Friday, August 27, 2010

Britain issues fresh travel alert ahead of elections

Friday, 27 August 2010 00:08 Ko Wild

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – The political situation in Burma remains unsettled and tensions could resurface ahead of elections in November, the British foreign office warned its citizens in a travel-advice update for the Southeast Asian country on Tuesday.

The notice said: “Security forces are on increased alert. Visitors and residents should exercise caution, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings and avoid taking photographs or videos of the military, the police or demonstrations as doing so could be interpreted as provocative.”

The foreign office did not specify the exact locations to avoid in its notice but mentioned places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers.

The update also noted “a general threat from terrorism in Burma”, citing the Thingyan water-festival blasts in Rangoon in April.

“On 15 April 2010, there were three bomb explosions during festivities at Kandawgyi Lake, in central Rangoon. At least 10 people were killed and 170 injured. This incident was the worst of its kind since May 2005 when explosions in two shopping centres and a trade fair killed at least 23 people and injured more than 150,” it said.

Also mentioned were explosions at the Myitsone dam project in northern Kachin State, the blasts near Kawkereik on the Thai-Burmese border, the three explosions in Moulmein last May and, in September, seven explosions on the outskirts of Rangoon. It gave detailed lists of the casualties from these blasts.

The British government had said the results of the planned elections would be unacceptable and had also endorsed the forming a UN commission of inquiry on human rights violations in Burma. It had also urged the release of all political prisoners including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and called for the regime to engage in dialogue with opposition and ethnic groups.

The travel alert also noted the violent crackdown on demonstrations led by monks in September 2007, which left many killed, but said however: “There have been no large protests against the government since 2007.”

It continued to warn however that: “The political situation continues to remain unsettled and you should continue to avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings. It is illegal to protest or form assemblies of people in Burma. Tensions could resurface as preparations for the elections in 2010 gather momentum.”

It further pointed out potential heightened tensions surrounding the detention of Suu Kyi, mounting hostility between the State Peace and Development Council (Burma’s military junta) and the Wa army in northern Shan State, and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).

It reminded travellers that the military regime tightly controls freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion in Burma and that the junta had arrested, jailed and deported foreign nationals who had publicly advocated reform.

During the crackdown on the “saffron revolution” (after the colour of monks’ robes) that took place in September 2007, Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai, 50, was shot dead while recording the protests. Judging from a photo of his death taken by Reuters photographer Andrees Latif, the soldier responsible is believed to be from one of the Light Infantry Divisions in charge of crowd control in Rangoon at the time of protests.

British embassy officials are not allowed to travel freely outside Rangoon without prior permission from the Burmese government, except to a limited number of destinations so that consular assistance in an emergency may therefore be restricted or delayed, and the British nationals should visit only the permitted places, the travel advisory warned.

The United States also warns its citizens over travel in Burma. The travel notice issued by the US State Department mentions brutal killings during the 1988 mass uprising and murder attempts against Suu Kyi in Depayin in 2003, when her convoy was attacked by at least 5,000 thugs from the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association. About 70 National League for Democracy supporters were killed.

Tourists have not needed to apply for visas from Burmese embassies and from May could easily obtain visas on arrival at Rangoon’s international airport. However, the junta recently announced that such visas would be suspended from September 1 and that travellers would again need to apply for visas at Burmese foreign missions.

Observers suggested that the suspension was to restrict the number of foreign nationals coming in to Burma in the run-up to elections on November 7.

According to official figures, more than 6,000 British travellers visited Burma last year and 3,226 visited Burma in the first five months of this year. They are among travellers mainly from the rest of Europe, America, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.

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