Monday, June 11, 2007

Drugs go up in somke

SSA leader Colonel Yawd Serk set drugs on fire.

Drugs go up in smoke

The Shan State Army (SSA), one of the few remaining ethnic armies fighting the military junta of Burma, yesterday held a massive drug bonfire at a military base in Loi Kawwan as part of its campaign to win support from abroad.

In front of about 500 observers from Burma's Shan State and Thailand, SSA leader Colonel Yawd Serk set more than one million methamphetamine tablets, or "ya ba" pills, on fire.

Foreign journalists also observed proceedings at Loi Kawwan base, which is opposite Chiang Rai's Mae Fah Luang district.

The drugs were seized by a 30-strong unit of SSA soldiers who intercepted a shipment coming down the Mekong on Feb 6. A one-hour shoot-out between the traffickers and the SSA unit ended in the death of two soldiers and the sinking of three boats.

The incident took place just north of the "Golden Triangle".

The drugs appeared to have originated from Burma's so-called Special Region 2, an area along the Sino-Burmese border controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), dubbed the world's largest drug trafficking army by the US State Department. The pro-Rangoon UWSA and the SSA, accused by the Burmese junta of being a Thai proxy, are historical enemies and continue to engage in sporadic clashes.

Yawd Serk said the SSA was ready to enter cease-fire talks with the Burmese junta and even cooperate with them on drug suppression.

Wiwatchai Sukhum, The Nation, LOI KAWWAN, BURMA

Friday, May 25, 2007

Planned junta-SSA meeting called off

Maj Lao Hseng

23 May 2007 S.H.A.N

The planned historic meeting between the Burma Army and Shan State Army (SSA) South on the border today was postponed indefinitely after the Burma Army delegation failed to appear at the venue, according to SSA leader Col Yawdserk.

Speaking from his Loi Taileng base, opposite Thailand's Maehongson, the 50-year old commander expressed his "disappointment" that the meeting failed to take place as planned. "I hope both sides will regard this only as a temporary setback, as it will truly be in the interests of all those concerned if we can meet sometime in the near future."

The meeting was called off reportedly because both sides could not agree on the venue. The Burma Army had wanted its first get-together with the SSA delegation led by Assistant Secretary General and Spokesperson Maj Lao Hseng to take place in Tachilek. "The first meeting, we believe, should be at a neutral location," said Yawdserk. "But future meetings can be held anywhere, even Pyinmana, if sufficient mutual trust has been built up."

The SSA South, since 1996, has been calling for peace talks with the Burma Army. The latter had in the past insisted that the former had no choice but to surrender. The latest call for the meeting had come from the Burma Army, that had for unexplained reasons made a complete U turn in its policy towards the SSA.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ceasefire group poised between quitting and continuation

Aung Kham Hti ,The chairman of PaO National Army

Ceasefire group poised between quitting and continuation
24 April 2007 S.H.A.N

The PaO National Army (PNA) that had concluded a ceasefire agreement with Burma's ruling military junta 16 years earlier is in a quandary as the 2007 deadline to declare areas under its sway drug-free draws near, according to a reliable source in southern Shan State.

"PNA members were among some of the recent arrests made by the drug enforcement officials," said the source who requested anonymity, "and they have greatly embarrassed the group and its leader Aung Kham Hti".

Aung Kham Hti, a former Buddhist monk, is also one of the 3 patrons of the pro-SPDC southern Shan State's Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and one of the 5 chairmen of the National Convention's Other Invited Guests group.

The PNA, according to a report by World Food Program, has declared the group will be opium-free by 2007.

Accordingly, the group and its rival-turned-prot้g้ Shan State Nationalities Peoples Liberation Organization (SNPLO) had launched a poppy-destruction campaign during the last opium season that ended last month.

The result was mixed reactions by the public. "The fields in lowland area were destroyed after they had paid their taxes which infuriated the farmers," said Hkun Tetlu, vice chairman of the anti-SPDC PaO People's Liberation Organization (PPLO). "Fields beyond public view, on the other hand, were left untouched. It was nothing but a publicity stunt".

The source from the south related a meeting in 2005 between Aung Kham Hti and the villagers of Sawng Pyawng aka Chawng Plawng in Panglawng, a township west of the Shan State capital Taunggyi. "Aung Kham Hti, while exhorting the farmers to give up opium cultivation, also urged each family to have 6 children," he recounted. "A farmer with 12 children then asked him, 'Where do we get the money to feed them if we are not allowed to grow opium?' leaving him speechless."

The PaOs, formerly associated in the public eye with cheroot-leaves plantations have become known as opium producers, now that their cheroot-leaves trees are being substituted with poppy plants, according to a PaO women's newsletter.

The PNA and SNPLO had made peace with Burma's ruling junta the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1991 and 1994 respectively. The PaOs, the largest minority in Shan State, have been given a self administrative status by the National Convention. To which a Shan activist leader had responded last year using a pseudonym: "The PaOs, with a population of 1.1 million, certainly deserve an autonomous homeland, but the granting of the status by the regime, itself an illegitimate entity, is a shameless divide-and-rule-scheme."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Human Rights Report on Burma

Location Map of Burma (Myanmar's former name)

Human Rights Report on Burma

_ US State Department’s Report

Burma is ruled by an authoritarian military regime that enforced its firm grip on power with a pervasive security apparatus. The State Peace and Development Council, led by Senior General Than Shwe, was the country's de facto government. In 1990 the National League for Democracy won more than 80 percent of the seats in a general parliamentary election, but the regime ignored the results. During the year the regime’s deplorable human rights record worsened. Security forces committed extrajudicial killings, custodial deaths, disappearances, torture, rape, and forcible relocation of persons, used forced labor and conscripted child soldiers. Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Although the government revoked its original order to the International Committee for the Red Cross that it close all of its five field offices, it has not granted the International Committee for the Red Cross permission to continue all of its activities from those offices. The army increased attacks on ethnic minority villagers in Bago Division and Karen State in an attempt to drive them from their traditional land. The government abused prisoners and detainees, held persons in harsh and life threatening conditions, and routinely used incommunicado detention. More than 1,100 people continued to languish in jails for the peaceful expression of their political views. National League for Democracy General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi and Vice Chairman Tin Oo remained incommunicado and under house arrest. The government restricted freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. The government harassed and created difficulties for domestic human rights NGOs, and international NGOs encountered a restrictive environment. Violence and societal discrimination against ethnic minorities continued, as did trafficking in persons, including state-sponsored forced labor and widespread sexual exploitation of women and children. During the year the government released just a few political prisoners, among them labor activists Su Su Nway and Aye Myint, but arrested 17 others, including five leaders of the 88 Generation Group.

At year’s end, the regime reportedly intended to promulgate a new constitution and handpicked the delegates to attend the National Convention, which was suspended in 1996 and reconvened in 2004. The National Convention did not permit free debate and, for that reason, the National League for Democracy has not participated since 1995. Apart from its Rangoon headquarters, the National League for Democracy offices nationwide remained closed. Although the regime allowed UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari to visit twice during the year, there was no discernable improvement in the government’s human rights record or lessening of its harsh treatment of democratic opponents. Moreover, it continued to refuse permission for UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to visit the country.

U.S. human rights and democracy goals include the unconditional and immediate release of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 1,100 other political prisoners, an immediate end to military attacks on ethnic minorities, initiation of a credible and inclusive political process leading to national reconciliation, and unrestricted access for humanitarian assistance providers. The United States engaged in active bilateral and multilateral efforts with key partners and players in the Asia region, as well as the EU and like-minded countries, to raise international pressure on the regime to affect meaningful political reform.

The United States worked aggressively and multilaterally to press for change in Burma. Such efforts included support for the UN process led by Under-Secretary-General Gambari, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, as well as for the work of the International Labor Organization, the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees, and other international organizations. With the strong support of the United States, the UN Security Council agreed to place Burma on its permanent agenda on September 15. Following his two trips to Burma during the year, UN Under-Secretary-General Gambari briefed the Council on the continued deterioration of freedoms and called on the regime to release political prisoners, engage the democratic opposition in dialogue, stop its attacks on ethnic Karen civilians, and permit greater access to humanitarian organizations. The United States urged Burma's neighbors to press the regime to release all political prisoners and initiate a credible and inclusive political process.

The United States was a vocal advocate for the rights of democracy activists, including Aung San Suu Kyi. First Lady Laura Bush chaired a session on the situation in Burma in New York concurrently with the UN General Assembly. Speaking to key ASEAN leaders on the sidelines of the APEC summit in November, President Bush described the situation in Burma as "totally unacceptable" and encouraged them to engage the country more actively to improve its human rights record and move toward democracy. The United States also pursued the goal of promoting democracy and respect for human rights through vigorous public diplomacy and democracy programs. Following the regime’s May announcement that it had prolonged Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention for another year, the United States again called on the government to release Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners and to initiate meaningful dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic minority political groups.

The United States, EU members, and other nations have imposed a variety of sanctions on the junta. These sanctions signaled international disapproval while exerting pressure on the regime to end its human rights abuses and allow for genuine democracy. The U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to renew the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act for a fourth year, and President Bush signed the bill on August 1. U.S. sanctions included bans on the export of financial services by U.S. citizens, on imports from the country, and on new U.S. investment and a full arms embargo. Sanctions also blocked all bilateral aid to the government, Generalized System of Preferences privileges, and funding through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Export-Import Bank programs. The United States maintained visa restrictions on Burma’s senior military and government officials and opposed all new lending or grant programs by international financial institutions.

The United States also supported journalist training, civil society development, and scholarship programs inside the country and among exile communities to prepare citizens to assume leadership roles during a political transition. The United States promoted the rule of law and democracy by providing information on human rights, democratic values, and governance issues through speaker programs, exchange programs, publications, and other information outreach. U.S. officials in the country regularly disseminated news from Web sites blocked by government censors. U.S. courses on civics and good governance inspired political activists to create their own Burmese-language versions of the courses, as well as improving their organizational and speaking abilities. The United States also supported humanitarian assistance programs in the country and along the Thai border serving Burmese refugees. All U.S. humanitarian and democracy-related assistance was channeled through NGOs; none of the funding benefited the military regime.

The United States also sought an end to the egregious human rights abuses perpetrated by the army, many of which were carried out against ethnic minority civilians in border regions. The regime harassed and created difficulty for domestic human rights groups and dismissed all outside scrutiny of its human rights record. Several U.S.-funded groups working along Burma’s borders documented human rights abuses inside the country, including murder, rape, and forced labor. During travel throughout the country and along the Thai-Burma and Thai-Bangladesh borders, U.S. officials personally interviewed victims of violence. The U.S. Government also helped facilitate access for U.S. and UN investigations into human rights abuses and maintained close contact with influential members of the political opposition about initiatives supporting the struggle for democracy in the country.

There was no change in the regime’s infringement on religious freedom. The regime continued to monitor public meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious ones. It systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, discouraged or prohibited Muslims and Christians from constructing new places of worship, forced Muslims to tear down their own houses of worship, and in some ethnic minority areas used coercion to promote Buddhism over other religions. During the year the United States responded by redesignating Burma as a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for the eighth consecutive year. Several U.S.-funded organizations along Burma’s borders provided information on the serious repression faced by minority ethnic and religious groups in Burma, including Rohingya Muslims and Christians in ethnic areas.

The United States continued to press the regime to respect workers’ rights and unions and to discontinue its use of forced labor. The United States actively supported the work of the International Labor Organization liaison office in Rangoon, which sought to bring the regime into compliance with its international labor obligations. At the International Labor Organization’s Governing Board meeting in November, the United States supported consideration of further actions to address the regime’s lack of progress on the development of an adequate mechanism to address forced labor complaints.

To address the serious problem of trafficking in persons, the United States approved funding for NGO-implemented antitrafficking programs intended to raise awareness among vulnerable Burmese and to support antitrafficking efforts of local NGOs. The United States also pressed the regime to improve implementation of its antitrafficking law and to cooperate with NGOs and UN agencies such as the International Labor Organization on the serious issue of forced labor and the commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Released on April 5, 2007

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Karenni commander: Offensive against Shans in April

SSA' 4 major bases (Loi Taileng,Loi Lam,Hsanzu,Loi Kawwan)

Karenni commander: Offensive against Shans in April
 26 February 2007  S.H.A.N

According to Maj Gen Bee Htoo, Chief of Staff of the Karenni Army, the military arm of the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Burma Army will be launching a dry season offensive against his army and the Shan State Army (SSA) come April, reported the local Chiangmai News yesterday.
Kantarwaddy Times, based in Maehongson, has confirmed the news adding that the information was given by Burma Army porters who had escaped to the border. Other details are not available.
Kalaw-based Light Infantry Division (LID) 55 has been reinforcing its units along the border west of Maehongson, the newspaper reported.
However, north of Maehongson and its neighboring provinces, Chiangmai and Chiangrai, no unusual troop movements are being reported, according to Shan and Thai sources.
So far, there are only a few indicators:

  • On 15-16 January, pro-military Lahu militia units in Monghsat district, which covers three townships: Monghsat, Mongpiang and Mongton, opposite Thailand's Maehongson, Chiangmai and Chiangrai provinces, attended a meeting, where they were ordered by the Burma Army area commander to prepare for a major operation against the SSA after their annual New Year celebrations. The Lahu traditionally observe their New Year, which falls on 18 February this year, for two weeks.

  • Another is the construction of a new bridge on the Maesai river, some 10 km north of the Burma Army's Maemaw base near the SSA's Loi Kawwan stronghold since mid February. "They are also repairing and expanding the motor road to Maemaw," Lt-Col Gawnzuen, Commander of the Kengtung Military Region, based in Loi Kawwan. "Reports say heavier weapons will be brought in."

The SSA has 4 major bases along the Thai-Burma border: Loi Taileng, Loi Lam, Hsanzu and Loi Kawwan.
The Burma Army meanwhile is still going through a major reshuffle, substituting its competent commanders with new blood, an undertaking that might likely occupy it until the end of March, according to junta sources.
2006 was the only year when no major offensive was launched against the SSA. "The Burma Army however was pretty much preoccupied with its operations in Karen, Kayah (Karenni) and Sagaing areas," said a Thai security official.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Karen Split Group Formed a New Group

"Time to lay the wreath?"

Karen Split Group Formed a New Group
By Shah Paung February 02, 2007 Irrawaddy

The break-away commander of the Karen National Union's 7th Brigade, Brig-Gen Htain Maung, has formed a new Karen organization, the Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council. The announcement came on January 31, the 58th anniversary of the Karen revolution.

Htain Maung, promoted to major general, was named chairman of the new group. Lah Poe, the wife of the late Karen leader Gen Bo Mya, was named vice chairperson. She currently holds the position of chairperson of the Karen Women’s Organization.

Mahn Sha, the general secretary of the Karen National Union said, “We are not recognizing the groups." He said he could not say anything more until the KNU Central Committee meets. The KNU dismissed Htain Maung from his position on January 30 for his failure to follow KNU policies.

Col Ner Dah Mya, son of Bo Mya, tactical commander of the Karen National Libration Army and commander of KNLA Battalion 201, was appointed secretary-1 of the group. He was promoted to brigadier general.

His brother, Col Nay Kaw Mya, also known as “Saw Nay Kaw” has also joined the new group.

Pastor Timothy, a humanitarian worker who participated in ceasefire meetings between the Karen and the Burmese junta in 2003 and who was dismissed by the KNU’s foreign affairs department in June, 2005, was appointed joint-secretary-1.

The National Democratic Front, an ethnic alliance group, will continue to support the KNU main organization, said Hkun Okker, general secretary of the NDF, which was founded in 1976 by 11 armed ethnic groups, including the KNU.

Htain Maung, who has been involved in the Karen revolution since 1949, has been a KNU central committee member and commander of the 7th Brigade since 1970. He held separate meetings with the Burmese military government without approval of the KNU leadership, which led to a separate "peace" agreement in January.

Aye Tha Aung, secretary of the Arakan National League for Democracy said, “We are sad because of what's happening between the KNU and the 7th Brigade." It can create problems for other ethic groups, he said.

The KNU/KNLAPC group was not available for comment on Friday.

Karen representatives from inside and outside Burma are now gathering for a “Karen Unity Seminar” from Feb. 1-4 in a KNU control area along the Thai-Burma border.

According to general secretary Mahn Sha, four main issues will be discussed: The unity of Karen people, the current political situation in Burma and preparation for a new generation of Karen leadership.

“Karen unity is our principle goal,” he said.

More than 50 representatives are expected at the conference. Other issues to be discussed will include Karen resettlement to third countries, Karen views on regime, KNU ceasefire talks and the Salween River dam project. The Karen Unity Seminar began in 1999.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Wa troops move south

United Wa State Army (UWSA)

Wa troops move south
19 January 2007 S.H.A.N

Reports of the arrival of ten 10-wheeled trucks of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) on the border last week have triggered a new red alert among Shan and Thai security services.

The trucks arrived in Hwe Aw, Mongton township, opposite Chiangmai, in the dead of night on 11 January. They continued their way to Mongjawd, west of Hwe Aw, on the next day.
While some sources have speculated that the fresh troops were for reinforcements in the Wa bases around the Shan State Army (SSA) South's Loi Taileng base, opposite Maehongson, some are wary about giving comments. "Twice during the last 3 months we had sounded alert of an imminent attack coming from the Burma Army which turned out to be false alarms," said one veteran Burma watcher. "So let me reserve my comments until further information have been received."
It was discovered later that the wolf crying during the period was brought about by the Burma Army's preparations in eastern Shan State for its two-week divisional level maneuvers, 20 December – 4 January, in Mongkok, 100 km northwest of Tachilek. According to the opposition Network for Democracy and Development (NDD) Research Center, the Burma Army's Kengtung-based Triangle Region Command had already conducted two war games since 2005.
Another Thai watcher told S.H.A.N. since there were no signs of a looming offensive on the Shans, the said convoy could be loaded with inmates from the Wa prison at Wanhong, Monghsat township, 49 miles northeast of Mongton. "The Burma Army had earlier issued an order that Wa prisoners in Wanhong and Hwe Aw should be moved out to outlying areas," he said.
The Wa meanwhile maintain that "for the time being" they have no plans to attack the SSA South.
The UWSA had in the past cooperated with the Burma Army against the anti-junta SSA. The last encounter took place in 2005 at Loi Taileng resulting in some 770 casualties on both sides.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

King laureate calls for "state building" in Burma

Dr Lian Hmung Sakhong(Photo:ENC)

King laureate calls for "state building" in Burma

16 January 2007 S.H.A.N

Speaking in Stockholm's parliament building and later at the church of
Salemkyrkan where he was accepting the Martin Luther King Prize yesterday,
Burma's opposition Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) General Secretary Dr Lian
Hmung Sakhong called for "state-building" in lieu of "nation-building" that has
been pursued by the country's military regime since 1962.

He said in a country like Burma peopled by multi-nationalities, the notion of
nation-building in which the concept of 'nation' is blended with "one ethnicity,
one language and one religion," the only choice for minority groups is between
assimilation and resistance.

He recounted how in 1961 the parliamentary government of U Nu had promulgated
Buddhism as the state religion of Burma, how Gen Ne Win, who overthrew him, had
declared Myanmar-sa (Burmese) as the only official language and the
current military regime's changing of the country's name from Burma to Myanmar.
"In short, the successive governments have been practicing cultural genocide, if
not ethnic cleansing, for the past fifty years," he said.

Lian, as he is known by his friends, called for worthier solutions to deal with
the current crisis in Burma:

  • State building instead of nation-building ("the state knows only citizens
    no matter what nationality each individual belongs to, no matter what kind of
    religious belief he or she worships, no matter what kind of language he or she

  • "unity in diversity" instead of "national integration"

  • "decentralization" instead of "centralization"

  • "rights of self determination" instead of the current unitary arrangement

  • "tripartite dialogue" as called for by the UN since 1994 instead of
    violent confrontation still opted for by the military government

Dr Lian Hmung Sakhon wears several hats as he himself acknowledges. He is
general secretary and leading member in the following organizations:

  • Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC)

  • United Nationalities League for Democracy (UNLD)

  • Chin National League for Democracy (CNLD)

  • Chin National Council (CNC)

  • Federal Constitution Drafting and Coordinating Committee (FCDCC)

  • National Reconciliation Program (NRP)

The award was set up by Swedish peace groups in 2003 in honor of Dr Martin
Luther King Jr. (1929-68), American cleric and civil rights leader, who won the
1964 Nobel Peace Prize.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

SSA appoints new spokesperson

S.H.A.N 10 January 2007


SSA South's main base Loi Taileng


Maj Lao Hseng


The Shan State Army (SSA) South that has been
without a spokesperson since late last year has appointed a noted fighting
officer as its spokesman, according to the resolutions passed at the recent
annual meeting across the border.

The fiery and articulate Khurhsen Heng-awn who resigned in November is
succeeded by Maj Lao Hseng, a youthful fighter whose valor had gained much
recognition during the defense of the SSA South's main base Loi Taileng,
opposite Maehongson, against joint Wa-Burma Army campaign in 2005. The 3 day
meeting, 4-6 January, also chose Sub-lieutenant Hseng Merng as his deputy.

Their contact numbers and email addresses will be disclosed as soon as they
have taken up their new duties, according to an insider source.

The meeting also adopted two important decisions, among others:

  • To continue the fight against drugs

  • The Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS),
    the political arm of the SSA-South, is ready to resolve all political
    problems with the State Peace and Development Council by political means

So far the group's overtures have been spurned by Burma's ruling military
council. Unlike its allies the Karen National Union (KNU) and Karenni National
Progressive Party (KNPP), the SSA-South has been steadfastly been regarded as
a part of the Mong Tai Army (MTA) that surrendered in 1996 and therefore has
no right to negotiate for a separate deal.

The SSA 'South' is led by Colonel Yawdserk and Sai Yi. According to the new
setup, the former will be responsible for all external affairs and the latter
for all internal affairs.



Thursday, January 04, 2007

Freed Political Prisoners Remain Defiant

Freed Political Prisoners Remain Defiant

By The Irrawaddy and APJanuary 04, 2007

Political prisoners released under an Independence Day amnesty by Burma’s military government remain defiant, vowing Thursday to continue fighting for democracy and expressing concern for colleagues still behind bars.

Former political prisoners released in Wednesday’s amnesty join in Independence Day anniversary celebrations in Rangoon.

According to the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, the military government on Wednesday granted amnesty to 2,831 prisoners to mark the 59th anniversary of the country’s independence from Britain, which falls on January 4.

A spokesman of the main opposition party National League for Democracy, Nyan Win told The Irrawaddy from the party’s headquarters in Rangoon that 43 political prisoners were among those released and 17 of them were NLD members.

“I will not surrender, I will continue with my duties,” said NLD member Than Htay, 60, who was released from a prison in northern Burma where he was serving a five-year sentence, along with his son, Than Tun Oo.

Than Htay and his son were both sentenced to five years imprisonment on a charge of violating import-export regulations, a common accusation leveled against political activists. Than Htay said he hoped his son might be released soon.

Than Htay spoke by telephone from Mandalay, where he was attending a small Independence Day celebration organized by the NLD.

Another released political prisoner and NLD member, Zaw Win, said: “Although I have been released, I am not happy because my colleagues remain detained under wretched prison conditions. Many of them are in poor health, some are very old and several have been in prison for nearly two decades."Zaw Win, 47, was sentenced in 1999 to 10 years imprisonment. He traveled 120 km south from Tharawaddy prison to Rangoon to attend celebrations at the NLD headquarters.

Another political prisoner, Zaw Min, who was freed on Wednesday from Thayet prison in central Burma, also traveled to Rangoon to attend the NLD celebrations there. He said that most of those released had almost served their sentences. He told The Irrawaddy: “I will continue my political activities.”

At the celebrations, the NLD called for the release of its party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners. Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has spent 11 of the past 17 years under house arrest and a number of senior members of her party are still among the estimated 1,200 political prisoners languishing in the junta’s prisons.

NLD Chairman Aung Shwe said Suu Kyi and NLD Vice Chairman Tin Oo should be immediately and unconditionally freed in order to create “a fair political climate for dialogue toward national reconciliation and democratic transformation.”

Several other released prisoners were among the 500 people who attended the Rangoon celebrations.In his official Independence Day message, carried by The New Light of Myanmar, junta chairman Snr-Gen Than Shwe called on citizens “to safeguard the independence and sovereignty of the motherland through the might of unity and harmony.

“Today, certain powerful countries are interfering in the internal affairs of other countries to dominate them in the political, economic and social aspects. That is indeed neocolonialism.”
The junta frequently accuses the United States and other western nations of trying to destabilize the regime.

The junta seized power after a bloody 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators led by Suu Kyi. In 1990, it refused to step down when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide election.
“I pray for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and I will work for their freedom,” vowed Aung Naing, a 36-year-old activist who had been serving an eight-year sentence. “It will be disastrous if the Red Cross pulls out of the country. Prisoners are now facing health problems because of shortage of medicine and prompt medical care.”

Since December 2005 the junta has barred the International Committee of the Red Cross from visiting its extensive network of prisons and labor camps. The ICRC has not threatened to pull out but some activists fear it may do so since its activities in the country have been severely curtailed over the past few years.