Archive for March 2011
The watchdog called on the United States to put Vietnam back on a blacklist of nations violating religious freedom, after documenting forced renunciations and other abuses of the Montagnard people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
The Montagnards are pressing for religious freedom and land rights prompting the government crackdown, according to a report by the US-based HRW.
‘In recent months, the Vietnamese government has increased its harassment of peaceful ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands, targeting members of unregistered house churches,’ the report said.
Authorities have reinforced their security presence and intensified efforts to find and arrest ‘Dega Protestants”, it added, referring to the Dega movement – an autonomy seeking group set up by Montagnard political exiles in the US.
Hanoi says many highlanders who belong to independent or unregistered churches are Dega Protestants, according to HRW.
(AFP)—YANGON – Myanmar’s attempt to rebrand itself with a nominally civilian government was met with scepticism at home and abroad on Thursday, with critics fearing army power has merely moved into the shadows.
Newspapers were sold out on the streets of Yangon a day after former general Thein Sein was made president and the feared junta was disbanded following nearly half a century of military rule.
But while the new order provoked interest, there was little optimism.
Company manager Konaing said the new parliament, which is dominated by the army hierarchy and lacks the participation of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, was a ‘hot issue’ with ordinary people.
‘But they do not think there will be changes in the country as the generals only changed their uniforms. We have not many expectations, not much hope,’ he told AFP.
Wednesday’s handover came after Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years last November, which were slammed by critics as a sham to provide a civilian facade to army rule, and marred by the absence of Suu Kyi, and by claims of cheating.
Bangkokpost—The repeated lack of a quorum in the parliament was due to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s announcement he plans to dissolve the House in the first week of May, House Speaker Chai Chidchob said on Thursday.
The absence of many MPs forced Mr Chai, who is ex officio president of the parliament, to adjourn the joint meeting on Tuesday and the House meeting on Wednesday.
“It’s not unusual for MPs to campaign for a coming election after the premier announces a specific time for a dissolution in the House,” Mr Chai said.
He said there were about five weeks left and MPs had to focus on campaigning to keep their seats in the House.
A new regulation was needed to prevent the lack of quorum problem, so that MPs present at the meeting for a quorum count need not insert their cards the next time, Mr Chai said.
There were about a hundred opposition Puea Thai MPs at the House meeting yesterday, but they chose not to insert their cards during the quorum call because they wanted the government to lose face. A number of senators walked out on Tuesday because they were not happy with the report on the minutes of the three Thai-Cambodian Joint Border Commission meetings, he said.
“Such actions do not allow the country move forward. I want all sides to work together because there are still more than 100 pieces of legislation to be considered.
“If the JBC issue is proposed again and there is another lack of quorum, the government should pack up or dissolve the House immediately,” Mr Chai said.
By Mark Hosenball and William Maclean,Thu Mar 31, 2:04 am ET
WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. officials said President Barack Obama had authorized covert support for Libyan rebels fighting Muammar Gaddafi, while Libya’s foreign minister defected, potentially tipping the scales toward the opposition.
In the past few days, Gaddafi’s troops have used superior arms and tactics to push back rebels trying to edge west along the coast from their stronghold in eastern Libya, but any U.S. support be a turning point in the battle over territory.
The West could also gain intelligence on how to bring down Gaddafi from Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, a former spy chief who flew into Britain on Wednesday in what a friend said was a defection in protest at attacks by Gaddafi’s forces on civilians.
The towns of Nawfaliyah, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf have fallen in quick succession to the government’s lightning counter-strike after the army ambushed the rebels outside Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, then outflanked them through the desert.
The ramshackle rebel forces lack training, discipline and leadership. There are many different groups of volunteers and decisions are often made only after heated arguments.
“We are seeking weapons that will be able to destroy the heavy weapons they are using against us such as tanks and artillery,” rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmad Bani said.
“We thought it better to make a tactical withdrawal until we can think of better tactics and a strategy to face this force.”
While the United States, France and Britain have raised the possibility of arming the rebels fighting against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, they have all stressed that no decision has yet been taken.
U.S. government sources familiar with the matter say Obama signed the secret order to support the rebels, known as a presidential “finding,” within the past two or three weeks.
Such findings are a principal form of presidential directive used to authorize secret operations by the Central Intelligence Agency. This is a necessary legal step before such action can take place, but it does not mean that it will.
In order for specific operations — for example giving cash or weapons to anti-Gaddafi forces — to be carried out under that authorization, the White House also would have to give additional “permission” allowing such activities.
“As is common practice for this and all administrations, I am not going to comment on intelligence matters,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. “I will reiterate what the president said yesterday — no decision has been made about providing arms to the opposition or to any group in Libya.”
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the New York Times also reported that the CIA had inserted small groups of operatives in Libya with British special forces to gather intelligence for Western-led air strikes pounding Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery.
There was no immediate comment from the CIA.
Opening another front against Gaddafi, foreign minister Koussa is one of the highest profile members of the leader’s inner circle to quit the administration after the justice and interior ministers and several ambassadors resigned last month.
“Koussa is one of the most senior figures in Gaddafi’s government and his role was to represent the regime internationally — something that he is no longer willing to do,” a British Foreign Office spokesman said in a statement.
A British government source described his resignation as “a significant blow” to Gaddafi and Koussa’s predecessor at the ministry said he was “part of the regime’s spinal cord … Koussa is a pillar of the temple.”
Koussa, Western-educated and English speaking, was the architect of a dramatic shift in Libya’s foreign policy that brought the oil-producing desert state back to the international community after years of sanctions.
If he decides to share his knowledge of Gaddafi’s inner circle, he could reveal valuable information about how the administration functions and its weak points.
A Libyan spokesman said Koussa had not defected and was traveling on a diplomatic mission, without giving more details.
A Western diplomat said Koussa’s defection was significant because it sent a message to other people at Gaddafi’s side that they could still defect, even if they were associated with the bloody crackdown on Gaddafi’s opponents.
“We encourage those around Gaddafi to abandon him and embrace a better future for Libya that allows political transition and real reform that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people,” Britain’s Foreign Office said.
Geoff Porter, an independent analyst on North Africa who has testified on Libya in the U.S. Congress, said Koussa’s defection was one of the first signs the Gaddafi elite was fracturing.
“So while (Koussa’s) … departure is a sign that things are bad in the Gaddafi camp, it is also a sign that the Gaddafi camp will drift toward extremism, nihilism and acute violence.”
Apart from Koussa, Gaddafi’s innermost circle is made up principally of his sons and people with family ties, and their loyalty is likely to be more robust.
Gaddafi loyalists have certainly appeared committed to pressing their campaign against the opposition over the past days despite the Western-led military assault.
In town after town along the Libyan coast, Gaddafi forces have unleashed bombardments from tanks, artillery and truck-launched Grad rockets which have forced rebels to flee.
“These are our weapons,” said rebel fighter Mohammed, pointing to his assault rifle. “We can’t fight Grads with them.”
Without Western air strikes, the rebels seem unable to make advances or hold their positions against Gaddafi’s armor. Western airplanes flew over the battlefield on Wednesday, but there was no evidence of any bombardment of government forces.
“Whether we advance 50 km (30 miles), or retreat 50 km … it’s a big country. They will go back the next day,” rebel spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told reporters in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
“This revolution really is only five weeks old. On the political front it is very organized,” he said. “Normally it takes six months to train a soldier … We are talking about citizens who picked up guns to protect their homes.”
Ek Chheng Huot, deputy prosecutor at the Municipal Court, said yesterday that Soy Sopheap, director of Deum Ampil News and a presenter for Bayon TV, faced a complaint by Son Soubert on February 4 over accusations of defamation stemming from comments suggesting that Son Sann – Son Soubert’s father and former prime minister – sold land located near Preah Vihear temple to Thailand in the 1980s.
“Soy Sopheap was accused with defamation of Samdech Son Sann who is the father of His Excellency Son Soubert. He has already appeared in court and clarified about his accusations yesterday and I have not decided whether he will be charged or not yet,” Ek Chheng Hout said yesterday.
Soy Sopheap said in court that he was confused and had made a mistake in his political commentary regarding Son Sann and had pleaded for a pardon from Son Soubert with regard to the comments. He said he had also made a correction publicly on Bayon TV shortly after the incident.
“I am responsible about what I had said related to Samdech Son Sann, and I have also recognised that I had been confused about this. I hope that the court will not take any legal action against me because I have begged for a pardon from Son Soubert already,” he said, adding that he plans to publicly beg for a pardon and reiterate his corrections on Bayon Television tonight.
“There is a culture of responsibility for journalists when they have made mistakes [in publications] and it is also in the press law,” he said.
Son Soubert claimed in court yesterday that Soy Sopheap had not yet pleaded with him for a pardon regarding his political commentary against his father, except for praising his father’s courage.
“I think that Soy Sopheap’s accusation was very bad for my father’s reputation … so I could not accept his words that just praised my father’s heroism but did not withdraw his wrongful commentary against him.”
He added that he will consider withdrawing his complaint against Soy Sopheap if he accepts that he had made a mistake, makes a correction and condemns his previous characterisations of Son Sann.
Slender, balding and bespectacled, Mr Thein Sein, who was sworn in on Wednesday as part of a purported transition to a civilian rule, cuts a less domineering figure than the military’s stouter senior general, Than Shwe.
The former general, who shed his uniform to contest the country’s controversial November elections, is however someone strongman Than Shwe ‘can trust, someone who will listen to him”, Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo said recently.
‘It is not an accident that he came to power because he is considered ‘Mr Clean’,’ said the expert, adding the 65-year-old was not linked to business groups or factions forming among lawmakers in Myanmar’s new parliament.
Mr Thein Sein was described as working ‘from the same script’ as the junta number one in a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks recently.
He is also ‘regarded as a ‘mystery man” who has ‘risen quietly under the patronage of Than Shwe, to whom he has shown ‘total loyalty’,’ according to Benedict Rogers in his biography of Myanmar’s supreme leader.
Bangkokpost—Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has agreed to attend the General Border Committee (GBC) meeting in Indonesia, according to Cambodia’s Defence Minister Tea Banh.
Gen Tea Banh announced the agreement in an interview with the Bangkok Post in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
Gen Prawit has repeatedly said he would not go to the GBC meeting, scheduled to be held in Bogor, Indonesia, on April 7-8. He has said the GBC should be purely bilateral and the meeting held in either Cambodia or Thailand, not in Indonesia or any other third country.
Gen Tea Banh claimed he had talked over this matter with Gen Prawit and that the Thai minister had agreed to go to the meeting in Indonesia.
He said he would himself leave for Indonesia on April 6.
“The Thai side can’t insist not going because it has agreed with the United Nations Security Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to let Indonesia mediate talks with Cambodia,” Gen Tea Banh said.
“I still believe Gen Prawit will definitely go to Indonesia for the April 7-8 meeting. I’ll be waiting for him over there,” he added.
An informed source said Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has made it a policy for the Cambodian army that in talks with their Thai counterparts they must insist on not withdrawing Cambodian troops from the 4.6 square kilometre disputed area.
Hun Sen has said Cambodian soldiers were duty-bound to remain in the area, regardless of for how long.
His objective is for Thailand to accept observers from Indonesia into the disputed area for inspections, the source said.
The source also said Hun Sen would not be happy if he happened to see a Cambodian soldier talk to a Thai soldier in the Thai language.
“The prime minister said Cambodian soldiers must speak Cambodian, and use an interpreter if necessary,” the source said.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh government insists Thai investors are welcome in Cambodia despite the long-standing border conflict between the two countries.
Thai investors, too, are confident the tense border conflict will not affect their investment plans.
Cambodian Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said Thai investors are eligible for tax privileges and Thai products imported by them are exempted from taxation for a period of three to eight years.
Mr Thong Khon was full of praise for such Thai businessman as Supachai Verapuchong, managing director of the Sofitel Phnom Penh Pookeerhra Hotel, for his continued investment in Cambodia even though the hotel, formerly known as the Royal Phnom Penh, was severely damaged in an anti-Thai rioting in Phnom Penh in December 2006.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policy is to encourage more foreign investment in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Koh Kong.
Countries in this region which have invested in Cambodia are China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. Those from elsewhere include Australia, Portugal, England, the United States and France.
Mr Supachai, who invested more than two billion baht in the five-star Sofitel Phnom Penh Pookeethra Hotel, said even though the relations between Thailand and Cambodia are plagued with uncertainty he has confidence in the Cambodian government’s policy toward investors, including those from Thailand.
In 2006, Mr Supachai invested US$40 million in the Sofitel Ankor Hotel and a golf course in Siem Reap.
“Despite turbulence, Thailand and Cambodia are neighbours. We have to walk together as friends,” he said.
“In four years from now, there will not be a tariff wall in Asean. The question is whether Thai investors and the Thai government are ready for the days ahead, when business competition will be tougher.
“So we should establish business ties, which will subsequently lead to improvement of relations in other fields,” Mr Supachai said.
The closed-door inauguration of the new government was announced only after it took place, in keeping with the secretive style of Myanmar’s military regimes of the past 50 years. Despite the handover, key figures in the former junta including leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe are expected to retain substantial hold over power.
State television and radio reported that the new government headed by President Thein Sein was sworn in by parliament in the remote capital of Naypyitaw. Thein Sein was the junta’s prime minister and a top member of the previous military government.
Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962 and is also known as Burma, held its first elections in 20 years in November, though there has been little indication since of real democratic changes.
The news reports said the new government’s arrival marked the end of the junta’s longtime ruling party, the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, which has been in power since 1988.
“The SPDC is officially dissolved,” state media reported, saying that the dissolution was ordered by Than Shwe, who wielded absolute power since 1992.
Almost immediately after the announcement, government offices underwent a makeover.
Signs outside the junta’s Peace and Development Council offices nationwide came down and were replaced with new ones saying: “General Administration Office.” The new and old signs were similar shades of dark green, the same color used by Thein Sein’s ruling party, which is seen as a proxy for the junta.
State media did not mention what becomes of Than Shwe. The dissolution of his party would render him effectively retired, but he is expected to remain a dominant force.
The 78-year-old now no longer holds his two official posts — as SPDC chairman and armed forces commander.
Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, a senior defense official, was named the new commander of Myanmar’s armed forces, said lawmaker Phone Myint Aung, who attended the inauguration.
The new government’s 30-member Cabinet is dominated by former military officers who retired in order to run in last November’s elections. About a dozen of the ministers were members of the junta’s Cabinet. Only four of the appointees are strictly civilian.
Critics say last year’s elections were orchestrated by the junta to perpetuate military rule. With one quarter of the seats in parliament filled by military appointees, and a large majority of the remaining seats won by a military-backed party, the army retains power.
The party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, which won the last elections in 1990 but was blocked from taking power by the military, boycotted November’s vote, calling it unfair. Much of the international community also dismissed the elections as rigged in favor of the junta.
Suu Kyi who still heads the opposition group, the National League for Democracy, said she hoped relations with the new government would be better.
“We always want good relations with the government. I hope that the relationship improves,” Suu Kyi said over the weekend. “We will work for good relations.”
By Aung Hla Tun,Reuters – 44 mins ago
YANGON, March 30 – Myanmar’s junta made way for a new government on Wednesday, ushering in an era of civilian rule dominated by the same authoritarian generals that have isolated the country for nearly two decades.
The parliament, packed with retired and serving soldiers, dissolved the junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), a formality after a national election in November that was widely criticized as a sham.
The end of military rule is seen as a move to attract much-needed foreign investment to a country that just over 50 years ago was one of Southeast Asia’s most promising and wealthiest, the world’s biggest rice exporter and a major energy producer.
It also provides an exit strategy for 78-year-old paramount leader Senior General Than Shwe, who named General Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday as his successor as commander-in-chief, ending months of speculation by signaling his imminent retirement.
With his top allies in key posts in the army and government, Than Shwe has effectively insulated himself from a purge by preventing the emergence of another strongman. Experts agree he is likely to maintain broad behind-the-scenes influence.
Few expect immediate political, economic or social reforms, with the same generals, now retired, in control of a country where 30 percent of the population live in poverty and botched policies and Western sanctions have blighted its economy.
In his inaugural address in parliament, President Thein Sein pulled no punches and accused Western countries of “bullying” Myanmar. He urged them to cooperate and give recognition to the new government and its democratic credentials.
“Some countries, which say they would like to see socioeconomic progress among Myanmar’s people and the emergence of democracy in Myanmar, should recognize positive changes and developments in the country,” Thein Sein said.
“I hereby invite them to cooperate with our new government … It is high time they stopped applying pressure, supporting opposition groups and economic bullying,” he said, drawing rapturous applause from parliamentarians.
But the historic handover of power after 49 years of direct military rule will be greeted with skepticism by the international community and many of Myanmar’s estimated 50 million people, most of whom have lived under a succession of brutal army dictatorships.
Members of the junta retained prominent roles as president, vice-president, parliament speakers, cabinet ministers or regional chief ministers.
“It’s the same old faces. I doubt if they have new brains in their heads. We have to hope for the best,” said a retired school principal in Yangon who declined to be identified by name so he could speak candidly.
The international community is expected to seek engagement with the new government after decades of frosty ties with the junta. Western sanctions will be in focus although it is unlikely the embargoes, considered a failure by many analysts, will be lifted soon.
Western governments have said they want to see substantive changes before reviewing sanctions, including the release of an estimated 2,100 political prisoners, but analysts say a continued hardline stance could alienate the new leadership.
“There is a critical window of opportunity to encourage greater openness and reform. Unfortunately, this opportunity is likely to be squandered,” the International Crisis Group said in a report, adding some countries “apply a higher priority in appearing tough on Myanmar than being effective.”
“The result will be continued deadlock.”
Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces have barely any role in the new set-up. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which boycotted last year’s election in protest, has no official role but is expected to play a significant part in any future review of sanctions.
It has sought urgent talks with the new government about a bigger role for pro-democracy forces and a reconciliation process with armed ethnic groups.
“The former military regime does not exist anymore,” said party spokesman Nyan Win. “We expect to have dialogue with the new government. The NLD always leaves the door open for dialogue.”
By Jamaluddin Muhammad
BANGKOK, March 29 (Bernama) — The debate on the long-delayed approval of the minutes of the Thai-Cambodian Joint Commission on Demarcation of Land Boundary (JBC) suffered another setback Tuesday, when the parliament adjourned the matter to next Tuesday, due to lack of quorum.
This means the joint Thai parliamentary sitting will debate the minutes just two days before the proposed JBC meeting to take place in Bogor, Indonesia on April 7 and 8.
There were only 262 Members of Parliament and senators during Tuesday’s debate on the matter, 15 short of quorum.
The government has asked parliament to endorse three documents drafted from previous JBC meetings in 2008 and 2009 between the two countries on border demarcation.
Last Friday, the parliament failed to debate the matter in the morning as planned due to lack of quorum but did not reach any conclusion when the quorum was met in the afternoon, thus postponing the debate to Tuesday.
The border dispute involved both nations claiming an area of 4.6sq km, surrounding the 1,000-year-old Preah Vihar Hindu Temple, as the area has yet to be demarcated, including access routes to the temple.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the temple was located in Cambodia, and it was listed as a world heritage site by Unesco in 2008.
Four clashes were reported at the border – July 15, 2008, a week after the inscription of the temple on the world heritage site on July 8, 2008, October 2008, April 3, 2009 and the latest on Feb 4, this year.
The Thai-Cambodia JBC is an important mechanism used by both countries for border demarcation efforts based on the memorandum of understanding signed in 2000.
However, the JBC meeting could not move forward as the Thai Parliament has yet to endorse the previous three minutes of JBC meetings.
Thai multi-colour pressure groups are against the approval of the matter as they claim Thailand would lose its territory, and also tantamount to the Thai Parliament admitting that Thai soldiers had encroached on the Cambodian territory as detailed in the minutes.
The group had earlier submitted letters to parliamentarians asking them not to approve the three documents.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had said that the parliament’s endorsement would not cause the country to lose any territory to Cambodia.
“If we did not do anything and allowed Cambodia to claim that Thailand has not sincerely tried to hold talks through bilateral mechanisms, could you guarantee that in the future international organizations will not intervene in disputes between Thailand and Cambodia,” said Abhisit.
This is probably the last parliament session as the house is expected to be dissolved by first week of May, paving way for the general election.
At the height of the recent border tension, both nations referred their case to the United Nations Security Council while Asean extended its hand in facilitating efforts to reduce tension.