In English

Burma: back to square one after two decades of cease-fire?
Monday, 08 August 2011 16:23
By Htet Aung Kyaw

(Mizzima, Commentary) – August 8, 2011, is the 23rd anniversary of the “8888 Uprising” in Burma in which more than 3,000 people were killed by the Tatmadaw. The protestors were killed as they shouted slogans in the streets, “Enough is enough BSPP (Burmese Socialist Programme Party),” “Build a student union” and “Give us democratic rights.”

Student demonstrators during the 1988 Burmese uprising, in which hundreds of students and citizens were gunned down by the military. Twenty-three years after this incident, what do we have now?

Some analysts say there has been some progress as a result of last year’s national election, while others say we have got nowhere. This is because there are different views on the new military-dominated civilian government and their 2008 Constitution.

In fact, the student protestors’ dream of a “student union” has not materialized. Instead, student leaders, including Min Ko Naing of the 88-generation students group, are still behind bars. They did not obtain “democratic rights.” The glint of hope for democratic change – when in 1990 the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won 82 per cent of the vote––evaporated after the results were quashed by the military regime.

Today, many activists are in jail, forced labour continues, child soldiers remain, and the press censorship machine grinds on.

Out of the three demands of the 8888 uprising, only the collapse of the BSPP has come about.

Even then, this appears to be a façade. A clone of the BSPP was born in recent years called the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP). The USDP won 85 per cent of the 1,100 seats in parliament, in many cases based on so-called advance votes, plus 25 per cent of the seats were reserved for the armed forces in the November 2010 elections. A retired general, Thein Sein, was elected president of the new government. Retired general Shwe Mann is parliament speaker, while all of the ministers in the states and divisions are controlled by the USDP.

After 23 years, however, the challenge does not only come from Aung San Suu Kyi but from the guns of the ethnic armies that signed cease-fire agreements with the Burmese military in 1990s. This is because there are different views on new government and the new Constitution, particularly who will control the ethnic armed forces.

Fighting has broken out again along the Burma-Thai border and Burma-China border with ethnic organizations struggling for self-determination including the Karen, Shan, Mon and Kachin armed groups.

In this context, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) or Student Army that was founded after the 8888 uprising in Thai-Burma border area joined with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was soon fighting against the troops. Although many of their members moved to third countries for a new life, hundreds are still in the border regions.

"We very much welcome the ABSDF," Colonel “Moustache” of the DKBA told this correspondent. Although the students are not that numerous, they can be relied on for political force, public support, contacts within the country and international connections and media penetration, he said.

Meanwhile, on the dialogue front, Aung San Sue Kyi met with government minister Aunt Kyi in Rangoon on 25 July. Although they did not announce details of the discussion, a week later Suu Kyi sent an open letter to President Thein Sein, with copies to the Kachin, Shan, Mon and other ethnic groups, offering to help with a dialogue between the ethnic groups and the government. All ethnic groups welcomed Suu Kyi's proposal but there’s been no response from the Naypyitaw authorities.

The ABSDF looked on approvingly at the uprisings in the Middle East and has been waiting for the shockwaves to strike and spread through Burma. It is hard to say whether the students are hoping for the impossible. They also admired the bombing of Libya by NATO forces and the rebels’ occupying of the country bit by bit.

How close to reality is their hope? How much can the Burmese people do? It would be interesting to see what the views of the NLD and other political parties would be, and the response from the international community.

Whatever it is, the political situation in Burma hasn’t improved in the 23 years after the 8888 revolution but has deteriorated to a point where gunfire can be heard again.

Htet Aung Kyaw was a student activist involved in the 8888 uprising and the ABSDF. He is now a freelance journalist and writer based in exile.

A Video document of an ABSDF column in southern Burma, Minthamee camp. in 1995-96.




Burma's generals are afraid of telephones and the internet
Published on March 24, 2009

LAST WEEKEND, the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a report entitled "Enemies of the Internet", which named Burma as one of 12 countries that actively practices censorship and restricts freedom of speech on the Internet.

"The 12 enemies of the Internet � have all transformed their internet into an intranet in order to prevent their populations from accessing 'undesirable' online information," the RSF report said.

As I work for a daily news service, this report is nothing surprising for me. But I was surprised when I learned that a group of hackers from the jungle capital of the low-speed intranet country attacked high-speed websites in the world's richest country.

"Yes, this cyber attack was made by Russian technicians. However, they are not in Moscow but in Burma's West Point cyber city", claimed Aung Lin Htut, the former deputy ambassador to Washington and a former spy for ousted Burmese prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt. (Many Burmese observers compare the country's Maymyo Academy of Defence Services to the US Army's West Pont academy).

Last September, which was the anniversary of the "saffron revolution" led by Buddhist monks, the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) website and two others leading websites (of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy magazine and Delhi-based Mizzima) were attacked by unknown hackers.

"We can easily say that the Burmese government is behind this attack," said a DVB statement. They used DdoS, or distributed denial-of-service, which overloads websites with an unmanageable amount of traffic."

But the DVB technicians doubt that the attackers are government-backed hackers who are based in Russia. "Technically, it is of course difficult to say who is behind the attack," the statement said.

According to Aung Lin Htut, thousands of Burmese army officers are studying Defence Electronic Technology at the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), and hundreds of them return to Burma each year to work in Maymyo after they receive the four-year Masters Degrees. The subjects for Burmese officers studying there are computer software programs, nuclear technology, short range and long range missiles, and aeronautics and engineering.

"There is full-scale electricity supply and hi-speed Internet connections at Napyidaw (the country's official capital city) and the West Point cyber city. The cyber attack is just the beginning of their plan to attack the democracy movement," the former spy told this correspondent in an electronic conversation from Washington.

I asked how these officers would be able to apply their knowledge in Burma, where the electricity supply is intermittent.

Although the two VIP locations are very advanced in IT, the rest of the country is still in the dark. There is not enough electricity, telephone lines, or hi-speed Internet connections for the general population.

"Our office telephone line has been cut for over two years. There is no response from the authority whenever we ask the reason," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy.

"To open an e-mail address for the NLD may lead me to Insein (prison)" he added.

The junta recently arrested dozens of students and activists, including Min Ko Naing's 88 Generation students' group, which took part in the September 2007 uprising and who were involved in distributing relief after Cyclone Nargis ripped through the country last year. A number of the students and activists were sentenced to 65 years in prison for violations of the electronic law, meaning that they had used cellphones, cameras, e-mail and the internet without permission from the authorities.

"I'm very interested in IT and so I learned something about it on the Internet. This is only my guilt that will send me to Insein," said one activist named Zagana as a judge sentenced him to jail.

A recent UN report says that 6 out of every 10 people in the world use a mobile phone.

"But I think the NLD is the only political party in the world that has no telephone, no Internet or website in the 21st century," Nyan Win lamented to me during a cellphone (which he rents from friends) conversation from Rangoon. The NLD members and activists have no permission to buy a cellphone, and are not permitted to own or even use an Internet line or a laptop computer in Burma. If you live in Burma, you need permission from the authorities to buy a cell or land phone, a fax machine, an Internet line, computer, camera, satellite TV, or short-wave radio.

"This is an unacceptable condition for the party that won the 1990 election, while the junta allows everything for the USDA - the pro-government Union Solidarity Development Association - for the 2010 election campaign," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for exiled 88 Generation students and the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

"Cellphones and the Internet are daily basic necessities for politicians and the party," he said to this correspondent in a text message from his Blackberry. "This is very useful and you will see how US President Obama does his daily job using this phone," he added from Bangkok.

But in Burma, the ageing NLD leadership in Rangoon and the army generals in Napyidaw have no Blackberry or cellphone. The generals have banned cellphones in the capital for security reasons, while the NLD leaders have not been able to get either a land phone, a cellphone or an e-mail account.

"This is not just the nature of a generation gap between Obama and Than Shwe. Burma's politics is wrong indeed," Soe Aung added.

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.

Homesick: Vacation on the Thai-Burma border
Htet Aung Kyaw

Jan 19, 2009 (DVB), Although the word 'vacation' is still a strange one to most ordinary Burmese people inside the country, many Burmese in exile, including this correspondent, enjoy taking holidays.

But it may be hard for the western community to understand why many exiles would spend their holidays on the Thai-Burma border rather going to Phuket or one of the other beach resorts popular with western tourists.

According to Burmese dissidents in Mae Sot, about 100 exiles who have resettled in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand visited the border town last year. "Most come from Norway. Why do so many of you come here?" I was asked by a dissident who runs a restaurant in downtown Mae Sot.

After 20 years far from home, I believe that many exiles come here to treat their homesickness. They want to see the Burmese community in Mae Sot or "Little Burma" and maybe take a look across the Moei River to Myawaddy on the Burmese side. For me, as an activist turned journalist, I wanted to learn what was going on in the dissident movement in Mae Sot and the rebel-controlled areas.

The changing face of Mae Sot

In 1941, Mae Sot was a normal border village where the Burma Independent Army was briefly based before re-entering to Burma to fight against British colonial rule. General Aung San and the rest of the 30 comrades led the BIA to Mae Sot and two other border towns on the route back to Burma after they were trained by Japanese army. I had read about it in a school history book before coming to Mae Sot. That might be why some western analysts have criticised our romanticism in dreaming of following in general Aung San’s footsteps.

My first trip to Mae Sot was in mid-November 1988, just after the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front was founded. I came from southern Burma and stayed at the home of major Soe Soe’s of the Karen National Union in Mae Sot before going to attend the ABSDF meeting at Kaladay Camp.

Twenty years after my first trip, Mae Sot has changed a lot. The road to Myawaddy is now a six-lane paved highway where 20 years ago I walked in the dust. Major Soe Soe’s house has now been changed into the Peace Development office where I saw the office issuing KNU travel passes which allowed us to travel from Mae Sot to the KNU headquarters in Manaplaw without any questions from the Thai authorities.

But today, KNU travel passes no longer offer any guarantees on Thai soil and the KNU’s general secretary Pado Man Shar was killed by unknown gunmen in downtown Mae Sot last February. Officials from the KNU's rival, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, and Burmese government officials travel to Mae Sot, which I never saw 20 years ago. Many Burmese dissidents have been arrested and some deported to Myawaddy which I would never have thought possible 20 years ago.

Despite many challenges, Mae Sot is still the hub of the Burmese dissident movement, especially after the fall of Manaplaw in 1995. I met and chatted with dozens of dissident leaders in Mae Sot. "After the killing of Pado Man Shar, no one is safe here. But we cannot use our own guards or guns as we did in jungle on their soil," said an ABSDF leader who is now working for the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Although there is no security, "We must still work here. This is because Mae Sot is the closest place to Burma," he explained to me at his hide-out.

It is not only politicians who choose to stay in Mae Sot but also social workers. "We must operate here as much as we can. I would never think of going to a third country," said Dr. Cynthia Maung, know as Burma’s Mother Teresa, who run the Mae Tao clinic.

She was one of a few students whom I met at major Soe Soe’s house 20 years ago. I personally helped her to clean out the ageing mud hut to run as a clinic in 1989. But now I see about 100 patients on the beds, 200 outpatients, about 30 new buildings beside the old hut that I helped clean. A dozen foreign medics, 50 Burmese members of staff and an annual budget of 40 million baht are overseen by Dr Cynthia.

From idealism to realism?

"Twenty years on, Cynthia’s battalion is the biggest in the Student Army," jokes a former ABSDF member who is currently working as a volunteer at the Mae Tao clinic.

It is difficult to find hard evidence of how much the rebels and exile politicians have done for the people in past 20 years, although they claim to have been working for the country's 50 million people. "But in Cynthia’s clinic, you will see with your own eyes how many people she helps," the former ABSDF member told me.

"How many people have you helped with your own hands, my comrade?" he asked me while I was interviewing his patients. I could not answer him immediately. In fact, despite my 10 years as a freedom fighter and a further 10 years working in the media, I have never been able to help people physically like he has but only through ideas or words.

I was seized with the desire to do something to help when I meet people from Tavoy, my hometown, who were living as illegal migrant workers along the border from Sankhalaburi to Phuket, some of the two million Burmese migrants and hundreds of thousands of refugees on Thai soil. It was them to whom I once promised to bring freedom and democracy in a speech during the 1988 uprising. Now, 20 years later, I was meeting them on the Thai border, far from my home city, and I was somewhat ashamed that I had not yet honoured my promise.

In the end, the only help I could give them was the contact details of some social organisations run by my comrades, such as Dr Cynthia’s Mae Tao Clinic (www., Aye Aye Mar’s social network (http: //socialactionfor, Myat Thu’s children's fund (www.aiya and Moe Swe’s labour rights group ( in Mae Sot, Aung Myo Min’s human rights group ( in Chiang Mai and Htoo Chit’s organisation ( in Phuket.

However, Dr Cynthia was unhappy when I told her about my feelings, saying "Changing politics and ideology are more important than social work. We all are doing our duty and we shouldn't be blaming each other."

Armed struggle and unwanted guests

Apart from politicians and social workers, I meet another group of former ABSDF members who had been waiting for four years at No Poe Refugee camp to go a third country. "We were all rejected by the US authorities because we all were ABSDF or armed men," one former ABSDF member who was visiting Mae Sot told me. "But they allow fake refugees in with no difficulties. Please tell the true story to the outside world," he pleaded.

According to him, those rejected by the US can by divided into three groups. Firstly those, like him, who have rejected by US and but can apply to other countries. Secondly those whose applications have been stalled but not yet rejected to they can only wait. And third, men who have been rejected while their wives and children were allowed to go to the US and so the families have been split up. Then the men try to go to European countries, Australia or New Zealand while their wives and children board planes to Washington.

ABSDF and KNU officials confirmed that the US authorities have rejected all of their former members since the attacks of 11 September 2001. They also confirmed the allegations of 'fake refugees' and human trafficking. "[The camp authorities] let the new arrivals in from Rangoon who can pay a half million baht each to replace the old ones who have no money after living in the camp for many years," a KNU official told me. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to investigate this accusation for myself.

However, a Burmese journalist in Mae Sot gives me a different view. "As far as human trafficking goes, I agree that the UN and Thai officials need to investigate it urgently," he said. "But as for the meaning of refugee, I think all people in Burma today are suffering an in need of refuge, so why are the dissidents opposing the new arrivals when they claim they are working for all 50 million [Burmese] people?" he asked.

The ABSDF and KNU officials are not only worried about being rejected by the US authority but also about the changing mindset of their former members who have resettled in the west. "Donations from our former members in the US have been reducing month by month since 9/11," an ABSDF financial worker told me. Strangely, the highest number of donations is coming from Japan and Korea where there are no former members of the ABSDF or the KNU.

Change we need: Where is Burma’s Abhisit?

After a three-week vacation in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai, Sangkhlaburi and Ranong, I met some Burmese, Thai and western journalists in Bangkok. One western journalist began to question me. "Do you think there will be any change in Burma after the 2010 election? What is the role of the exiles in the coming election?" he asked.

"Yes, there will be a few changes , from khaki uniforms to white shirts. Don’t hope for too much," I replied. But as for the role of exiles, I’m not ready to answer that. However, a Thai journalist who has been following Burmese affair for over a decade said, "The exiles are not interested in the 2010 election because they are all too busy with their own election," he joked, referring to a statement by the exile coalition who claimed to be founding a new government in exile in 2009.

A Burmese journalist who was at the gathering suggested, "They should try to found a real government in Rangoon, not in exile. They also should learn some new methods from the new [Thai] prime minister Abhisit [Vejjajiva]".

There have been at least 12 changes of governments in Bangkok in the past 20 years while nothing has changed at all in Rangoon or Naypyidaw. Some observers have contrasted the rise to power of the 44-year-old new Thai premier Abhisit last month with the fate of 46-year-old Burmese 88 generation student leader Min Ko Naing who was jailed for 65 years in November.

"That is why I suggested you look to Abhisit," the journalist went on. "Then you woulf find some creative ideas about how to break a 20-year political deadlock rather than holding on to traditional ways of thinking such as ‘kill or be killed’, or ‘aggression or destitution’."

DVB journalist launches book in Chiang Mai

Dec 11, 2008 (DVB), Former student activist and rebel soldier Htet Aung Kyaw, who now works as a journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, launched his book "Far from Home: 20 years in exile" in Chiang Mai yesterday.

In his book, Htet Aung Kyaw looks back over the past 20 years of the struggle for democracy in Burma, drawing on personal reminiscences and political analysis.

"Far from Home" includes many of Htet Aung Kyaw's articles for DVB, the Irrawaddy, the Bangkok Post and the Nation as well as new material on his experiences with the All Burma Students' Democratic Front.
At yesterday's launch, Htet Aung Kyaw spoke about his reasons for publishing the book.

"Now we are reaching 20 years of our democracy revolution and I was asking myself why it has taken 20 years already, and how many more it will take," he explained.

"Then I asked myself what I have done over these years and I had the idea of publishing a compilation of my articles and writing about my experience in the jungle as an ABSDF member," he said.

"I’m publishing this in the hope that it will at least give people something to think about for the struggle."
Htet Aung Kyaw said the focus of his writing had changed over the years.

"The articles I wrote about 10 years ago for various publications , questioned why a lot of people in the exile movement, especially ABSDF fighters, had started to seek asylum in third countries at that time , had they always planned to do that since they came out of Burma?" he said.

"Ten years on from then, today my attention has switched to how far we have come on our journey."

Reporting by Naw Say Phaw and Siân Thomas

Burmese Journalist Looks Back at a 20-Year Struggle


BANGKOK, Dec 19 (Asia Media Forum) - On the 20th year anniversary of the 1988 uprising in Burma, a Burmese journalist in exile looks back at how that crucial event influenced his decision to tell the truth about his country.

“At the moment, it’s the only thing we can do — tell the truth — through the media,” said Htet Aung Kyaw, a Norway-based journalist and author of‘Far from Home: 20 Years in Exile‘, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Dec 17.

Htet was an art student in Burma and a local student leader when the Aug 8, 1988 pro-democracy uprising, focused around a call to an end to 26 years of military rule, exploded. Thousands of people, most of them students, were killed in the ensuing crackdown, and many more went into exile into neighbouring Thailand and other countries, making up a good number of today’s exiled community.  The series of protests ended on Sep 18, 1988 when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta as called, was established after a military coup.

Fleeing to the Karen-controlled rebel area, Htet was recruited into the All Burma Student Democratic Front where he served as commander.
A journalist for the past 12 years, Htet could only shrug when asked about the future of Burma. “Everybody is asking why nothing has happened after 20 years. Frankly, I don’t know,” said Htet, adding that change does not happen overnight.

In 1989, the SLORC declared martial law to quell further protests and in 1990 held elections, the first time for the country in almost 30 years of military rule. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) party led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won by a landslide, the SLORC declared the elections void.
Since then, Burma has been under the tight grip of the Gen. Than Shwe-led government, now renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be under house arrest, along with other opposition figures.

Although not much improvement is seen in the political situation, Htet have noted subtle changes happening.
“The way people think does seem to have changed. This shift in mentality could be said to be the most significant sign of progress in the past 20 years,” Htet wrote in an article he wrote for the Democratic Voice of Burma website in September this year.

In September 2007, the military cracked down on massive protests led by thousands of monks in different cities in Burma. What began as a series of fuel price hike protests became a pro-democracy movement. The protests resulted in at least nine people being killed (independent reports say the figure was much higher), hundreds injured and reportedly thousands of arrests made.

One of the major changes, Htet said, is the advent of new media which allowed people to share information faster and to a wider audience. The 2007 protests, for instance, are a prime example of this power given to the people. Through mobile phones and the Internet, particularly via blogs and through the contributions of citizen journalists, the outside world was able to witness the events in Burma.

Short-wave radio also helped a lot in the pro-democracy movement’s information campaign, especially via such programmes as Radio Free Asia Burmese and the Democratic Voice of Burma.

“The media coverage provided by those in exile is crucial given the current unrest. . . .This time, four short-wave radio stations, a satellite television channel broadcasting to Burma and the Democratic Voice of Burma TV and radio provide non-stop reports from inside Burma,” he wrote for Thailand’s English-language daily ‘The Nation‘ on Oct. 2, 2007.

“I think that the Burmese media in exile have contributed a lot in terms of exposing the issues that the government want suppressed. We say this in such events as the 2007 monk-led demonstration and the May 2008 Nargis cyclone,” Htet told AMF.

While he does not see the media within Burma being free anytime soon, he believes that there are many good journalists there who share pro-democracy groups’ sentiments. “They just have no chance to voice out their ideas for obvious reasons,” he added.

But despite these changes, Htet concedes that much work needs to be done, especially in uniting the different factions among opposition parties and ethnic minorities in Burma, as well as the conflicts among the Burmese media in exile. “We need to have a systematic strategy, a step-by-step approach to finding a resolution. We need to change the thinking of people,” he said. “We also need a unified and leading organisation to be successful.”

Unfortunately, he said there is a lack of dialogue between ethnic minorities and the NLD. In the past, ethnic minorities complained that the NLD does not have their best interests in mind and would likely to continue the government’s unfair policies towards the ethnic  groups, which include the Karen and Shan.

When asked about the Association of South-east Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) role in a free Burma, Htet again shook his head. “Although it is playing a more active role now than before, the ASEAN, of which Burma is a member, still has its limitations. I don’t see a way they can change the political situation in Burma anytime soon,” he said.

After the September 2007 protests, ASEAN urged the government to stop the violent crackdown against the demonstrators, one of its strongest statements ever against a member country.

As for the planned national elections in 2010, Htet is wary about getting his hopes too high. “I don’t see a democratic government after the elections. It’s merely a changing of ‘uniforms’ from military to civilian ‘clothing’ but I am afraid it will still be the same,” he said.  — Lynette Lee Corporal (END/IPSAP/LLC/JS/181208)

Far from Home: 20 years in exile.
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