Daily News- May 09- 2002- Thursday

  • Myanmar refugees seek Belgium trial for TotalFinaElf
  • UNICEF raises alarm on looming humanitarian crisis in Myanmar
  • US Lawmakers Monitoring Burma Situation
  • Labor Unions Press Burma Campaign Despite Suu Kyi's Release
  • Canada Maintains Economic Measures against Burma
  • Struggling Burmese Economy Looks to China for Trade, Investment
  • Wa front firm still operating
  • Burma opposition says Suu Kyi will soon visit countryside
  • U.S. grants visa to senior Burmese official

  • Myanmar refugees seek Belgium trial for TotalFinaElf

    BRUSSELS, May 8 (AFP) - Four refugees from Myanmar want the Belgian courts to put French oil group TotalFinaElf on trial for alleged complicity with their nation's military regime, human rights advocates said Wednesday.

    Their case was filed in Brussels on April 25 under a 1993 law that gives Belgian courts the power to try human rights cases no matter where in the world the alleged outrages took place.

    Investigating magistrate Damien Vandermeesch is reviewing their 78-page submission to determine its admissability, said Michel Genet of Action Birmanie, a Belgian group that backs democracy activists in Myanmar.His answer could be ready in a matter of weeks, Genet told AFP.

    The plaintiffs -- former human rights activists in Burma now living as refugees in the United States, Britain, Germany and Belgium -- have hired two Belgian lawyers to handle their case.

    TotalFinaElf, the world's fourth largest oil company, and British independent Premier Oil exploit gas fields in the Andaman Sea that power electrical general stations in Thailand via two parallel 60-kilometer (35-mile) pipelines that cut across southern Myanmar.

    In the summary of their case, posted on the Internet by Action Birmanie, the four plaintiffs alleged that TotalFinaElf was aware that Myanmar's military regimes was "systematically" carrying out crimes against humanity.

    They also claimed that TotalFinaElf provided "overall moral and financial support" to the regime, and that the company had "excellent knowledge" of the use of forced labor by "partners" responsible for pipeline security.

    Besides the company itself, the submission named as co-respondents TotalFinaElf's chief executive Theirry Desmarest and Herve Madeo, director of its Myanmar exploration and production unit in 1992-99.

    Belgium's so-called "law of universal competence" was the basis of a trial last year in which four Rwandans, two of them Roman Catholic nuns, were convicted for their role in the 1994 slaughter by Hutu extremists of upwards of one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

    Next Wednesday a court in Brussels is to hear new arguments on a case filed by Palestinians against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

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    UNICEF raises alarm on looming humanitarian crisis in Myanmar

    BANGKOK, May 8 (AFP) - Myanmar's children face some of the worst health and education conditions in the world, and donors must increase aid to the country to avert a looming humanitarian crisis, the UN Children's Fund said Wednesday.

    "We have figures that show a third of children are malnourished and less than half graduate from grade four, which is very worrying for the future," said Emily Booker from UNICEF's regional headquarters in Bangkok."It's the children who are showing signs of the effects of poverty."

    Booker said the agency wants to see attention directed at the country's women and children, which is "urgently needed, both from the government of Myanmar and the international community".

    World attention focused on military-ruled Myanmar this week with the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi after 19 months of house arrest.

    Tough international sanctions against the regime -- disallowing all forms of aid other than humanitarian assistance -- along with economic mismanagement by the ruling generals, have pushed the economy towards collapse.

    "We're hoping that recent political changes and the increased attention coming to Myanmar will mean that the humanitarian situation will come to the fore," Booker said."What we're trying to say to the donors, the government, public, and other UN agencies is that the situation of women and children is extremely precarious."If you want to ensure a future you need to invest in them now and address these indicators, which are very severe."

    But the governments of the European Union and the United States have so far said that more evidence of real political change is necessary before economic sanctions will be lifted.In the meantime, the impact of the economy's parlous state is being felt most harshly by the country's children, UNICEF said.

    A World Health Organisation report in 2000 ranked Myanmar 190 out of 191 in terms of the gap between its potential health services and its actual performance. Sierra Leone ranked 191st.

    "HIV/AIDS is a huge problem. Our estimates are that two percent of pregnant women are infected," she said. "It's a major threat to the entire country."The education system is also in tatters.

    According to the World Bank, government expenditure on basic education has declined from 0.99 percent of GDP in 1994-95 to 0.3 percent in 1999-2000. This compares to an average of 3.3 percent for low income countries generally.

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    US Lawmakers Monitoring Burma Situation

    Dan Robinson-VOA news

    As the world watches political developments in Burma, the U.S. Congress is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Lawmakers say it's too early for a change in U.S. policy on economic sanctions, and bipartisan legislation introduced last year to ban all imports from Burma is still very much alive.

    When it comes to Burma, lawmakers are now shifting their focus to one question: What comes next?

    Although the Burmese military government says Aung San Suu Kyi is free to engage in political activities, lawmakers say it's too early to roll back sanctions, such as the 1997 ban on all new U.S. investment.

    As Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, puts it: We ought to keep the champagne on ice, and the sanctions on the table.

    "This is an example of where international sanctions are working," he said. "This regime needs to step aside and honor the elections that were held over a decade ago which they have refused to go along with."

    Last year, identical bills in the House and Senate proposed to ban all trade with Burma. Their primary target: Burma's textile exports to the United States, estimated to have quadrupled since 1997 to some $470 million. The legislation never came to a vote. But despite speculation that it now will be shelved, congressional aides say it is still alive.

    Bill Goold is legislative assistant to Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, who co-sponsored the trade ban legislation with conservative Senator Jesse Helms.

    "The current sanctions need to be kept in place," he said. "Indeed, we need to proceed with action on the Harkin-Helms legislation unless and until there are other major changes on the ground in Burma."

    Mr. Goold says the legislation never hinged on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. He says Burma's military still needs to release all political prisoners, allow the NLD full freedoms, and end forced labor. He says the legislation to ban textile imports from Burma could be attached to the controversial trade promotion authority bill now being debated on Capitol Hill.

    "We're importing more than $400 million worth of apparel and textiles, this year alone," he said. "That is an important source of hard currency to the existing regime."

    In the House of Representatives, lawmakers are also taking a cautionary approach toward developments in Burma. Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California says the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was only one positive step.

    "Releasing Aung San Suu Kyi is not enough to get the Burmese dictatorship off the hook. But if they continue going down that path and continue making reforms - they don't have to be perfect by the time we start reacting by lifting some of the economic sanctions against them - but until we have more than just one act on their part we can't assume this is anything more than just a token thrown in our direction," he said. "When we find out that they really want to go back to a democratic government and even though they haven't gone all the way back yet or made all the reforms necessary then we can start un-restricting the trade and relationship we've had in the past."

    Some lawmakers are already looking ahead to the day when Aung San Suu Kyi can join other world figures, such as South Africa's Nelson Mandela with whom she is often compared in addressing a joint session of Congress.

    Senator Mitch McConnell says when Aung San Suu Kyi is able to travel outside of Burma, she would no doubt receive a tumultuous welcome on Capitol Hill.

    "I think she would certainly be welcome," he said. "I think it would be a very crowded joint session if she were able to come here. I think she would be invited and would be welcomed overwhelmingly."

    For now, however, lawmakers say they will continue to watch closely for signs Burma's military intends to follow Aung San Suu Kyi's release with further reforms.

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    Labor Unions Press Burma Campaign Despite Suu Kyi's Release

    Jim Lobe,OneWorld US

    International labor unions, which have been in the forefront of the long-running battle against the military regime in Myanmar (formerly Burma), are urging that all economic sanctions against the country be maintained despite Monday's release from house arrest of the opposition leader and 1990 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

    "Daw Suu's release from detention, if unconditional and permanent, is a long overdue but nevertheless positive development," said Guy Ryder, chief of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in Brussels. "It is imperative that [we] keep up the pressure, if genuine progress is to follow."

    The United States' leading trade union confederation, the AFL-CIO, reiterated its support for shareholder resolutions on the Burmese operations of U.S. oil giant Unocal at its annual meeting later this month. With the largest U.S. private investment in Burma, Unocal has been a major target for pro-democracy campaigners for several years. The AFL-CIO and the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM) also called for continued pressure on the military regime until it takes further steps to respect core labor standards and restore democratic rule.

    The unions' statements broadly echoed those made since Monday by human rights groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and other organizations that have pressed for freedom for Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose National League for Democracy (NLD) swept 1990 elections that were annulled by the military which retained power.

    A major factor in pushing the regime to release Suu Kyi has been the deteriorating economy caused in major part by a grassroots divestment campaign in the U.S. backed by human rights, environmental, and labor groups that persuaded more than two dozen apparel and other companies to withdraw their business from Burma and by economic sanctions imposed mainly by Western governments.

    Organized labor's interest in Burma derived from reports in the early 1990s, subsequently confirmed by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO), that the regime used forced labor, particularly in large infrastructure projects, such as the construction of a US$1.2 billion gas pipeline project in which Unocal has a major interest.

    In June, 2000, the ILO formally urged its members to "review their relations with Burma" and "ensure that such relations do not perpetuate the system of forced or compulsory labor in that country." The resolution, which was unprecedented, spurred an expanded effort by the international labor union movement to pressure foreign companies to withdraw from Burma.

    In addition to their campaign against California-based Unocal, U.S. human rights and environmental groups joined labor unions last year to press another U.S. oil company, Amerada Hess, to divest its 25 percent stake in London-based Premier Oil, which also does business in Burma.

    "We are encouraged that the pressure we and others have been exerting on the junta through the ILO is showing effects," said ICFTU's Ryder, calling for economic and diplomatic pressure on the military regime to be maintained at least until all remaining political prisoners, estimated at as many as 1,500, are released and "quick and credible action to eliminate forced labor" is taken.

    Ryder's calls came ahead of an announcement Wednesday by the International Labour Office that an interim liaison officer had been appointed to lay the groundwork for a full mission to work with Burmese military officials on eliminating forced labor. The AFL-CIO and the ICEM said they would focus efforts at gaining shareholder support at Unocal's meeting May 20 for a resolution urging the company's board of directors to adopt and implement an employee policy based on the ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work which, among other things, bans forced labor. A second resolution would urge the board to appoint a special committee to review ways to link executive compensation with the company's social performance.

    The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS), one of the world's largest pension funds with assets totaling $156 billion, has already announced its support for both resolutions.

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    Canada Maintains Economic Measures against Burma

    By Tin Maung Htoo- Burma Media Association

    May 8, 2002-- Canadian government would maintain its economic measures against Burma although opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed, said the Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific) of the Department of Foreign Affair and International Trade.

    In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Divid Kilgour confirmed about his government position, saying there has been no real change on the horizon and what's happened is a step towards a real change in Burma. He frankly revealed being unconvinced with what the military has done that could lead to change the Canadian policy matter.

    "We welcome her (Aung San Suu Kyi) release, but we think this is the first step towards real change in Burma. Without the real change, we don't tend to change our policy or economic measures with respect to Burma," he said in the interview with the Voice of America (Burmese Service).

    The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade issued a statement on May 6 following a few hours after Aung San Suu Kyi had been released, hailing her release as a positive sign but what the foreign minister Bill Graham noted is a "long overdue." The statement did not vividly elaborate as to whether the release of Aung San Suu Kyi would change the Canadian policy towards Burma.

    "We remain concerned, however, over ongoing human rights violations in Burma and urge the State Peace and Development Council to release all political prisoners and to pursue substantive public dialogue on national reconciliation with NLD and representatives of ethnic minorities," quoted the Foreign minister as saying in the statement. Mr. David Kilgour specifically pointed out in the interview that there are still 1400 and 1500 political prisoners and his government wants to see the political process move forward with the pace faster than the last 19 months while Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

    "We implemented economic measures against Burma to convey our concerns about the regime's human rights violations in Burma, which is flagrant, and the failure to curb the illegally drug production and trafficking," he said, adding he expects to visit Burma in this summer in order to assess the situation there.

    In the meantime, It is reported that a question was raised in the House of Common seeking information on the effect of relationship with Burma in the eve of her release. Mr. David Kilgour said he replied the query in the question and answer session, reaffirming the existing Canadian economic measures while welcoming her release as a positive step in changing political environment in Burma.

    Canadian government imposed economic sanctions against Burma in 1997, tightening import/ export license with the withdrawal of a preferential trade status. All bilateral aids were also suspended shortly after the military crackdown on pro-democracy movement in 1988, and millions of dollars has been channeled to Burmese refugees in Thailand and Bangladesh as humanitarian aids.

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    Struggling Burmese Economy Looks to China for Trade, Investment

    Ron Corben-VOA news

    Burma's economy will continue to struggle, as foreign investors wait for further political reforms following this week's release of an opposition leader. This means Burma remains dependent on China as a trade and investment partner.

    Many political and business analysts say foreign investors will not rush to Burma, despite the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi this week.

    Burma - rich in resources, especially oil and gas - is one of the world's poorest countries, plagued by corruption and mismanagement.

    Analysts say the military government had hoped other countries would ease crippling economic sanctions now that Aung San Suu Kyi is free. But the National League for Democracy leader has reaffirmed her party's policy of discouraging international investment. Many foreign companies - pressured by human rights groups - have withdrawn their investments in Burma.

    Chaaiyachoke Chulasiriwong is a professor of regional politics at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. He said the economic sanctions and corruption discourage investment.

    "The level of foreign investment is getting very low. This is because of the economic sanctions. At the same time, the corruption within the rank and file and officials in the Burmese government obstructs the flow of investment," he said.

    Mr. Chaiyachoke thinks Burma's natural resources will draw foreign investors. He said, however, that for the money to flow, the country needs new commercial laws, and must curb corruption.

    Some analysts have said Burma's economy has been kept afloat by investment and trade from its northern neighbor China.

    David Oldfield, an analyst with Bangkok-based consultancy the Brooker Group, said commercial relations between Burma, also called Myanmar, and China run deep.

    "A number of companies are directing their trade activities to the north with China and if you look from the center of the region all the way to the northern part of Myanmar, basically all the trade is directed toward China," Mr. Oldfield said.

    Analysts say a thriving black-market trade between Burma and China adds cash to the Burmese economy. But analysts warn that China may fear any real political reforms in Burma. They say Beijing may prefer to maintain the status quo and could even deter political change in Burma.

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    Wa front firm still operating

    Teerawat Kumtita
    The Bangkokpost

    The United Wa State Army's Hong Pang Import Export Company, closed last month for alleged involvement in the drug trade, remains in business under a new name.A Burmese businessman in Tachilek province who requested anonymity said Hong Pang Co, said to be a UWSA vehicle for money laundering, was still operating even though Rangoon closed its offices last month.

    UWSA last year set up Green Land Co Ltd to replace Hong Pang Co, which ran many kinds of businesses in southern Shan state, he said.The new firm would open soon. A sign had been put up at a building near a rock-grinding mill in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district.

    Green Land Co was likely to take over all the firm's businesses and concessions, including imports and exports, automobile sales, compact disc production and construction of the Tachilek-Keng Tung road.The firm had built a new office building and eight warehouses on a 10-rai plot near Hong Pang Co's office on the Tachilek airport road to serve cross-border trade.

    The Thai-Burmese Border Committee meeting in Tachilek yesterday focused on recent skirmishes in Chiang Rai. But the Thai delegates failed to secure the release of a Thai soldier caught by the Red Wa about two years ago.Thailand had proposed the exchange of Sgt Sawaeng Nokkhlai, captured in January 2000, for three Muser fighters caught by the Third Army in Mae Fa Luang last month.The meeting was chaired by 4th Infantry Regiment commander Col Surasak Boonsiri and Burma's 526th battalion commander Lt-Col Tu Aung.

    They presented details of last month's firefight between Thai troops and Burmese soldiers at the border of Mae Fa Luang district. Lt-Col Tu Aung refused to consider releasing Sgt Sawaeng, of the 7th Cavalry Battalion, saying that was a matter for higher-level authorities.Chiang Rai police chief Pol Maj-Gen Wut Withitanon also sought Burma's co-operation in the arrest of nearly 40 Burmese suspected drug dealers.

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    Burma opposition says Suu Kyi will soon visit countryside

    Source : MSNBC / AP

    Rangoon, May 9 -- The opposition National League for Democracy said Thursday that its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will soon visit party offices in the countryside, in the first test of her political freedom since being released from house arrest this week.

    Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace laureate, was released Monday after 19 months of confinement that began when she defied a government ban on her traveling outside Rangoon. She has not been allowed to travel to the countryside for political work in the last 13 years.

    The NLD said in a statement that Suu Kyi ''will be allowed to freely conduct the political activities as the general secretary of the NLD and will visit NLD organizational offices in the country soon.''

    The statement echoed a government spokesman's comments Monday that there will be no restrictions on Suu Kyi and she will be allowed to travel freely.

    Suu Kyi formed the NLD in September 1988 after the ruling military crushed a pro-democracy uprising. She then went around the country to organize the party, before being put under house arrest in July 1989 as her movement gathered support.

    When she was freed six years later in July 1995, she went on a pilgrimage to the southern city of Moulmein without problems but her subsequent attempts to travel outside the capital for party work were thwarted by the junta. Her latest attempts in August and September 2000 led to her most recent round of house arrest.

    The NLD statement said that Suu Kyi's release ''cannot be assumed as a democratic triumph'' but a step toward democracy and human rights. It called on the government to speed up the release of political prisoners. Human rights groups say more than 1,000 remain in prison.

    The party pledged to work with the military to resolve divisive issues such as the drafting of a new constitution and a resolution of the 1990 election, which the party won by a landslide. A key NLD demand of the past decade has been that the military honor the election result. Meanwhile, a senior Burmese junta official said Thursday the 18-month-old reconciliation process between Suu Kyi and the government would continue but that neither side would divulge details of talks as before Suu Kyi's release.

    Maj. Gen. Kyaw Win, deputy chief of military intelligence, said the process ''will continue according to the mutual agreements on both sides.''

    Suu Kyi hinted Monday that she expected the negotiations to take place behind closed doors. She told a news conference that she had ''never subscribed to the tell-all school of thought.''

    Since regaining her freedom, Suu Kyi has resumed active leadership of the NLD and has met with diplomats from the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

    She has also huddled with leaders from Burma's many ethnic groups, who she says must be included in the national reconciliation process.

    She was expected to meet with U.S. diplomats on Thursday and the Japanese ambassador to Myanmar on Friday.

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    U.S. grants visa to senior Burmese official

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A senior U.S. lawmaker on Wednesday accused the Bush administration of waiving a visa ban to let a senior member of Burma's military regime visit Washington too soon after the release on May 6 of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

    The U.S. State Department said the May 13-17 visit by Colonel Kyaw Thein was not covered by the visa ban, which remains in place, because it applies to military officials of higher rank. It also said the Burmese counter narcotics official was visiting the United States on a long-planned trip and not related to the release of Suu Kyi.

    "The purpose of the visit is to emphasise what steps the Burmese need to take to stop narcotics production and trafficking," State Department spokeswoman Jo-Anne Prokopowicz told Reuters. "It's important to note that the visit has been scheduled for some time and is unrelated to Aung San Suu Kyi's release."

    "We will not be offering the Burmese counter narcotics assistance and our sanctions will remain in place," she added.

    Representative Tom Lantos of California, the leading Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, questioned the decision to allow the visit in a May 8 letter to Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly obtained by Reuters.

    Lantos said the decision was a "profound mistake" as it prematurely sent a signal the administration was softening its stance after the release from 19 months of house arrest of the country's pro-democracy leader, Suu Kyi.

    President George W. Bush on Monday welcomed Suu Kyi's release as a possible "new dawn" but the administration has said it expected other major changes in the military-ruled state before lifting sanctions.

    The sanctions include an arms embargo, an investment ban, suspension of bilateral aid, visa restrictions and a freeze on new lending and grant programs by international agencies that require U.S. backing to approve loans.

    Former President Bill Clinton imposed the visa restrictions in an executive order in 1996 in which he cited "continuing political repression by the military regime in Burma."

    It barred Burmese nationals "who formulate or implement policies that impede Burma's transition to democracy or who benefit from such policies," including their immediate family members, from entry into the United States.

    "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's release is a good first step, but Burma's military leaders must take a series of concrete actions on the political, security and economic front before the international community should even consider revisiting or lifting sanctions," Lantos wrote.

    "Imagine my surprise when I learned, less than 24 hours after the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, that the State Department had granted a visa for a high-ranking Burmese military official to come to the U.S. next week to engage in a dialogue on how to resume counter-narcotics cooperation."

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