Tuesday, June 7th, 2005
Yangon: Myanmar’s military government has stepped up security in the capital in a bid to alleviate fears triggered by rumours of impending bomb attacks spread by “destructive elements,” state media reported Tuesday.
The junta warned that anti-government agents were spreading fabricated rumours of forthcoming bombings at schools and crowded places, causing panic in the wake of last month’s bomb blasts in Yangon that killed at least 19 people and wounded more than 150.
“At present, the destructive elements invented rumours to the effect that… bombs will explode at busy spots, supermarkets, markets and schools in downtown Yangon with every intention of jeopardizing stability, frightening the people, causing business in a state of disorder and manipulating prices for self-interest,” the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
“The government and departmental officials are making arrangements to ensure security for the entire national people,” it added.
“Likewise, organizations, companies and entrepreneurs are making arrangements for ensuring security at their offices, departments, worksites, crowded supermarkets and cinemas under the supervision of the government.”
Security forces on Monday scrambled to various locations around Yangon in reaction to rumours that bombs had been planted at schools and markets.
Classes at several high schools, including a teacher training school near state media offices, were disrupted when panicked parents rushed to collect their children after hearing that bombs had been planted on the premises, one eyewitness told AFP.
Similar threats elsewhere also proved false, according to state radio and television announcements.
The authorities have accused unscrupulous businessmen of spreading fabrications about terrorist plots in order to manipulate commodity prices.
Rumors of attacks have spread quickly in Yangon since the unprecedented May 7 blasts, which the junta have blamed on an unlikely alliance of ethnic rebel groups, pro-democracy organizations and student groups, who have denied involvement.
In response to the fear, the state-run Myanmar Insurance Enterprise has introduced, for the first time, a scheme covering loss of life and destruction of property due to acts of terrorism, an official at the company reportedly said.
“The prevailing situation and changing conditions require us to introduce this new insurance policy,” general manager Maung Maung Thane was quoted as saying in the Voice, a private weekly.
Bagan Cybertech, Burma’s main internet service provider, has announced further restrictions on its services, along with significant price increases with effect from July 1.
In announcements by email between June 2 and 5, Bagan Cybertech also told customers that monthly charges on broadband connections would jump more than 100 percent to FEC35. One Foreign Exchange Certificate (FEC) is officially worth US $1.
Internet costs in Burma are already among the most expensive in the world, with start up costs of more than $1,300 per connection.
In addition, the company announced a new set of condensed internet packages with limits on data and even fees for downgrading to a lesser service.
This latest announcement comes after Bagan Cybertech in January suspended the setting up of new email accounts and internet connections, which the company confirmed are still not available.
â€œWe and another [internet] service provider cannot provide the equipment [for new connections] â€¦ maybe in one or two months we can,â€ the company’s customer services department said.
However, Bagan Cybertech’s official resellers in Rangoon were more skeptical, with many predicting a long term absence of new connections.
â€œI think it won’t be possible to open a new Bagan Cybertech account for several months or even several years,â€ said one computer professional in Rangoon.
Bagan Teleport, the infrastructure arm of Bagan Cybertech, refused to say why new services and equipment are not available.
The company recently attracted attention following a sharp decline in the reliability of its connections and the abandonment of a previously high-profile marketing campaign. Earlier this year, it acquired the services of a US-based software company to develop a new firewall to strengthen the ban on sensitive web pages. Prohibited sites have since carried the phrase: â€œYou have tried to access a webpage which is in violation of your internet usage policy.â€
However, a malfunction by the firewall allowed internet users in Burma to view previously banned material, including Mizzima’s homepage, although this has again been prohibited.
Bagan Cybertech’s demise began last October with the purge of former Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt and the dismissal of his son, Dr Ye Naing Win, as head of the company. Diplomatic sources in Rangoon say Ye Naing Win is currently detained in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, awaiting trial on more than 30 charges, including corruption and owning illegal foreign currency.
Yangon: Nearly all buses in Myanmar’s capital of Yangon, which were traditionally run on petrol and diesel, have been converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) under an ambitious plan to modify all vehicles in the country in terms of fuel operation.
Of the 250,000 vehicles targeted, 2,500 buses, have been changed into CNG-operated ones, the Myanmar Times quoted sources with the Energy Ministry as saying Tuesday.
The next step of the plan will be focusing on trucks and then private cars, the sources revealed.
Myanmar started the move amid sustained rise of crude oil prices in the world and the plan was introduced due partly to the abundance of natural gas in the country.
Myanmar has been using natural gas on a limited scale to run cars after tests on compressed natural gas were carried out in 1986.
With a total of about 476,000 motor vehicles moving in the country now, Myanmar’s petrol consumption has at least doubled in the past decade as registered, consuming about 100 million gallons (420,000 tons) of petrol and about 340 million gallons (1.4 million tons) of diesel annually in most recent years.
Myanmar produced about 6 million barrels (798,000 tons) of crude oil annually at home, yet it could not meet the demand and had to import about 130 million US dollars’ worth of the oil per year.
With three main large offshore and 19 onshore oil and gas fields, Myanmar possesses a total of 87 trillion cubic-feet (TCF) or 2.46 trillion cubic-meters (TCM) of gas reserve and 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil reserve, official statistics show.
Myanmar produced 9.9 billion cubic meters (BCM) of gas and 7.16 million barrels of crude oil in the fiscal year 2003-04. Gas export during the year went to 5.66 BCM, earning nearly 600 million dollars, while crude oil import stood at 13.18 million dollars the same year.
As part of a plan to put pressure on ethnic Shan refugees to move back to Burma, Thai authorities have barred the delivery of food supplies, according to a Shan grassroots group on Tuesday.
Thai authorities have not allowed supply convoys to pass the border gates since late May, said Seng Merng, a member of Shan Youth Network Group, which has supplied food rations to Shan refugees since 2000.
â€œRefugees finally have to promise that they will move by today because food supplies will not be allowed to reach them,â€ said Seng Merng, who returned from the border last Friday.
Some refugees have moved back to Burma since June 2, and the final deadline was eventually pushed back to June 7, according to Seng Merng. But refugees face difficulties in returning to Burma because of the rainy season.
On May 18, Thai Third Army Deputy Commander Maj-Gen Manas Paorik issued an order that about 500 Shan refugees-including 200 orphans-must relocate across the Burma border by the end of May.
About 2,000 Shan refugees have been living at the Internally Displaced Persons Camp in the Doi Tailaeng area since 2000. In April 2004, refugees fled to the Thai-Burma border near Mae Hong Son Province, northern Thailand, after several artillery shells landed in the camp during an attack by the United Wa State Army on the headquarters of the Shan State Army-South, based on Doi Tailaeng Mountain, near the Burmese border.
On May 28, six Shan rights groups asked the Thai government to reconsider their plan to relocate Shan refugees in Burma.
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that â€œby denying Shan people status and humanitarian assistance, the Thai government is violating international law and turning away from a problem at its doorstep.â€
Yangon: Thousands of HIV-AIDS patients in military-ruled Myanmar lack access to life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs because of a funding shortage, a U.N. representative was quoted as saying Tuesday.
Myanmar’s health department can provide the drugs to only about 500 of the 25,000 victims infected with the AIDS virus who need them, the Flower News journal reported.
“The World Health Organization and other (agencies) have been providing assistance for the treatment, but it is not sufficient and more funding is needed,” said Dr. Sit Naing, a local representative of the United Nations’ AIDS agency.
The average monthly cost of the drugs was about 30,000 kyats (US$30; [euro]23) per patient. The report did not specify how much additional funding was needed to treat patients in need.
Myanmar’s military government says more than 300,000 of the country’s 54 million people have HIV-AIDS, but health experts believe the actual figure is higher.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook estimates that Myanmar’s population is significantly lower – about 43 million. That estimate takes into account excess mortality caused by AIDS, according to the CIA’s Web site.
UNAIDS, the U.N. body coordinating the fight against the disease, estimates that more than 600,000 people in Myanmar, aged 15 to 49, are infected with HIV.
The Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has pledged US$19.2 million ([euro]15.7 million) to combat HIV-AIDS in Myanmar out of a total package of US$35.6 million ([euro]27.59) for the country.
Yangon: Myanmar enjoyed a foreign trade surplus of 954.55 million US dollars in the fiscal year 2004-05 which ended in March, 837.7 million more than that gained in 2003- 04 when it showed only 116.84 million, according to a latest report of the local weekly 7-Day News.
The country’s foreign trade volume reached 4.9 billion US dollars in the 2004-05, up 10 percent from 2003-04 when it was registered 4.5 billion.
Of the total trade volume during the year, Myanmar’s exports were valued at 2.9 billion, while its imports went to 1.9 billion. Export earnings were topped by value-added finished industrial goods with 1.24 billion dollars, followed by forestry and agricultural products with 427.81 million and 320.79 million respectively, the report said.
Myanmar gained for the first time such favorable balance of foreign trade in 2002-03 after suffering deficit for the past many years.
Although the foreign trade in 2004-05 was higher than in 2003- 04, it stood lower than in 2002-03 when it was 5.3 billion, partly due to the declination by 50 percent in the country’s garment exports during the past three years .
Myanmar has set a target of 1.5 billion dollars of bilateral trade with China, one billion with India and 50 million with Vietnam.
June 4: Singapore: Military-ruled Myanmar, under pressure to relinquish its forthcoming chairmanship of the ASEAN regional grouping, said on Saturday it was too early to decide and hinted that it may be working on an alternative solution.
The United States and the European Union have threatened to boycott high-level meetings with the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) if Myanmar takes over the group’s chair next year without making progress on human rights, including freeing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Only we can decide. It is still very early,” Myanmar Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs U Maung Myint told Reuters on the sidelines of a security conference on Saturday.
Asked whether Myanmar would give in to international pressure and relinquish the ASEAN chair, he said: “No, we are preparing another situation.” He declined to elaborate. Myanmar government members rarely discuss the issue in public.
In May, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Supamongkon hinted that Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, could delay its turn to lead ASEAN to avoid confrontation with the West.
One suggested solution would be for Myanmar — under military rule of one form or another since 1962 — to become chairman, but for Thailand to host all big diplomatic meetings.
“I cannot see this happening. Myanmar would not allow it. If it has to be elsewhere, Bangkok would be the last place,” former Thai deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra told Reuters, referring to a long history of strained relations between the two large Southeast Asian neighbours.
“ENGAGE, DON’T HUMILIATE”
Thailand has strong commercial ties with Yangon’s reclusive generals and has favoured “constructive engagement” with them rather than sanctions.
Paribatra said that if Myanmar is forced to withdraw from the ASEAN chair, there is a danger that the country might withdraw from the organisation altogether. He said that whatever the solution, there should be no loss of face for Myanmar.
“The question of face is very important for the Burmese,” he told Reuters at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia Security Conference in Singapore.
Kishore Mahbubani, dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Singapore ambassador to the U.N. agreed. “Behind the scenes, people are working on a solution. The key thing is that nobody is humiliated,” he said.
The issue has threatened the unity of 10-member ASEAN, with some member countries opposing Myanmar’s chairmanship unless it shows concrete progress in implementing a roadmap to democracy.
ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. The grouping’s rotating chairmanship is based on alphabetical order. Laos currently chairs the group.
Burma’s military government is planning to open an embassy in Brussels to help smooth ties with the European Union, say diplomatic sources in Rangoon and Bangkok.
Burma’s government has until now conducted dialogue with the EU through its embassy in Paris, but diplomatic sources in Rangoon say the junta is keen to improve relations after its embarrassment over human rights ahead of Asia-Europe meetings in May this year and September 2004.
A representative of the Belgian Embassy in Bangkok confirmed Tuesday that Burma was seeking to open an embassy in Brussels. â€œThe opening of an embassy in Brussels is a decision that is solely the responsibility of the government of Burma,â€ said the diplomat, adding that Belgium was not intending to open an embassy in Rangoon.
European diplomats say the decision is aimed at building a relationship with the EU and not specifically Belgium.
The Belgian diplomat said Burma’s ambassador to Belgium has not yet been appointed and no timetable had been given.
According to Belgian protocol, any country that requests to open a mission in Brussels must also appoint a representative to the EU, who in practice is usually the same person.
Despite the move being an open secret in Rangoon among the diplomatic community, Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to confirm or deny the decision.
â€œIt is too early to talk about that [establishing a Burmese embassy in Brussels], when the time comes we will be happy to talk about it,â€ said a representative of the Europe Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Recently Burma has been on a collision course with the EU, with relations still tense. The two countries held their first ministerial-level discussions in Kyoto at the latest Asia-Europe summit in May after the EU reversed its decision to boycott the meeting because of Burma’s human rights record.
May 27 – June 9: On April 25th European Union (EU) foreign ministers met in Luxembourg, and quietly agreed to extend existing sanctions against Burma for another year. No press release was issued and no statement was put on the Commission website.
Was this because they had failed to deliver on their promise to tighten sanctions if there was no progress towards democracy in Burma, and hoped that no-one would notice? Yes indeed: but the ministers have plenty of other reasons for not drawing attention to the EU’s position on Burma, which is increasing embarrassing.
Last October the EU was forced to water down proposed investment sanctions because France was concerned they could have an adverse effect on its oil giant Total. Instead of banning investment in Burma’s oil, gas and timber industries, where the regime earns the bulk of its income, they placed a ban on investing in a few state-owned companies such as a pineapple juice factory and a tailor’s shop. Only after this puny ban was introduced did the EU realise investment in state-owned companies was already banned under Burmese law.
Meanwhile the US government, which banned investment in Burma back in 1997, much to the chagrin of its own oil companies, looks on in disbelief as all 25 EU members have their foreign policy dictated according to the interests of a single French oil company.
Finding George Orwell in Burma
By Emma Larkin
294 pages. The Penguin Press. $22.95.
Fresh out of Eton, George Orwell spent five years in Burma as a policeman in the colonial service. He left in 1927, fed up with ”the dirty work of Empire,” but the country never quite left him. It provided the material for the novel ”Burmese Days” and one of his most famous essays, ”Shooting an Elephant.” In his final days, as he lay dying of tuberculosis, he sketched out a novella, ”A Smoking Room Story,” about a young Englishman changed forever by his experiences in colonial Burma.
Emma Larkin pursues the young Eric Blair (the pseudonym would come later) all over Burma in ”Finding George Orwell in Burma,” revisiting the places where he lived and worked to reimagine the experiences that helped shape his political outlook and his writing. Her mournful, meditative, appealingly idiosyncratic book is a hybrid, an exercise in literary detection but also a political travelogue that uses Burma to explain Orwell, and Orwell — especially the Orwell of ”Animal Farm” and ”Nineteen Eighty-Four” — to explain the miseries of present-day Myanmar (as it is now known).
”Burmese Days” is set in Katha, in the northern part of the country, but it took Orwell several years to get there. He began his tour of duty in Mandalay, at the Police Training School, and then drew the short straw. Just 19 years old, he was posted to the delta region of lower Burma, an area renowned, Ms. Larkin writes, for having ”the largest, liveliest mosquitoes in the Empire.” Britons who had spent time in the delta, it was said, were easy to spot because of their habit of darting into a room and quickly slamming the door shut behind them, still pursued by phantom insects.
Orwell later dismissed his time in Burma as ”five boring years within the sound of bugles.” In fact, he landed right in the middle of a fearsome crime wave. Roving gangs bent on robbery, mayhem and murder had turned Burma into ”the most violent corner of the Indian Empire.” It was Orwell’s job to gather intelligence and, sailing up the delta’s canals, track down criminals. The fine-meshed net of British surveillance, and its attendant bureaucracy, Ms. Larkin theorizes, proved invaluable to Orwell when it came time to write ”Nineteen Eighty-Four.” So did his overpowering sense of isolation, as he labored for a system he came to loathe.
In Orwell’s time, Burma was a prosperous country. Today, under a tenacious dictatorship that has lasted more than 40 years, Myanmar has the lowest income in Southeast Asia and ranks as one of least-developed countries in the world. With no external enemies, it supports an army nearly as large as that of the United States. A Stasi-style system of secret police and citizen informers closely monitors the population.
All-embracing censorship laws extend to ”incorrect ideas,” ”opinions which do not accord with the times” and statements that, although factually accurate, are ”unsuitable because of the time or the circumstances of their writing.” The ruling party of this militaristic, underdeveloped nation has adopted a satisfyingly Orwellian name: the State Peace and Development Council.
The only safe topics for public discussion are things like the lottery, the weather and football. Yet in her travels, over endless cups of tea, Ms. Larkin elicits the hushed testimony of frightened citizens desperate for breathing room. Some simply want to try out their English, like the would-be hipster who thinks that ”see you later, alligator” is up-to-date American slang. An elderly Anglo-Burmese woman, left stranded by the end of colonial rule, reminisces about the good old days as she fondles her last piece of English china.
Others pour out their hearts. And still others distill their anguish into a single bitter remark. ”We Burmese people are totally content,” one man tells Ms. Larkin. ”Do you know why? Because we have nothing left. We have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until there is nothing left.”
Ms. Larkin, in reading Orwell’s two political novels as sequels to ”Burmese Days,” is not being eccentric, not in Myanmar. When the BBC’s Burmese service broadcast a radio dramatization of ”Animal Farm” a few years ago, listeners talked about it for weeks. For them, Orwell’s parable clearly described Myanmar’s plight. The only matter of debate was which animals represented which real-life figures.
As Ms. Larkin makes her way across the country, her movements are tracked, sometimes blocked, by the police, military personnel, bureaucrats, spies, informers and ordinary citizens instructed to report on any encounters with foreigners. When registering at a guest house she must fill out forms to be sent to nine separate departments. Shopping at a local market, a police informer dogs her heels, asking, over and over, who she is, where she is going and what she is trying to find out. She has changed the names of most of the Burmese she talked to and, lest she be barred from returning to Myanmar, has published this book under a pseudonym.
Ms. Larkin eventually makes her way to Katha, to which, she suggests, Orwell might have been posted as punishment for shooting that elephant, a highly valuable asset for its owner. The Katha Tennis Club, centerpiece of ”Burmese Days,” still stands. The club building is now a government cooperative. The tennis court, oddly enough, remains intact, complete with umpire chairs and night-time floodlights. For Orwell, the club symbolized all the injustice of the empire.
The empire has disappeared, but not the injustice. A Burmese friend of Ms. Larkin’s, old enough to have lived through both systems, tells her, ”The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!”