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Deadly Crime Story Emerges as Flash Point in Burma

In Burma, official media are weighing in on a story that rarely gets covered in the government press: crime. The story involves a clash between soldiers and civilians that left two men dead. The incident reportedly had witnesses and comes at a sensitive time ahead of the country's first election in two decades.

And now the Burmese government is accusing foreign media of distorting the incident to encourage public unrest.

Its mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, has described the shooting as a "drunken brawl." It reports the two men were shot and killed last week when young soldiers opened fire on a group of youths following a traffic accident in the city of Bago. The story explicitly states the incident was not a fight between the military and the public.

Burma's state-run media rarely report on crime or public discontent. But news of this shooting was so widespread that the government had to respond, says Toe Zaw Latt, the Thai-based bureau chief for the exile-run newspaper, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

"This is to a kind of counter, to hose-down the anger of the local residents. Because it happened in the middle of downtown and quite a lot of people witnessed it. And quite a lot of people, especially local residents, are very angry about it," he says.

A lawsuit has been filed against the officers involved, says the New Light of Myanmar, and stresses that Burma's military preserves what it refers to as a "fine tradition" of punishing offending servicemen. The military is routinely criticized by human rights groups for alleged abuse of power and human rights violations.

Tow Zaw Latt says the incident underscores the Burmese government's concern about public opinion ahead of the November elections.

"New Light of Myanmar says it is not armed forces and Burmese having quarrel. It is some young army officer and some other local residents," he says. "So they're trying to distinguish this from armed forces. They're trying to maintain their image particularly at this important time."

The New Light of Myanmar accuses politicians, activists and foreign radio stations of plotting against the government by misleading the people about the deadly fight to incite protests. The report warns the government is preparing to take action against any people who provoke unrest. It did not specify what response authorities are planning.

The warning comes as the country prepares for its first election since 1990. In the run-up, several military leaders have shed their uniforms in recent months to join the Union Solidarity and Development Association, the political wing of the military regime. Critics say the party is engaged in an effort to simply rebrand the government's image rather than make institutional changes to a system that has kept the military in power since 1962. But Burmese officials say the vote is a key point on the country's so-called "roadmap to democracy."

Senior leader General Than Shwe traveled to China last week in what analysts say was an effort to secure Beijing's support for the election.

On his arrival, General Than Shwe said he was seeking to boost mutual trust and understanding in what he called the "friendly" relationship with Beijing. China shares a border with Burma, where Beijing has significant oil and gas investments.

China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu also played up the countries' close ties but did not officially endorse Burma's election. China, she said, has a policy of not interfering in another country's internal affairs, and that the international community should refrain from making a negative impact on Burma's political process and regional peace.

The last time Burma held an election, the opposition defeated the military party by a large margin. But the government never allowed the National League for Democracy to take power. Instead, it has kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Her party is boycotting the upcoming election, calling it is a sham. But other splinter groups are taking part, saying any election is better than nothing.