Friday, October 27, 2006

Inside Myanmar's secret capital

By Clive Parker

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - One year after Myanmar's secretive ruling military junta suddenly relocated the national capital 320 kilometers north from Yangon to Naypyidaw, the motivations behind the dramatic move are still unclear.

Foreign access to the new capital is strictly forbidden. But this correspondent's recent travels through the area showed that the junta has quietly continued to build around the new capital's greenfield site, which is rapidly swallowing the old town formerly known as Pyinmana. And recent construction of key infrastructure in other parts of the country's heartland Mandalay division offers new clues to the junta's grand designs for the region.

Although on a smaller scale than in the new capital, Myanmar's government is concurrently developing military, communications and transport infrastructure in a corridor that runs directly north from Naypyidaw to Pyin Oo Lwin, the town where the army's Defense Services Academy (DSA) training facility is situated.

The regime is building a new military airport just outside of Pyin Oo Lwin in nearby Anikasan town. The single runway, a 3,000-meter-long airstrip, took nearly two years to complete and immediately came into service last October when the junta received India's army chief of staff J J Singh in Pyin Oo Lwin. The Indian official was subsequently taken on a tour of the DSA as well as the Defense Services Technological Academy.

Residents of Pyin Oo Lwin and nearby Mandalay say the new airstrip is more commonly used to ferry high-ranking military officials between Naypyidaw and a newly built luxury housing complex between Anikasan Airport and Pyin Oo Lwin, which reportedly includes a large mansion belonging to State Peace and Development Council chief General Than Shwe. Strictly off limits to visitors, the site was built with the help of Htoo Trading, owned by Tay Za, the military's preferred construction contractor and a renowned arms dealer.

In July, just outside of Pyin Oo Lwin, the junta began construction on the Yadanabon Silicon Village, a new cyber-city that promises to serve as an integral part of the new capital's communication network. Although construction has just commenced, architectural blueprints seen by this correspondent at the site's foreman's cabin show plans for a sprawling complex devoted to software incubation and information-technology hardware suites, along with a modern residential zone.

In August, builders had cleared a channel for a new access road to the site, though construction of the complex itself has not progressed beyond initial landscaping. Builders could be heard by this correspondent blasting the hillside as part of the land-clearing process. As with the new capital Naypyidaw, photographing the site is strictly forbidden.

Military industrial complex

The junta apparently has an eye on concentrating key industry around the region. Old and new military installations line the main road from Pyin Oo Lwin to Mandalay, including the Defense Services Mechanical and Electrical Engineering School, which was built more than a decade ago. The town is also home to the Defense Services Institute of Technology, the Defense Services Administration School and the Army Training Depot.

Also just outside Pyin Oo Lwin is Myanmar's only iron-and-steel factory, which produces about 30,000 tons of metal a year, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. In a bid to improve access to this increasingly significant military town, the government in 2003 decided to upgrade drastically the notoriously poor Mandalay-Pyin Oo Lwin road with the help of the Asia World Co, another preferred contractor owned by Steven Law, who has widely alleged links to the narcotics trade. It now takes less than an hour by car to reach Mandalay from Pyin Oo Lwin.

Almost equidistant between Pyin Oo Lwin and Naypyidaw is the strategically significant town of Meiktila, home to the country's air force. Meiktila has also seen extensive development in recent years coincident with construction of the new capital. Since 2001, there have been reports that China and Russia have helped upgrade the Shante air base, the country's main military airstrip, a few kilometers northeast of Meiktila.

Reports that both countries have recently sold and delivered fighter jets to the base seem to be confirmed by satellite images downloaded using Google Earth, which clearly show a number of olive-green Chinese Chengdu F-7M Airguard and light-khaki NAMC A-5C military aircraft along with blue Russian MiG-29s - all recent additions to Myanmar's air force. At the nearby Meiktila Airfield, Google Earth images also show a number of what appear to be Russian Mi-17 helicopters.

In addition to supplying military hardware, media reports have suggested, Chinese and Russian aeronautical experts have in recent years made regular visits to the various air force training schools around Meiktila.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper in April 2004 confirmed that lectures were administered by "local and foreign experts" at the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University in Meiktila, which at the time was still in the process of being completed. This "new and separate university", the report said, would "make the teaching programs more effective by sending teachers going to work at the university to foreign countries for further studies and inviting foreign technicians to the university to give lectures".

Highlighting the military significance of the new facility, Than Shwe said during a 2004 visit, "Only when the university produces future technicians in aerospace and engineering fields for the state will the nation be able to keep pace with others." The military has also relied on Chinese and Russian assistance to help build other significant military installations in and around Meiktila.

In April 2004, around the time construction on the new capital began, the junta signed a US$500 million deal with Ukrainian state arms company UkrspetsExport to build an APC (armored personnel carrier) factory. Between 12km and 15km outside of Meiktila, according to a former employee of the Ukrainian firm who worked on the deal, the facility is designed over a 10-year period to receive about 1,000 70%-assembled BTR-3U APCs.

At the factory, Meiktila-based Ukrainian technicians are geared to work hand-in-hand with their Myanmar counterparts to complete the assembly process and pass along knowledge about the vehicles' inner workings, the company's former employee said. Although the deal was designed to run until 2014, Myanmar's failure to meet payments on time has recently soured relations between the two sides.

In a bid to receive past-due payments, Sergiy Korostil, UkrspetsExport's chief representative in Yangon, wrote a letter to Myanmar's Ministry of Defense this year. This was, however, rebuffed when the Myanmar side accused the Ukrainians of violating their side of the agreement when their technicians were discovered to have left their designated military compound without authorization. Whether this tit-for-tat exchange has killed the deal is unclear. Korostil is reportedly still operating out of his office at the Nikko Hotel in Yangon with a small team of staff, and the executive has since made visits to Naypyidaw to meet with government officials.

The hiccup with UkrspetsExport has not dampened other foreign firms' appetite to ink deals with the junta. Many Asian companies have traveled to Naypyidaw to sign a host of state contracts to build communication, transport and perhaps even military infrastructure. In 1998, prior to the UkrspetsExports episode, Myanmar agreed to a deal with China to build a landmine factory just outside of Meiktila, which is reportedly still up and running.

The junta has also made efforts to significantly upgrade transport links to Meiktila. In August, workers could be seen opposite the town's train platform working on the beginnings of a construction project between the two main lines that run through Meiktila railway station. On July 16, the government held a ceremony to launch the new Naypyidaw-Meiktila express-train service, one of a number of recently added routes to the new capital. The project included construction of "13 small and big bridges ... along the railroad", the state-run press reported.

South of Meiktila, the road to Naypyidaw has undergone considerable renovation, at least by Myanmar's poor standards. Although many roads in the new capital remain unfinished, an expansive new highway that leads off the main Yangon-Mandalay road to the new Ministry of Defense compound is nearly complete.

A Western observer who in recent months caught a rare glimpse inside the new 35-square-kilometer defense zone to the north of the new capital noticed giant statues of past Burmese kings along the main parade ground. "Most notable was the four-lane concrete road that passes through the entire complex, [which] becomes six then eight lanes as you enter the military side. Reportedly, this is so it can serve as an airplane runway," said the Western observer, who requested anonymity.

Mysterious motivations

While commentators have offered a host of reasons for the junta's sudden move north, ranging from astrology to military strategy to fears of a possible US-led invasion, the larger field of development in Myanmar's central heartland lends credence to the simpler strategic notion that the junta regards the central heartland as an ideal site to consolidate its resources.

Whether or not the move to Naypyidaw offers strategic military advantages is debatable, according to Andrew Selth, an expert on Myanmar's armed forces. "Building Naypyidaw emphasizes and utilizes that corridor, but there have long been plans to upgrade these facilities, as they are also important for economic and political reasons," he said. "In purely strategic terms, it would have been more sensible to diversify these critical north-south links and build more routes on the western side of the Irrawaddy [River], or in the east of the country."

Selth said the increasing separation of Myanmar's ruling military generals from the civilian population would make it far easier for a potential foreign invader to target the junta through air strikes. Nevertheless, the argument previously put forward that the switch inland from the old coastal capital Yangon reduces the risk to the junta of a land invasion was probably taken into account by the military.

In the past, the junta felt most threatened through its vulnerability at the Bay of Bengal. In 1988, the US moved navy vessels into the area, apparently in the event of the state collapsing during the democratic uprisings. In 1992, junta abuses against Muslims in Arakan state prompted the wrath of Saudi Arabia, whose army chief Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz called on the United Nations to intervene and help the minority Muslims.

Selth reasons that relocating inland does not put the military out of reach of advanced missiles and aircraft of its perceived primary threat - the United States. President George W Bush's administration has recently referred to Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny", though few security experts reckon the US would ever attack, because of China's heavy influence in Myanmar. But "if the external threat was seen as real and imminent, the regime may well choose to consolidate its military strength in central [Myanmar], with a view to a conventional defense of the [Myanmar] heartland," he said.

Whether efforts to expand resources and facilities in the country's central heartland truly shore up national defenses given that the main insurgency threat lies in the surrounding areas controlled by Karen insurgents is debatable, Selth said. "Given its make-up, it is difficult to see the current government doing anything that does not include some consideration of military and strategic factors," he said.

While evidence of massive construction activity in Mandalay division suggests that the junta may well see central Myanmar as the key to its ultimate survival, as ever, only Than Shwe and his inner circle know the real reason behind their dramatic and expensive shift to Naypyidaw.

Clive Parker is a reporter at The Irrawaddy, an online news service and monthly magazine that focuses on Myanmar and Southeast Asia, based in Chiang Mai. He is possibly the first foreign journalist to report from Myanmar's new capital.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Burma’s National Convention Resumes

By Kyaw Zwa Moe

October 10, 2006

Burma’s military government resumed on Tuesday its 13-year-long National Convention, tasked with drafting a constitution, without the participation of the country’s main opposition groups, as hundreds of people in cities across the country joined a new campaign in support of detained former student leaders.

State-run newspapers earlier reported that more than 1,000 delegates would attend the National Convention, which first convened in 1993. The convention is the first of seven steps in the military government’s roadmap to democracy. No timetable has yet been given for proposed democratic reforms.

Opposition groups inside and outside the country have strongly condemning the convention. “It is valueless, since it lacks democratic principles,” said Nyan Win, a spokesperson for Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

The NLD won a landslide victory following elections in 1990, but the ruling junta refused to honor the results. The party’s involvement in the convention ended in 1995, when their delegates walked out in protest. The NLD reiterated its opposition to the convention in 2004, prompting the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Burma’s largest ethnic political party, to abandon the convention that year.

“Restarting the sham National Convention, in defiance of the UN and the people of Burma, will do nothing to solve Burma’s problems,” said Aung Din, policy director for the US Campaign for Burma. “The Burmese people want real democracy, not a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Meanwhile, sources in Rangoon and Mandalay said that hundreds of people have participated in a new campaign called “White Expression” by wearing all white clothing. The campaign was launched on Tuesday by the 88 Generation Students group and will run until October 18.

The campaign is intended to push the military government to free all political prisoners and initiate a genuine national reconciliation process. The group, which is composed of former political prisoners, planned its campaign a few days after authorities arrested its five leaders—including the most prominent leader, Min Ko Naing—at the end of September.

Nyan Win said that all members of the NLD wore white clothing on Tuesday. Well-known Burmese comedian Zarganar added that many young people could be seen wearing white in downtown Rangoon, particularly in shopping malls. “I have seen many young people wearing white since this morning,” Zarganar told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “I am also wearing white.”

Tin Win Yi, an NLD member from Mandalay, said that many people there were also joining the campaign.

Prior to the White Expression campaign, the student group began a petition campaign to free their detained leaders. Nyan Win said that two of its youth members were arrested last week after collecting signatures and trying to send them to the student group.

Win Ko, a youth leader, and Than Win, both from the Moe Nyo township NLD office, were arrested at a train station in their township while carrying petition signatures to the 88 Generation Students group.

As of Saturday, some 120,000 signatures have been collected, according to the student group.

The National
Convention Line-up

Following is a list of the political parties and ethnic ceasefire groups attending the current session of Burma’s National Convention:

1. Kokang Democracy and Unity Party

2. Union Kayin (Karen) League

3. Union Pa-O National Organization

4. Mro (aka) Khami National Solidarity Organization

5. Lahu National Development Party

6. Wa National Development Party

7. National Unity Party: a political party formed by the military junta and members of the Burma Socialist Program Party led by the late dictator Ne Win. It won 10 seats in the 1990 election.

8. Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army (Kokang): the MNDAA signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime on March 21, 1989. Its leader is Phone Kyar Shin. The group commands control of Special Region-1, northern Shan State.

9. United Wa State Army: formerly called the Myanmar National Solidarity Party, the UWSA signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime on May 9, 1989. Its leaders are Bao Yuxiang and Kyauk Nyi Lai. The group controls Special Region-2, Shan State.

10. Shan State Army (Shan State Progress Party): the SSA, commanded by Col Loi Mao, signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government on September 2, 1989. It is based in Special Region-3, Shan State.

11. National Democratic Alliance Army (Shan/ Akha Armed National Groups): the NDAA, led by Sai Lin and Lin Ming Xian, signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government on June 30, 1989. It controls Special Region-4, eastern Shan State.

12. Kachin Defense Army: founded in 1990 by Mahtu Naw, commander of the Kachin Independence Army’s 4th brigade, northern Shan State, the KDA broke away from the Kachin Independence Army in the same year and signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime on January 13, 1991. It is now based in Kawng Ha and controls Special Region-5, northern Shan State.

13. Pa-O National Organization: the PNO, led by Aung Kham Hti, signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta on April 11, 1991. The group controls Special Region-6, southern Shan State.

14. New Democratic Army-Kachin: the NDA-K, founded by Zahkung Ting Ying, its current chairman, signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta on December 15, 1989, the year in which the Communist Party of Burma collapsed. It’s based in Pang Wa, on the Sino-Burma border, controlling the Kachin State Special Region-1.

15. Kachin Independence Organization: Founded on February 5, 1961, by Zau Seng , the KIO signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government in February, 1994. Currently led by Lanyaw Zawng Hra, the KIO is the biggest Kachin armed group, based in Laiza, on the China-Burma border, in Special Region-2.

16. Kayan National Guard: the KNG, led by Gabriel Byan and Htay Ko, signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military government on February 27, 1992. It controls Special Region-1 Kayah (Karenni) State.

17. Karenni State Nationalities Peoples Liberation Front: the KNPLF, led by Sandar and Htun Kyaw, signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta on May 9, 1994. The group controls Special Region-2, Kayah (Karenni) State.

18. Kayan New Land Party: the KNLP, led by Shwe Aye, signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime on July 26, 1994. The group controls Special Region-3, Kayah (Karenni) State.

19. Karenni National Democratic Party: the KNDP (Naga), a group of the Karenni National Progressive Party that signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government in 1995, but which broke the ceasefire a few months later. Its leader, Lee Rey, remained in Rangoon, and in 1996 he organized the KNDP. Also named the Karenni National Defence Army, it’s based in Kayah (Karenni) State.

20. Karenni National Progressive Party (aka Hoya): the KNPP (Hoya), led by Ko Ree, signed a ceasefire with the junta in October, 2003. The group broke away from the KNPP at that time.

21. Karenni National Solidarity Organization: the KNSO (Ka-Ma-Sa-Nya) broke away from the KNPP at the same time as the KNPP (Hoya), and then signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta in 2003. It’s led by a commander Richard, (aka) Ka Ree Htoo.

22. Democratic Karen Buddhist Army: the DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1995 and signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government. The group is led by a monk, U Thuzana.

23. Haungthayaw Special Region Group: the HSRG, led by Tha Mu Hei, surrendered to the military government in 1997. Tha Mu Hei Battalion 16 of the KNU’s Sixth Brigade.

24. Nyeinchanyay Myothit: this group, which also calls itself the Phayagon Special Region Group, surrendered to the military government in 1998, together with about 40 students led by Padoh Aung San, of the KNU. It is based in Hpa-an, Karen State.

25. Burma Communist Party (Rakhine State Group): led by Saw Tun Oo, this group surrendered to the military government on April 6, 1997. It controls an area of Arakan State. The group also names itself the Rakhine State All National Races Solidarity Party.

26. Mong Tai Army (Shwepyiaye): the MTA signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government on January 5, 1996. It is led by Khun Sa and controls the area of Homong, southern Shan State.

27. Homong Region Development and Welfare Group: located in southern Shan State, east of the Salween River, this group is led by an ethnic Wa, Maha Ja,
0wner of Shan State South Co Ltd, or the SSS Company.

28. Manpan People’s Militia Group: this group is based in Tangyan, southern Shan State, and its operational areas extend to the Salween in the east. Its leader is Bo Mon (aka U Sai Mon), veteran former associate of drug lord Khun Sa. He is said to have enjoyed the trust of the junta, and was awarded an “Outstanding Social Service Prize” for banning poppy cultivation in his operational areas during the 2005-2006 poppy season.

29. Arakan Army: this group broke away from the exiled Arakan Liberation Party. Its founder, Khai Ya Zar, died in custody in India after being arrested there in the late 1990s. The AA delegation attending the National Convention is reportedly only a nominal one.

30. Mon Peace Group (Chaungchi Region)

31. Mon Nai Seik Chan group

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Myanmar's move to military democracy
By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - Myanmar's top brass are in the process of overhauling their junta-led government, where military leader General Than Shwe and second-in-command General Maung Aye are preparing to stand down from their traditional military commands and hand over authority to a new generation of senior soldiers. There's a catch, of course: neither military leader plans on relinquishing his grip on political power.

The planned changes represent the latest phase of Myanmar's excruciatingly slow move toward political reform and the promised introduction of a civilian-led government. The National Convention, which significantly does not include representation from the main opposition National League for Democracy, is set to resume drafting a new constitution next week and wrap up proceedings by next year. If all goes to plan, the draft charter will be put to a national referendum and some sort of democratic elections will be held within the next 12 months.

The scheduled changes would represent the most dramatic change of Myanmar's governing system since the current batch of soldiers seized power from another military-led regime 18 years ago. Both Than Shwe and Maung Aye will retain their top posts within the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is expected to change its name to the State Democracy and Development Council (SDDC) to mark the start of a new political era. Than Shwe is also expected to relinquish his current position of defense minister.

General Thura Shwe Man, Than Shwe's protege, is in line to take command of the armed forces, while southeastern regional commander Thura Myint Aung is expected to take Maung Aye's post as the military's deputy leader. Thura Myint Aung is relatively unknown in diplomatic circles, but is regarded as one of Myanmar's few neutral top generals - that is, he owes political allegiance to neither Than Shwe nor Maung Aye, according to a source in Yangon close to the country's military leaders.

The yet-to-be-established SDDC, meanwhile, will become the country's overarching new supreme ruling council, which will oversee both the military command and the civilian government. Than Shwe and Maung Aye will head the new body, which is also expected to include new military leader Thura Shwe Man and other regional commanders. Prime Minister Soe Win, who has already traded in his military garb for a civilian business suit, will head the cabinet and government.

"Senior General Than Shwe and Deputy Senior General Maung Aye are in the process of handing over control of the armed forces to the next generation of generals," said a senior Myanmar military source who spoke on condition of anonymity with Asia Times Online. He said Than Shwe informed junta members of the plans at their recent quarterly meeting in the new capital Pyinmana - which is about 400 kilometers north of the former capital Yangon.

The anticipated moves have Myanmar watchers chattering. "This has been Than Shwe's game plan for some time. It is only a matter of when," said Win Min, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based independent Myanmar analyst. According to Chinese diplomats that follow Myanmar affairs, Than Shwe intends to stand down to become the civilian president under the new constitution.

"He wants to be president for life," a senior military source close to Than Shwe said.

Over the past 12 months, Than Shwe has frequently told Thailand's top army commanders that he would soon retire and that Thura Shwe Man would take over as the country's military leader. The abrupt move of the SPDC's government offices and the armed forces' central command to Pyinmana, which commenced last November and was finally completed in February, has delayed those planned changes.

Now with the new capital up and running, Than Shwe is waiting for the most auspicious time to implement the planned changes. "Although the decision to pass the control of the army to Thura Shwe Man has been made, it is unlikely to happen before the National Convention has finished drafting the new constitution," a Western diplomat based in Yangon told Asia Times Online.

Declining health

Than Shwe's declining health may also determine the timing of the handover. Last year the then-75-year-old SPDC senior leader, who is known to suffer from hypertension and is a diabetic, had a mild stroke but quickly recovered. In the past few months there have been new reports that his health is deteriorating again, according to a Myanmar army doctor who spoke with Asia Times Online.

According to one foreign visitor who recently met with Than Shwe, the senior general is often short of breath. In a video of his daughter's recent wedding viewed by Asia Times Online, he clearly had trouble walking. According to government insiders, Than Shwe has seldom ventured outside his residence since his military government was moved from Yangon to Pyinmana in February.

Since then he has only once traveled to Yangon, and that for his daughter's wedding ceremony. For the past two months, he has not ventured to the War Office and only attends crucial meetings such as the fortnightly joint SPDC-cabinet session, according to an Asian diplomat who was until recently based in Yangon. He reportedly sends orders to Maung Aye and Prime Minister Soe Win through his heir apparent Thura Shwe Man, who has emerged as his closest confidant.

Some political analysts believe Than Shwe is trying to conceal his poor health to prevent a full-blown power struggle breaking out among his subordinates. Still, government insiders say he is acutely aware of the dangers involved with the political transition, and he has employed his trademark divide-and-rule tactics to maintain his authority, particularly between soon-to-be-army-chief General Thura Shwe Man and Soe Win.

"Even if Than Shwe officially retires he will not give up his power. Instead, he'll remain the gray eminence behind the throne, along the lines of the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the years before his death," said Win Min, the Chiang Mai-based analyst.

Efforts to civilianize the junta-led government are already under way. For instance, cabinet members have been made to leave the armed forces, and military control throughout the country is being transferred from the armed forces to the Interior and Planning ministries.

Under the new government, local military commanders will be required to report to the Home Ministry, a move that has already been implemented at the township level and is now being enforced at the district level as well, according to a senior international aid worker based inside the country familiar with the situation.

"This is all part of Than Shwe's plans to streamline government administration and strengthen the authorities' control over the general population in preparation for a transition to so-called civilian rule and to win the elections held under the new constitution," said Win Min.

With the plan's implementation under way, analysts predict that the military's control under civilian rule will likely be strengthened rather than weakened across the country. And the next generation of generals who are settling into leadership positions will be loath to relinquish their newfound powers to a new democratic order. If all goes to Than Shwe's master plan, the chances for real democracy still remain distant.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the BBC. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.