Dan Robinson | New Delhi, Dan Robinson | New Delhi 08 November 2010
President Barack Obama has reiterated his criticism of the election in military-ruled Burma, saying it was neither free nor fair.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s remarks directly to Indian lawmakers are significant since India has softened its criticism during the past decade of Burma’s military government. He mentioned Burma during a portion of his speech about strengthening the foundations of democratic governance, and supporting human rights and struggles for freedom.
Referring to India’s independence struggle and its leader, Mohandas Gandhi, the president said India championed self-determination for people from Africa to Asia, and supported democratic development and civil society groups.
He then turned to Burma.
“When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed, as in Burma, then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protesters and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade,” said the president. “It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime. It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.”
President Obama also framed the Burma situation in the context of the message he intended his three-day visit to send – that India is an already “risen” regional and global power.
“It is the responsibility of the international community, especially leaders like the United States and India, to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries,” president Obama said. “It is not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It is staying true to our democratic principles. It is giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal. And it sustains the progress that in Asia and around the world has helped turn dictatorships into democracies and ultimately increased our security in the world.”
In a formal written statement issued on the day of Burma’s election, Mr. Obama said the United States will monitor the situation closely in weeks and months ahead.
He said the United States will continue to implement a strategy of both pressure and engagement based on “conditions on the ground in Burma and actions of the Burmese authorities.”
The president also called again for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and immediate and unconditional freedom for other political prisoners, saying only genuine, inclusive dialogue can place Burma on the path to a truly representative democracy.
Bangkok – Thousands of refugees fled Monday into Thailand as troops clashed and Karen ethnic minority rebels who had seized key government offices in a Myanmar border city.
A splinter faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on Sunday marked military-ruled Myanmar’s first general election in 20 years by seizing the police station and post office in Myawaddy, about 350 kilometres north-west of Bangkok.
Myanmar soldiers fought back Monday in the town just across the Moei River from Mae Sot in Thailand’s Tak province.
‘M-79 grenades and bullets from the clash have landed on the Thai side, injuring up to 10 people,’ Mae Sot district chief Kittisak Thomornsak said by a telephone.
Kittisak said the skirmish forced about 10,000 Myanmar refugees to flee to Mae Sot.
‘People are coming across the Moei River all the time,’ Kittisak said.
The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge that crosses the river between Myawaddy and Mae Sot has been closed since August due to a diplomatic dispute.
Fighting was also reported between Myanmar troops and the DKBA in Wowlay across the border from the Three Pagoda Pass and Thailand’s Kanchanaburi province, border sources said.
‘This is Myanmar’s internal problem,’ Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said. ‘There will probably be more fighting over the next three months.’
The DKBA is a ceasefire group allied with Myanmar’s military junta, but a faction under Commander Saw Lah Pwe has rebelled against the demand that it become a border guard under the regime’s control.
Saw reportedly said he seized positions in Myawaddy to protest Sunday’s elections. The polls have been widely criticized as a sham, designed to cement the military’s rule over the country.
‘I am doing this for democracy,’ Saw told reporters on the border.
Last year, the junta insisted that all ‘ceasefire groups’ were to come under the command of the military as part of the regime’s election preparations.
Groups such as the DKBA were to set up political parties and turn their armies into border guard forces under the military’s control.
While the main force of the DKBA agreed, Saw’s Brigade 5 with about 1,400 troops has refused to submit to the military.
Other rebel groups that have refused to comply with the Myanmar military are the Kachin Independence Army with an estimated force of 7,000, the United Wa State Army with 30,000 fighters, the Shan State Army/North with 5,000, the Karen National Liberation Army with fewer than 8,000 and the New Mon State with 1,000.
In retaliation, the regime barred rebel-controlled portions of Kachin, Karen, Wa and Shan states from voting. An estimated 400,000 people were disenfranchised.
The pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Party, packed with former military men, was expected to win the polls.
More than ten thousand refugees fled election-related violence in Burma into neighbouring Thailand after the junta’s troops clashed with rebels at several key flashpoints along the border.
By Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok
Published: 4:28PM GMT 08 Nov 2010
The most serious fighting between Burmese troops and rebels from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) in the border town of Myawaddy left at least three dead and 11 injured, the result of tensions that flared during Sunday’s widely-condemned elections.
Elements from the DKBA shelled the town with heavy weapons after Burmese troops moved in to clear rebels who had taken over government buildings during Sunday’s poll to protect voters from military intimidation.
Gunfire and mortar blasts went on sporadically for most of the day in Myawaddy sending the thousands of refugees scurrying across the frontier river Moei to the Thai town of Mae Sot.
Further south at the Three Pagodas Pass border crossing there were reports of exchanges of fire that went on for an hour, though there was no word of any casualties in the fighting.
The violence was in stark contrast to the poll on Sunday – the first election in 20 years in the military-run country – which passed off quietly and the turnout was reportedly low, a reflection of the feeling that the result was a foregone conclusion.
Early official results showed successes for pro-junta parties, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the National Unity Party (NUP), though authorities have yet to release the number among the eligible 29 million voters who bothered to cast their ballot.
Detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was banned from taking part. It called for a boycott and claimed success with reports that turnout was as low as 35 per cent.
The NLD won the last election in 1990 by a landslide but the military regime – which has ruled for 48 years and is now led by Senior General Than Shwe – simply ignored the results.
This time it took no chances. Campaigning was highly restricted, there were widespread reports of voting irregularities and intimidation of the electorate to ensure votes were cast in favour of pro-junta parties.
The threats against voters had prompted renegade soldiers of the pro-junta DKBA to take over government offices in the town of Myawaddy in an effort to protect the voters.
The breakaway DKBA group said that the army had threatened to shoot people who did not vote, forcing them to intervene on the side of the electorate. A Japanese journalist, working for the APF news agency, was also arrested in the town on Sunday when he slipped across the river.
Fighting erupted when about 300 DKBA troops found their route out of Myawaddy blocked by Burmese military trucks despite negotiations to end the stand-off peacefully.
“There have been at least 10,000 refugees who have fled to Thailand,” said Col Wannatip Wongwai, the Thai army commander for the region. “As soon as the situation is under control, we will start sending the refugees back to Myawaddy.” The UN was looking after the refugees in a makeshift camp in the meantime.
Col Wanatip said government troops appeared to have retaken control of Myawaddy, while the rebels of the DKBA held just a few positions on the outskirts of the town.