President Obama made a few comments from Japan, where he is attending the G20 summit:
While the Burmese regime has gone to extraordinary lengths to isolate and silence Aung San Suu Kyi, she has continued her brave fight for democracy, peace, and change in Burma. She is a hero of mine and a source of inspiration for all who work to advance basic human rights in Burma and around the world.
One member of the crowd greeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi outside her house caught this video of the joyous moment (via The Lede):
Of course, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is technically free from her prolonged unjustified sentence, many questions remain. How long will she be free before the regime finds some absurd reason to imprison her again? And while this event may give some hope to an otherwise disheartened and discouraged democracy movement, it is tempered by the fact that over 2000 political activists remain in prison and the junta is still in control after the “election.”
Much of the news this week was about the ceasefire groups of ethnic minority tribes living on the border. Shortly after taking power, the SLORC arranged for ceasefire agreements with many of the ethnic minority insurgent groups. The junta then used the relative lull in armed conflict to more than double the size of their army over the next 10 years. The junta’s hope was to erode the capabilities of the independent ethnic armies, while putting on a veneer of cooperation with regard to the international community.
However, all of their careful planning seems to be coming apart at the seams. Last April, as a ploy to show deeper unification and support from the various ethnic groups prior to the upcoming election, the junta decided to transform their rebellion armies into a “Border Guard Force” (BGF). This arrangement required the ceasefire armies to hand over key positions of leadership to the Tatmadaw, and would effectively signal the “beginning of the end” for the independent ethnic armies.
Many of the largest armed groups who had signed ceasefire agreements are refusing to accept the regime’s terms and conditions regarding the BGF. The Wa led the way, followed quickly by the Mon and Shan groups. Yesterday the Karen, who had agreed to a recent ceasefire deal in 2007, decided to break away from the government. They “accused the junta of breaking their peace agreement by continuing to increase military activities.”
UPDATE (4/30): The Asia Times just printed a great analysis of the BGF situation.
The only news that came out of Burma during the Water Festival that wasn’t completely sugar-coated centered on a bombing in Rangoon. In true SPDC form, they blamed “ethnic minority insurgents,” and three civilians were promptly arrested simply for taking photos of the event.
Today marks the first official day of Songkran here in Thailand, though kids started pulling out the buckets of water and super soakers yesterday morning. Burma celebrates a very similar festival this week, called Thingyan. Traditionally Thingyan is supposed to be as rambunctious and carefree as Songkran, but the military government has decided to take control of how the populace should “have fun” this week. The SPDC has imposed a number of rules and restrictions on the festivities (though the top generals and their families are of course exempt):
According to YCDC restrictions, pavilions must be given Burmese names, pavilion decorations must be designed to showcase Burmese art and culture, pavilion workers and guests must wear traditional Burmese clothing, pavilions must only serve traditional Burmese food and pavilion workers and guests must dance in a manner that reflects Burmese culture.
In Bangkok, we’ll see if Songkran helps cool the fervor of the ongoing protests, which we are following from afar hear in the north. The protests certainly illustrate a difference between the Thai and Burmese governments use of force. While Prime Minister Abhisit has been emphatic about the use of non-violent methods for breaking up the protests, history has shown that any similar political display in Burma would have been awash in a sea of blood after the army busted out their machine guns.
We’re about to head out to Lauren’s office for a day of splashing, snacks, and swimming. Then tomorrow morning we are off to Pai to meet up with a few other AJWS volunteers for the remainder of the three-day holiday. We’ll be back here on Friday to meet up with Lauren’s family, who have escaped the red-shirt madness of Bangkok and are currently splashing around on Ko Tao.
The big Burma news today centers around the National League for Democracy’s decision not to contest the 2010 election. This comes in response to a number of election laws that have been released over the past few weeks which clearly target (and in many cases, seem designed to cause rifts in) the NLD.
The decision to abstain from the election was unanimous.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win describes the future role of the NLD by saying, “We will continue to exist politically by not registering. If we register, we will only have a name void of all political essence.”
The US State Department has denounced the junta and blamed them for the NLD’s decision.
A well-written editorial from the director of Amnesty International UK expresses disappointment but no surprise at the NLD’s decision. Of course, Amnesty has already denounced the junta’s election law and agrees with the NLD that they would be legitimizing the election by taking part.
Meanwhile, more and more people are calling for the UN to step in and do something already. Will they, or will China keep blocking progress? One writer for the Irrawaddy takes the optimistic view.
From the Guardian, via Burmanet, a UK government source commenting on Burma’s election rules:
A government source said the election rules were “clearly taking the piss” and were not a serious effort to democratise the country, a view that was increasingly shared by Burma’s neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
One of the many naive questions I asked when I started learning about the atrocities of the Burmese military regime was, “Why hasn’t the UN stepped in and done anything about this?”
I later learned that the UN’s relative silence on Burma was actually the result of one of the more brilliant moves made by the junta. Apparently to placate its citizens after throwing out the results of the 1990 election, the SLORC announced that it would be opening up the country to foreign investment. Soon money started pouring in from several countries, like Japan, India, and especially China, mostly to fund resource extraction and energy projects. As China’s ties with Burma have gotten stronger, China has threatened to use its veto power on the UN Security Council to block any resolutions that would censure or discipline the Burmese regime.
Fast forward almost 20 years, the SPDC has recently announced the laws that will govern the country’s first election since 1990. Nobody I know around here was surprised when the first peek at the rules revealed that the election would be a farce, without much semblance of an attempt at fairness or openness. However, there is one common hope that I’ve heard expressed, which is that at least this election will force the international community to finally start paying attention. There are numerous signs that this is starting to happen, with bold statements from Canada, the UK, and the Philippines. And now a group of 150 dissident groups from around the world has called for action by the UN, which has prompted a meeting today of the Group of Friends of Burma to be followed by a report to the UN Security Council. Hopefully China will do the right thing.
This is a week old, but I assume that most of you (just like myself a month ago) are not reading the Irrawaddy every day. The Irrawaddy got an “exclusive” interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who dismissed the upcoming election as a “charade” and offered kind words of encouragement for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the opposition movement. I particularly liked his closing comment:
My dear Sister Nobel Laureate, my dear sisters and brothers in Burma, we admire your courage and determination. This is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter. We used to tell our people even in the darkest times in South Africa that the perpetrators of injustice have already lost despite their guns and their military and police might. They have already lost because they are on the side of injustice, oppression and evil.
You are on the winning side. One day we will come to Rangoon to join you in your celebrations when you, my sister, are inaugurated as the true, freely elected leader of Burma just as Nelson Mandela came out of jail and became our leader. The perpetrators of injustice and oppression will bite the dust as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. God bless you all.