Daily News- October 03- 2002- Thursday

  • Australian FM urges Yangon to push reconciliation talks
  • Suu Kyi sceptical of junta
  • Dissidents Forced Into Hiding
  • Lawyers appeal death sentences of former dictator Ne Win's relatives
  • Australian foreign minister says Burma political reform uncertain
  • Thais say Burma agrees changes in gas contract

  • Australian FM urges Yangon to push reconciliation talks

    YANGON, Oct 2 (AFP) - Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer Wednesday urged Myanmar's military rulers to push ahead with reconciliation talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi which he said had sunk into a lull.

    Downer, the first Australian minister to visit the isolated state in nearly 20 years, said after meetings with the democracy campaigner and top-ranking members of the ruling junta that he hoped there would soon be progress.

    "It seems to be to me that the dialogue is in a hiatus and it needs to move forward," he said of the contacts brokered by UN envoy Razali Ismail which began in October 2000.

    "The talks reaffirmed Australia's hope for an early progress in the dialogue," he said. "Nobody is able to say when the dialogue process will start and how long it is going to take but everybody feels the need for it."

    Downer said that the leader of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior General Than Shwe had told him the military government was committed to democratic reforms.

    "The military is committed to reform in the democratisation process with an increasing role for democracy and a lesser role for the military," he quoted him as saying.

    The Australian minister said that during his hour-and-a-half meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside residence he discussed the wide-ranging sanctions which have crushed Myanmar's economy.

    "Aid will follow as soon as a dialogue starts because the international community is willing to support this country, but it is all dependent on the dialogue moving ahead," he said."There is dialogue to be had, and this is expected by the international community as well."

    After arriving in Yangon Wednesday for the 24-hour visit, Downer also met with the SPDC's powerful military intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt and Home Minister Colonel Tin Hlaing.Foreign Minister Win Aung was later scheduled to host a dinner for his Australian counterpart.

    Downer said before leaving Australia that Razali, a Malaysian diplomat who has won the trust and confidence on both sides of Myanmar's political divide, had urged him to visit the country."I hope that my visit can reinforce the special envoy's efforts," he said in a statement.

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    Suu Kyi sceptical of junta

    By Kimina Lyall, Southeast Asia correspondent
    The Australian

    October 03, 2002-BURMA'S democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is "sceptical" about the mood for change among the ruling junta, providing the strongest indication yet of her frustration with the stalled dialogue.

    Ms Suu Kyi also told Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in a 90-minute meeting at her Rangoon residence yesterday that she was doubtful of the chances of success of Australia's policy of providing human rights workshops for civil servants.

    Speaking after the historic day-long series of meetings, Mr Downer said he could only use the word "sceptical" to describe the National League for Democracy leader's attitude to both Australia's human rights program in Burma, and her dialogue with the generals.

    Mr Downer said he explained to her that the human rights workshops, aimed at mid-ranking civil servants, were designed to "help at the margins" a better application of human rights in Burma."She said 'well, good luck', she wasn't convinced they'd make a lot of difference," he said.

    Ms Suu Kyi and democracy activists have long been opposed to the workshops, which began in 2000. A group of exiled Burmese activists called on Mr Downer yesterday to reconsider the policy.

    The Nobel peace prize laureate, who was released in May from her second bout of house arrest, confirmed that apart from some "contact" there had been no progress in her relationship with the military rulers since her release.

    "She was sceptical about whether (the generals) would enter into genuine dialogue, which we might reinterpret as genuine negotiations, with the NLD," Mr Downer said.

    Mr Downer's observations were the strongest sign yet of Ms Suu Kyi's frustration with the process. Her comments confirmed widespread suspicion that the so-called confidence-building phase is not even close to beginning.

    He had spent 50 minutes earlier with the three most powerful men in Burma the ruling State Peace and Development Council's chairman, General Than Shwe, vice-chairman General Maung Aye and first secretary Khin Nyunt.

    "All of them said change is under way," said Mr Downer, who is the first Western gov ernment member to visit Rangoon in many years, and the first Australian foreign minister to do so in two decades.

    Instead of indicating his plans for the future, General Than Shwe gave Mr Downer a summary of Burma's modern history, and why the military leadership was needed to quell insurgencies by ethnic groups.

    "He said the security situation is under control now. It was time to move on towards constitutional reform, and he wanted the military to take a lesser role in society and the governance of the country," Mr Downer said.But he said the man in charge of the regime that had imprisoned Ms Suu Kyi for much of the past decade did not outline his timeframe for such change.

    Junta shuts out Downer press

    THE first visit of an Australian foreign minister to Burma in two decades suffered a diplomatic hiccup yesterday, with the Burmese junta reneging on an apparent agreement to allow Australian journalists to cover Alexander Downer's trip.

    The decision to deny media coverage, which was not announced until Mr Downer was about to board a plane to Bangkok in preparation for his flight to Rangoon this morning, was not relayed directly to him, nor the Australian embassy.

    Departmental officials in Canberra made representations to the Burmese ambassador in Canberra yesterday asking for a reversal of the decision.

    During planning for the trip, representatives for Mr Downer had told the regime Australian journalists would want to cover the trip, and were left with the impression the applications would be accepted.

    Before boarding his flight Mr Downer said the decision was a "disappointment" but "it is important to still get there and give our message"."I believe that Australian journalists should be able to report on the activities of Australian ministers overseas," Mr Downer said.

    Applications to cover Mr Downer's trip were filed from the regional correspondents for The Australian, the ABC, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and AAP. International wire services including Reuters and Agence France-Presse were also denied permission.

    "The information committee has decided to cover the Australian FM's visit by the members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Yangon (Rangoon) only," the refusal said.

    Burma has rarely issued visas to foreign journalists since democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in May. There is no free domestic press in Burma, although most international wire services have local reporters based in Rangoon who are members of the FCC.However, in the only other visits by senior government delegations to Burma in recent months – by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi journalists from their respective countries were issued with visas.

    The rejection is a small snub to Mr Downer's office, as the minister has spent the week emphasising that Australia's "limited engagement" policy with the Burmese regime had the potential to influence it.

    Yesterday, Mr Downer was still confident his planned meetings including one with Aung San Suu Kyi and junta chairman General Than Shwe would not be cancelled, although the latter meeting had not been confirmed.

    Talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals, which are supposed to lead to a plan for moving towards democracy, have stagnated in recent months, prompting UN special envoy Razali Ismail to ask Mr Downer to visit. His trip is the first by a senior Western government member in many years.

    Suu Kyi talks on the way, Downer told

    By Mark Baker -Asia Editor
    The Age

    Burma's military rulers have told Australia they will soon begin long- awaited talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi aimed at restoring democracy and ending the country's international isolation.

    Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was given the commitment during talks in Rangoon yesterday with Burma's powerful head of government, Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt.But Mr Downer was not given any timeframe for the start of the talks and said he had stressed to General Khin Nyunt the importance of the regime matching its words with action.

    "I told him that having made these commitments it was important that they manifest themselves in real action," Mr Downer told The Age after the meeting.

    In an hour-long meeting with General Khin Nyunt, Mr Downer said it was important that Burma move quickly to begin substantive talks with Ms Suu Kyi, return the country to democratic rule and release more than 1000 political prisoners.

    "He said they thought the National League for Democracy had become more reasonable and constructive and they wanted to continue the dia- logue with them and they wanted to continue the process of constitutional reform and slow, steady moves towards democracy," Mr Downer said.

    "He said all those things. Of course, the question, as I explained to him, is not just that one appreciated the sentiments that he has expressed, but one looks forward to practical steps being taken that are visible not just to his own people but also to the international community."

    Mr Downer said he had been urged to visit Burma by UN special envoy Razali Ismail, who was told by the regime in early August that an informal dialogue with Ms Suu Kyi that began in late 2000 would shift to formal talks on political reconciliation.

    "I pointed out (to Khin Nyunt) that that was two months ago and it hasn't happened. So my attitude is that I just wait and see," he said.

    Mr Downer said he believed Australia could influence the regime as it had maintained diplomatic contact in recent years and had provided limited humanitarian aid, including a controversial program of human rights courses for civil servants.

    "Australia is of interest because we have taken a different, a unique approach in dealing with Myanmar (Burma)," he said. "So we have contacts with them in a way that people like the British and the Americans at the other extreme don't have. We are perceived to be a so-called Western country, albeit a regional country . . . and I think that gives us a bit more leverage than would otherwise be the case."

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    Dissidents Forced Into Hiding

    By Kyaw Zwa Moe
    The Irrawaddy

    October 01, 2002—Burma's Military Intelligence Service (MIS) is continuing a crackdown on political dissidents inside Burma, which began in late September and culminated in the arrests of over 30 activists throughout the country, according to sources in Rangoon including former political prisoners and democracy activists.

    The sources said that as a result of the September sweep dozens of activists and former political prisoners have been forced into hiding since news of the crackdown surfaced.

    "My friend left his home in central Burma to avoid the second set of arrests yesterday, and is now in hiding," a Rangoon activist told The Irrawaddy today. "Local MI officers came to his house on Sunday when he was not there, and told his family to send him to their office when he came back."

    Since the September 25 arrests, speculation has been rife amongst dissidents inside and outside Burma as to what the impetus is behind the recent sweep.

    "I think the junta is either afraid that they are going to launch protests or release some political statements critical of the government," a Rangoon activist said today. "The junta also might think the recent student protests in Rangoon were politically motivated."

    Sources also confirmed that the majority of those arrested in September are former political prisoners. And due to the unpredictability of the regime, they say this has caused hordes of former detainees to go underground whether they are involved in the democracy movement or not.

    A former political prisoner told The Irrawaddy today that his former cellmate has been forced into hiding. "He told me that he has no idea why he is being singled out because he has not been involved in politics since he was released in 1999," said the former political prisoner. "So we have to be careful right now. [MIS] can come arrest us even if we haven't done anything."

    Meanwhile, according to sources in Rangoon, among the recent detainees are alleged Burma Communist Party’s sympathizers including U Chit Saung Oo, U Zaw Win, Ko Ne Win, Ko Yin Maung, U Soe Tint, Ko Myint and U San Shwe Maung. Almost all of them were sentenced by the regime in 1990 for their connections to the BCP.U Chit Saung Oo, U Zaw Win, U San Shwe Maung and U Soe Tint have all spent more than ten years in detention. During the September arrests, U Zaw Win and U Chit Saung Oo were arrested at their homes in Prome, Pegu Division.

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    Lawyers appeal death sentences of former dictator Ne Win's relatives

    RANGOON (AP) Burma - Defense lawyers filed appeals Wednesday against death sentences given to four relatives of former dictator Ne Win who were convicted of plotting to overthrow Burma's military junta.

    Lawyers Tun Sein and Thein Saw lodged the appeal at Rangoon's Supreme Court, saying they would also appeal separate life imprisonment sentences given to their clients.

    A special court last Thursday convicted Ne Win's son-in-law Aye Zaw Win and three grandsons of high treason for attempting to overthrow the ruling junta and sentenced them to death by hanging.The court also sentenced them to life imprisonment for inciting military personnel to commit high treason.

    The ruling must be approved by Burma's Supreme Court. Observers say the sentences likely will be commuted to life in prison since Burma rarely executes people.

    Aye Zaw Win, 54, the husband of Ne Win's favorite daughter Sandar Win, and the couple's three sons - Aye Ne Win, 25, Kyaw Ne Win, 23, and Zwe Ne Win, 21 - were arrested March 7 after an army officer told the authorities that he had been approached by the family to mount the coup to restore Ne Win to power.Ne Win took power in a military coup in 1962, ousting a civilian government. During his 26-year socialist rule, he led Burma, into isolation and economic ruin from which it has struggled to recover.

    The current crop of generals took power in September 1988 after Ne Win stood down from power during pro-democracy demonstrations that the military crushed, killing thousands of civilians.

    Ne Win was long thought to retain political influence behind the scenes after relinquishing the leadership, but the coup trial verdict made clear that any sway he once held over the regime has been lost.

    During the 3 1/2 month trial, the prosecution built a strong circumstantial case, portraying the four defendants as a power-hungry family, whose members resorted to black magic and treachery but who were exposed by once-loyal army officers.

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    Australian foreign minister says Burma political reform uncertain

    BANGKOK (AP)-- Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday that the international community should continue exerting diplomatic pressure on Burma's ruling junta to urge political reforms.

    Downer, the first Australian foreign minister to visit Burma in nearly 20 years, ended a two-day visit Thursday aimed at promoting dialogue between the country's ruling junta and pro-democracy forces.

    "All we in the international community can do ... is continue to argue the case for reform and hope that diplomacy has some effect," he told reporters during a stopover in Bangkok.

    On Wednesday, Downer met with three of the people most crucial to Burma's future, junta leader Gen. Than Shwe, military intelligence chief Gen. Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the opposition National League for Democracy.

    He said he urged Burma's ruling generals to quickly move forward with the process of national reconciliation, but that they gave no indication of when major political strides might be made.

    The release of more political prisoners was another issue he raised with the military rulers, Downer said.

    "They seemed to be accepting of the points I put to them," Downer said. "But does that mean that there will be progress? We'll just have to wait and see."

    The Australian minister said that Suu Kyi, who was released from 19 months house arrest in May, was "skeptical" about commitments made by the government to Downer.

    "Than Shwe said he wanted to make Myanmar more democratic, and obviously we hope to see progress, but we hope to see progress very soon," he said.

    Burma's economy is "in very poor shape," the minister said, adding that investment would not flow into the potentially resource-rich country until there is evidence of political progress.

    "(Third-ranking leader) Khin Nyunt said to me that he understood only too clearly the links between politics and economics and economics and politics," he said.

    Downer said Australia was looking "forward to faster and more effective progress in the weeks ahead."

    The junta came to power in 1988 after crushing a pro-democracy uprising. It called elections in 1990 but refused to hand over power when Suu Kyi's party won.

    The two sides have been engaged in closed-door talks since October 2000, though negotiations have lapsed despite Suu Kyi's pleas for them to resume.

    Downer said Australia could play a role in Burma's transition due to its close geographic proximity and "regional perspective."

    "We have much heavier engagement with (Southeast Asian) countries than any so-called Western country," he said.

    But Downer added that the United Nations must remain at the forefront of negotiations to promote democracy in Burma due to its neutrality, and that his visit was to support efforts by U.N. special envoy Razali Ismail, who is credited with bringing together Suu Kyi and the junta for talks.

    Australia has taken a more conciliatory line toward Burma than other Western countries by not imposing political or economic sanctions.

    Last year, Canberra conducted a series of human rights workshops for Burmese officials as part of an assistance package designed to reduce abuses. It also recently donated money to fight HIV /AIDS among intravenous drug users in Burma. The last Australian foreign minister to travel to Burma before Downer was Bill Hayden in 1983. Downer will travel to Indonesia early Friday before a visit to Malaysia.

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    Thais say Burma agrees changes in gas contract

    BANGKOK, Oct 3 (Reuters)- - Thailand said on Thursday that neighbouring Burma had agreed to cut the price of natural gas it supplies to state-run PTT Plc from Yetagun field, a move which could help save costs for the Thai firm.

    Industry Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit told reporters PTT would also pay $100 million in overdue bills for gas from the Yadana gas field in Burma after the Burmese government signs the revised contract for supply from Yetagun.

    "The Myanmar cabinet approved plans to revise the gas contract for Yetagun field. The next step is to sign the official contract, which is expected to happen very soon," Suriya said.

    Suriya said PTT would get a discount for buying natural gas from the Yetagun field, and had agreed to buy more gas, but he declined to give details of the new contract.

    Under the original contract, PTT was required to buy 200 million cubic feet per day from Yetagun field in 2000, and up to 260 million cubic feet per day in 2004.

    Suriya said operators at Yetagun would jointly invest $20 million to develop the quality of gas at the field to be used for generating electricity.

    The Yetagun field is 26.67 percent owned by Britain's Premier Oil Plc , 30 percent by Malaysia's Petronas,15 percent by Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. PTTEP International and Nippon Oil Corp owns 14.16 percent each in the field.

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