clearer policy on ``stateless'' people attached to the Karen, Karenni and Kachin groups because they were unlikely to go back to Burma in the next decade.A humanitarian approach alone should no longer be considered sufficient, she said.

    The Wa had increased in number and bought more land since reaching a ceasefire agreement with Rangoon in 1989.With military and administrative structures adopted from the communist party of China, the Wa had moved 125,000 people from Burma's border with China to its borders with Thailand and Laos, she said.

    ``The Wa are creating new cities and towns to prepare for developments under the framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region,'' she said.She was referring to schemes involving China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

    ``The Wa are also assimilating various hilltribe people as well as the Shan people into the Shan state.``Once they dominate Kentung, the eastern part of Salween river will be under their influence,'' she said.On the economic front, the Wa were growing lychees, lamyai, garlic, and tangerine just as nearby Thais were, she said.

    In areas controlled by drug kingpin Wei Hsueh Kang, opposite Chiang Rai province, they also planned to promote tourism.

    Foreign affairs, commerce and tourism officials should discuss an appropriate response.Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri said Thailand must push for democratisation in Burma.If it did not, it would be permanently burdened with problems of refugees, stateless people, and drugs.The Burmese military would eventually have to give the country's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy, a say in the running of the country.

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    <MWVO downplays hopes on Malaysian jobs

    By Myo Theingi Cho
    Myanmar Times-Vol 7-No-128

    A CRACKDOWN on illegal workers in Malaysia is unlikely to lead to a sharp rise in job opportunities for Myanmar seeking legal employment there, an official with the Myanmar War Veterans Organisation said last week. Even though Malaysian employers were keen to hire Myanmar workers there were financial constraints on the number who could be sent there to work legally, said a MWVO official.

    In the past year, more than 5600 Myanmar have been sent to Malaysia under a scheme operated by the MWVO in cooperation with 12 Malaysian job placement agencies. The Union Solidarity Development Association and some private companies are also involved in placing workers in Malaysia. The Malaysian crackdown resulted in an exodus of hundreds of thousands of illegal workers, mainly from Indonesia, by an August 1 deadline.

    It raised hopes that more opportunities would become available for Myanmar nationals. But the official said that although Malaysian job placement agencies wanted up to 200,000 Myanmar to overcome a labour shortage caused by the exodus, the MWVO was unable to send them because of the cost involved.

    "We provide each worker with US$636 to cover the cost of passport fees, air fares and costs charged by the Malaysian agencies, and for 200,000 workers that adds up to a large sum," he said. Workers sent to Malaysia under the scheme are employed under a three-year contract. They are required to pay 50 per cent of their first year’s salary to the MWVO to defray its costs.

    The MWVO official said the workers, who are mainly employed in the construction, garment and food processing industries, enjoy good working conditions. They are paid more than 700 ringgit (about $184) a month, he said.

    Mr Rustam bin Yahaya, a first secretary at the Malaysian embassy, said there were about 16,000 Myanmar working legally in Malaysia and about 3000 were being placed in jobs there every month. The embassy processed about 170 work visa applications a day, Mr Rustam said. He said Malaysian employers appreciated Myanmar workers because they were hard working and obedient.

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    Mahathir to make business visit to Myanmar, no talks with Suu Kyi

    KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 (AFP) - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad leaves Sunday on a high-profile business trip to Myanmar but is unlikely to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a minister said Friday.

    Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Mahathir would push Yangon's military junta to accelerate the national reconciliation process in talks with Senior General Than Shwe during his two-day visit there.But no plans have been made to meet Suu Kyi, he said, adding that any such meeting must be arranged by the junta and Malaysia would leave it to UN special envoy to Myanmar, Razali Ismail, to follow-up.

    "At present, there is no such plan. Of course we follow very closely on the work that is done by Razali. We are very happy with the development in Myanmar, " he told a news conference."We have not received any request officially by Aung San Suu Kyi to see the prime minister but... we will only do whatever is considered necessary and acceptable to the host government."

    He also declined to comment on the possibility of Suu Kyi visiting Malaysia following reports that she plans to tour Southeast Asian nations, saying this was up to the junta to decide.

    Malaysia practises what it calls a policy of constructive engagement with Myanmar, which joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997 with Kuala Lumpur's sponsorship.

    Syed Hamid said ASEAN's membership has led to "constructive changes" in Myanmar, with new laws encouraging investment in the country, easier travel and the move towards national reconciliation.

    "It has paid off, this constructive engagement and the fact that we've brought them into the ASEAN fraternity. Some considered the development slow but there has definitely been positive changes. Isolation is not the answer," he added.

    To bring Myanmar closer to democracy, Syed Hamid said Malaysia believed in continued encouragement and investment in the country because "economic development changes a lot of attitude and perception about things."

    He said Mahathir's trip was to reciprocrate Senior General Than Shwe's visit to Kuala Lumpur in September last year and would focus on trade and investment, with plans to sign two memorandums of understanding (MoU).The two MoUs are an offshore oil exploration contract between national oil firm Petronas and Myanmar's Energy Ministry, and a study to construct mini-hydro plants at the Nga Moe Yeik and Tabuhla dams between Tepat Teknik Sdn. Bhd. and Myanmar's Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.

    Syed Hamid said another three tentative MoU's on steel exports, telecommunications and development of Yangon were also on the cards but awaiting approval from the Myanmar parties.

    The premier will be accompanied by a delegation of 300 officials and businessmen, including the foreign minister, Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz and Energy Minister Leo Moggie.Officials said Mahathir would hold talks with Than Shwe shortly after his arrival in Yangon on Sunday evening, before being hosted to a dinner by the general.

    On Monday, he will address the Malaysia-Myanmar Technology Conference and witness the signing of the MoUs. The premier will also witness the installation of a new high-tech passport screening system exported from Malaysia.

    Malaysia is the fourth largest investor in Myanmar after Singapore, Britain and Thailand, with total investments of 2.23 billion ringgit (587 million dollars) so far.Bilateral trade amounted to 1.05 billion ringgit, tilted in Malaysia's favour.

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    Mahathir-Suu Kyi talks likely-Malaysian officials

    Source : MSNBC / Reuters

    KUALA LUMPUR, Aug. 16--Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad heads for Burma on Sunday to talk business and politics with the ruling junta, and a landmark meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi looks likely.

    While western governments have shunned Burma's leaders for their bloody repression of pro-reformists, Malaysia has led diplomatic efforts to engage Rangoon, trying to coax the ruling military towards national reconciliation and democracy.

    ''Yes, it is likely to happen because the junta has not raised any objections,'' a government official told Reuters in reference to plans for Mahathir and Suu Kyi to talk.

    Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told a Friday news conference nothing was set but did not rule out a meeting.

    Diplomats say a handshake between Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi and Mahathir could take place only with the junta's blessing and would be another sign of inch-by-inch progress.

    Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail, the U.N. special envoy to Burma, said earlier this month he expected substantive talks between Suu Kyi and the military to begin ''very, very soon.''

    Foreign observers in Rangoon said Mahathir's visit was not seen speeding up the process, whether or not he meets Suu Kyi.


    ''I find it unlikely that there will be a breakthrough when he is here, particularly because they have not confirmed that he will meet Aung San Suu Kyi,'' said one observer.

    ''Generally the mood in town is not optimistic, despite Razali's words,'' the observer, who declined to be named, added.

    Mahathir championed Burma's entry into the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, despite bitter complaint by western governments.

    For the past two years Razali has tried to broker talks between Rangoon's generals and Suu Kyi, who was recently released after spending 19 months under house arrest.

    The opposition leader began confidential talks with the junta in October 2000, although they have yet to move beyond so-called ''confidence building'' to issues of real reform.

    Thousands of people were killed during anti-government riots in 1988, after which the military declared martial law.

    Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide in 1990 polls, Burma's last, but the army refused to cede power.

    General Than Shwe's government says it wants democracy but fears that moving too fast could destabilise the multi-ethnic country.

    ''Some people consider it slow but it's up to them to move in the way they feel comfortable,'' Syed Hamid said of the generals.

    Analysts say the main factor pushing the junta towards compromise is a desire to have international sanctions eased to give the battered economy a chance to recover.

    Syed Hamid said the weekend visit would see state oil firm Petronas sign an offshore oil exploration contract with Burma's energy ministry, and an undertaking made to study the construction of mini-hydro plants at two dams.

    A 300-strong Malaysian delegation including officials, business people and several other ministers will travel for the first time to Rangoon using electronic passports supplied by Iris Corp, whose chairman is the U.N. special envoy.

    Rangoon has bought the passport-processing technology from the Malaysian firm for use at its international airport.

    Razali said in May that Suu Kyi, who has called in the past for an investment boycott of her country, had had ''no problem'' with his Iris activities when he raised the matter with her.

    Malaysia is the fourth largest investor in Burma behind Singapore, Britain and Thailand, with total trade of $275 million, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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    No contact with Israeli diplomats, Aung San Suu Kyi complains

    Ha'aretz Daily-Friday, August 16, 2002
    By Micha Odenheimer

    In an exclusive interview with Ha'aretz last week, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's democracy movement who was released from house arrest by the military regime on May 7, complained that she had had no contact with Israeli diplomats, despite the presence of an Israeli embassy in Rangoon. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate said that she "would welcome" such contact.

    Many other Western embassies are in continuous touch with Suu Kyi, considered by most Burmese to be their legitimate political leader.

    Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won democratic elections by a landslide in 1990, but the military regime refused to recognize the election results, imprisoning nearly all the elected MKs in prison and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest.

    Israel Foreign Ministry sources said in response that "The lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) was just released a few months ago. We are watching the process of internal dialogue from up close, we support the democratization process, and are trying to determine what our next step should be. Besides Europe and America, most of the other countries in the world are in the same position vis a vis Burma that we are. I can't say that we are going to make contact with Aung San Suu Kyi immediately, but we certainly won't be the last country to do so."

    Suu Kyi told Ha'aretz that China, Burma's northern neighbor and the regime's main economic and military support, had also so far made no effort to contact her. She said that her hoped-for dialogue with the generals who are now running Burma had not yet begun, that she was willing to compromise on some points, and that she did not want to lead her country down a path of retribution and revenge, despite the crimes committed by the regime.

    On the subject of Israel and the Palestinians, Suu Kyi said that she found the situation "terribly, terribly sad. How can people hate so much?" She remarked that her party, the NLD, was committed to non-violence in their struggle for democracy, even if taking this path will take longer.The interview took place in the national headquarters of the NLD in Rangoon (called Yangon by the military regime).

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    Activists fear press ploy to appease junta

    South China Morning Post. Friday, August 16, 2002
    VAUDINE ENGLAND in Bangkok

    Media reports about Westerners fighting for the anti-Yangon Karen National Union (KNU) - claims denied by the rebels - could be part of Thai efforts to crack down on groups aiding Myanmar refugees on the border.

    Non-government organisation (NGO) sources say several anti-Yangon groups are lying low for fear of what they say is Bangkok's desire to strengthen ties with Myanmar's regime.

    Their fears increased this week when the Bangkok Post ran front-page photos of two foreigners in KNU military uniform claiming other foreigners had crossed the Thai border to join military work in Myanmar.The issue is particularly sensitive due to Yangon's allegations of Thai-backed aggression against it.

    Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai visited Yangon last week, in part to assuage such fears, but his idea for closer cabinet ties between the countries has since been attacked in public debate as going too far to be friends with Myanmar. Analysts say the Thai government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is eager to repair ties with the ruling junta in Myanmar, with some claiming the Post photographs may have been planted to give Mr Thaksin an excuse to repress NGO activity on the border, thereby pleasing Myanmar's generals.

    "I don't know the reason for the release of the pictures of the foreigners, but they should not be used as a reason by the Thai government to prevent the provision of humanitarian assistance along the Thai-Burma [Myanmar] border," Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of human rights group Forum Asia and a leading rights lawyer, said yesterday.

    He said a Thai National Security Council order last month prevented journalists and aid workers visiting the border, resulting in increased pressure on NGOs and foreign aid workers.

    "In my opinion, it is good for Thailand to have good relations with Burma," Mr Somchai said, adding Thailand should also fulfil its moral obligations and follow international treaties requiring it to help refugees.He said that instead of using allegations about foreigners to crack down on humanitarian aid, the Thai government should thank foreign NGOs for their help.

    That foreign volunteers fight alongside KNU troops is not news. However, the coincidence in timing, which saw foreigners who are not professional soldiers pictured so prominently in KNU uniform, has worried several sources in Myanmar's opposition.

    The issue was further muddied by the denial of one of the foreigners pictured, Scotsman David Fisher, that he had ever fought for the KNU against Yangon."This is completely and utterly false," Mr Fisher told the Nation newspaper, saying he dressed up in the uniform for fun and didn't even know how to fire a gun.He said he sent donations and medical aid to a Karen clinic, but never joined the KNU. "It is made up. Just lies."

    Claims that a Swedish backpacker named "Vanja" was a KNU fighter were first confirmed by one KNU commander, only to be denied by KNU secretary-general Mahn Sha in reports yesterday.Mr Mahn Sha said his army had already forced the 19-year-old to leave KNU territory because she made up her story and damaged the rebels' cause.

    "The implications of her actions are not confined to Karen state," he said, adding that he expected Myanmar to use the exposure to pressure Thailand into explaining how foreigners go through Thai territory to fight in rebel-controlled parts of Myanmar.

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    Burma frees prominent political prisoner

    Source : MSNBC / Reuters

    BANGKOK, Aug. 16--Burma freed a prominent opposition politician on Friday, ahead of a visit by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who hopes to kick start talks between the junta and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) welcomed the release of 58-year-old Aye Thar Aung. The NLD, which won Burma's last elections in 1990 but was never allowed to govern, has called for all political prisoners to be freed.

    Aye Thar Aung, a member of an ethnic minority party, the Arakan League for Democracy, was sentenced to 21 years in prison in 2000. In 1998, when the NLD tried to set up a shadow parliament reflecting the results of the 1990 election, Aye Thar Aung was named the body's secretary -- angering the junta.

    ''Aye Thar Aung has been spending most of his time together with his family at Yangon general hospital taking medical treatment provided by the government for liver cancer,'' the junta said in a statement.

    ''The authorities concerned have released him from custody on humanitarian grounds and will continue to assist him and his family with necessary care and assistance.

    NLD spokesman U Lwin said the release was a step forward.

    ''We really welcome the release of Aye Thar Aung,'' he said. ''They promised to release him.''

    The junta said it had also released five NLD members from prison on Friday. More than 300 NLD members have been released since October 2000, when the junta began confidential talks with Suu Kyi and eased its stance towards the opposition.

    But more than 500 political prisoners are still behind bars, rights groups say, including around 250 NLD members.

    Hopes are high of a political breakthrough in Burma after U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail said at the end of his latest visit this month that the junta would soon begin substantive political talks with Suu Kyi.

    The confidential dialogue between Suu Kyi and the junta has yet to move beyond so-called ''confidence building'' to touch on political issues, and the 57-year-old Nobel peace laureate has repeatedly called for meaningful talks to begin soon.

    After strong international pressure, Suu Kyi was released from 19 months of house arrest in May, but since then she has had no meetings with senior members of the junta.

    Mahathir is due to arrive in Burma on Sunday, and diplomats say he will aim to encourage the speedy start of meaningful talks between the two sides.

    Suu Kyi has said political reconciliation cannot begin until all prisoners of conscience are released.

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