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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Week of December 19, 1997

On the Outs With the SPDC

Myanmar's rulers - the newly renamed State Peace and Development Council - continue to try to clean up their image, or at least to quiet recalcitrant colleagues. Former minister of commerce Lt.-Gen. Tun Kyi, who was purged and placed under house arrest in a major cabinet reshuffle three weeks ago, has been moved out of Yangon to an undisclosed army barracks near the capital. Initially confined to his own home, he had been allowed to receive visitors and had access to a telephone. But those freedoms came to an abrupt end following angry phone conversations with friends and enemies in which he reportedly threatened to name corrupt members of the ruling military junta and publicize their alleged connections to the narcotics trade. His daughter's mobile telephone was confiscated soon after he was escorted away from his home by armed soldiers, but apparently the irate general did not get the message to lower his profile. Since losing his telephone privileges, he has been completely isolated from family and associates. Lt.-Gen. Myint Aung, former agriculture minister, and Lt.-Gen. Kyaw Ba, former minister of hotels and tourism, are also understood to have been taken out of Yangon.

Over 350,000 students remain idle or are marking time doing casual work one year after the military closed universities following anti-government protests. Most higher schools have been closed for about half of the past 10 years under the rule of the junta - now known as the State Peace and Development Council - to keep any emergent student movement in check.

Week of December 12, 1997

The ruling State Peace and Development Council might commute the sentences of thousands of prisoners in a goodwill gesture aimed at celebrating the recent government shake-up. But supporters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be released.

Week of October 3, 1997

Changing Places

Two generals from the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council - Lt.-Gen. Tin U and armed forces chief Gen. Maung Aye - moved their homes into the Yangon neighborhood of former junta strongman Gen. Ne Win, who is in Singapore for a medical checkup after visiting Indonesia. They live off heavily guarded Maylekha Road, across the Inya Lake from the U.S. ambassador's residence. Dissident Aung San Suu Kyi's house is on the southern shore. Tin U's move can be explained by last April's parcel bomb at his prior address which killed his eldest daughter. But Maung Aye is believed to have settled into Ne Win's compound itself. It is interesting because he is seen to be jousting with SLORC First Secretary Khin Nyunt. Seeking closer ties to Ne Win may have more to do with real politik than real estate.

Week of September 26, 1997

Reports in Bangkok say thousands of people died in floods since May. Disease and crop failures - one estimate predicted 50% of the rice harvest might be lost - will take more lives. The reports said one- to-two million people are affected by floods.

Week of September 19, 1997

Lawyers See a Final Victory

Activist lawyers in the U.S. are digging in for the long haul. One of the attorneys involved in the two American lawsuits against Unocal, the U.S. company building the controversial pipeline through Myanmar into Thailand, says her clients have a good chance of beating the company. "And if we don't win this time, someone is sure to win eventually." Unocal denies that it uses forced labor, or violates worker's rights. It is working with Total, the French firm, and the Myanmar government on the $1.2 billion project .

Legal activists plan to bring more such cases. Already underway is a suit against Royal Dutch Petroleum for its activities in Nigeria. The lawyers say their initial suits will establish the limits of the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act they say set responsibilities for U.S. corporate behavior overseas.

Week of August 29, 1997

Three members of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's family were sentenced to 10 years in prison each for accepting money - about $84,000 - from two foreign anti-government activists in June. The three were found guilty of violating the Unlawful Associations Act and the sweeping Emergency Provisions Act. Suu Kyi denies receiving the money.

Week of August 22, 1997

All public schools began reopening eight months after the government closed them in the wake of student demonstrations. But universities, which were shut down at the same time, remain closed, with no indication of when they will resume classes.

Week of August 8, 1997

BANGLADESH-MYANMAR The repatriation of 7,000 Burmese Rohingya refugees has been postponed by Bangladesh. Dhaka asked Yangon to extend the Aug. 15 deadline it set because of unrest in two of the camps housing the people. The officials did not set a specific date for their return. About 20,000 Rohingyas - a Muslim minority - are in Bangladesh, and their numbers are rapidly growing.

Week of August 1, 1997

Members of the State Law and Order Restoration Council met with leaders of the National League for Democracy. It was the first such meeting since the NLD won the May 1990 general election. The head of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, was excluded from the session.

Week of July 25, 1997

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should apply to Myanmar the same standards that it has to Cambodia and defer Yangon's admission to the grouping. So say leading Burmese dissidents, who have appealed for the organization to be consistent in seeking "civilized behavior" from members. ASEAN has deferred Cambodia's entry after Hun Sen's coup.

Week of July 18, 1997

DRUG TRAFFIC The U.N. Drug Control Program and six East Asia countries which produce the bulk of the world's heroin began talks in Bangkok on July 8. It was the second ministerial-level meeting for the Mekong River Six - Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam - since they signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. in 1993 to attempt to deal with the problem.

Week of July 4, 1997

Will Ramos Extend a Hand of Friendship?

Plans are underway in the Philippines for President Fidel Ramos to visit Myanmar later this year. The trip, which is still being arranged, has not been officially announced. But if it pushes through, it will bring the president of Southeast Asia's most rambunctious democracy face to face with the leaders of one of the region's most restrictive governments.

Ramos frequently travels outside the country to promote bilateral trade and investment, and his journeys are seldom controversial. But this visit is sure to cause consternation at home. The Yangon government is shunned by many of Ramos's Western allies, and there are plenty of Filipinos sympathetic to the beleaguered opposition in Myanmar. Many would feel that Ramos was a traitor to the cause. He helped lead the 1986 Philippine "People Power" revolt, which ousted Ferdinand Marcos and partially inspired a popular uprising in Myanmar two years later. That revolt was crushed by the generals who went on to form the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). And it was SLORC who refused a visa last year to Ramos's 1986 colleague, former President Corazon Aquino. She made no effort to hide the fact that she was going to Yangon to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Why is Ramos making the effort? His trip will definitely win points with the resource-rich pariah state, as well as show solidarity with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which will admit Myanmar as a member later this year. Recently, the leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand have made the trek to Yangon to shake hands with SLORC's generals. President Ramos's visit is sure to win more smiles in Yangon than in Manila.

Week of June 27, 1997

Khin Nyunt Holds Forth

A French journalist was recently summoned into the presence of Lieut.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary One of Myanmar's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council and given an interview, of sorts. Within a defense ministry inner sanctum, the slim 57-year-old "S-One" was surrounded by his foreign minister, a dozen uniformed men and a trembling interpreter.

Helene da Costa, a reporter for Radio France Internationale, admits that Khin Nyunt broke little new ground in their meeting, but gave a remarkable performance. Ignoring her first question, he launched into a 15-minute monologue - "in order to be better understood." When his gaze fell upon da Costa, he halted, addressed her by her name, and resumed speaking. Da Costa says Khin Nyunt, a devout Buddhist who neither smokes nor drinks and regularly works 15-hour days, does not blame U.S. President Bill Clinton for sanctions against Myanmar. He understands that Clinton has his own domestic politics to deal with. Khin Nyunt also ruled out dialogue with the National League for Democracy, which he says wants to "destroy" the country's constitutional convention. The only sign of tension within the man? When making such points, he irritably banged the arm of his teak chair to drive home his resolve.

BANGLADESH-MYANMAR The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in southern Bangladesh warns that Muslims from Myanmar are fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh in increasing numbers. The UNHCR says forced labor, high prices and discrimination are driving the Rohingya people to seek a better life across the border.

The ruling Taliban militia rejected a proposal to have a coalition government administer the northern part of Afghanistan as an Iran-backed scheme. The Taliban say they remain ready to discuss other peace proposals with the remnants of the three factions they have driven back to the north of the country, but the groups cannot reach agreement among themselves.

Week of June 20, 1997

Why School Is Out in Myanmar

The school year begins in June in Myanmar. But not this year. The Education Ministry postponed the nationwide opening of grammar and high schools until an unspecified date. There is no official explanation for the move, but the understanding in Yangon is that the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) wants to avoid any incidents that could complicate the country's July induction into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And it is the possibility of demonstrations - one of SLORC's greatest fears - which many Yangon residents feel is the reason for the shutdown. Parents in the capital have resigned themselves to not having schools open before August.

There are recent historical grounds for SLORC's concern. High-school and grammar school students were among those who filled the streets in 1988 to protest against former dictator Ne Win's government, which SLORC replaced after a bloody crackdown. But the younger children are unlikely to start anything on their own. In the past, they have taken their activist cues from their older brothers and sisters. And undergraduates have not been in school since the government shut down colleges and universities last December, after dispersing a big student protest near Yangon's main campus. Then, the target of student discontent was not ASEAN, but the alleged mistreatment of some carousing colleagues at the hands of the police. But the militancy was enough to set off alarm bells. And with the appearance of pro- and anti- ASEAN elements within the government (some of the generals prefer closer ties with China), the authorities are taking no chances.

Week of June 6, 1997

Only members of the National League for Democracy's central executive committee were allowed into Aung Sun Suu Kyi's compound for the NLD's two-day congress. The public was barred by riot police and barbed wire barricades from attending the meeting.

Week of May 16, 1997

More than 35,000 people turned out in Mandalay on May 4, denouncing the U.S. for pressuring the country with economic sanctions, according to newspapers. The rally was sponsored by the government-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Association.

Week of May 9, 1997

E.U.-Myanmar In Luxembourg, European Union ministers extended for six months a package of sanctions on Myanmar. The governments continued to rule out a broader range of economic measures, but stripped Yangon of preferential access to E.U. markets.

Week of May 2, 1997

The U.S. banned new investment in Myanmar, citing a "continuing pattern of severe repression by the State Law and Order Restoration Council." Meanwhile, a federal court held that the American oil company Unocal could be liable for human rights abuses allegedly committed by Myanmar's government in conjunction with the natural gas pipeline the company is building there.

Week of April 18, 1997

Speculation was rampant, the official response muted, following the parcel-bomb blast that killed the daughter of SLORC Second Secretary Tin Oo. An official obituary for Cho Lei Oo, 33, apportioned no blame for the killing. Both the Karen National Union and the All Burma Students Democratic Front, accused in previous explosions, denied responsibility.

Week of April 11, 1997

Pipeline Pathway Cleared

Myanmar's military authorities doubt that there is a single Karen guerrilla within seven km of Ban-I-Thong, at the Thai border. That is the crossing point for the controversial natural gas pipeline under construction that will make its way from Myanmar's Yadana off-shore natural gas field into Thailand. And in the frontier provinces to the north, Karen fighters are holed up, considering their options. This dry season's particularly harsh government offensive against their 49-year-old insurgency hit them harder than in previous years (see EDITORIAL, p. 21).

In 1995, five civilian workers were killed and 11 others injured when the Karen National Liberation Army attacked the joint Franco-American Total-Unocal $1.06-billion pipeline project. Now, another major U.S. player, Texaco, as part of another international consortium, is surveying the route with an eye to laying its own parallel pipeline from a second field in the Andaman Sea, called Yedagun. But Texaco is playing it safe - or at least safer - than Total or Unocal did at first. It has hired a U.S. company, Ordsafe, to control security in the area in which it is working. Ordsafe's orders are to evacuate all Texaco company personnel at the first hint of trouble. At least half a dozen former members of the South African military make up the 20-plus Ordsafe team. The U.S. oil companies have also called on their friends in high places. In Bangkok, Karen representatives were summoned by U.S. diplomats and advised that any further attacks on U.S. commercial interests will be viewed as acts of war.

UNREST: Yangon was reported calm at mid-week, but a dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in effect in Mandalay after two weeks of unrest between Buddhists and Muslims. Tension may be highest in Sittwe, near the border with predominantly Muslim Bangladesh.

Week of April 4, 1997

MYANMAR-THAILAND The National Environment Board in Bangkok approved an environmental impact study on the controversial natural-gas pipeline originating in Myanmar. The decision allows construction to begin in Thailand, despite the opposition of environmentalists.

Week of March 21, 1997

Chetta Thanajaro, Thailand's army chief, crossed into Myanmar to meet with his Burmese counterpart, Maung Aye. They discussed the fate of some 100,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karens. Yangon seems to have gained control of much of the area held by Karen National Union fighters along the border, although clashes continue in the region.

Week of March 7, 1997

Burmese troops dug in rather than continue their offensive into Karen-held territory near the Thai-Myanmar border, although clashes continued. At least 4,000 Karen refugees - most allied with the Karen National Union which has resisted central rule from Yangon for 50 years - entered Thailand last week, swelling camp populations along the border to about 90,000.

Week of February 14, 1997

Ethnic Karen fighters, defending refugee camps in Thailand, claim to have driven Yangon-backed Karen guerillas out of the country. Thai army officials in Tak province confirm that battles took place on both sides of the border on at least two occasions.

PepsiCo lnc. severed ties with its Yangon partner, Thein Tun, who had called for dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi to be "ostracized and crushed." Pepsi had begun backing away from the businessman by selling its shares in his bottling plant, but continued to supply the syrup for the soft drink. Thein Tun has close ties to the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council.

Week of February 7, 1997

Fourteen people have been found guilty of "agitation" during last December's student unrest, the government announced on Jan. 28. Among the convicted are five members of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi called the trial a sham, saying that it was held in secret and that the accused were represented by state-appointed lawyers.

Week of January 31, 1997

Authorities blocking supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi from gathering to listen to her speak say they have banned public meetings at her home because of complaints from neighbors. "Local people have objected," said a government spokesman. Last weekend, supporters were dispersed by men in civilian clothes wearing armbands that said: On duty for the people.

Week of January 24, 1996

The National League for Democracy expelled two of its elected MPs. The decision is thought to stem from a report submitted to the leadership, in which the two call for more realistic policies and argue against leader Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition to foreign investment.

Week of January 10, 1997

Yunnan province invested $9.6 million in two sugar cane factories in the border regions with Myanmar, in an effort to stop poor Burmese farmers from growing opium. Beijing admits that opium is transported through its territory, but insists that none of the drug is actually grown within its borders.

News from Myanmar in 1996

News from Myanmar in 1995

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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