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Than Shwe could keep his third position on the world's worst dictators list (22 January 2006)

A dictator is a head of state who exercises arbitrary authority over the lives of his citizens and who cannot be removed from power through legal means. The worst commit terrible human-rights abuses. The present list draws in part on reports by global human-rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, and Amnesty International. While the three worst from 2005 have retained their places, two on last year's list (Muammar al-Qaddafi of Libya and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan ) have slipped out of the Top 10, not because their conduct has improved but because other dictators have gotten worse.

Than Shwe, head of the SPDC since 1992, the ruling regime in Burma , could keep his third position. In November 2005, without warning, Than Shwe moved his entire government from Rangoon , the capital for the last 120 years, to Pyinmana, a remote area 245 miles away. Civil servants were given two days' notice and are forbidden from resigning. Burma leads the world in the use of children as soldiers, and the regime is notorious for using forced labour on construction projects and as porters for the army in war zones. The long-standing house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and Than Shwe's most feared opponent, recently was extended for six months. Just to drive near her heavily guarded home is to risk arrest. Burma Issues

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Busy, busy, busy (12 January 2006)

THE generals who run Myanmar are busy men. So busy, in fact, that for the past two years they have not found any time to squeeze in a visit from Razali Ismail, the UN official charged with restarting the country's transition to democracy. On January 8th, Mr Razali announced his resignation.

Mr Razali is not the only man the generals are refusing to receive. The UN's human-rights monitor for Myanmar, Sergio Pinheiro, has not set foot in the country since 2003. Even the junta's supposed friends in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been cold-shouldered of late. At the group's annual summit last month, Myanmar's prime minister agreed to receive a delegation to be led by Malaysia, currently in the chair at ASEAN, early this year. But now the time has come, he and the rest of the top brass find themselves run off their feet.

The failure to accommodate either Mr Razali or ASEAN seems particularly bad news, in that both were thought to have won the junta's trust. It was Mr Razali who in 2002 brokered the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's Nobel-prize-winning democracy advocate, only to see the generals confine her again the following year. ASEAN, meanwhile, admitted Myanmar in 1997, on the theory that engagement would yield better results than ostracism. Yet the junta now seems as indifferent to ASEAN's overtures as it is to criticism from America and the EU.

Mr Razali speculated this week that the Security Council would eventually take up the subject of Myanmar if the junta did not appear to be co-operating with anybody else. The council did hold an informal debate on Myanmar late last year. But it seems unlikely that China, which relies on Myanmar both for energy supplies and a military base on the Indian Ocean, will allow any serious criticism of the junta. Even if it did, the generals would probably pay no attention. They are, after all, already too busy ignoring everyone else. The Economist

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ASEAN summit targets Myanmar (11 December 2005)

Southeast Asian leaders opened their annual summit Monday, grappling with myriad problems, from the Myanmar junta's snail-paced steps towards democracy and the bird flu to economic competition from China and India.

The junta's failure to fulfill its pledge to restore democracy and continued house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has become the biggest political challenge facing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

In an indication that the bloc's frustrations are reaching a boiling point, summit host Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was expected to issue a statement urging fellow ASEAN member Myanmar to take more definite steps.

"There will be an announcement by the chairman. The Malaysian chairman will make the announcement," Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told reporters before joining others in the summit room in a Kuala Lumpur convention center.

Myanmar was discussed informally during at a dinner Sunday night by the leaders, including Myanmar's Prime Minister Soe Win, on the eve of the two-day summit.

ASEAN leaders are pushing for sending a regional delegation to Myanmar to assess the progress towards democracy.

A Myanmar diplomat confirmed that ASEAN has asked his government to allow such a visit.

"We said everybody's welcome. No problem, but we will take it on an individual basis on an agreed date," he said, indicating that a joint visit by all ASEAN countries was not possible. The diplomat did not identify himself, as is customary for that country's government.

On Sunday, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong confirmed that ASEAN, facing the heat from trading partners U.S. and Europe, is putting more pressure on Myanmar.

The summit will also discuss the growing economic might of China and India, which have replaced Southeast Asia, once known as Tiger economies, as the choice destination for foreign investments.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong said in a speech Sunday that although ASEAN was bringing down trade barriers and unifying markets among its 10 economies, things must move quicker for the grouping to be a player alongside China and India.

"Combined, these two economic powerhouses will shift the center of gravity of the world economy toward Asia," Lee said. "In order to stay in the game, ASEAN must therefore take decisive action," Lee told business leaders.

The summit will be followed by an inaugural East Asia Summit on Wednesday when its 16 members are expected to pledge a raft of steps to prevent a possible human pandemic of bird flu that has killed 69 people in Asia since 2003. Associated Press

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A government on the move to a half-built capital (11 November 2005)

At precisely 6:37 a.m. on Sunday, according to one report - with a shout of "Let's go!" - a convoy of trucks began a huge, expensive and baffling transfer of the government of Myanmar from the capital, Yangon, to a secret mountain compound 320 kilometers to the north.

Diplomats and foreign analysts were left groping for an explanation, and in a country as secretive and eccentric as Myanmar, the leading theories had to do with astrological predictions and fears of invasion by the United States.
The relocation, which was later announced to reporters and foreign diplomats but has not yet been announced to the public, had been rumored for years. But according to reports from Yangon, officials and civil servants were given only a day or two to pack and say goodbye to their families.
When they arrived at the new site, called Pyinmana, they found it still under construction, with shortages of water, telephone lines and even sleeping quarters and food, according to family members quoted by news services and exile groups.
Foreign diplomats said they had been told that if they had urgent business with the relocated government, they could send a fax but that no number was yet available.
According to various unofficial reports, the vast, fortified compound is to contain military headquarters, government ministries, huge meeting halls, residences, hotels, a hospital, an airport, underground bunkers and, not surprisingly, a golf course.
The military junta that runs the country, formerly known as Burma, offered little explanation for its mystery move.
"Due to changed circumstances, where Myanmar is trying to develop a modern nation, a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity," it said in a statement.
That left plenty of room for theories, and it was difficult to find one that seemed rational. Astrology seemed to make as much sense as anything.
Myanmar is a deeply superstitious nation that held its independence ceremony from the British, following astrological dictates, at exactly 4:20 a.m. on Jan. 4, 1948.
According to Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy Magazine, a Thailand-based �migr� publication with a network of contacts inside the country, huge convoys of Chinese-built trucks began their journey at exactly 6:37 a.m., a strangely precise moment that may well have been dictated by astrologers.
Astrological timing may also have been behind the abruptness of the move to a site that was not yet complete.
One theory is that the entire move follows a warning by astrologers several years ago that the dilapidated capital on the Bay of Bengal would become a dangerous place for the ruling generals.
Seen from their perspective, the notion of an American invasion might not seem far-fetched.
This is a ruling clique of soldiers whose background is jungle warfare and who know little of the outside world.
For years they have been squeezed by economic sanctions and battered by relentless criticism from the West over their human rights abuses, and they have responded by pulling farther into their shells.
In January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of the United States included Myanmar in a list of "outposts of tyranny," along with North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus.
Officials in Myanmar sometimes offer visitors a list of their own: Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq - all countries where the United States has sent armed forces.
Not long ago, according to one story, an officer was asked the purpose of obligatory civil defense training for civilian men.
"You are the holding action against the Americans until the Chinese come to our aid," the officer said, according to David Steinberg, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who is a leading expert on Myanmar.
Steinberg said wishful thinking about an American "rescue" was also current among opponents of the government.
"The joke going around is, 'After diamonds, gold,"' he said. In the Burmese language, "sein" is diamonds - as in Saddam Hussein. "Shwe" is gold - as in General Than Shwe, the leader of the junta.
There was no way to know whether there was a connection last week when the authorities in the capital reopened a road that passes by the entrance to the U.S. Embassy.
Barbed wire and concrete security barriers were removed for the first time since they were put in place after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Obviously, we are reviewing our security arrangements," an unnamed U.S. Embassy official told Reuters. "We felt a lot safer with them in place."
Minister of Information Kyaw Hsan told reporters in Yangon that the transfer of government had begun with nine of the 32 ministries but he gave no date for the projected completion of the move.
At the moment there appear to be no schools and little family housing at Pyinmana. The transfer is likely to separate civil servants from their families as well as from the second jobs that many found necessary to make ends meet in the country's minimal economy.
The junta's physical move into a fortified retreat reflects what many analysts say is a bunker mentality in the face of what may seem like a bewildering and antagonistic world.
"I keep hearing the same thing all the time," Steinberg said "Look, we don't need you guys. We can go it alone. We've done it before, and so what's new?" International Herald Tribune

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