The Misery of Myanmar

Updated On: Mar 24, 2007

The National Convention in Myanmar, which is drawing the new constitution, has been postponed (yet again) to the end of the year.

Than Shwe who had earlier pushed for the Convention seems to be wavering in his effort towards political reforms. 

Than Shwe is supposedly planning to clarify the division of powers between the military and the government by withdrawing military commanders from the administration in the provinces and villages. Civilian governors would then be handpicked to take over. There has also been talk that Than Shwe had planned to retire together with his deputy General Maung Aye and pass their military command to the next generation of generals.

However, Than Shwe’s last-ditch of reforming the government seems to be slowly unraveling even before many of the components have kicked into action. In part, this is due to his failing health. Than Shwe has flown into Singapore in 31 December 2006 for medical treatment. He is suffering from diabetes, hyper tension and other ailments.

Than Shwe is not only senior Myanmar official having medical problems. Myanmar’s Prime Minister General Soe Win is currently undergoing treatment in Singaporefor a ‘serious’ undisclosed illness. Soe Win had been admitted in Singapore General Hospital since late last month. The Irrawaddy reported last month that Soe Win is suffering from leukaemia. Even Vice Senior General Maung Aye has allegedly visited Singapore in 2003 for treatment of his prostate.

What would happen when Than Shwe leaves the scene? Than Shwe seems to prefer Thura Shwe as his successor. However, Maung Aye is reportedly preparing to seize control instead. Is there any difference between the two? "Maung Aye heads the hardliners who will resist change at all costs, preferring to maintain the status quo. Whereas the other camp, led by Thura Shwe Mann, is interested in exploring new initiatives that could help break the country's international isolation," said a senior Burmese political analyst based in Rangoon with close ties to the military.

At the moment, both are not likely to rock the boat. A senior Western diplomat in Yangon commented, "Amid the current uncertainty there is no incentive to move forward, everyone has more to lose than gain." Like the calm before the storm, there is an uneasy stillness (both literally and figuratively) in the Myanmar administration.

While the Myanmar military dithers, the country continues its downward spiral. Even the simple act of distributing copies of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is forbidden as seen in a news report filed by Irrawaddy in which two human rights activists were arrested for allegedly doing so. 

Leaving Myanmar is one solution but perhaps only marginally better. Overseas, the people are not spared of the tyrannical Myanmar administration. The newspaper, Today, reported that a group of 300 Myanmar nationals in Singapore is seeking recourse to what they argue is a breach of the Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) between Singapore and Myanmar. These Myanmar nationals have to pay ‘tax’ in order to get their passport renewed, even if they are not working or if they have already paid tax to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS).

Those Myanmar nationals in Malaysia are facing increased restriction on their movement. The Malaysian government wants all 105,000 refugees currently in Malaysia to be confined in camps instead of being allowed to move freely. This move comes amidst a tide of rising disquietude with many Malaysians feeling that there are too many refugees and illegal immigrants and that these two groups are responsible for the spate of crime and social ills. Even the group editor of the New Straits Times, Datuk Syed Nazri Harun has weighed in with an editorial supporting the government’s move to tighten control over these refugees, many of whom have fled from Myanmar’s ongoing civil war.

At least one Thai-language newspaper has taken a step further by accusing Burmese migrant workers of looting the tsunami-hit communities in Thailand. All this is done in good measure- over a screaming headline. In response, the local police duly launched a crackdown on migrant workers, forcing some of them to confess (and sign those confessions) that they have stolen property.

What the newspaper and many in the local communities failed to realize was the extent to which these migrant workers, especially those from Myanmar have already suffered after tsunami. Although the official count places the number of Burmese dead from the Tsunami at only 9, the actual number is expected to be significantly higher. Many of the migrant workers do not have official documentation either because of their illegal status or due to their employers have withheld it from them. Hence they are not able to claim the bodies. Moreover, a survey conducted by a human rights group found that 43% of the migrant workers earned a lower wage than before the tsunami.

One Myanmar worker in Thailand, Ko Nge Lay, 42, from the Mon state, said, "As migrant workers, we feel that we have no rights. Even if we beat a dog owned by a Thai person, we could be threatened, beaten or killed. Local Thais think our lives are worth nothing and they can do whatever they want with us."

Abused at home, abandoned by the international community, the misery of Myanmar continues unabated. 


Myanmar Prime Minister Treated for ‘Serious’ Condition in Singapore Hospital (Associated Press, 21 March 2007)

Myanmar PM In S’pore Hospital, Not Critically Ill- Embassy (Reuters, 21 March 2007)

Your Tax or Your Passport (Today, 21 March 2007)

Burmese Activists Arrested For Distributing UN Rights Document (Irrawaddy, 20 March 2007)

The Ongoing Plight of Migrant Workers (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Generals Prepare to Cling to Power (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Malaysia Wants Refugees to Stay in Camps (Straits Times, 17 March 2007)

Top Officials from Myanmar Have Sought Medical Treatment in Singapore in Recent..  (Today, 16 March 2007)