Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Mass Graves of Suspected Trafficking Victims Found in Malaysia

Posted: 24 May 2015 08:02 AM PDT

Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 17 km (10 miles) off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, Thailand May 14, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Thai fishermen (R) give some supplies to migrants on a boat drifting 17 km (10 miles) off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, Thailand May 14, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

KUALA LUMPUR — Mass graves and suspected human trafficking detention camps have been discovered by Malaysian police in towns and villages bordering Thailand, the country's home minister said on Sunday.

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said officials are determining whether the graves were of human trafficking victims, but did not say how many dead bodies were discovered.

"This is still under investigation," he told reporters at the sidelines of an event in Kuala Lumpur.

According to media reports, the mass graves were believed to contain bodies of hundreds of migrants from Burma and Bangladesh.

Police discovered 30 large graves containing the remains of hundreds of people in two places in the northern state of Perlis, which borders Thailand, the Utusan Malaysia newspaper reported.

The Star newspaper reported on its website that nearly 100 bodies were found in one grave on Friday.

"I reckon it was a preliminary finding and eventually I think the number would be more than that," Ahmad Zahid said when asked about reports of the number of mass graves discovered.

Ahmad Zahid said that the camps identified are in the areas of Klian Intan and villages near the border.

"They have been there for quite some time. I suspect the camps have been operating for at least five years," he said.

A police spokeswoman declined to comment saying a news conference on the issue would be held on Monday.

A police official who declined to be identified said police commandos and forensic experts from the capital, Kuala Lumpur, were at the site but it was not clear how many graves and bodies had been found.

"Of course I believe that there are Malaysians involved," Ahmad Zahid said, when asked on possible involvement of locals in the incident.

Northern Malaysia is on a route for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Burma, most of them stateless Rohingya Muslims, who say they are fleeing persecution, and people from Bangladesh seeking work.

Smugglers have also used southern Thailand and Utusan Malaysia and police believe the discovery had a connection to mass graves found on the Thai side of the border earlier this month.

Twenty-six bodies were exhumed from a grave in Thailand's Songkhla province, over the border from Perlis, near a camp with suspected links to human trafficking.

More than 3,000 migrants, most of them from Burma and Bangladesh, have landed on boats in Malaysia and Indonesia this month after a crackdown on trafficking in Thailand.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday pledged assistance and ordered the navy to rescue thousands adrift at sea.

The post Mass Graves of Suspected Trafficking Victims Found in Malaysia appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma President Signs Off on Contested Population Law

Posted: 24 May 2015 12:24 AM PDT


Burmese President Thein Sein. (Photo: Reuters)

Burmese President Thein Sein. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Burma's president has signed off on a law requiring some mothers to space their children three years apart despite objections by a visiting senior US diplomat and rights activists, who worry it could be used not only to repress women, but also religious and ethnic minorities.

The Population Control Health Care Bill—drafted under pressure from hard-line Buddhist monks with a staunchly anti-Muslim agenda—was passed by parliamentarians this month.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he warned Burma's leaders during face-to-face talks last week about the dangers of the bill. On Saturday, hours after the diplomat left, state-run media announced President Thein Sein had signed it into law.

As predominantly Buddhist Burma started moving from dictatorship to democracy four years ago, newfound freedoms of expression lifted the lid on deep-seeded hatred for minority Muslims—including Rohingya Muslims now arriving on Southeast Asian shores in crowded, rickety boats.

Many are fleeing persecution and violence that has left up to 280 people dead and forced another 140,000 from their homes in western Arakan State. They are living under apartheid-like conditions in dusty, crowded camps, with little access to education or adequate medical care. They also have little freedom of movement, having to pay hefty bribes if they want to pass police barricades, even for emergencies.

The population law—which carries no punitive measures—gives regional authorities the power to implement birth-spacing guidelines in areas with high rates of population growth.

Though the government says the law is aimed at bringing down maternal and infant mortality rates, activists argue that it steps on women's reproductive rights and can be used to suppress the growth of marginalized groups.

Hard-line Buddhists have repeatedly warned that Muslims, with their high birthrates, could take over the country of 50 million even though they currently represent less than 10 percent of the population.

"It's very disappointing," Khin Lay, a women's rights activist, said of the president's decision to sign off on the law. "If the government wants to protect women, they should strengthen laws already in place to do that."

Blinken, who met with Thein Sein, the army's commander in chief and other top government officials during a two-day visit to Burma, said he expressed "deep concern" about the law and three others in the assembly aimed at protecting race and religion.

"The legislation contains provisions that can be enforced in a manner that would undermine reproductive rights, women's rights and religious freedom," Blinken told reporters on Friday. "We shared the concerns that these bills can exacerbate ethic and religious divisions and undermine the country's efforts to promote tolerance and diversity."

The post Burma President Signs Off on Contested Population Law appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Returned Fisherman’s 10 Years of Indonesian Misery

Posted: 22 May 2015 09:48 PM PDT

Myan Myo Myint, 26, returned to Burma last week. (Photo: Nobel Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

Myan Myo Myint, 26, returned to Burma last week. (Photo: Nobel Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — After failing his matriculation exam and a fight with his parents, Myan Myo Myint ran away from home. At the time, he had no idea he wouldn't see his family again for 10 years.

One of possibly thousands of people trafficked by Thai fishing boats in the last 20 years, Myan Myo Myint was among the 530 Burmese nationals who arrived in Rangoon last week after the slave trade was exposed by an Associated Press report in March.

A middle-class native of Kawthaung town, Tenasserim, the then 16-year-old crossed the border into Thailand after he left home, and was approached by a broker while sitting on a train platform in Ranong province. Afraid of being caught by Thai police after illegally crossing the border, he agreed to work on a fishing boat after meeting its owner.

Presented with a Thai language contract, he was told he would be paid 9000 baht (US$270) per month with a two-year commitment. Along with several others, he was sent in a car to Samut Sakhon province near Bangkok.

Life in the boat was miserable. Unable to quickly master the basics of fishing, he was assaulted and threatened by the Burmese supervisor of the vessel. The long shifts kept the crew in a perpetual state of fatigue, and those who couldn't be woken to work had firecrackers thrown into their beds.

Despite his promised salary, he was told he would be earning only 1000 baht (US$30) per month. When he asked the shipmaster for his pay, he was told that his employer was saving it for the end of his contract. After a month, he asked to quit the job without his salary, and was refused again.

Taken to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia, he worked for over two years before he made the decision to run away with a friend when the vessel made landfall one day.

"I couldn't eat for four days while I ran to escape from them," he told The Irrawaddy.

Eventually, an elderly Indonesian woman took the pair in, despite the lack of a common language. He remained there for the next eight years, helping with home repair work and other odd jobs around the village in return for food.

"If I didn't get work on one day, I would be worried about whether I could eat the next," he said.

His friend left the village soon after they arrived. To this day, Myan Myo Myint doesn't know whether he is still alive.

From time to time, he reached out to the local police station. Authorities told him they didn't have the budget to return him home. He told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese Embassy in Jakarta were aware both of his presence and that of other trafficking victims. Similarly unable to repatriate the Burmese nationals, the embassy would occasionally send bags of rice to former fishermen who had married Indonesian women and begun to raise families.

Myan Myo Myint said there were many more Burmese nationals stranded on the islands over the last two decades after they ran away from life on the boats, and the 530 to return were largely those who had been trafficked to the island in the last few years.

"We could build a town from the Burmese stranded in Indonesia," he said. "It's more than five hundred, it's more than a thousand. There are still many people living in these villages."

After arriving in Rangoon, Myan Myo Myint was able to call Kawthaung and eventually locate his parents. He returned home this week after nearly a decade away.

"My mother thought I was dead," he said. "I have so many regrets from what I did. I promised her I would try to become a good man."

The post Returned Fisherman's 10 Years of Indonesian Misery appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (May 23, 2015)

Posted: 22 May 2015 05:00 PM PDT

Japanese industry giants Mitsubishi Corporation and Hitachi Ltd have won a $20 million contract to upgrade signaling on the railway line between Rangoon and Naypyidaw. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Japanese industry giants Mitsubishi Corporation and Hitachi Ltd have won a $20 million contract to upgrade signaling on the railway line between Rangoon and Naypyidaw. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Telecoms Firm Ooredoo Changes Up Management

With recent figures showing that the Qatari telecommunications company is losing the race to capture the larger chunk of Burma's fast-growing mobile phone subscriber market, Ooredoo has announced a reshuffle of its most senior post in the country.

Ross Cormack, the Ooredoo Myanmar chief executive officer who oversaw the firm's launch as the first private telco to operate in Burma, "has taken the decision to leave his position later this year," according to a statement from the company.

Cormack has "significantly contributed to the growth of the company’s businesses," the statement said, crediting him with leading the company "from a green field operation to a fully-fledged telecoms provider" in Burma.

But it hasn't escaped the notice of observers that the announcement came less than a week after Ooredoo's rival private telecoms license holder, Telenor of Norway, announced it had picked up 6.4 million subscribers since launching in October.

Ooredoo, which in August began a slow roll out beginning in central parts of the country, had only put on 3.3 million subscribers as of the end of March.

State-owned telco MPT, which has entered a joint venture with Japan's KDDI and Sumitomo, has 8.4 million subscribers, according to Reuters.

Replacing Cormack at the head of Ooredoo Myanmar will be Rene Meza, the current managing director of Vodacom Tanzania, according to the Ooredoo statement, which also cited the executive's experience in Kenya, Pakistan and countries in Latin America.

"Rene Meza has considerable experience in leading the growth of telecoms businesses in emerging markets and we believe he has all the qualities to take Ooredoo Myanmar to the next level as we continue to roll-out Myanmar’s first 3G-only mobile network," Dr. Nasser Marafih, Ooredoo Group CEO, was quoted saying.

Burmese Mobile App Firm Looks to Raise Finance in London

Burmese tech start-up MySQUAR will attempt to raise more than $3 million on the London Stock Exchange, according to the Financial Times.

The London-based newspaper reported that the company, which makes Burmese-language messaging app MyChat, has been valued by brokerage firm Beaufort Securities at about US$36 million.

The company will try to raise about $3.14 million when it floats on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM), a sub-market of London's main bourse, at the beginning of June, according to the FT.

"But MySQUAR's services are free for now while it builds its customer base and it will not start to charge users for add-on services or advertisers for space for a while," the report said. "MySQUAR will not generate cash for months, if not years. The profits may come after that. Then again, they may not."

MySQUAR launched in 2013 and was touted as "Myanmar's first social media network" in numerous glowing newspaper features. According to the FT, the company now has some 700,000 users in Burma and is hoping for growth as the number of mobile phone users continues to climb.

However, it faces some stiff competition, and the social media habits among Burma's nascent smartphone addicts have proven hard to predict.

While Facebook is used by many in Burma as the default internet browser, a survey last year by On Device Research found that messaging app Viber—which has said it has more than 5 million users in Burma—was the most ubiquitous way to chat. Some 79 percent of survey respondents said they use Viber, compared with 27 percent for Facebook messenger.

"Twitter, Instagram, and other popular Western services remain below the 5% threshold," On Device Research said in a discussion of its findings. "Surprisingly, local mobile social network MySquar wasn't popular either."

Telenor Orders More Towers for Mobile Network

Telecoms infrastructure firm Apollo Towers said this week that it has agreed to provide 700 more mobile phone masts to Telenor, as the Norwegian company expands its network around Burma.

The company was selected by Telenor in 2013, shortly after the first private telecoms licenses were awarded to Telenor and Qatar's Oordeoo. In a statement on May 20, Apollo Towers said that it had received a new purchase order for 700 new towers from Telenor.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that both Ooredoo and state-run provider MPT have about 2,000 towers around the country each, while Telenor has only 1,500.

"The ongoing partnership between Telenor Myanmar and Apollo Towers Myanmar provides the platform for multi-tenancy on towers in order to accelerate the development of efficient and cost-effective shared mobile telecommunications infrastructure in Myanmar," the Apollo Towers statement said.

"As part of Telenor Myanmar's commitment to contribute to the local economy, Apollo Towers Myanmar is working with a number of Myanmar-based companies in the infrastructure build-out across the country, providing opportunities for local businesses and promoting a more vibrant business environment in Myanmar."

Apollo Towers was founded by former Orange CEO Sanjiv Ahuja, who also serves as a non-executive director at Telenor. Major shareholders in Apollo Towers include US-based entities Tillman Global Holdings LLC and Texas Pacific Group.

Japanese Firms Win Railway Signals Work

Japanese industry giants Mitsubishi Corporation and Hitachi Ltd have signed a contract worth about $20 million to upgrade the ailing signals system on the railway line connecting Burma's biggest city and the capital.

According to a joint announcement, the companies signed a deal with the state-owned Myanma Railways on May 15 with funding for the work coming from Japan's state aid organization, JICA.

The agreement will see the firms supply and install a train monitoring system to oversee traffic and control signals on a 140-kilometer stretch of line between Rangoon's Central Station and Pyuntasa, part of the way to Naypyidaw on the line that continues north to Mandalay.

"Given the aging of existing railway infrastructure in Myanmar, improvement of the quality and safety of railway services has become an urgent issue," the statement said.

"Furthermore, since most long-haul transportation in Myanmar depends on automobiles and airlines, developing rail transportation infrastructure is needed in order to accommodate increasing demand for passenger and cargo transportation."

Significant work is required to modernize Burma's rail network and rolling stock, much of which has seen little attention since the colonial era. Mitsubishi Corporation and Hitachi Ltd. said they would "continue to pursue opportunities for involvement in future railway infrastructure projects" in Burma.

Firm Plans Tourist Hotel in Chin State Capital

The mountainous reaches of Chin State may not be typical tourist territory, but the rugged terrain has begun to attract more adventurous travellers. Not surprising, then, that investors may be starting to get into the local hotel market.

According to a report on Burma News International this week, a company named Mahemiah Co-operation Company (MCC), wants to construct a tourist hotel in the state capital, Hakha.

The report cited company official Pu Thawng Za Lian saying that the firm, which is reportedly registered in the United States as well as in Burma, will open an office in Hakha next month.

The BNI report said the company would be involved in agricultural investment and construction projects in Chin State, but also want to cash in on tourism growth to the region.

"We often hear about the insufficient number of hotels for tourists and travellers in Chin State. So we approached the concerned authorities to construct a hotel. Local elders supported us," Pu Thawng Za Lian was quoted saying.

Marcus Allender, founder of travel website, told The Irrawaddy there was potential for tourism to flourish in Chin State.

"With remote villages strewn across mountains that are home to distinctive local tribes and colourful fauna and flora, Chin State certainly offers plenty of potential for tourism," Allender said.

"The issue is access—the only area that currently has any tourism development is Nat Ma Taung National Park, and that is an 8 hour drive on rough roads from the nearest airport at Bagan. Although access for foreigners is now unrestricted and roads are gradually being improved, it largely remains a destination only for the most adventurous and determined."

The post The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (May 23, 2015) appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Shan Herald Agency for News

Shan Herald Agency for News

Min Aung Hliang’s disarmament request and Chinese response

Posted: 23 May 2015 12:38 AM PDT

Recently, two pieces of news that are quite crucial to better understand the nature of ethnic conflict were published, which need emphasizing.
Sai Wansai
One is the interview of Khun Okker, Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) member, with DVB on 21 May, and the other Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hliang's request to Deputy Foreign Affairs of CCP, Central Committee, on 19 May, reported by Mizzima.

Khun Okker said that NCCT preparation of Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) leaders' summit meeting will be held in Chiangmai, Thailand from 25 to 27; and the ensuing summit meeting will take place at Lawkhila, Karen National Union (KNU) controlled area, from 2 to 6 June.

When asked why Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) and Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC) have to be present at the forthcoming Lawkhila meeting, Khun Okker said that they probably taking advantage of all ethnic leaders' gathering to adjust glitches and discuss with the EAOs' leaders that they usually do and not to attend the meeting.

No doubt, many might see it in another aspect, given that the KNU is close to the government and also lately held a meeting in Inya Lake hotel, Rangoon, with Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), also a group keen to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) as soon as possible, plus various registered political parties, on 9 May.

Various other questions Khun Okker answered are as follows:

  • No altering of NCA, due to the awaited, lengthy procedure of even changing a word of preposition, for it will have to go from MPC to UPWC, then to the military for approval and they cannot decide on their own. Given such circumstance, he doesn't think they will touch or alter the already accepted 5th NCA draft of 31 March. Otherwise, the process could be very long.
  • United Wa State Army (UWSA) is not against NCA, but agrees that it should proceed with those that are already involved and those not in it should go with their own process and formula.
  • Regarding Kokang conflict, it is the key issue that will determine if NCA could be signed. The regime would need to stop the military offensives or tone down the attacks on Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), if favorable condition to sign NCA is to be achieved. For without it, it will be impossible for the EAOs to go ahead with ratification. It depends on how much give-and-take could be handled between the two parties.
  • On 16 EAOs count of UPWC and NCCT differ. While government count might include UWSA, National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), also known as Mongla, RCSS and groups that have signed ceasefire, either state-level or union-level, NCCT is for all-inclusiveness, which means all those within the NCCT and non-NCCT, EAOs should be involved in the signing of NCA. Besides, he pointed out the fact that Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) haven't sign ceasefire agreement, but are accepted by the government as negotiation partners.
  • Although all-inclusiveness doesn't mean that all EAOs have to sign the NCA together at the same time, the remaining, excluding or left out groups must be taken in at a later date into the peace process; that is the signing of NCA. Furthermore, excluding groups must not mean permanent left out or subject to military offensives of the military; for this won't be accepted by the EAOs. The excluding groups would need to have political guarantee to participate in the future.
  • If one of the EAOs is attacked in one corner of the country and still NCA is signed, all will become a laughing stock.

Commander-in Chief request to China
On 19 May, the Vice Minister, of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, H.E. Mr. Chen Fengxiang and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hliang met, where the latter stressed that along the 2000 kilometers border between China and Burma, problems of ethnic armed conflicts couldn't be resolved until now, and that since it is the violation of Burma's sovereignty employing armed insurrection, it could not be accepted. Furthermore, as strategic partners, in view of keeping good bilateral relationship, China is requested to help solicit the ethnic armed organizations to give up arms, according to Mizzima report of 20 May.

However, it is not reported on how Mr.Chen has responded to the request.

The Commander-in-Chief's request was interpreted by some MPs and political parties' leaders as below.

  • U Khin Maung Swe, Chairman of National democratic Front (NDF) said political settlement is essential before asking the EAOs to give up arms and government must show sincerity and give political security first.

  • U Hla Swe, the MP from Magwe, said that Min Aung Hliang seems to be telling that China should not help MNDAA militarily, while Daw Dwe Bu, an MP from Kachin State, stressed that speedily implementing federalism will do the job, without having to solicit help from outsiders.

  • Sai Nyunt Lwin a top leader of Shan Nationalities league for Democracy (SNLD) is of the opinion that Burma Army wants China's help to win the war and it is likely asking China not to help MNDAA militarily. He said political solution is the best.

According to DVB report of 22 May, responding to Burmese military chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing's call for ethnic groups to abandon armed struggle, the general secretary of NCCT, Saw Kwe Htoo Win, has said that disarmament was never an issue on the table at ceasefire talks between the ethnic bloc and the government. Besides, surrendering arms was never an option nor was the matter included in the 5th NCA draft, signed on 31 March.

"During the era of the military junta, they used such terminologies as 'abandoning the armed movement' and 'entering the legal fold', but those issues or phrases were not used during the ceasefire talks," he said.

Points to ponder
Given the prevailing situation, there are quite a few points to speculate or ponder. They are on how China would respond to Min Aung Hliang's request, particularly the disarming of EAOs along the Burma-China border; both countries taking responsibility of the border areas; and the blaming of MNDAA for the latest bombardment that landed on Chinese soil, on 14-15 May.

With the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stressing in a daily news briefing that China required the Burma to make a "serious, overall and responsible" investigation into the incident and give a responsible explanation to China, on 20 May, it was made clear on what the Chinese thought of Min Aung Hliang's accusation that the 14-15 May bombing was the handiwork of the MNDAA. Otherwise, it would have come down hard on MNDAA.

According to 20 May Xinhua news, Hong said China also asked the Myanmar side to take effective measures to prevent similar incidents.

"We urge the relevant parties to cool down the situation and restore peace and stability to the China-Myanmar border area at an early date," Hong said.

Again, taking responsibility of the border areas interpretation could also be different. While Min Aung Hliang point of view is to disarm and conducting joint-military operation to weed out the elements like MNDAA, UWSA, NDAA and the likes, which are more or less dependent on China and some even outrightly see them as China's proxies, China's position is to promote negotiations and resolve the armed conflict peacefully. Besides, it has always made known that it could be involved in a peace-keeping force headed by the United Nations to help return the border areas to normalcy.

Before summing up two paragraphs from The Diplomat issue of 20 May, written by Dr. Xue Li, Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, might be just what China is having in mind, regarding the ongoing problems along Burma-China border.

"Finally, China should use the advantages of the Kokang area, and make it a model for implementation of the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road Strategy. A prosperous Kokang can benefit both China and Myanmar. Establishing a Kokang Special Administrative Area (a step forward from the current autonomous area), where the Myanmar government is only responsible for defense and diplomacy, might be a viable solution. This will need Myanmar's government to genuinely implement the Panglong Agreement, and to go beyond the 2008 constitution, which is not recognized by local ethnic minorities".

"An autonomous Kokang can provide economic benefits. It can also set an example for Wa and Kachin States. For the Chinese government, a stable Kokang is beneficial to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic corridor, oil and gas pipelines, and other transportation infrastructure, and allows for the protection of ethnic Chinese in the area".

The contributor is ex-General Secretary of the dormant Shan Democratic Union (SDU) — Editor

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Photo of the Week (May 22, 2015)

Posted: 22 May 2015 07:57 AM PDT

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 18, 2015. The United Nations has called on Southeast Asian nations not to push back the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis - men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home, and now face sickness and starvation at sea.  REUTERS/Roni Bintang  - RTX1DFBH

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, May 18, 2015. The United Nations has called on Southeast Asian nations not to push back the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis – men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home, and now face sickness and starvation at sea. REUTERS/Roni Bintang – RTX1DFBH

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 18, 2015. The United Nations has called on Southeast Asian nations not to push back the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis - men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home, and now face sickness and starvation at sea.  REUTERS/Roni Bintang  - RTX1DFBH

A Rohingya child who recently arrived by boat has his picture taken for identification purposes at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, May 18, 2015. The United Nations has called on Southeast Asian nations not to push back the boatloads of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshis – men, women and children who fled persecution and poverty at home, and now face sickness and starvation at sea. REUTERS/Roni Bintang – RTX1DFBHto

The post Photo of the Week (May 22, 2015) appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

US Urges Burma to Address Root Causes of Rohingya Crisis

Posted: 22 May 2015 07:26 AM PDT


US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed reporters in Rangoon on may 22, 2015. (Photo: Tin Het Paing / The Irrawaddy)

US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken addressed reporters in Rangoon on may 22, 2015. (Photo: Tin Het Paing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A top US diplomat on Friday said the United States is committed to assisting Southeast Asian nations embroiled in an ongoing migrant crisis, urging the Burmese government to step up efforts to address root causes within its borders.

"The United States is here to help countries in the region save lives today, that has to be our first priority," US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told reporters at the end of a two-day visit to Burma, where he met with President Thein Sein and other senior government officials to address a recent migrant exodus that has left thousands stranded at sea.

"Even as we address the immediate crisis, we also must confront its root causes in order to achieve a sustainable solution," Blinken said, stressing that political and social conditions on the ground were causing people to flee.

Thousands of migrants and refugees from Burma and Bangladesh were abandoned by human traffickers in the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait following a crackdown on the trade by Thai authorities earlier this month.

Most of the so-called "boat people" were found to be Rohingya Muslims fleeing desperate conditions in Burma's western Arakan State, while others are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Burma's Rohingya population, which numbers about 1.1 million people, are denied citizenship and viewed as illegal immigrants by the government, which refers to them as "Bengali."

The group bore the brunt of inter-communal violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and about 140,000 more in isolated displacement camps where they are denied mobility and basic services.

Following the recent discovery of several boatloads of desperate and malnourished people—which had been refused entry to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia until Wednesday of this week—the Burmese government denied that the movement was caused by strife within its borders, claiming instead that the migrants were from Bangladesh.

Blinken debunked the claim on Friday, stating that, "a significant number, a majority, are in fact from Rakhine [Arakan] State, are Rohingya, and left because of desperate conditions that they faced in Rakhine State, and we discussed this with the leadership here."

The State Department recommended finding a solution to prolonged displacement in Arakan State and establishing a path to citizenship for the beleaguered Muslim minority. While the Burmese government has made efforts to improve conditions in the troubled state, Blinken said, "manifestly, those efforts are not sufficient."

Blinken's trip to Burma was part of a three-nation tour of Southeast Asia with other State Department officials, and was not expressly planned to address the migrant dilemma that developed in recent weeks.

The delegation, which also included US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scott Marciel, expressed hope that a top-level meeting in Bangkok next week would produce a regional solution to the crisis.

Burma's foreign ministry has committed to attending the meeting, hosted by the Thai government, on the condition that the term "irregular migrants" be used to refer to the Rohingya, the President's Office told The New York Times.

Foreign ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia announced on Wednesday that they would grant temporary shelter for some 7,000 refugees, provided that the international community offer material assistance and resettlement within one year.

The government of Burma said this week that it would scrutinize migrants found near its shores, vowing to provide humanitarian assistance and repatriate those found to be Burmese citizens. On Thursday night the Burma Navy carried out its first search and rescue operation in the Bay of Bengal, bringing more than 200 people to shore.

The post US Urges Burma to Address Root Causes of Rohingya Crisis appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

More Funding Sought for Foundering Mon Language Program

Posted: 22 May 2015 05:46 AM PDT


Mon children study their mother tongue at a school in Panga village, Thanbyuzayat Township, Mon State. (Photo: Facebook / Nai Wona Mang)

Mon children study their mother tongue at a school in Panga village, Thanbyuzayat Township, Mon State. (Photo: Facebook / Nai Wona Mang)

RANGOON — A lawmaker has asked the Mon State parliament to triple the 10,000 kyats (US$9) per month that it pays part-time instructors who teach the Mon language at government schools, in line with a financial pledge that has yet to be fulfilled.

Aung Naing Oo, an ethnic Mon lawmaker in the state legislature, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the Mon State government had only provided 10,000 kyats a month to the schoolteachers, one-third the stipend that they were promised.

The state government last year agreed to pay part-time Mon language instructors 30,000 kyats monthly, an allocation that advocates of ethnic minority language instruction hope will one day come from the national budget. Union-level funds have not been forthcoming, however, in part because lawmakers in Naypyidaw are currently debating amendments to the National Education Law.

Not content to wait for the money to flow from Naypyidaw's coffers, Mon State lawmakers and the regional government pledged to offer language instructors 30,000 kyats, but the allocation never fully materialized.

"They did not provide full salary as they said they would. They told us our schoolteachers need to teach 30 hours a month in order to get a full salary, but the education department [the state-level Ministry of Education] only allowed our teachers to teach 20 hours a month," Aung Naing Oo said.

With the academic year beginning next month, the lawmaker put the issue to the Mon State parliament on May 8 in hopes that the legislature could negotiate with the state-level Ministry of Education to extend Mon language instruction to 30 hours a week, making instructors eligible for the promised stipend.

Ethnic Mon lawmakers pushed hard last year to hire Mon instructors to teach the local language at government schools, in what was a pioneering effort to return ethnic minority language instruction to the classroom.

But Aung Naing Oo said the regional government's political will to make the program a reality was lacking.

"This government did not want to promote our ethnic language. They could negotiate within their ministries if they wanted to promote our ethnic language," he said, adding that the future success of Mon language instruction depended on having the financial resources available to attract qualified teachers.

Nai San Tin, another Mon State lawmaker, said ethnic Mon lawmakers were now reluctant to recruit teachers if a full stipend could not be guaranteed.

"It is better if the government hires its own schoolteachers," he said.

There were about 300 instructors who taught the ethnic Mon language part time at government schools last year, according to Nai San Tin. That number is expected to be significantly lower if the stipend is not increased.

Under the democratically elected U Nu government of the 1950s, all schools in Burma's ethnic minority regions were permitted to teach ethnic languages, but the military regimes that ruled the country from 1962 enforced monolingual education in all state schools. As a result, in Mon State as in other parts of the country, only schools run by ethnic rebel administrations have taught local languages.

Amid political reforms initiated after President Thein Sein came to power in 2011, ethnic lawmakers have made requests for mother-tongue teaching to be reinstated. Since 2012, teaching ethnic languages has been permitted, but only outside normal school hours, and without any state funding.

The post More Funding Sought for Foundering Mon Language Program appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Muslim Leaders Urge Govt to Crack Down on Arakan Trafficking

Posted: 22 May 2015 03:58 AM PDT

The Ministry of Information said the Burma Navy discovered a boat full of 200 people in waters off the coast of Arakan State on Thursday. (Photo: Facebook / MOI Webportal Myanmar)

The Ministry of Information said the Burma Navy discovered a boat full of 200 people in waters off the coast of Arakan State on Thursday. (Photo: Facebook / MOI Webportal Myanmar)

RANGOON — Muslim community leaders in Arakan State have accused the Burmese government of failing to take action against human traffickers while neighboring countries crack down on the regional trade in humans, many of whom are Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

A spokesman for the government of Arakan State, where most of the trafficked victims creating the region's most recent humanitarian crisis are from, said authorities haven't acted because they had not received any specific complaints.

"The local authorities know who the traffickers are, but they do not arrest the people," said Hla Maung, a local Muslim community leader in Maungdaw, a majority-Muslim township in Arakan State, which is home to an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya. "How can they arrest these people? They are involved in this business, working with our Muslim brokers.

"We heard that Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have arrested people who were involved in human trafficking. But all the traffickers in Maungdaw are running free, no one has arrested them."

He said local security forces guarding Burma's border with Bangladesh were among the network of traffickers and facilitators filling boats with Rohingya that, until recently, sailed for Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations.

"Our people have to pay 50,000 [kyats, US$45 equivalent] for one person to the border guard force. Then, the border guards allow them passage to the sea. Then, they have to give 100,000 kyats per person to a broker," said Hla Maung.

Vice President Sai Mauk Kham paid a visit this week to Arakan State, where recent international scrutiny has been directed as boatloads of Rohingya fleeing persecution in the western state have been found floating in the seas of Southeast Asia, abandoned by crews that feared being caught up in a regional crackdown on people smuggling.

State-run daily The Global New Light of Myanmar said the vice president "urged local authorities to do their utmost to prevent human trafficking and transnational crimes in the state" and "discussed efforts to stop human trafficking in Myanmar's sea territories and along the Rakhine [Arakan] coast" with the head of the Danyawady Naval Region Command headquarters.

Asked about Hla Maung's claims of government inaction, Hla Thein, a spokesperson for the Arakan State government, said authorities had received no specific complaints to act upon.

"There is no one from the Bengali side who has come to complain to us that they were trafficked, nor asked us to arrest those traffickers or brokers," he said, using a term for Rohingya reflecting the government's position that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. "For our part, we cannot go and arrest traffickers unless the victims come to complain about it to us first."

There are eight Rohingya camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Sittwe, Hla Thein said, adding that his government meets weekly with Muslim community leaders who take care of the camps and no one had lodged any complaints about trafficking cases.

According to the Ministry of Information, the Burma Navy on Thursday discovered a boat carrying about 200 people four miles off the coast of Maungdaw. Those on board were turned over to authorities in Maungdaw, the ministry said, identifying them as Bangladeshis. The ministry did not indicate what would happen to the trafficking victims, but on Tuesday the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 13 Bangladesh nationals were found at a seaside village in Maungdaw and were transferred to Bangladeshi immigration authorities.

Hundreds of Rohingya, along with Bangladeshis escaping poverty in their home country, have washed up on the shores of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in recent weeks. Those countries initially refused to accept them as refugees but later agreed to take them, provided that the international community assisted to eventually resettle them elsewhere. While potentially thousands remain stranded at sea with dwindling food and water supplies, the urgency of the crisis has prompted an international outcry.

Burma's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in state media on Wednesday that it "shares concerns expressed by the international community."

"[Burma] stands ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea," the statement said, adding that measures were being taken to prevent human smuggling and illegal migration.

On Thursday, a high-level US delegation on a three-nation Southeast Asia tour met with President Thein Sein and senior members of his cabinet in Naypyidaw to discuss "humanitarian assistance for illegal migrants" and "combating people smuggling and human trafficking, [and] the situation in Rakhine State," among other issues, according to The Global New Light of Myanmar.

Aung Win, another Muslim community leader from Sittwe who is a Rohingya rights activist, corroborated an earlier Reuters report that boats full of Rohingya remained moored off the Arakan coast, with traffickers offering them a return to shore—for a price.

"They are asking one person for between 100,000 to 300,000 kyats," Aung Win said. "Refugees are people who do not have money. Where they will get this money for their release? These people [traffickers] are very brutal."

He said rather than protecting those within Burma's sovereign borders, the government appeared happy to allow the Rohingya exodus by boat.

At issue in Arakan State, for years, has been the government's refusal to grant the Rohingya citizenship. Violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the state in 2012 displaced more than 140,000 people, the vast majority of whom are Rohingya who remain confined to IDP camps, where a lack of access to basic government services has driven tens of thousands to board rickety boats seeking refuge elsewhere.

"If we have to think about our life, it is very sad because we were born here long ago, many generations [ago]," Hla Maung said. "But, they do not recognize us as from this country."

The dire situation in the seas of Southeast Asia appeared to improve on Wednesday, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand agreeing to temporarily take in what is believed to be thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi "boat people" who have made landfall on their soil or have been abandoned at sea.

Burma's Foreign Ministry has agreed to attend a conference on May 29 in Bangkok, called hastily last week to discuss a regional response to the crisis.

In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday said the United States would help to resettle some of the refugees, but Aung Win said the fundamental problems in Arakan State that were driving the Rohingya exodus remained: poor conditions in camps for displaced people, a lack of jobs and state-sponsored discrimination.

"The situation will get more complicated if the government does not solve the problems of these people," said Aung Win.

The post Muslim Leaders Urge Govt to Crack Down on Arakan Trafficking appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Nattalin Farmers Resign En Masse from USDP

Posted: 22 May 2015 03:50 AM PDT

Local farmers gather to return their membership cards at the Union Solidarity and Development Party office in Nattalin Township, Pegu Division on Thursday. (Photo: Kaung Myat Min/The Irrawaddy)

Local farmers gather to return their membership cards at the Union Solidarity and Development Party office in Nattalin Township, Pegu Division on Thursday. (Photo: Kaung Myat Min/The Irrawaddy)

NATTALIN, Pegu Division — Nearly 100 farmers from villages in western Pegu Division's Nattalin Township gathered at the local Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) office on Wednesday, renouncing their memberships over frustrations at a lack of party help in a land dispute.

Locals said that the military, district authorities and some government departments had confiscated some 450 acres of land in the township, including lands belonging to USDP members. The farmers, from 10 outlying villages, proclaimed their resignation from the USDP while at least 50 more asked the party to return their membership application forms.

"This USDP leadership said they would stand by the truth," said farmer Myint Naing. "They said in the case of conflicts between the interests of the party and the interests of the people, they would serve the latter. When we asked for their help after our land was confiscated, they did nothing. We have resigned from a party that does not look after people."

On Wednesday morning, farmers assembled outside the USDP offices in Nattalin town, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) southeast of Prome. More than 50 of those present loudly called for the return of their USDP membership application forms, which were supplied last October as party officials traveled door-to-door to sign up villagers.

"In 2008, we voted in favor of ratifying the Constitution. In 2010, we voted for the party," said farmer Chit Ko, a resident of Dama Nge village. "Although our villages don't put up USDP signboards, all are full of USDP members."

"Last year, party recruiters visited our homes, took our photos and asked us to fill in membership application forms, and we did so," he added. "We've come now to take them back. Why bother to join a good-for-nothing party?"

Tint Lwin, secretary of the Nattalin office of the USDP and a member of the Pegu Division Parliament, told The Irrawaddy that of the 41 people who resigned from the party on Wednesday, 11 had already been expelled, adding that the party would return application forms to those who asked.

"There are 120 farmers in the area whose lands were confiscated," he said. "Of the 41 members who resigned, one of them has been expelled from the party a long time ago for breaching party rules. Ten more were expelled yesterday [May 20] after a decision by the USDP township executive board."

According to farmers, the simmering dispute began in 1994, when a 1000-acre stretch of land cultivated by district administrators was confiscated under the pretense of turning the area into a forest reserve. Around 550 acres were eventually returned to villagers, while the rest was appropriated by government departments and the Burma Army's 4th Light Infantry Battalion.

The post Nattalin Farmers Resign En Masse from USDP appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Parliament to Discuss Postponing Mobile ‘Top-Up Tax’

Posted: 22 May 2015 03:44 AM PDT

Mobile phone users sit against the side of a building in Rangoon. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)

Mobile phone users sit against the side of a building in Rangoon. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Parliament has agreed to discuss delaying a tax on Burma's mobile phone users that is due to go into effect on June 1, after a lawmaker from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) asked the legislature to reconsider the plan.

The government announced on Monday that subscribers of Burma's three telecommunications providers—state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), Ooredoo and Telenor—would need to pay a commercial tax of 5 percent on all cellphone usage, including phone calls, text messages and mobile data. The tax will be applied to the so-called "top-up" cards that mobile users purchase to add balance to their phone credit, and resulted from an amendment to the Union Tax Law passed on April 1.

The announcement sparked criticism among a public that for years had to pay exorbitant sums for a SIM card due their limited release by MPT, which until last year had a monopoly on Burma's mobile network, spawning a black market trade that has only fully disappeared in the last few months.

Parliament agreed to discuss the issue on Thursday, after Lower House USDP lawmaker Thein Tun Oo submitted an urgent proposal to the legislature, asking the government to submit an amended Union Tax Law that would postpone enactment of the 5 percent levy until at least the end of the fiscal year on March 31, 2016.

"It happened on something we did not clearly understand," Thein Tun Oo told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, explaining that the new tax resulted from taking information and technology services off a list of exemptions to the commercial services sales tax of 5 percent.

The lawmaker questioned the decision to tax cellphone users, which until a few years ago included only the wealthiest or most well-connected in Burma, now that SIM cards are available to the masses. As late as mid-2013, SIM cards sold on the black market for about US$200 and at one point could sell for 10 times as much, but are now available for 1,500 kyats ($1.40).

"It is still only a very short time that Burmese people have been able to use mobile phones widely. Mobile phone users were unhappy when they heard the notice from the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to add the 5 percent tax on mobile phone top-up cards starting from June 1. So, I asked for an exemption in this fiscal year," he said, adding that lawmakers could then debate whether to apply it in the tax code from April 1, 2016.

Parliament must pass a Union Tax Law, with amendments or not, annually.

"I think it is OK to collect after some time, when the country's economy develops. But now … we must consider whether we should collect the tax from the pockets of low-income people or from the rich people," Thein Tun Oo said.

The post Parliament to Discuss Postponing Mobile 'Top-Up Tax' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

‘Boat People’ Likely Posing as Rohingya for Aid, Says Burma General

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:37 PM PDT

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing speaking during a meeting with officials at Kalaw, southern Shan State, April 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing speaking during a meeting with officials at Kalaw, southern Shan State, April 2011. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Burma's military commander-in-chief said some "boat people" landing in Malaysia and Indonesia this month are likely pretending to be Rohingya Muslims to receive UN aid and that many had fled neighboring Bangladesh, state media reported on Friday.

The remarks are sure to spark concern after the United States lambasted Burma this week for failing to address the cause of the crisis, which observers say stems from Burma's refusal to recognize the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group living in western Burma, as citizens.

Most of Burma's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in the western state of Arakan in 2012.

UN agencies have urged regional governments to protect thousands of migrants stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea with dwindling supplies.

Hundreds of migrants, including Rohingya from Burma and Bangladeshis fleeing persecution and poverty at home, have been pushed back out to sea by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia this month. Many now face sickness and possible starvation.

Senior Burmese General Min Aung Hlaing "hinted that most victims are expected to assume themselves to be Rohingya from Myanmar [Burma] in the hope of receiving assistance from UNHCR" during a meeting with US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.

He cited reports that the "boat victims" were from Bangladesh.

"He stressed the need to investigate their country of origin rather than to accuse a country," the newspaper reported.

Blinken had stressed the need for Burma to address the causes of the migration, "including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence".

Many Rohingya have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination in Burma and are denied citizenship. Burma denies discriminating against the group and has said it is not the source of the problem.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday pledged assistance and ordered the navy to rescue thousands adrift at sea, and a Thai official said Burma had agreed to attend an emergency conference on the crisis.

Malaysia and Indonesia have also said they would let as many as 7,000 migrants on the seas now to come ashore temporarily, but no more.

Both countries have also said that temporary shelters would be set up to house the migrants but Thailand, a traditional transit point for those trying to reach Malaysia for work, said it would not follow suit.

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US Readies Air Patrols in Search for Rohingya Boat People

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:30 PM PDT

Maritime police patrol the waters around Langkawi island in Malaysia's northern state of Kedah on May 12, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Maritime police patrol the waters around Langkawi island in Malaysia's northern state of Kedah on May 12, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — Attention turned Friday to the seas off Southeast Asia's west coast as naval vessels from Burma and Malaysia searched for stranded boat people and the US military prepared air patrols to step up its involvement.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma and economic migrants from Bangladesh are believed to be trapped on crowded boats with little food or water—some after being pushed back by the navies of at least three countries—and the international community has warned that time to save them is running out.

In the first official rescue operation since migrants started washing onto Southeast Asian shores earlier this month, four Malaysian navy ships searched the country's territorial waters for the boats. Navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar said three helicopters and three other ships were on standby.

The Burma Navy found two fishing trawlers filled with 208 men during a patrol Thursday night off the coast of Burma's Arakan State, the main point of departure for Rohingya minority Muslims fleeing the Buddhist country.

Zaw Htay, director of Burma's presidential office, said Friday the men were identified as Bangladeshi and would be sent back to the neighboring country.

"The Myanmar Navy continues with search and rescue activities in Myanmar waters," he said. "If they find any boat with migrants, they will provide humanitarian assistance, conduct verification and return them to where they came from."

The Rohingya are fleeing hatred and religious violence in Burma, where the government regards them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh—and refers to them as "Bengalis," not "Rohingya"—even though many have lived in the country for generations. Neither Burma nor Bangladesh recognizes them as citizens.

About 3,600 refugees and migrants have washed ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, according to the International Organization for Migration. Half are Rohingya and the rest are from Bangladesh, the IOM said. Many endured voyages of more than 1,700 kilometers (1,000 miles) on overcrowded boats that last lasted weeks or months.

The UN refugee agency estimates more than 3,000 others may still be at sea after a regional crackdown on human traffickers at the beginning of the month prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their boats.

Southeast Asian countries initially responded to the crisis by refusing to take in the migrants. But after pushing back several vessels earlier in the month, Malaysia and Indonesia said Thursday they will provide temporary shelter to the desperate men, women and children if the international community helps resettle them within a year.

Indonesia said it would not actively search for the migrants, but will rescue those stranded or drifting in the country's waters close to its shores, said Arrmanatha Nasir, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. He said the country would not push them back out to sea.

The US military said it was preparing to send "maritime aviation patrols throughout the region," Pentagon spokesman Lt-Col Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press on Thursday. The Department of Defense "is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously," he said.

Washington has been urging governments in the region to cooperate on search and rescue operations and sheltering the refugees and migrants. Most of the Bangladeshis are believed to be fleeing poverty and seeking better economic opportunities in Malaysia and elsewhere.

In Burma, the Rohingya are fleeing years of state-sanctioned discrimination. Over the past few years, Rohingya were targeted by violent mobs of Buddhist extremists and then confined to camps in western Arakan State. At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.

Burma overcame initial reluctance and agreed to join a regional meeting next week in Thailand to address the crisis.

"We are ready to cooperate with other governments to resolve the ongoing problems through constructive engagement and on humanitarian grounds," said Zaw Htay, director of the President's Office, on Thursday.

The decision was made after an invitation letter arrived, he said, noting it did not imply Burma was solely responsible for the crisis or use the word Rohingya—two conditions Burma had set for its attending the conference.

The United States has said it was prepared to take a leading role in any multi-country effort organized by the UN refugee agency to resettle the most vulnerable refugees.

US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, visiting Southeast Asia, met Thursday with Burma's president, army commander in chief and other officials, raising "deep concern about the thousands of vulnerable migrants stranded at sea," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

"He stressed the need for Burma to address the root causes of this migration, including the racially and religiously motivated discrimination and violence facing the Rohingya population in Rakhine [Arakan] State," Harf said.

Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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‘There Must Be a Balance Between Conservation and Development’

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:19 PM PDT

DATELINE PHOTO 3On this week's edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, the panel focuses on urban planning in Rangoon and the arguments for a conservation management plan to protect Shwedagon Pagoda.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week, we'll be discussing potential threats to the future of Shwedagon Pagoda, a sacred site to Burmese people and one of the world's wonders. Joining me are Saya U Than Moe, an urban planning expert and visiting professor at Yangon Technological University, and Ko Maw Lin, vice-chairman of Association of Myanmar Architects and visiting professor at the Mandalay Technological University. I am Irrawaddy Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Last Sunday, the Association of Myanmar Architects organized a well-attended forum on the conservation of Shwedagon, which presented recommendations to President U Thein Sein. The majority of Burma's people are not aware of the type of threats Shwedagon Pagoda is potentially facing. Would you please explain?

Maw Lin: It is like this. We organized the 'Save Yangon' form around December last year, spreading the message that Yangon is in danger and needs protection and conservation. We also presented recommendations to the president that time. In these recommendations, we stressed that Yangon is extremely crowded, and some places are witnessing very serious traffic woes, and we can't just stand by and watch that happening.

While we were talking about Yangon, we found that cultural heritage like Shwedagon and Sule Pagodas—important structures which have cultural, historical and religious significance—have also come under threat. Shwedagon Pagoda is sacred to the entire nation. There is no control over construction projects in its vicinity. There is no urban control and planning. We think developers and authorities are undertaking the projects as they please. There must be controls and detailed plans in undertaking those projects. We held the forum because we believe that restrictions must be imposed on those projects through rules and regulations.

KZM: Saya U Than Moe, as far as I understand, there are five high-rise construction projects in the surrounding area of Singuttara Hill where Shwedagon Pagoda lies. Previously the project site between the East Gate and South Gate of Shwedagon Pagoda was owned by the Armed Forces. Rich businessmen and foreign investors were permitted to develop the land. From the urban planning point of view, how could these projects impact Shwedagaon?

Than Moe: The Department of Human Settlement and Housing Development, in cooperation with UN-Habitat, drew an urban development plan for Yangon called 'Yangon City in Regional Development' in 1986. Then in 2012, the Ministry of Construction drew up a plan called 'Vision 2040' which examined how to cope with growing population and how to create conservation areas. Then, the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), drew up the 'Yangon Strategic Plan' in 2013.

We organized at least four public hearings and explained the plans to people and sought their opinions. These three plans, which were developed in three different periods, advocated for transforming Yangon from a city with a mono-centered central business district into a city that was multi-centered. They prohibit major land use developments near the central business district, which it calls the development control area. Areas which are at least eight miles or more from the central business district are designated as development promotion areas.

KZM: So, the projects we are talking about are against those plans.

TM: Yes, those projects are being carried out in development area.

KZM: Ko Maw Lin, a letter has been sent to the president. No matter how much activists campaign against those development projects, authorities do not seem to listen to them. As I have said, the project is being carried out on land that was owned by Armed Forces. It is largely associated with the government as permission comes from them. Among the developers are cronies. As far as I understand there are four developers implementing five projects near Shwedagon Pagoda. They are Shwe Taung Development Co., Ltd, Thu Kha Yadanar Co., Ltd, Marga Landmark Development Co., Ltd and Adventure Myanmar Tour & Incentives Co., Ltd. What action do you think the president can take to address it? Do you think he is able to do anything?

ML: Rather than talking about the question of whether he can or not, I think he should address it. He is obliged to control such a project. To be frank, I don't know much about the companies you have mentioned. But as Saya U Than Moe has said, from the point of view of urban planning, such projects should not be undertaken. From a cultural and religious point of view, Shwedagon Pagoda is a source of real cultural heritage. Such a place should be used as public space, for we are seriously short of public space. The president has to exercise control.

We need to take a very serious consideration as the projects are already in the process of being implemented. We are not calling for the termination of the projects. There are many other places in Yangon where development projects can be undertaken. There is no reason that the projects must be done at the foot of Shwedagon Pagoda. There are other places where the developments can be made instead. If developments are to be undertaken near Shwedagon, proper research must be done. If there are already plans in place as mentioned by Saya U Than Moe, they should be revised to check if they can be realized or not, to check how serious traffic congestion will become, how much trouble people will experience. The problem and interests of the majority people must be taken into account.

It is the duty of the president. He must give consideration to Yangon residents and Myanmar people at the forefront of his mind. From the point of view of urban planning, thorough research should be made on how much more serious traffic congestion can become. Saya U Nyan Myint Kyaw said at the forum that the structure and current strength of Shwedagon Pagoda has not been thoroughly studied. So far, they have only studied the strength of the upper part of the pagoda. Research should be done on the entire structure. It has still not been done because there is no money. How can it be that there is no money for conducting such a study? Such research should be done, as it is important for the country. Water experts said that a thorough risk assessment must be made to check the conditions of underground water table.

KZM: We men in the street do not know about water tables. What will happen if something is wrong with water table?

ML: If something went wrong with water table, the pagoda may sink, tilt or slide. Some say that situation has already gone beyond redemption, but we don't think so. Only when the buildings are built there could it be said the situation has gone beyond redemption. So far, it has not passed that point. It can be saved. So, proper research must be made and the president must consider if the place should be public space or not. I think the president has to make a decision depending on his vision and his critical thinking.

KZM: With regard to public space, there are lands owned by the ministries and the military in Yangon and in many cases, they give those lands to businessmen and developers who carry out big construction projects on those lands and share the profits with them. Can they do so, Saya?

TM: The 1892 Town and Village Act does not allow this. If a government department does not use land that it owns, it must return that land to the government. If a land designated to be used as cantonment is no longer used as a cantonment, it must be returned to the government. The government must carry out urban development schemes that are suitable to the current era and harmonize with the town. Only when such a scheme is carried out can prevent government ministries and departments from the building of condos and the like in a development control area. But now, government departments are leasing out lands for housing projects.

KZM: So they are breaking the law?

TM: I don't know if they don't know the law or if this is intentional.

KZM: Ko Maw Lin, you have engaged in 'Save Yangon' and 'Save Shwedagon' forums. What do you want the area around Shwedagon Pagoda to look like to people? How do you want to shape that area? Would you discuss?

ML: Shwedagon Pagoda should stand in isolation as a site of cultural, urban and national heritage. Shwedagon Pagoda can be seen as one enters the Yangon River from the mouth. It can be seen along U Wisara Road as one comes from Insein. Yangonites should be able to see it and its surroundings should also be conserved. In other countries, for example in Paris, nothing is allowed to be built in the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower. Heights are limited. Likewise, any cultural heritage sites and their surrounding areas are conserved in cities like London, Rome and Greece. Developments are not allowed recklessly there, like they are in our country.

I mean, there must be a balance between conservation and development. Development can affect conservation and vice versa. We must strike a balance between them. To do so, we need a conservation management plan. Only with such plans and controls, we will be able to save Shwedagon. Again, we need bodies to save the pagoda. There is Board of Trustees for Shwedagon. They are devoting themselves to the pagoda. But when it comes to technical matters, I think we might need a management body comprised of experts, people's representatives and community elders for the sustainable management of the pagoda. Only when there are plans, bodies and laws will we be able to preserve Shwedagon properly.

KZM: So, as Ko Maw Lin said we have yet to wait and see how far the president will go to save the pagoda. Surely there is still time? Saya U Than Moe, Ko Maw Lin, thank you for joining the discussion.

The post 'There Must Be a Balance Between Conservation and Development' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

‘Ode to May’ Showcases Burma’s Modern Masters

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:18 PM PDT

Click to view slideshow.

RANGOON — The works of 27 Burmese artists will be on view at Rangoon's Cloud 31 Gallery from May 23 to 31.

"ODE to MAY" features 30 original watercolor, oil and acrylic paintings by some of the country's most revered masters, including Win Pe, Kyee Myintt Saw, Win Pe Myint, Pe Nyunt Wai and the late Khin Mg Yin.

Tin Oo, a manager of the gallery and one of the artists featured in the exhibition, said the show takes nature as its primary subject.

"We mainly drew nature," Tin Oo said, "but visitors will be treated with a variety of paintings such as landscape, portrait, nudes and Burmese women."

All works are available for purchase, with prices ranging from US$200 to $3,000.

Artist Wei Chit Ko said the name of the exhibition draws on a famous poem by Min Thu Wun, written in 1990, in reference to the election that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide victory that was never honored.

Cloud 31 Gallery, located at No. 49/ 51, 31st Street (lower block), is open daily 9 am to 5 pm.

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Cambodia Accepts 4 Refugees Under Australia Agreement

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:17 PM PDT

Protesters hold placards at a 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney on Oct. 11, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Protesters hold placards at a 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney on Oct. 11, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

CANBERRA — Four refugees rejected by Australia who have agreed to resettle in Cambodia will likely become examples that other refugees will follow, an Australian minister said Friday.

Cambodia has agreed to accept the first four refugees under a 40 million Australian dollar (US$32 million) four-year agreement it made with Australia nine months ago to resettle asylum seekers held in an Australia-run detention camp on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. Many of the 677 asylum seekers on Nauru have been there for almost two years.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed an endorsement letter on Wednesday and the countries are now discussing when the four will arrive in Cambodia, Gen. Khieu Sopheak, spokesman of Cambodia's Interior Ministry, said on Thursday.

Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australian officials were working with the International Organization for Migration and other groups in Cambodia to provide the refugees' needs for accommodation, jobs, transport and education.

"We want to show success with this first four who travel," Dutton told reporters. "I think when we demonstrate that that can be a success, we'll see other people from Nauru follow to start their new life in Cambodia."

The first Cambodian settlers will be two Iranian men, an Iranian woman and a Rohingya man from Burma. They are the only ones so far to apply for Cambodian residency, the Cambodian general said. He declined to say where in Cambodia they would live once they arrive.

Dutton defended the steep cost to Australian taxpayers of the AU$40 million agreement that has so far attracted only four people from among the 488 verified refugees on Nauru.

Australia's tough policies of turning asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia and refusing to resettle any refugee who arrives on its shores by boat have all but stopped the boats from coming since the conservative government was elected in September 2013, Dutton said.

But the government still has to resettle more than 31,000 of the 52,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat during the six years that the center-left Labor Party was in power.

"Labor created a massive mess when it comes to boats and it's going to take time and taxpayers' money, I'm sorry to say, to clean up Labor's mess," Dutton said.

As part of its efforts to deter boats of asylum seekers, Australia made the agreement with Cambodia last September despite critics worrying that Cambodia was too impoverished to handle the new residents and its poor human rights record would put them at risk.

Cambodia sent officials to Nauru to meet the four applicants and to make sure their move was legal and voluntary.

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A Year After Thai Coup, Stability Trumps Growth for Business

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:10 PM PDT

Thai soldiers stand guard along roads blocked around the Victory Monument, where anti-coup protesters were gathering on previous days, in Bangkok on May 30, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Thai soldiers stand guard along roads blocked around the Victory Monument, where anti-coup protesters were gathering on previous days, in Bangkok on May 30, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — When Thailand's army seized power in a bloodless coup, much of the business establishment quietly cheered them on. A year on, the captains of Thai industry remain firmly behind the junta, despite a lackluster economy and a delayed return to democracy.

For businesses, calm on the streets of a city that was engulfed in chaos for months leading up to a putsch is more important than finding a cure for the malaise in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

"I'm satisfied. At the very least it has made the country peaceful and it has brought order," Poj Aramwattanont, president of the Thai Frozen Foods Association (TFFA), told Reuters.

In the early months of 2014, Thailand's government was paralyzed, parts of Bangkok were clouded by tear gas and state buildings fortified to look like army barracks.

Conditions for growth are better now, reckons Poj.

"There is an attempt to reform according to the junta's road map," he said. "Thailand was on pause for a long time because of political problems so … the economy has a chance to rebound."

A year ago, pro-government protesters camped on the outskirts of the Thai capital swore they would spring into action if the army intervened to remove the elected government.

In the city's heart, anti-government protesters, mostly southern Thais and middle-class Bangkok residents aligned with the royalist-military establishment, were equally determined to get rid of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

On May 22 the military took control, detaining hundreds of politicians and activists on both sides of the divide and dissolving the protests. Investors welcomed the calm imposed on Thailand's febrile politics, and the stock market rallied.

Heavy-handed tactics by the military and police since the coup have ensured that the junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, has ruled largely unchallenged.

Ronnachit Mahattanapreut, senior vice president for finance at hotel and food group Central Plaza Hotel PCL, said what the private sector wanted most was security.

"We want political stability so that businessmen can project long-term investment plans," he said. "Countries like China, Vietnam and Myanmar, their governments can implement key economic policies to keep investments going."

Coup leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has talked much about healing Thailand's deep political divisions. Reconciliation is a mantra in his weekly televised Friday evening address "Returning Happiness to the People."

When asked to comment on the military's year in power this week, he said: "I am satisfied but I am not proud."

Critics say politics are simply on hold under a regime that bans political gatherings, and that divisions remain as sharp as ever. They say the blueprint for Thailand in a new draft constitution is an attempt by Prayuth and the powers that back him to prevent a comeback by ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies.

Thaksin this week broke his silence on the junta that removed the remnants of his sister Yingluck's government from office. Its first year in power was "not so impressive," he said, but he had no plans to mobilize his "Red Shirt" supporters.

The junta on Tuesday delayed a planned election by at least six months to August 2016, to allow a referendum on the new charter.

Executives appear unperturbed by the delay.

"We don't need elections quickly," said Poj. "If the roadmap is prolonged because of the referendum then so be it."

Human Rights Watch in a statement on Friday said the junta had systematically repressed human rights throughout the country by banning political activity, censoring the media and trying dissidents in military tribunals.

"One year since the military coup, Thailand is a political dictatorship with all power in the hands of one man," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The date for elections continues to slide, with no certainty when they will happen."

Pornsil Patchrintanakul, president of the Thai Feed Mill Association and an adviser to the Thai Chamber of Commerce, scored the junta highly for political governance, but less well on the economy.

"I would give political management a 10 out of 10. We have to compare this to before … things were not peaceful," said Pornsil, but added that "investment and stimulating the economy have been slow."

Despite hopes that the generals would unleash a splurge of infrastructure spending, state investment has failed to keep pace even with the levels the paralyzed government of a year ago managed, partly because bureaucrats fear an anti-graft drive by the junta.

Domestic consumption is hobbled as Thai households are saddled with record-high debt and the export-driven economy is suffering as its biggest trade partner, China, grows at its slowest pace in 25 years.

Thailand downgraded its growth forecasts on Monday by 0.5 percentage points to 3.0 to 4.0 percent for the year, but the country's central bank governor said last week that even 3 percent expansion in 2015 would be "a challenge."

For some analysts, the junta has missed the opportunity to use its almost untrammeled power to drive through investment and economic reforms.

"Expectations were high when the military took over that they could kick-start spending quickly, but this has been difficult with the government's focus [rightly or wrongly] on constitutional reform," said Bill Diviney, an economist at Barclays in Singapore.

"In hindsight, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect so much of a government that, for all intents and purposes, is a caretaker until democracy is restored."

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‘Top 10’ New Species Includes Cartwheeling Spider, ‘Chicken From Hell’

Posted: 21 May 2015 10:02 PM PDT

A sequence of photos shows a spider in Morocco

A sequence of photos shows a spider in Morocco "cartwheeling" across sand. (Photo: Prof. Dr. Ingo Rechenberg / Technical University Berlin)

NEW YORK — Some 18,000 species, great and small, were discovered in 2014, adding to the 2 million already known, scientists said on Thursday, as they released a "Top 10" list that highlights the diversity of life.

The 10 are "a reminder of the wonders awaiting us," said Quentin Wheeler, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, which issues the list. An estimated 10 million species are still unknown to science.

But researchers have to move fast: Development, poaching and climate change are driving plants and animals to extinction faster than science can discover them.

Two animals made the list because of unusual parenting.

A wasp from China is the first animal found to use chemical weapons to thwart predators that might have designs on its offspring. Mothers fill part of their nest with dead ants, which give off volatile chemicals that mask the scent of larvae, throwing off would-be predators.

A frog from Indonesia breaks the rule of anuran reproduction. Rather than laying eggs, as almost all the world's 6,455 species of frogs do, or giving birth to froglets, it deposits tadpoles into shallow pools.

One of the top 10, dubbed "the chicken from hell," is extinct. The feathered dinosaur whose partial skeletons were unearthed in the Dakotas was a contemporary of T. rex and Triceratops.

Two species caught the list-makers' attention for their performance art.

A spider from the sand dunes of Morocco cartwheels to thwart predators, moving twice as fast as when it runs, while a pufferfish from Japan turns out to be the creator of intricate circles on the sea floor which had mystified scientists for 20 years. Males construct the circles, meant to attract females, by swimming and wriggling in the sand.

Since no top-10 list would be complete without an entry that made it on looks, SUNY included a photogenic blue, red, and gold sea slug from Japan. More than a pretty face, it could shed light on how algae in a sea slug's gut produce nutrients for the slug out of corals it eats.

The release of the top 10 is timed around the May 23 birthday of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish botanist and zoologist who founded modern taxonomy.

The full list, with photographs, is at

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