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Myanmar – another UN visit, and another arrest

Updated On: Nov 16, 2007

Developments in Myanmar remain mixed.

On a positive note, the United Nations envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was allowed to visit Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison to interview the political prisoners. In his previous visit in 2003, he found bugging devices placed in the interview rooms. However, during Pinheiro’s visit, the government arrested a prominent labour activist, Su Su Nway. A UN official told AFP that Pinheiro was “concerned” by the arrest.

The United Nations Security Council has also expressed concern over the continued detention of political prisoners. The Indonesia Ambassador to the UN, Marty Natalegawa who was also the Council’s president for the month, said the 15 Council members expressed concern “that many prisoners are still in jail and new arrests have occurred.”

The Myanmar government seemed to have regained its confidence after the protests in September. Myanmar’s Deputy Defence Minister, Major-General Aye Myint said at a press conference held after the second ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, “The situation in Myanmar is now in normalcy. We’re totally in control of the situation … We are also looking forward to the positive and constructive assistance and understanding from Asean countries and all other countries around the world and also the United Nations. But we will not accept influences that will harm our sovereignty.”

Surprisingly, the Myanmar government invited reporters from ASEAN to visit the capital Naypyidaw. This was organised as part of an ASEAN Journalists Visit Programme sponsored by the ASEAN Committee for Culture and Information (COCI). When asked about the government’s handling of riots, a senior government official told a Singaporean reporter, “There are three lines drawn on the ground. Each time the protesters cross a line, there will be a greater response from the soldiers. When they cross the third line, the troops will move in.”

Myanmar government’s one-step forward, one step back strategy might be working. Regional governments have already stated their desire that the Myanmar issue not dominate the upcoming ASEAN summits.

The Chinese government, which has been against stronger actions on Myanmar staked its interest on the issue. The Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei said, “We cannot permit Myanmar to fall into chaos, we cannot permit Myanmar to become another Iraq. No matter what ideas other countries have, China’s stance on this is staunch.” While He acknowledged that the leaders from ASEAN, ChinaJapan andSouth Korea were likely to discuss Myanmar, he said that it would not be a focus of discussions, with the agenda taken up by regional cooperation, energy and the environment. He’s comments have been echoed by Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar.

Ironically, the Bangkok Post published an opinion piece, reminding the ASEAN governments of the slight given by the Myanmar government. The Myanmar government offered to let Malaysia Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar visit as an ASEAN envoy in 2005 but then postponed his visit for a couple of months.

In the end, it would be events within Myanmar rather than outside, that would have the most impact. There are some signs that there are divisions within the Myanmar military. For instance, Myo Myint, a former junior officer who lost an arm and leg in combat before defecting to the National League for Democracy in the 1980s said, “There were some hints of splits inside the army. Some commanders may have refused to attack and ordinary soldiers may have refused to shoot. Sooner or later there may be splits within the army’s ranks. The soldiers don’t want to attack Buddhists.”

Another ex-military personnel, Htay Win, a major in the Myanmar army with 21 years’ experience who deserted before the order was given to shoot monks said that he believed executions of disloyal officers could have been carried out in secret.  (15 November 2007)

Sources:

UN Envoy Hoping To Meet Myanmar Prisoners (Agence France Presse, 15 November 2007)

UNSC Asks Myanmar To Soften Its Stance Toward Suu Kyi (Jakarta Post, 15 November 2007)

Rotten To The Corps: Junta’s Tyranny Its Own Worst Enemy (South China Morning Post, 15 November 2007)

Myanmar Situation Normal With Leaders In Control: Minister (Straits Times, 15 November 2007)

Junta In ‘Total Control’; External Pressure Futile, Says Visiting Myanmar Minister (Today, 15 November 2007)

When The Junta Plays Host ... (Today, 15 November 2007)

China Says Myanmar Should Not Be “Another Iraq” (Reuters, 14 November 2007)

M’sia Hopes Myanmar Issue Will Not Overshadow ASEAN Summit (ChannelNewsAsia, 13 November 2007)

ASEAN Can Smile -- But Not Too Broadly (Bangkok Post, 13 November 2007)