Sanctions Undermined by Burma’s Neighbors: US

Irrawaddy news, 15th Oct 2009

BANGKOK — As Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reviews Western sanctions against her country and a debate opens up about their affect on the military regime, a Washington agency has admitted that efforts to keep Burmese gems out of the US are failing.

Gemstones such as jade and rubies are among the core targets of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union against the military junta running Burma.

Giant stones are displayed at the gem market in Tachilek, Burma. The city of Tachilek sits on the Thai-Burmese border in Shan State and is known to be one of the crossing points for Burmese gems into Thailand. (Photo: Getty Images)

But the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) says: “US agencies have not shown that they are effectively targeting imports of Burmese-origin rubies, jadeite and related jewelry.”

GAO is a policing agency of the US Congress charged with assessing whether laws are being effectively enforced.

“Impediments remain to restricting trade in Burmese rubies and jadeite,” concludes a 49-page report assessing the 2008 JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act.

The report also admits that the US has been unsuccessful in winning the support of other countries linked to the gems industry in curbing Burmese trade.

“Strong support and the cooperation of China and Thailand are important to restrict trade in these items, but highly unlikely,” the report said.

It said the US government has failed to put forward any United Nations resolution on gems sanctions because “a number of countries would likely oppose a resolution.”

Burma’s neighbor Thailand remains a major source of finished ruby and jade jewelry for the US and Europe but insists that its products—although often sourced to Burma for raw materials—are substantially finished in Thailand and therefore not sanctionable.

Thai jewelry exports to the United States in 2008 were valued at US $8 billion, said the GAO.

The US admissions come as the new Barack Obama presidency signals changes in Washington policy toward the Burmese junta, including more constructive contacts and Suu Kyi’s meeting in Rangoon recently with leading Western country ambassadors to discuss the effects of sanctions.

Many campaigners for democratic change in Burma strongly support sanctions as a means of penalizing the junta, but others argue that they are merely hurting ordinary Burmese.

“The only perceptible effect of sanctions is that they have generally debilitated the Burmese economy, and this stagnation has been felt by the population at large,” said the former British ambassador to Thailand, Derek Tonkin, this week.

Tonkin heads up Network Myanmar, a Britain-based campaign for human rights and democracy in Burma.

“The regime and its cronies have, however, been able to avoid any significant or even measurable impact on themselves because of the total absence of sanctions applied in the region, notably by China, India and Russia,” Tonkin said.

However, Sean Turnell, another Burma expert who tracks and assesses junta business activities, argues that the Burmese regime itself is responsible for trashing the country’s economy and believes sanctions are a way of curbing the generals’ self enrichment.

“For the moment at least there is little substantive change in US policy towards Burma,” Turnell told The Irrawaddy.

“It’s clear that some movement towards the release of political prisoners and certain other steps that demonstrate a genuine commitment to reform will be necessary before it does. In a sense, the bluff is now called on Burma’s generals to put their cards on the table.”

Turnell is a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University and co-produces Burma Economic Watch.

The way in which the junta leaders sidestep sanctions was highlighted in a report last month by EarthRights International (ERI).

The junta leadership has siphoned off as much US $4.83 billion from the national budget in revenues from industrial giants Chevron and Total’s operation of the Yadana gas field, said ERI.

And that enrichment has primarily been financed by Thailand which is the sole buyer of the Yadana gas and as a member of Asean does not apply or support any sanctions.

US Sen. Richard Lugar this week announced plans to introduce legislation to promote a free-trade agreement between the US and Asean.

He said he believed current US sanctions against Asean member Burma would not be affected by such a development.

ERI also reported that the gas income theft by the junta was sitting in two Singapore banks—despite US sanctions supposedly in place to curb the international financial activities of junta generals and their proxies.

However, an economist with a Western embassy in Bangkok takes the view that Washington’s GAO appears to have been “too ready to accept some of the submissions put to it by gem dealers and traders in Thailand, all with a vested interest to talk up the difficulties of establishing place of origin for Burma’s gems and the damage done to small traders rather than SPDC [junta]-connected entities.”

That Burma watcher, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic circumstances of the issue, also noted: “The GAO report significantly underplays the role of large established entities in the Burmese gems trade, especially the SPDC-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise which conducts periodic high profile gem auctions.

“Such auctions raise significant funds for the regime. To the extent that entities such as the MGE are impacted, then US sanctions on Burma’s gem exports are well targeted.
S Sen. Richard Lugar Lugar Lugar this week ann..ounced plans to introduce legislation to promote a free-trade agreement between the US and Asean.

11 Political Activists Sentenced at Insein Prison

14th Oct 2009,

Eleven political activists, including one Buddhist monk, were sentenced to between five and 10 years on Tuesday at Rangoon Northern District Court in Insein Prison.

The court also passed down a sentence in absentia on two monks, Ashin Pyinnya Jota and Ashin Sandardika, from the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, who have fled abroad.

Sources close to prison authorities in Insein told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that Ashin Sandimar (aka Tun Naung), Kyaw Zin Min (aka Zaw Moe), Wunna Nwe and Zin Min Shein were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for violating the Explosives Law (Section 3) and the Unlawful Association Law (Section 6).

Meanwhile, Saw Maung, Aung Moe Lwin, Moe Htet Nay, Tun Lin Aung, Zaw Latt, Naing Win and Tun Lin Oo were sentenced to five years for violating Section 6.

In 2008, Ashin Sandimar, Wunna Nwe and Saw Maung were sentenced to eight years imprisonment for violating the Immigration Act (13/1) and the Illegal Organization Act (17/1), while Zin Min Shein and Tun Lwin Aung are already serving 13-year sentences for other offences related to political activities.

Therefore, Ashin Sandimar, Wunna Nwe and Tun Lwin Aung have now been convicted and sentenced to 18 years each, while Saw Maung has received 13 years, and Zin Min Shein a total of 23 years.

Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said, “We can say with certainty there was no free and fair verdict. They [the activists] were tortured during interrogation and were forced to admit violating these acts.”

Sources have said that some of the activists—perhaps even some of those already behind bars—tried to organize demonstrations on the second anniversary of the Saffron Revolution in September, but the authorities caught them and accused them of belonging to illegal organizations, of being terrorists, and of planning to create unrest.

Meanwhile, Burmese-American activist Nyi Nyi Aung (aka Kyaw Zaw Lwin), who was arrested in early September at Rangoon Airport, appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday.

“He has been accused of violating the Cheating Offence – Section 420, and forgery,” said his lawyer, Nyan Win.

Shortly after the arrest of Nyi Nyi Aung, 16 ethnic Arakan youths were arrested—seven in Rangoon and the others in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State. They were accused of maintaining links with the Thailand-based All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress.

According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoner (Burma), 2,119 political prisoners are being held in prisons across the country.


Many Burmese Monks Arrested

15th Oct 2009,

At least 30 monks were arrested in Burma in September and October, the two-year anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, sources said.

Sources familiar with the Sangha, the institution of monks nationwide, said 13 monks from Meiktila and 10 monks from Kyaukpadaung townships in Mandalay Division were arrested in late September, in an effort by the military junta to discourage or break up potential demonstrations by monks.

A Burmese Buddhist Monk makes a protest to ‘Free Burma’ during the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in May in Cannes, France. (Photo: Getty Images)

An official in Meiktila who requested anonymity said monks from the Nagar Yone Monastery in the township were among those arrested.

A Burmese human rights group in exile, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), confirmed that dozens of monks were arrested in the past two months.

“More than 20 monks were detained throughout September,” Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of the AAPP, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “We’ve gotten reports of seven monks arrested recently.”

The AAPP said the recent arrests took place in Arakan State, and Rangoon, Mandalay and Magwe divisions.

There are 224 monks among the 2,119 political prisoners in Burma, said the AAPP, not including the recent arrests.  

In September, the Burmese regime announced an amnesty for prisoners. The number of political prisoners released totaled 127, including four monks, of the 7,114 prisoners who received amnesty.

The All Burma Monks’ Alliance, which led the 2007 demonstrations, has renewed its call for the regime to apologize for the beating and arrests of monks in Pakokku two years ago and to release all monks who were imprisoned during the subsequent crackdown.

The monks set an Oct. 3 deadline for the regime to respond, saying that if there is no apology, monks will start another boycott of alms offered by all military and government personnel, known in Buddhism as “patta ni kozana kan.”

Burmese authorities responded to the monks’ call by increasing security in Rangoon early this month.

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