SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Hundreds of Myanmar nationals, many wearing red or t-shirts with the word “No”, gathered outside the Myanmar embassy in Singapore on Sunday to protest against the country’s proposed new constitution.
Myanmar nationals queue to vote, outside the embassy of Myanmar in Singapore April 27, 2008. Hundreds of Myanmar nationals gathered outside the embassy in Singapore on Sunday as they waited for their turn to vote in the country’s constitutional referendum. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash
Public protest is rare in Singapore, where all outdoor demonstrations are banned and a public gathering of more than four people requires a permit.
According to Myanmar nationals outside the embassy, citizens living in Singapore can this week vote on whether to accept or reject a constitution written by the country’s military leaders.
But they said most of them were turned away because they lacked documentation such as a form certifying that they had paid their taxes.
“We are here to cast our votes. We will wait until we can vote,” said one of the waiting crowd, who said he was a student called James.
A female companion with him, who declined to be named, said the organizers provided the red t-shirts as well as drinks and snacks to people waiting outside the embassy.
The group, which at one point raised their Myanmar passports in the air to demonstrate their nationality, was well-organized, and largely peaceful, following instructions from the Singapore police to make way for passing traffic and clearing rubbish from the ground.
Police officers stand outside the gates of the embassy of Myanmar in Singapore. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash
Myanmar nationals hold up their passports outside the embassy of Myanmar in Singapore. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash
Some monks were seen walking through the crowd.
An official from the Myanmar embassy declined comment when contacted, while Singapore police on the ground declined to speak to Reuters.
“We have the impression they don’t want us to vote,” said an organizer of the event who identified himself as William Thein. “People are very sure the junta will cheat. We can only wear these caps and t-shirts to show that the people are overwhelmingly against this unfair referendum.”
Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy has called for a rejection of the constitution, drafted over the last 14 years by an army-picked committee.
Other underground opposition groups are also pushing for the former Burma’s 53 million people to reject the charter. At least 60 people have been arrested in Myanmar for wearing t-shirts urging people to vote “No” in the May 10 constitutional referendum.
Al Jazeera English 10 Oct 2007 – Part 1
Burma’s military junta has spoken: there will be no role for the United Nations in determining the course of the country’s political transition to what it calls a “disciplined democracy.”
This is the message that the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) sent to the international community and the Burmese people through its treatment of the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari.
The Nigerian diplomat, who has just completed his fifth visit to Burma, proposed a more inclusive process of political change in the country, and offered to send monitors to ensure that the outcome of the junta’s planned referendum on a draft constitution is accepted as legitimate. The junta said no to both suggestions.
Gambari met with National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi twice during his five-day trip, but was denied a meeting with the junta’s supreme leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Instead, he met with members of the regime’s “Spokes Authoritative Team,” consisting of Information Minister Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan, Foreign Minister Nyan Win and Culture Minister Maj-Gen Khin Aung Myint.
There were also brief meetings with other NLD leaders, representatives of ethnic groups, and officials from the pro-junta Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and National Unity Party (NUP).
As he did during Gambari’s last visit to Burma in November 2007, Kyaw Hsan used the occasion of his latest meeting with the UN representative to send a clear message that the junta does not appreciate international interference in its affairs.
The state-run mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, published the full text of Kyaw Hsan’s indignant reaction to Gambari’s role in releasing a statement from Aung San Suu Kyi following his last visit.
“Sadly, you went beyond your mandate,” said the information minister in his carefully worded reproach. “Some even believe that that you prepared the statement in advance and released it after coordinating with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” he added.
He went on to accuse the UN envoy of trying to “frame a pattern desired by western countries.”
Kyaw Hsan also took issue with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s calls for a more inclusive constitution-drafting process, pointing out that the NLD walked out of the National Convention two years after it first convened in 1993.
The constitution, finally completed last year, is in no further need of revision, insisted Kyaw Hsan. “The majority of the people do not demand to amend it,” he told Gambari. But analysts say that most of delegates at the convention were handpicked by the junta and only a few representatives from political parties were allowed to attend the convention. Before the NLD walked out of the National Convention in November 2005, only 99 of the 702 delegates were elected officials.
After meeting with Kyaw Hsan’s team, Gambari met with a member of the commission responsible for holding the referendum, Thaung Nyunt, who flatly rejected a proposal for international monitoring of the forthcoming referendum in May.
“U Thaung Nyunt replied that holding the referendum for the constitution is within the State sovereignty. Besides, there were no instances of foreign observers monitoring events like a referendum,” said a report in The New Light of Myanmar.
U Lwin, secretary of the NLD, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that Gambari explained to his party that he came to Burma with a mandate from the UN Security Council.
“He also told us about his meetings with the regime officials on previous days,” said U Lwin, who declined to provide any further details.
Meanwhile, observers in Burma said that the junta’s snub of Gambari showed that the generals were not interested in listening to the international community.
“It is very clear that they [the junta] will do everything their own way. No matter what the international community says, they negate all voices,” said a Burmese political observer in Rangoon, adding that the chances of a national reconciliation talks taking place now are non-existent.
“It is time for Burma’s people to decide how to react to the junta,” he added.
Other observers said it was time for the international community to send a stronger message to the junta through a UN Security Council resolution.
Aye Thar Aung, an Arakan leader, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday that the military junta will only cooperate with proposals which support their stands. “Dialogues between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta official, Aung Kyi, were just a kind of cosmetic approach under pressure from Burmese people and the international community,” he said.
“The UN Security Council should really do something,” he added.
Larry Jagan, a British journalist who specializes in reporting on Burmese issues, also said that the junta has clearly demonstrated its indifference to international opinion.
“It is clear from Kyaw Hsan’s lecture that the regime is little interested in the international community’s concerns,” Jagan told The Irrawaddy on Saturday. “The UN is not being imaginative enough to try and expand a UN role around Mr Gambari. So I think the UN role in Burma in the area of mediation is effectively finished,” he said.
“What they would be worried about is the Burma issue will be raised again in the United Nations Security Council,” Jagan added.
Al Jazeera English 10 Oct 2007 – Part 2
The mission of the UN special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, which began with high hopes nearly two years ago, is now over.
That much is clear after this, his fifth visit since May 2006.
After a break of almost a year, Mr Gambari returned to Burma last September, armed with the full weight of the international community’s revulsion over the scenes of unarmed demonstrators being gunned down by Burmese soldiers on the streets of Rangoon.
His mission was backed by all UN member states, even China, which has long rejected putting outside pressure on the military government. It is hard to imagine a stronger mandate.
Mr Gambari had three main objectives. The first was to get a dialogue going between the generals and opposition figures, especially Aung San Suu Kyi who has been kept in complete isolation in her home in Rangoon since 2003.
This, he hoped, would eventually lead to a more credible process of democratisation than the military’s tightly-controlled Seven Stage Roadmap to Democracy.
He also pushed for the release of all political prisoners, including those detained during the September uprising, and he asked for the UN to be allowed to set up a joint poverty alleviation drive with the government.
Reeling from the blast of international outrage, the generals appeared to be willing to accommodate Mr Gambari at first, designating the admittedly low-ranking Labour Minister Aung Kyi to liaise with Ms Suu Kyi, and releasing some detainees.
But this conciliatory mood lasted less than a month.
On his next visit in late October, Mr Gambari was shunned by Senior General Than Shwe, the key decision-maker in the ruling military council.
It was a bad sign. The meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and the labour minister went nowhere, and then stopped altogether.
Mr Gambari remained upbeat, and said he had been given a promise by the generals that he could return to Burma anytime he chose.
But for the next four months they stonewalled him. And now we know why.
The Seven Stage Roadmap, which, with no timetable, had always seemed like a military-fabricated illusion, suddenly got one.
Without warning, the government announced that there would be a general election by 2010, with a referendum on the new constitution it has spent the past 14 years drawing up no later than May this year.
This was unexpected. And it left Mr Gambari with no hand left to play when he was finally allowed back this month.
Critics were quick to point out the obvious flaws in the military’s plan.
The constitution was drawn up by about 1,000 appointed delegates, who were confined to a purpose-built convention centre during the long drafting process.
The public had no input, and details of the constitution were still unclear even when the referendum was announced.
What is known is that the charter will reserve 25% of the seats in a new parliament for the armed forces, and that Aung San Suu Kyi will be specifically barred from holding government office because she was once married to a foreigner.
Criticising the draft constitution is punishable by up to 20 years in prison; criticising the referendum could get you three years behind bars; and about 2,000 political prisoners remain in captivity.
It is impossible to conceive how a free vote could take place in such conditions.
But that hardly matters to Than Shwe and his colleagues. Now the government has something it can flourish in the faces of those who insist it takes concrete steps towards democratic rule.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gamely urged the generals to make their roadmap to democracy and its constitution more inclusive, but over the weekend they threw his suggestion back in Mr Gambari’s face.
“It is impossible to review or rewrite the constitution,” said Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who is usually the mouthpiece for the more hard-line thinking inside the government.
He then went on to accuse Mr Gambari of bias, lashing out at him for carrying out a letter from Aung San Suu Kyi last November.
The diplomat who was supposed to represent the will of the international community was being publicly scolded by a pariah regime.
It was a telling sign of how little clout the UN envoy now carries.
His proposals to include the opposition in the political process, and to have international observers monitor the referendum, were instantly rejected.
Despair and resignation
This could well be Ibrahim Gambari’s last visit. It is hard to see why he would wish to put himself through such humiliation again. So what will happen in Burma?
After miscalculating the results of the 1990 election, which they lost by a huge margin to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the generals are unlikely to leave much to chance this time.
The date of the referendum will only be announced 21 days beforehand.
There will be no discussion of the constitution’s merits. There will be heavy mobilisation in support of it by the military’s political wing, the USDA.
They may even make identifiable boxes for yes and no votes at the polling stations, to intimidate opponents.
Then they have two years in which to prepare for the election – two years in which the opposition will continue to be harassed and jailed.
Some opposition figures are now debating whether it is worth continuing to confront the military, at such high cost.
They argue that perhaps the best option is to use the generals’ willingness to embrace change, however limited, and try to push a little further.
There is a sense of despair and resignation, after the brief euphoria last September.
There is of course always the possibility of unexpected events interfering with the military’s plans – a power struggle at the top, or another mass uprising driven by economic desperation.
But recent history will have taught the Burmese people that they cannot count on such miracles.
In an action that Burma watchers view as long overdue, the United States earlier this week slapped financial sanctions on wealthy Burmese businessman Lo Hsing Han, his US-educated son, Steven Law and Law’s wife, Cecilia Ng, a Singaporean businesswoman.
At least 10 Singaporean companies owned by Law’s wife have been targeted by the sanctions. Among other things, the sanctions point up the often-unhealthy way the Singaporean government chooses to ignore relationships between its financial community and unsavory Burmese businessmen. Because of the ties to Lo’s main corporate vehicle, Asia World Co. Ltd, the story also illustrates graphically the narco-state that Burma’s rulers have visited upon the world stage.
Asia World is targeted by sanctions also. And, included among the Singaporean companies owned by Ng is Golden Aaron Pte Ltd, which has been linked to the Chinese state-controlled oil and gas giant, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Under the sanctions, any bank accounts and financial assets the individuals or their companies hold in the United States are frozen and Americans are forbidden from doing business with them.
Asia World is considered to be Burma’s biggest and most diversified conglomerate. Lo is chairman and Steven Law is the company’s managing director. In a 1997 article, The Nation, a US magazine, described a web of connections between Asia World and the Singapore government, which “is directly connected to key business ventures of drug kingpin Lo” through a series of investments in the Myanmar Fund, including some by the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC).
In a letter to the magazine the Singapore embassy in the US said that GIC was a passive investor in the Myanmar Fund and was not involved in investment decisions and that the Myanmar Fund had been wound up.
Asia World is involved in industrial investment, development, construction and transportation. It imports and distributes goods into Burma and owns a supermarket chain. It was recently involved in road construction from Pyin Oo Lwin in Shan State to the Chinese border, the renovation of Rangoon’s international airport and the construction of a deep water seaport at Ahlone near Rangoon. It was also one of two main contractors for the construction of the new capitol at Naypyidaw. In 2001 the company’s authorized capital was given at about US$40 million.
Rangoon’s port, which handles 40 percent of Burma’s container traffic, is also run by Asia World which also operates a cargo and shipping business from the port. This and Lo’s ownership of Burma’s largest bus company has led some to speculate about whether he is using the facilities for continued drug trafficking.
Lo and Steven Law were refused visas to travel to the US as long ago as 1996 for suspected drug trafficking activities. The property interests of Golden Aaron are now reportedly blocked.
These moves follow sanctions earlier this month against the business empire of Burmese tycoon Tay Za and 33 other Burmese generals and business people and 11 companies which have had their assets frozen and were denied travel to the US. This is the latest in an ongoing series of financial sanctions aimed at hurting Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council through its business contacts.
“Unless the ruling junta in Burma halts the violent suppression of its peoples, we will continue to target those like Steven Law who sustain and who profit corruptly because of that support,” said Stuart Levy, Treasury Department Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
According to the Treasury Department, “In addition to their support for the Burmese regime, Steven Law and Lo Hsing Han have a history of involvement in illicit activities. Lo, known as the ‘Godfather of Heroin,’ has been one of the world’s key heroin traffickers dating back to the early 1970s. Law joined his father’s drug empire in the 1990s and has since become one of the wealthiest individuals in Burma.”
The saga of how Lo and his son acquired their fortune and the outward trappings of respectability has many twists and turns including several brushes with death. Lo, 70 or 73 years old depending on the source, began in the drug trade in 1960 when he organized a local militia in the Kokang area of Shan State. The government turned a blind eye to Lo’s drug trafficking in exchange for his assistance in fighting Shan insurgents. He was dubbed the “King of Opium” by US authorities in the 1970s.
His fortunes then changed. Thai police arrested Lo in 1973 and deported him back to Burma, where he was found guilty of rebellion and sentenced to death. However, he was given amnesty in 1980, and he moved back to Shan State where he built his headquarters at Salween Village near Nampawng southwest of Lashio. He immediately reestablished himself with a new militia and resumed his role in the drug trade.
The wisdom behind granting Lo amnesty was borne out when Lt General Khin Nyunt used him as a go-between in 1989 in arranging ceasefires with Kokang and Wa insurgents who had recently mutinied against their Burmese Communist Party leaders. In exchange, according to a memo from the Thai Office of Narcotics Control Board in 1993, Khin Nyunt gave Lo the right “to smuggle heroin from the Kokang Group to Tachilek [on the border with Thailand] without interception.” By 1994 he controlled what was regarded as the most heavily armed drug trafficking organization in Southeast Asia.
Lo also gained unfettered access to the Burmese economy for his part in the ceasefire deals. This was further enhanced when in the early 1990s, with the Burmese economy on the brink of collapse, the generals turned to traffickers to invest their money in legal and semi-legal businesses. A “whitening” tax of 40 percent, later reduced to 25 percent, was levied on funds repatriated from bank accounts in Bangkok and Singapore. It was also at this time, on June 5, 1992, that Lo set up Asia World.
Law enforcement officials say indications are that since the mid-1990s Lo has stepped back from direct involvement in the drug trade, although he does reportedly maintain contacts, and that has not stopped western law enforcement agencies from trying to find evidence of his continued role, so far without success.
Lo’s business empire, international observers believe, is built on the profits from his drug trafficking activities. These businesses and his money have proved invaluable to the junta.
Lo has maintained strong relations with Burma’s ruling generals. At Steven Law and Cecilia Ng’s 1996 wedding, among the guests was then-Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt General Kyaw Ba as well as three other generals and four cabinet ministers. Lo also organized the catering for the extravagant wedding party thrown for the daughter of Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe in 2006. Despite Lo’s relations with Khin Nyunt, he was notably unaffected when the general was placed under house arrest in 2004.
Lo also has been described by government figures as the most prominent partner for foreigners wishing to invest in Burma, with a massive amount of the joint venture investment done through Asia World. For example, an agreement to import cooking oil from companies controlled by Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok reportedly has grown into very lucrative real estate and construction deals, including the construction of the Trader’s Hotel in Rangoon, in which Asia World holds shares.
Another joint venture was with Sinmardev International Pte Ltd of Singapore. Headed by Albert Hong, Sinmardev was a consortium of Singaporean and other companies that built a US$207 million industrial park and port on the outskirts of Rangoon. Asia World contracted for part of the construction and holds shares in the project along with the members of the junta and several international investors.
Steven Law, who also goes by Tun Myint Naing, is the managing director of Golden Aaron, which has now been linked to CNOOC. The link was spotted by David Webb, a business commentator and non-executive director of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The relationship goes back to an October 2004 production-sharing contract between Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and a business group formed by CNOOC Myanmar, Golden Aaron and China Huanqui Contracting and Engineering Corp to explore for oil and gas in Kyaukphyu township of Rakhine State.
According to the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper, the signing ceremony was attended by CNOOC chairman Fu Chengyu and Golden Aaron director Chua Chay Jin.
CNOOC’s 2004 annual report listed itself as the operator of a joint venture with Golden Aaron and China Global Engineering Corp. through which it owns five exploration licenses covering 73,152 square kilometers. The licenses will run out on March 12, 2008 unless they are renewed. The gas deposits are part of the controversial Shwe gas project which is to include a gas pipeline through Burma to China. Human rights organizations have frequently cited abuses related to the project and have called for its cancellation.
The US sanctions may also have an effect on Singapore. The island republic has long been accused of being a shopping and financial center for Burmese generals and narcotics traffickers. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, said in 1997, “since 1998 over half of [the investments from] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han.”
Singaporean banks have been repeatedly accused of being used for money laundering by Burmese narcotics traffickers. Although Singapore does have what are considered by the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering effective anti-money laundering mechanisms, the fact that figures such as Lo and Law are able to continue to do business there and keep banks accounts has prompted much speculation. In a recent step to detect money laundering, the Singaporean police announced that after 1 November 2007, anyone carrying or transferring more than $20,650 would be required to submit a report to the immigration authorities.
Whether or not the money is from drug profits, it is being used to finance investment in Burma that the US and international observers claim prop up the regime. While US financial sanctions are not aimed directly at Singapore or its banks, the hint is there that by dealing with individuals and firms on the sanctions list, the banks risk bad publicity.
Although the Monetary Authority of Singapore is unlikely to advise banks to cut ties with Burmese firms as a result of the US sanctions, some analysts believe Singaporean banks are taking steps to restrict their links to Burmese companies. The refusal of Singaporean banks to deal with Burmese tycoon Tay Za’s Air Bagan airline is seen as a possible example of this. In addition, in late October 2007 the Irrawaddy magazine reported that bank transfers between United Overseas Bank of Singapore and Burma had been suspended temporarily. The risks to their banking relationships with the US may be forcing Singaporean banks to re-evaluate doing business with Burmese firms.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Bush administration, tightening pressure on Myanmar over human rights abuses, on Monday announced more economic sanctions against businesses and individuals linked to the country’s military leaders.
The U.S. Treasury Department said it was banning Americans from doing business with Asia World Co Ltd, a Myanmar company controlled by Steven Law and his father, Lo Hsing Han, who it said was a big figure in the international heroin trade.
The Treasury described both men as “financial operatives” of the Myanmar regime.
It was the fourth set of sanctions under an executive order issued last year in response to Myanmar’s military crackdown against protesters and included a freeze on any assets the firms and individuals may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
Myanmar’s junta in September crushed the biggest pro-democracy protests in nearly 20 years, killing at least 20 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Western governments say the toll may be much higher.
“The situation in Burma remains deplorable,” U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement, and called for concerted international pressure on Myanmar to achieve a “genuine transition to democracy.”
“The regime has rejected calls from its own people and the international community to begin a genuine dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minority groups. Arrests and secret trials of peaceful political activists continue,” Bush said.
The Treasury said Law and his father, Lo, had a history of illicit activities that supported the Myanmar junta. It called Lo as the “Godfather of Heroin” who has been one of the world’s top traffickers of the drug since the early 1970s.
In 1992, Lo founded Asia World Co Ltd. a company that has received numerous lucrative government concessions, including construction of ports, highways and government facilities, the Treasury said.
Law now serves as managing director of the company, and the sanctions were extended to his wife, Cecelia Ng. The Treasury also blacklisted 10 Singapore-based companies owned by Ng, including property firm Golden Aaron Pte Ltd.
The Treasury designated two hotel chains owned by Myanmar tycoon Tay Za, who was blacklisted in an earlier round of financial sanctions, the Aureum Palace Hotels and Resorts and Myanmar Treasure Resorts
The sanctions have drawn a less than enthusiastic public reaction from Myanmar’s southeast Asian neighbors, including Singapore, a key financial center in the region. Impoverished Laos and Cambodia have denounced the U.S. moves.
Nonetheless, Adam Szubin director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets control, said some governments in the region were quietly cooperating.
“It’s incumbent on financial institutions and governments to take steps to keep dirty money out of their banks and their financial systems. We see indeed financial institutions and governments taking those steps, sometimes not in the public view,” Szubin told reporters.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by David Storey)
Read the 1998 report titled The Burma-Singapore Axis: Globalizing the Heroin Trade
The 88 Generation Students group on Monday called for an international boycott of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, including a boycott of products sold by Olympic sponsors, according to group leaders.
The Rangoon-based activist group released a statement urging international activists to launch campaigns to boycott the Beijing Olympics and to pressure the Chinese government to stop its unqualified support of the Burmese military government.
“In response to China’s bankrolling of the military junta that rules the country with guns and threats, we call for each and every citizen around the world not to watch the Olympic ceremonies on television,” said the statement.
Tun Myint Aung, a member of the 88 Generation Students group, told The Irrawaddy from his hiding place, “We [the Burmese people] lack democracy and human rights. So, to help our struggle for democracy in Burma, we want people around the world to cooperate with us and boycott the Chinese Olympics.”
The group called for a boycott of Olympic merchandise, and products from China and its Olympics sponsors during the time of the Olympic games.
The statement added, “We urge people of conscience throughout the world—including the hundreds of thousands of Burmese in dozens of countries—to pledge to not watch or support in any way the Beijing Olympics.”
The Burmese junta remains in power partly because of China’s support, said the statement.
China is a major trade partner, arms supplier and defender of the junta in the international arena, especially in the United Nations Security Council.
The group called on the Chinese government to pressure the Burmese regime for democratic change by using its influence over the junta.
A Web site located at www.beijingolympicsboycott.com cites 10 reasons to boycott the Beijing Olympics, including China’s involvement in Darfur and its human rights record.
Beijing, however, has repeatedly denounced efforts to link the Olympics and politics, saying it is playing a positive role and that it is wrong to criticize it for what is happening in other countries.
Recently, well-known film director Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics because of China’s policy over Darfur.
China will open the Beijing Olympics on August 8, 2008, the date of the 20th anniversary of Burma’s 1988 uprising, in which an estimated 3,000 people were killed following the regime’s refusal to honor the results of a democratic election.
Related post: Pia Muzaffar Dawson Did The Unthinkable Last November
A group of international exchange students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) conducted a protest against the Burmese government at the ASEAN Summit in December last year.
Two of them Pia Muzaffar Dawson & Olly Laughland reveal, in the article below, how they were intimidated and harassed in the most disgraceful manner by the authorities here.
These youths wanted to express their anguish at the killings that were going on in Rangoon, something that millions across the world were doing. How wrong was that? No student should have to go through what they went through just to voice their dissent at a murderous regime.
Now the sordid details of their harassment are out. The only thing that is more stomach-churning is that NUS dares to aspire to be the “Oxbridge of the East.” Does this Government know no shame?
Protest Singapore style
“Protest Singapore style,” so the headline went. “9 protestors, 29 journalists, 2,500 police.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
Weeks of planning, secretive meetings, liaisons with the international media, personal struggle and strained friendships, family warnings and relationship crises – all to walk up a busy shopping street in red t-shirts and holding candles. Our quiet vigil in protest against the Burmese junta’s uncontested presence at the annual ASEAN Summit in Singapore caused something of a stir, to put it mildly.
Of course, we weren’t the only people greatly concerned about the situation. Since the violent crackdowns of Burmese civil society reported in October of last year, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have been involved in campaigning, calling for an end to the oppressive regime. But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), currently chaired by what was our host country of Singapore, is crucial to either undermining or legitimising the Burmese junta. However, Singapore had so far failed to condemn the junta’s actions, its high-level business links with the regime proving far too important to jeopardise, to the great displeasure of Singapore’s 30,000-strong Burmese community.
When we found out that the Burmese generals themselves were to be welcomed with open arms into Singapore’s luxurious Shangri-La Hotel, we decided to take action. There were other events planned, including two forums organised by Overseas Burmese Patriots and SG Human Rights, but these were to be held indoors in diluted form after applications to protest outside were rejected. Singapore’s stringent protest laws and total ban on public assembly once again proved to be an effective way of containing and constraining civil society.
Raised on Millian notions of freedom of speech, a vocal student body at Sussex and general discontentment at elite political power, we decided to risk our student visas and bend the rules. Our plan was simple: to walk towards the ASEAN Summit in groups of three (theoretically remaining within the ban on public assemblies of more than four), wearing red t-shirts to mark our solidarity with the Burmese people, and holding candles (since any sort of banner or placard would require a permit).
An innocent statement, we thought, though loaded nonetheless with our disgust at the junta’s regime. But the authorities thought differently, and made this patently obvious in the days preceding our event.
First of all, an email told us, “You are requested to attend a chat with the Provost and the Dean of Students tomorrow morning.” We went along, and spent a good half hour politely deflecting their polite attempts to neuter our efforts. “We don’t want this descending into violence,” said the Provost, drawing on the standard Singaporean truism: speaking out equals violence and chaos; chaos equals a threat to the economy. He courteously passed us a copy of the Straits Times (the state-controlled newspaper), folded neatly to the front page which read, “Singapore will stick to its tough laws governing public protests”. The internet said the same – so did the television, so did the radio.
Chuckling to himself, he opened a large dossier containing page after page of our personal information gleaned from Facebook. Covered in annotations, it told a story of “potentially unlawful behaviour”. Little did we know a group of fellow students had seen our “Stand Up For Burma” event on Facebook and reported us straight to the University authorities, probably in order to attain more all-important points for their own personal records. Nervous laughter followed. “You know we won’t be able to help you if you’re arrested. Student visas are an issue out of our control,” said the Provost (who is also, incidentally, the ex-Deputy Superintendent of the Singapore Police).
Though we hadn’t been explicitly threatened, we left the “chat” somewhat perturbed. Had our plans taken on a life of their own? Were we interfering in areas that were not ours to meddle with?
It got weirder. The next day we were on our way to the forum organised by the Burmese expatriate community in Singapore, when we got a phone call from a friend who was also involved in organising the vigil. “Erm… guys, I’ll be a bit late for the forum,” he said in guarded tones. “There are couple of policemen in my bedroom. They want to have a word with me.” We felt a sudden jolt of anxiety. The police? The magnitude of what we were doing began to dawn on us. “Do you want us to come by your room?” we asked our friend. “Erm… yeah, that’d be good actually,” he replied, straining to conceal the panic in his voice.”
We rushed to his room, our hearts thudding. There we were greeted by two plainclothes police officers with clipboards. Like the university authorities, they warned us that our planned actions risked breaking Singaporean law. Getting arrested in Singapore is a major, major social transgression. Determined not to be dissuaded, we tried to thank them politely for their advice, but without capitulating. They left eventually, having realised that their words were falling on deaf ears. Yet their visit left us shaken, unsure of what measures the authorities would take to prevent our protest from going ahead.
After this failed attempt, the police force resorted to more insidious means. An undercover policeman was installed at our planning meetings. We each received anonymous text messages clearly concocted by a novice police officer trying to sound young and hip. “Yo heard fm law fac guy police gonna take realie tuff action 2day on asean protest… dude has gd frend in police who knows some higher ups.. better tell those goin 4 protest 2 b real careful… looks like the cops here ain’t jokin… laterz.” We got emails warning of “rising anti-foreigner sentiment” in Singapore, and links to internet forums full of posts condemning our plans.
On the wall of our Facebook event, there was even a cleverly constructed anonymous attendee (creatively named “Nigel Chomsky”) who attempted to delegitimise our advocacy of non-violent protest by saying things like, “For once Singaporeans, DISSENT!!!!! Hell, we can f*ck the policing bastards.” His profile, again hastily invented by some novice policeman with no conception of what “anarchism” actually means, had pictures of a burning car and a hooded demonstrator hurling a Molotov at riot police. His “About Me” section said, “The system’s fucked up. So I set it right. I dissent.” Although in retrospect these efforts at surveillance and infiltration seem laughable, at the time they were enough to make us feel like our every move was being watched, as if we were in some kind of Orwellian dystopia.
As if these warnings from various authorities were not enough, we were also being chased up by story-hunting journalists who had got wind of our plans. Protest, sadly, is big news in Singapore. And the Singaporean web forums were buzzing with lively discussions about what we were proposing to do. “I think we should deport these ang-mos [local slang for “white people”],” one angry user said. Another countered, “NUS, good try, you have my support! NUS you are not wasting your time as you are brave to step out to do so. This is just the beginning, I hope to see more of such movement. Bravo, NUS! Keep it up!” Singaporean friends and strangers contacted us with messages of support. At the same time, a few members of our group were even contacted by lawyers and university authorities their our home countries, warning that participating in the protest would mean automatic expulsion from their degree programmes back home.
What had started as a simple idea, with which we’d become involved through a series of chance encounters, had now snowballed into an event of massive significance, in which an unprecedented number of different people seemed to have a stake. And this was not without effects on our personal wellbeing. We were double-locking our doors at night, unable to sleep. We were constantly looking over our shoulders, and trying to brush aside the threats and doubts that seemed to assail us from all angles. Within our group itself, the pressure was taking its toll. We became embroiled in heated arguments about the right thing to do – and even whether to go ahead with the protest at all – severely testing our friendships with each other. We were tense, scared and doubtful of our own capabilities. The claustrophobia proved too much for many.
The day came, our group whittled down to just nine. We approached the venue with trepidation, not knowing what awaited us at the top of the escalators as we emerged from the underground station onto the street. We were met by scores of journalists, photographers and film crews, far outnumbering our diminutive assembly. Upon sighting us they swarmed, cameras flashing, questions shouted, dictaphones thrust to our faces. “What would you say to the Burmese junta if you could be at the ASEAN summit today?” “Are you not scared of breaking Singapore’s strict anti-protest laws?” “Do your parents know you’re here?”
They followed us as we walked towards the venue of the summit. They were present when we encountered the police, and when we dispersed without incident. And so it was that the message of our simple, minimalist protest achieved a degree of publicity unthinkable in the UK, making the front page of Singapore’s national newspaper as well as countless other media channels throughout Asia. And the next day, emboldened by the fact that we were not arrested, a group of fifty Burmese residents in Singapore staged another anti-junta protest outside the Summit – an event of far greater political significance.
Our protest was controversial. It may have offended some. But in the following weeks, it became clear to us that our protest had not taken place for no reason. What may have begun as a basic attempt to publicly criticise the Burmese military regime, in an environment where it enjoyed an unacceptable level of impunity, quickly escalated into a question of how Singaporean society understands itself: how it is disciplined, how it relates to “external” interference, and what its fundamental values are. It served to crystallise national debates around public dissent, legitimate authority, the treatment of minorities, and regional diplomacy.
And from our point of view, the lengths to which the authorities went in order to try and stifle our political action really demonstrated to us how much we cherish those civil liberties we’ve always taken for granted in the UK, and which have been rapidly eroded under the Blair government. On a personal level, we ended up with sturdy friendships and a new awareness of what we were prepared to do for a cause we believed in.
Pia Muzaffar Dawson and Olly Laughland are former international students at the National University of Singapore. This article was written for student magazines in the UK.
NUS exchange student Pia Muzaffar Dawson did the unthinkable last November.
Along with two exchange students, the 22-year-old took her chances with Singapore’s tough laws against public protests by marching down Orchard Road into an area guarded by about 1,000 armed police and soldiers.
Together with Daniel Babiak and Mark (who did not want to reveal his last name), Dawson entered the city area where the Association of South East Asian Nations leaders’ summit was being held.
The trio, dressed in red T-shirts and holding lighted candles, were protesting against Asean’s inaction toward Burma’s junta after the country’s bloody military crackdown on demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.
In an e-mail interview with The Observer on Jan. 08, Dawson spoke about her experience with the university administrators that called to warn her against protesting and about what she thinks of NUS students.
She has since completed her semester as an exchange student at NUS and returned to England, where she is studying international relations and development studies at the University of Sussex.
Campus Observer: Have you ever protested in England before?
Dawson: Yes, but not very much. I don’t have much history of activism. It’s only recently that I’ve been inspired to participate in protests, specifically regarding education in the UK, anti-war, the occupation of Palestine, and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties in England.
Campus Observer: What inspired you to protest that day?
Dawson: First and foremost, the continuing political repression in Burma, the strong links between Singaporean elites and Burmese military rulers and drug barons, and the relative silence in Singaporean media on both these issues.
It would have been awful if the Burmese junta could be seen to just turn up in Singapore and not be held accountable for their actions — especially given the recent violent crackdown on monks and others.
Secondly, the repressive environment in Singapore, which restricts free speech, free assembly and free press. With the government silent and civil society groups facing massive restrictions, we thought that we could use our status as international students to highlight this issue.
Thirdly – and I am speaking for myself here — it is becoming increasingly clear to me that protest and political participation are vital to maintaining any semblance of democracy and political accountability. This is something that one generation of Singaporeans knew well, but has been stifled in contemporary Singapore. Knowing full well that a public assembly of more than four people does not necessarily degenerate into violence and chaos, we wanted to demonstrate this in Singapore.
Campus Observer: It was reported that administrators from NUS called to warn you of Singapore’s laws. What exactly did they tell you?
Dawson: The provost and dean of students spoke to some of us. They had managed to print out our Facebook event details and explained that the wording of our appeal made it clear that there was intent to hold an assembly of more than four people, even if the protest was conducted in smaller groups.
They didn’t want us to unwittingly break the law and were concerned that as foreign students we were not aware of local law. They even offered us the Central Forum as an alternative venue to stage a vigil.
Campus Observer: Why did you still decide to go ahead with the protests?
Dawson: Because our reasons for protesting remained the same, and we were concerned that this kind of muting of our plans would have much less of an impact and carry our message much less far.
We were also lucky because we knew that any sort of legal action or arrest would not affect us in the same way that it would affect a Singaporean student and their future career prospects (unless we want to work in Singapore, that is).
Campus Observer: Were you afraid when security officials and the police stopped your group of protesters?
Dawson: I wasn’t afraid, because we had expected to encounter police in that area, and we knew that we hadn’t broken any law. We also knew that the police would not mistreat us in the presence of so many international journalists. The main reason I wasn’t afraid, however, was that a successful protest usually relies on good planning, and our group had collectively decided that we would not confront the police or try to defy their warnings. So when the moment came, we were all prepared to disperse peacefully.
Campus Observer: I see that you were using your handphone in one of the photos. Who were you calling?
Dawson: Journalists from all over the world had been calling me non-stop that day.
Campus Observer: Were there any friends, well-meaning or otherwise, who tried to dissuade you from joining the protests? Could you recount one such experience?
Dawson: Yes, one law-student friend tried to dissuade us and managed to dissuade some others. One other friend was not comfortable with the fact that we would have no control over how our protest would be represented in the media, and he was very worried that we would be cast as troublemakers, or that reporters would focus on us and not on the issues that we were trying to publicise. He didn’t come, in the end. Luckily, his fears didn’t come true.
However, I had no problem with the fact that some people didn’t want to participate, because it’s not right to do those things without being comfortable with your actions. Also, other people’s criticisms were totally legitimate and meant we had many excellent discussions in the days before the protest, which ultimately prepared us much better for the day.
Campus Observer: Daniel was quoted by Bloomberg: “A lot of people wanted to come, but they were afraid of the repercussions.” What were these people’s reactions after the protests?
Dawson: They were relieved, I think, that no harm came to us. But I think their fears were totally valid, especially given the way the university, police and local media attempted to scare us out of participating. Hopefully, people will be more encouraged the next time such an opportunity arises.
Campus Observer: What do you think has been the effect of the protests on Singapore’s political scene?
Dawson: I don’t know. I think it’s important to highlight that the next day, 40-50 Burmese residents of Singapore were able to stage a rally, even holding banners and placards. I hope this will encourage even more Singaporeans to become active in civil society. I know that there are many Singaporeans who feel disillusioned with politics, seeing it as a sphere outside and above their control. For me, politics is something everyday and ubiquitous, and I believe we can empower ourselves without the permission of those who are supposedly in authority.
Campus Observer: Describe your opinion of NUS students in three words.
Dawson: Overworked, competitive, and de-politicised!
Although civil opposition to the Burmese military junta might appear to have subsided, a report released this week claims that the “Saffron Revolution” is not yet over and the desire for change among the Burmese people is “greater than ever.”
The report released by the International Federation for Human Rights and the International Trade Union Congress calls on the UN Security Council to pass a binding resolution against the military government in Burma and urges the international community to act and help the people of Burma in achieving their goal of democracy and rule of law in the country. The FIDH is an apex body of 155 human rights bodies from nearly 100 countries, while the ITUC is the world’s largest trade union federation.
In its 50-page report titled “Saffron Revolution Is Not Over,” the FIDH-ITUC concluded that the violent repression, particularly against revered monks leading peaceful demonstrations, has deeply antagonized Burmese society and has further alienated the population from its current military leaders.
“The level of fear, but also anger amongst the general population is unprecedented, as even religious leaders are now clearly not exempt from such violence and repression,” the report states. This is different from the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, when monks were not directly targeted. In present-day Burma, all segments of the population have grown hostile to the regime, including factions within the military’s own ranks, it stated.
Observing that the “desire to change is greater than ever,” the report asserted that the future of Burma will depend on three factors: the extent to which the population will be able to organize new rounds of social movement; the reaction of the State Peace and Development Council; and the influence the international community—the UN in particular—can exert on the junta.
The Burmese authorities were forced to accept the good offices mission of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, while UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro was allowed access to the country for the first time in four years. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy were given permission to meet with each other for the first time since May 2003.
“Yet these positive signs are still weak: a genuine process of political change has not started yet,” the report states. “Such a process, involving the democratic parties and ethnic groups, is fundamental to establishing peace, human rights and development in Burma. To achieve that, the international community must keep its focus on Burma, and maximize its efforts and capacity to help bring about political transition.”
There are four key principles and four key leverage points to influence the SPDC regime, which, if implemented, should force the regime to negotiate a peaceful transition, in which the military would become a professional body in charge of defending the country against external threats, and not a tool for repression in the hands of a dictatorship.
These principles could loosely be defined as: keeping Burma a priority; acknowledging that increasing pressure on the junta is useful and not harmful; accepting responsibility for Burma instead of passing the buck; and implementing a two-pronged approach in order to influence the regime and encourage the people of Burma.
Leverage points include: a binding Security Council resolution based on the responsibility to protect and the fact that Burma is a threat to peace; cutting the SPDC’s economic lifeline (comprehensive sanctions, in particular, on the key priority sectors of oil and gas, timber, gems and financial services, with due consideration for exceptions on justified humanitarian or similar grounds); and efforts to prepare for transition, the report stated.
Observing that the demand for reform in Burma is profound and insistent and that the determination of the democratic movement is strong, FIDH-ITUC urged the international community to seize the opportunity of ending military dictatorship in Burma.
“A business-as-usual approach to the current situation is no longer defensible; nor can it succeed in contributing positively to change. Instead, clear benchmarks should be set for a transition towards democracy, and progress towards this objective must be closely monitored,” it said.
If the military government fails to take key positive steps within a reasonable time, the international community should draw the required conclusions from the absence of progress, it said. In that case, an agenda of escalating demands should be pushed forward.
The international community cannot take the risk of losing the current window of opportunity, according to the report, which said, “The widespread and persistent human rights violations committed in Burma put the willingness of the international community to the test. It is our collective capacity to effectively realize and promote peace, human rights and democracy, which is at stake. The lives, human rights, dignity and future of Burma’s 54 million people require concerted and focused commitment from the international community now, and not at some undetermined time in the future.”
4 members of SG Human Rights delivered a petition card on Burma to ASEAN
Related post: VIDEO: Free Burma Activists Take To Streets In Singapore