Sunday, January 25, 2015

National News

National News

MP likens religion bill to Spanish inquisition

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 05:53 AM PST

A controversial religious conversion bill has passed the upper house of parliament, despite an opponent comparing it to the notorious Spanish Inquisition.

MPs prepare to debate proposed law on ethnic rights

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:49 AM PST

A law to protect the rights of ethnic minorities could soon be passed, say parliamentarians.

Protesters denounce governmental failures on land, education

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:34 AM PST

Activists in Mandalay staged a demonstration on January 16 in protest of what they say is the government's inability to resolve farmland disputes, labour disputes and student unrest.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Who’s Responsible for Reining in Rogues?

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:50 PM PST

Nationalist monk U Wirathu lashes out at UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee during a speech on Dec. 16, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Nationalist monk U Wirathu lashes out at UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee during a speech on Dec. 16, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

There are lines that one does not cross and words that one does not utter—especially if one is a man of the cloth. I am not going to bemoan: "Oh! What has the world come to? What has become of this noble order?!" This is about one individual—a demagogue running wild and potentially poisoning an entire society. Every age has its rogue characters, and ours is no exception.

The reader, no doubt, knows who this article is about. This is about a well-known Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, and his hateful words regarding a female human rights expert representing the United Nations.

When the words, ethos and collective emotions of masses are left to simmer unchecked for too long, they risk boiling over. Any sane and conscientious society should try to contain potentially harmful sentiments and nip the problem in the bud before it can be harnessed by ill-willed provocateurs. That such preventative measures haven't happened in Burma a symptom of a societal malaise, and our chief rabble-rouser is a mirror held up to present-day Buddhist society.

The image in the mirror is clear, however homely it may be, and each member of this society needs to act thoughtfully and responsibly to change the course.

A man is shamed not by his birthplace or other incidental facts about him, but by his words and deeds. By extension, a society is shamed if it bows to the shameful, letting them run wild among the rest. Several hundred people listened and cheered when this demagogue spoke. There will always be a mob—people who are swayed by emotion and easily led by the nose—but we need to listen past that to the counter-voices of reason and sanity.

Those voices, admittedly, are both faint and scarce. If this disparity continues, the purveyors of poison will prevail.

The majority in Myanmar society will need to undergo a deep transformation to achieve greater understanding and tolerance for other faiths and ethnicities. The crushing dictatorship that lasted half a century swept those issues under the rug—or rather the bamboo mat. Now that the demons of those long-buried issues have reared their ugly heads, it is clear that containing the damage and handling the legacy of state-fostered intolerance is a far more critical concern than vague dreams of "democratization."

This is where institutional responsibility comes in. Trouble is being fomented by extremists within the Buddhist clergy and the government is doing nothing about it. Even beyond the government's correctional capacity, doesn't the Sangha itself have a mechanism for dealing with rogue behavior? State props won't help if the institution at the core of this controversy has no moral authority.

The state could nonetheless do more. There is a Ministry of Religious Affairs, and there are laws. Unfortunately, the government uses these tools as it likes and the rules are often unevenly applied. But the strongest and furthest-reaching impact that the government could have on this issue would come from political leadership, if it were only willing to speak up. This is an election year, after all, and anything that could cost a vote is assiduously avoided. But I would suggest that even Myanmar's biggest issues, such as armed conflict and chronic poverty, are slighted by the problem of an immense political vacuity right up to the highest levels of governance. Nota bene: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been silent.

The office of the UN human rights rapporteur has undergone a sea-change in Myanmar. There was a time when the military's notorious secret police leaned heavily on it, while the democracy movement relied heavily on its support and intelligence. The office and its incumbent now face a new kind of pressure, one that is perhaps even stronger. But among this dismal picture there are still individuals who are not bereft of character and moral courage—for instance, the abbot of Mansu Shan monastery, who sheltered Muslim families when violence shook Lashio. These individuals embody this country's real strength and hope for a promising future.

The post Who's Responsible for Reining in Rogues? appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Juggling For Joy

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:30 PM PST

U Soe Si of the YCDC gets into the spirit.

U Soe Si of the YCDC gets into the spirit.

YANGON — Weekend visitors to Yangon's Maha Bandoola Park can hardly fail to have noticed the arrival of a colorful crew of performers who have been providing plenty of laughs and entertainment ahead of the city's first international juggling festival next month.

Keeping three balls or other items in the air by hand is something everyone can try. Many park-goers have been giving it a shot. Others just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of flying ribbons, balls, and curious s-shaped staffs known as buugeng skillfully manipulated by French juggling master Julien Ariza.

In Myanmar, juggling has typically been the province of the feet, not the hands. Local practitioners of chinlone, a traditional Myanmar sport that involves one or more players keeping a small rattan ball in the air without using their hands, are some of the most spectacular ball-manipulators of all.

Chinlone "jugglers" from Myanmar impressed audiences in Europe and the United States in the late 19th century when they toured as traveling entertainers, according to research by British academic Jonathan Saha.

Among the most famous was Moung Toon, "The Marvelous Burmese Juggler", who was noted for his ability to move balls all over his body without using his hands.

In 1896 audiences at the Crystal Palace in London were amazed by Moung Toon's abilities with a cane ball that "appeared to be endowed with human knowledge, so cunningly did it lend itself to the design of the performers." Moung Toon went on to tour in the United States the following year.

"He starts to juggle two glass balls, such as we would hang on a Christmas tree, but all his work in throwing, catching and tossing is done with those eloquent feet…the audience stares in wonder," according to a review in a San Francisco newspaper in 1899.

However the minstrel life, then as ever, was a vulnerable one. Dr. Saha also found letters to the Government of India regarding "a troupe of Burmese jugglers who were stuck in the north-west of England having been abandoned by their employer in 1898."

And in 1900 it seems that Moung Toon had other problems too. Reportedly he had fallen in love with an English woman and she had agreed to marry him. But the clergyman refused to conduct the ceremony after the chinlone player's manager informed him that Moung Toon already had a wife in Myanmar.

The organizers of the International Juggling Festival have been tracking down more information about juggling and circus performances in Myanmar in the past, according to Jude Smith of the Serious Fun Committee. They hope to find out more from old movie footage and from Myanmar puppetry experts, and welcome information from any other source.

The committee organized similar juggling festivals in Laos in 1996 and Thailand in 1993 and is keen to connect Myanmar enthusiasts with the international network.

Comedian Zarganar introduced Serious Fun to Omega Mime, comprised of two young comedians Thura and Jo Ker, who also juggle. Omega Mime will emcee a big free public show featuring international and local performers from 6:30 pm in Kandawgyi Park on Feb. 12.

Entertainment at the Day of Fun to be held at Maha Bandoola Park on Feb. 14 will include a Juggling Olympics as top jugglers, including one-time seven ball champion Haggis McLeod from the United Kingdom and "Venus, Goddess of the Diabolo" from the Netherlands, compete for medals.

Local community groups are organizing play shops and games, and the festival activities will include flash poetry and story readings from PEN Myanmar, action painting with artists from Pansodan Scene, performances from the New Yangon Theatre Institute and singing from the Global Harmonies choir.

And watch out for a potential "match" between the international jugglers and local players from the National Chinlone Association.

The juggling events have the support of the Mayor's Office and Yangon City Development Committee—whose committee member U Soe Si discovered that he too can do the three-ball cascade with just a few minutes instruction.

"One of the wonderful things about organizing this juggling festival is that it brings together diverse groups of people, bridges the gaps, breaks down barriers," says U Myo Win of Smile Education and Development Foundation, a local NGO partnering with the committee.

Meanwhile, this month the organizers are continuing a community outreach program bringing fun and teaching juggling skills to disadvantaged children in orphanages, hostels and schools. Community Juggling Coordinator Jules Howarth starts his sessions showing how to make juggling balls with balloons and pigeon pea for filling, overcoming any need for expensive equipment.

"Anyone can juggle," says the Welsh performer. "Juggling is a great leveler."

The writer is the Yangon Coordinator for the International Juggling Festival. For updates, contact: Tel: 09-250 156 750 or 09-972 129 645. This story initially appeared in the Jan. 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.

The post Juggling For Joy appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Jan. 24, 2015)

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:00 PM PST

Open Data Survey Puts Burma Bottom of the Accountability Table

Burma has been ranked at the bottom of a list of 86 countries in a study on openness of public information available from government, state agencies and private businesses.

The Open Data Barometer analysis places Burma in a group of a 10 countries that it describes as capacity-constrained.

"[They] all face challenges in establishing sustainable open data initiatives as a result of: limited government; civil society or private sector capacity; limits on affordable widespread Internet access; and weaknesses in digital data collection and management."

Burma's neighbors also fared poorly in the study. The constrained cluster group of 10 included Thailand and Bangladesh, as well as Indonesia and Vietnam within Southeast Asia. Laos and Cambodia were not assessed.

It's the first year that Burma has been included in the study, which named China as making the biggest improvement since the 2013 survey.

The Open Data Barometer survey, published by the World Wide Web Foundation, recommended several steps for countries to follow to improve openness, including political commitment to disclosure of public sector data, particularly the data most critical to accountability; sustained investment in supporting and training a broad cross-section of civil society and entrepreneurs to understand and use data effectively; and legal reform to "ensure that guarantees of the right to information and the right to privacy underpin open data initiatives."

UK Trade Ministry Promotes Burma Energy Industry as Oil Prices Crash

The British government is encouraging British firms to invest in Burma's oil and gas industry at a time when five-year low oil prices are putting a brake on new investment in exploration and production.

Most of the foreign firms awarded licenses for 20 offshore exploration blocks in Burma in March 2014 are still negotiating terms for production-sharing contracts with the state-controlled Myanma Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE). Terms have become much more critical for potential profitability with international oil prices, and to a lesser extent natural gas, plummeting since July.

Thailand's PTTEP signaled this month that it is reviewing its capital expenditure program in Burma, among other countries, because of the oil price slump, which is squeezing profit margins, especially for offshore work.

However, the British Department of Trade & Industry says in a just published 16-page study that Burma is a "hotspot" for oil and gas investment.

"The [Burmese] Ministry of Energy indicated that the next bidding round for offshore oil and gas exploration blocks is likely to take place in 2015. UK companies … interested should start investigating opportunities now," the study said.

The human rights NGO Burma Campaign UK said the British government was putting emphasis on the wrong business development for Burma.

"The energy sector is not labor intensive, not many Burmese people will benefit from such investment, and revenues will go directly to the government, which still spends more money on the military than on health and education combined," campaign director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy. "As British oil companies announce they are cutting back in the North Sea because of falling oil prices, the British government is telling them to invest billions in Burma."

Plans for Tin Smelter Plant in Burma Revived by Indonesian Firm

Indonesia's largest tin mining company, state-owned PT Timah, has renewed proposals to build a smelter in Burma, reports said.

Timah will invest more than US$8 million in the smelter, the Jakarta Post said, although it's still not clear where the plant might be built.

The company last year canceled plans for a smelter following exploration of a tin mining concession around Bokpyin in Tenasserim Division, the result of which it described as disappointing.

The Jakarta Globe newspaper said the Indonesian government had imposed limits on tin exports, making Burma a more financially attractive investment.

Indonesia is one of the world's biggest producers of tin but, as with other locally mined commodities, the Jakarta government wants to restrict exports in order to supply the domestic market to help Southeast Asia's biggest economy expand.

Timah has two joint ventures in Burma, PT Timah Myanmar Mining and PT Timah Myanmar, the Jakarta Post said. The local partners were not named.

Burma Aims for Barrier-Free Tourist Travel Among Asean Countries

The Naypyidaw government is keen to join a "barrier-free tourism" strategy within the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a travel trade magazine said.

Unrestricted cross-border travel for tourism should become part of Asean's plans for establishing a regional economic community similar to the European Union's tariff-free trade system from the end of this year, Burma's Tourism Minister Htay Aung told TTR Weekly.

"We attach the highest importance to addressing barrier-free tourism in the new Asean tourism strategy," he said. "We should create special equipped barrier-free destinations in order to facilitate travel for everyone."

Responsible tourism and community involvement are part of a roadmap for the future development of tourism in Burma, the minister told TTR Weekly in an interview. "[Burma's] policies are in line with the wider Asean Tourism Policy," he said, describing the growing industry as a national priority.

Thailand Praised, But 'More Action Needed' to End Burmese Labor Abuse

The Thai government "still has much work to do to improve working conditions" in the country's fishing industry, which employs many thousands of Burmese migrant workers, a labor rights group said.

The International Labor Rights Forum praised the Bangkok government's decision to seek to tighten rules governing the industry, from fishing boat operations to factories where fish are processed and canned for export.

The government move follows negative international publicity spotlighting forced labor, cheating on wages, the use of child labor and confiscation of documents to prevent Burmese workers from leaving Thailand.

"Legislative changes alone will not succeed without much stronger enforcement and focus on ensuring the rule of law in both migration policy and on fishing boats," the forum's Abby McGill in the United States said in a statement.

"Improving working conditions within the industry and bolstering the rights of Thailand's migrant workforce, including by granting them the right to form unions, is vital to actually address human trafficking in Thailand's fishing industry."

The post The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Jan. 24, 2015) appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Photo of the Week (23.01.2015)

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 07:21 AM PST

KachinBig KachinSmall

The post Photo of the Week (23.01.2015) appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Optimism and Concern Mark Burma’s First Workshop on Hydropower Dams

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 06:51 AM PST

Karen villagers hold a prayer ceremony in 2013 for the protection of the Salween River, as they oppose plans to build large-scale hydropower dams. (Photo: Karen Rivers Watch)

Karen villagers hold a prayer ceremony in 2013 for the protection of the Salween River, as they oppose plans to build large-scale hydropower dams. (Photo: Karen Rivers Watch)

NAYPYIDAW — An atmosphere of optimism over the sustainable development of hydropower dams in Burma was tempered by serious concern at the country's first ever public workshop on dams in Naypyidaw early this week.

As international development banks, government officials and business consultants raised the prospect of expanding hydropower in a sustainable and equitable way, ethnic minority activists and NGOs warned against the potentially heavy impacts of dams on local communities, the environment and ongoing ethnic conflict.

Organized by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the two-day event drew some 150 attendants from Burma and the region and provided a platform for lively discussions on the future of dams in Burma as it implements democratic and economic reforms.

Dams have long been controversial in Burma and under military rule were associated with human rights abuses, worsening conflict and secretive business deals.

Minister of Electric Power Khin Maung Soe told participants on Monday that increasing electricity supply was "one of the top priorities" for Burma's socio-economic development and that dams are the main source for a planned expansion of electricity supply.

"In implementing hydropower projects, we're confronted with the problems of social and environmental impacts, conserving [the river] basin and ensuring sustainable development. This workshop is a good opportunity to exchange views on how to overcome those challenges," Khin Maung Soe said, before leaving the workshop along with most other senior officials.

Only about a third of Burma's population, about 3 million households,currently has electricity and domestic energy needs for both population and local industry are projected to grow rapidly in coming decades. Proposed dams would help address these needs, although most hydropower energy would be exported to China and Thailand in order to raise government revenues.

The World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IFC and Japan International Cooperation Agency are assisting Burma in developing policies, plans and legal frameworks to reach its ambitious energy growth targets, while also funding energy infrastructure projects, such as expanding Burma's underdeveloped national power grid.

The Western and Japan-funded organizations have only reengaged with Burma since 2012 after President Thein Sein's nominally-civilian government initiated democratic and economic reform. Among bank representatives at the workshop there was a palpable sense of optimism over the direction the government is heading.

Plans to tap Burma's vast hydropower potential were endorsed, although they urged upholding international standards to assess and mitigate environmental and social impacts of dams. "In Myanmar, we firmly believe that hydropower has to be part of the energy equation. So… it has to be started in a more responsible way because it's a long-term project," Raghuveer Sharma, chief investment officer at the IFC's Infrastructure and Natural Resources department, said in an interview.

Min Khaing, director of the department of hydropower implementation at the Ministry of Electric Power, said Burma had 24 operational dams and is constructing seven more, while preliminary agreements have been signed for 35 projects. Another four projects have been proposed by development firms. If all projects are built it would raise the total amount of hydropower generated in Burma to 43,709 megawatt, up from the currently installed 3,011 Mw, according to a presentation by the official.

Some Burma experts at the workshop said they were encouraged by the public discussions on dams,but noted that laws and government capacity to limit the projects' negative impacts on environment and communities still fall far short.

"What we're missing at the moment is both the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] procedures, which determines how the EIAs are carried out, but most importantly how they should be consulted on and published,"said Vicki Bowman of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business.

"The Ministry of Environment… don't have the technical capacity on the environment side, or even more importantly on the social side, to assess whether the companies and the third-party consultants they are hiring are doing these [impact] assessments and mitigation plans properly."

Bowman said it also remains unclear whether dam projects that are alreadyunder construction—such as the suspended Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State—would be kept to international standards. "The influx of the IFC and the World Bank and this workshop is a perfect opportunity to ensure that social and environmental due diligence for all of these dams is applied," she said.

Maw Htun Aung, a Kachin activist working with the Natural Resource Governance Institute, told the workshop, "It's a strategic choice here in Myanmar; are we going to go fast and get it wrong, or are we going to go slow and get it right? That's a decision all stakeholders have to make."

Dams Fueling Conflict?

A lack of official information surrounds the exact status of the planned dam projects, most of which are located in remote, ethnic minority areas affected by long-running conflict between the central government and numerous ethnic armed groups in northern and eastern Burma who seek greater political autonomy.

Under army rule, the government signed initial agreements with Chinese firms for the construction of at least eight dams on the Irrawaddy River and its tributaries in Kachin State, while Chinese and Thai firms signed preliminary agreements to build at least six dams on the Salween River, which runs through Shan, Karen and Mon states in eastern Burma.

Among these proposed projects are large-scale dams in war-torn Kachin State, such as the Chibwe and Laiza dams, and in contested areas in Shan State, such as the Kunlong, Hat Gyi and Tasang dams. The status of the projects remains unclear although Deputy Minister of Electrical Power Maw Thar Htwe told Parliament last year that the government intends to push ahead with these five controversial dams.

The government suspended the Myitsone dam in 2011 and six other dams planned by China’s state-owned Chinese Power Investment (CPI) in Kachin State are affected by ongoing conflict.

During the workshop, NGOs and ethnic activists warned the government, multilateral banks and participating business consultants that endorsing hydropower dams in Burma entails serious risks, as some projects could reignite ethnic conflict and severely impact ethnic communities and the environment.

"As far as I know there will be seven large-scale dams on the Salween and these are located near the ethnic armed groups. From a political power view, we can think that the government is using dams as a weapon to control and flood these areas, so it can create more conflict," said April Kyu Kyu from Land In Our Hands. "So please reflect, don't try to push such hydropower dams… because there will be more conflict in Myanmar."

The Burma Rivers Network issued a press release to coincide with the workshop on Monday that called for "an immediate halt to dam projects on the Salween River, which are fuelling war and violating the rights of local peoples." The statement was accompanied by a petition signed by about 61,000 people and 131 organizations, including political parties.

Under the former junta, there were many reports of militarization and large-scale rights abuses as a result of attempts by government forces to secure dam project areas and clear them of rebels and ethnic villagers.

A Karen Rivers Watch report released in November claimed that the outbreak of heavy fighting last year between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and a combined force of the Burma Army and Border Guard Force in Karen and Mon states was the result of government attempts to secure the project area for the planned Hat Gyi dam.

Multilateral bank representatives largely steered clear of discussing dams proposed in conflict zones, but acknowledged the sensitivities of the projects. "Many conflicts are about economic opportunities… We need to understand the nature of the conflict but I am sure we can find a way to resolve the conflict," Sharma of IFC said, before adding,"If it's an ethnic thing, it might be harder to resolve."

Government officials were absent from workshop sessions that discussed the concerns over links between dam development and ethnic conflict

Ashley South, a long-time researcher of Burma's ethnic conflict and a consultant with the Norway-funded Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, told the workshop, "It needs to be acknowledged that Myanmar's previous experience with hydropower has been pretty negative in many respects, in particular for communities that have been directly affected.

"So of course many local people will have an extremely negative view of state-led economic development projects in general, and certainly hydropower," he said, adding, however, that this perception could change if international standards are applied for the implementation of dam projects.

"We have also heard so much about the immense contribution that hydropower can offer to Myanmar and I certainly accept that and it's very exciting," South said.

John Bright, water coordinator at the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, said developing dam projects that are truly environmentally sustainable and have the support of the local ethnic population and their political organizations would take many years to achieve.

"We need to make sure we have democratic processes that ensure a peaceful solution and have a peaceful environment," he said in an interview. "Then we need to come up with some kind of potential agenda for sustainable development because we also need development, because we are struggling for that and for our rights to self-determination."

"It takes time, it's been six decades of conflict, and you cannot build trust in one, two three years. It may take 20 years," he said.

The post Optimism and Concern Mark Burma's First Workshop on Hydropower Dams appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Parliament Presses President on Six-Party Talks, Agrees to Revisit Education Law

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 06:41 AM PST

Parliament and President Thein Sein are at odds over a proposal to convene a six-party dialogue on constitutional reform and other matters of national importance. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Parliament and President Thein Sein are at odds over a proposal to convene a six-party dialogue on constitutional reform and other matters of national importance. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Burma's Union Parliament decided on Thursday to double down on its endorsement of six-party talks on constitutional reform, and agreed to re-examine a controversial National Education Law passed last year, with lawmakers asking the Ministry of Education to draft amendments for consideration.

In a formal message to President Thein Sein, Parliament again called for the first round of six-party talks "as soon as possible" in order to develop a framework and procedural particulars for the dialogue, according to a press release from the legislature.

The missive comes days after the president on Monday sent a letter to Parliament saying the six-party proposal lacked sufficient detail and a precise framework for how constitutional issues would be discussed. Thein Sein also suggested that a six-party dialogue would represent too narrow a cross-section of Burmese society for meaningful discussion.

The six-party proposal was first put forward in November by a lawmaker from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), who urged a meeting between Thein Sein, Burma Army commander in chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the speakers of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi and a voice from one of Burma's ethnic minority parties to discuss constitutional reforms.

Political commentator Yan Myo Thein told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the president should swiftly act on the formal message from lawmakers, in accordance to the 2008 Constitution, wherein Article 203 states that the president is accountable to the Union Parliament.

"According to the Constitution, the president is accountable to the Union Parliament. The Union Parliament elected the president so he is responsible for carrying out proposals that are approved without objection in Parliament."

Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint asked members of Parliament on Wednesday to submit suggestions on matters of priority to be discussed during the six-party dialogue.

Wading into a second contentious issue, Parliament agreed to consider amending the National Education Law, which was passed in July amid an outcry from students and education groups who complained that a failure to decentralize the education system and a lack of input from relevant stakeholders were among the lawmaking process's flaws.

Parliament's press release instructed the Ministry of Education to draw up a draft bill of amendments to the National Education Law, and pledged once the proposed changes are drafted to "urgently" begin deliberations that would include "Each [House of] Parliament, related committees, commissions, departments, and relevant people from organizations and professionals."

"The problems emerged because the government didn't do adequate consultation with students and professionals. Now Parliament and the government are passing the buck to each other and this is not a way to solve those problems," said Thu Thu Mar, a member of the National Network for Education Reform (NNER).

Prior to the bill's passage, the NNER held numerous discussions on education nationwide, and the network has complained that its input was ignored in the final legislation.

Passage of the law prompted student and teacher demonstrations in Burma's largest cities, and a 15-member coalition calling itself the Action Committee for Democratic Education (ACDE) was formed to push for changes to the legislation.

Demonstrations were suspended in November, after student leaders issued an ultimatum demanding that the law be amended to reflect the will of students and educators within 60 days. That deadline passed without action from Parliament or the president, and protests resumed on Tuesday to demand a response from lawmakers.

This week protesting students also began a 400-mile march from Mandalay to Rangoon and requested that discussions be held that would include four parties—the student-led ACDE, education advocates, lawmakers and relevant officials from the Thein Sein administration—before any amendments are made to the legislation.

The post Parliament Presses President on Six-Party Talks, Agrees to Revisit Education Law appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Protesters in Dawei Demand Fair Energy Prices

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 06:09 AM PST

Demonstrators carry signs demanding connection to the national energy grid and standardized prices in Dawei, Tenasserim Division on Jan. 23, 2015. (Photo: Phoe Zaw / Facebook)

Demonstrators carry signs demanding connection to the national energy grid and standardized prices in Dawei, Tenasserim Division on Jan. 23, 2015. (Photo: Phoe Zaw / Facebook)

RANGOON — Crowds amassed for a peaceful demonstration against electricity prices in southeastern Burma on Friday, with some attendees estimating attendance at more than 1,000 people.

Villagers from Dawei, Tenasserim Division, demanded that the price of electricity be reduced from the current region-wide average of 550 kyats (US$0.55) to the nationwide average of 35 kyats per unit.

Tenasserim is Burma's southernmost administrative division, with coastal access to large reserves of natural gas in the Andaman Sea. It is the only division in the country still unconnected to the national grid, according to data released by the Ministry of Electric Power in December 2014.

The ministry has stated a goal of connecting Dawei district to the grid within the next two years.

High prices have resulted from a near monopoly on energy services, which villagers said were almost solely supplied by Phoetheecho Company Plc. The company's managing director, Win Htein, told The Irrawaddy that his company has advocated for better nationwide connectivity because the entire region's development remains stifled by prohibitive costs.

"Right now, industrial development is slow because the price of energy is too high," he said.

The divisional Minister of Electric Power and Industry Win Swe confirmed that the township is expected to join the grid soon, but declined to comment on when and how increased access to power would impact consumer prices.

"The Moulmein-Ye-Dawei grid will arrive in 2015 or 2016. Electricity distribution depends on arrangements made by the Union government," said Win Swe, adding that the prices in three districts—Dawei, Myeik and Kawthaung—have already been recently adjusted to 380, 370 and 350 kyats per unit respectively.

While Tenasserim remains largely unconnected to most parts of Burma, it shares three pipelines with neighboring Thailand, through which it has been exporting natural gas since the late 1990s.

Htain Lwin, managing director of state-owned Myanma Electric Power Enterprise, told The Irrawaddy that an agreement has been reached to allocate resources from the gas fields off the Tenasserim coast to meet local needs.

"We are wiring from Kanbauk to Dawei. A company [has been selected] to rent gas engines and produce electricity through negotiation with the Tenasserim government," said Htain Lwin. Preparations should be complete by May, after which point four engines can begin producing energy using a portion of the company's resource quota.

Villagers welcomed the allocation of Union-owned resources to the local community but argued that it isn't enough to solve the pricing problem.

"Our division has produced natural gas since 1996, but in Kanbauk village—close to the pipeline—is paying up to 1,500 kyats per unit," said Thant Zin, coordinator of an advocacy group called Dawei Development Association (DDA). He said that DDA and other allied organizations have had several discussions with the divisional government that have largely ended with false promises.

Thant Zin said the divisional government initially vowed to bring down the average cost to 300 kyats per unit by December, but it failed to meet that goal.

"We don't oppose what the government is doing, but we are pointing out some delays in their procedures," he said. "When the pipeline project started in Kanbauk, the government promised that we would get electricity. We believed them and we waited, but it has been 17 years now."

The post Protesters in Dawei Demand Fair Energy Prices appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

After Long Delays, Govt Begins Moving on Minimum Wage

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 04:33 AM PST

Factory workers protesting near Sule Pagoda in Sept. 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Factory workers protesting near Sule Pagoda in Sept. 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — After a delay of nearly two years, the government announced on Friday it would this month conduct a survey on household living costs in order to determine a nationally set minimum wage.

The government had planned since early last year to conduct the survey, and the plan has finally materialized after the Union Parliament voted to approve a tripling of lawmaker salaries on Thursday.

"We will start collecting data on Jan. 26 in all states and divisions including Naypyidaw," Aung Htay Win, a director from the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security, told The Irrawaddy on Friday, adding he expected the survey to be completed in two weeks.

With the assistance of civil society organizations, labor representatives and employer groups, the survey will be conducted across more than 22,000 households in 108 townships, based on a representative sample of household size, socioeconomic level, occupation, earnings and expenses.

"Each seven-member team will collect data in one township. After we finish the survey, we will calculate the output and send it to committees tasked to determine the minimum wage in each state and division," said Aung Htay Win.

He added that the survey had been delayed because of the need to determine survey questions, conduct pilot studies and train those conducting the study.

Aung Lin, chairperson of the Myanmar Trade Union Federation (MTUF), said that the daily minimum wage would be considered based on submissions from unions and employer groups, in addition to the survey results.

"To endure rising prices and the imbalance between incomes and expenses, labor groups hope to set up a fair daily minimum wage," he said. "But this has its challenges. The price of goods could continue to rise with the rise in salaries, and even after we set up the minimum wage, we will need a robust payment system so there will not be exploitation of workers."

At present, Aung Lin said, workers in garment sectors and unskilled laborers for private companies were only earning 50,000-100,000 kyats (US$49-98) per month, well below what was needed to meet rising living costs.

Parliament passed a Minimum Wage Law in Mar. 2013 and the Ministry of Labor said last January that it would set the minimum wage by the end of that year.

"The ministry alone has been given the burden of establishing the minimum wage. I think that lawmakers' efforts on labor issues have been weak. They should concentrate on it more since the minimum wage will only be established once it has been approved by the Parliament," said Aung Lin.

The post After Long Delays, Govt Begins Moving on Minimum Wage appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Kachin Community Mourns Slain Schoolteachers in Rangoon

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 03:43 AM PST

Mourners carry flowers to the memorial service for two slain Kachin schoolteachers in Maha Bandoola Park. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Mourners carry flowers to the memorial service for two slain Kachin schoolteachers in Maha Bandoola Park. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A memorial has been held in downtown Rangoon for two Kachin women found murdered in the northern Shan State village of Kaung Kha earlier this week.

Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, two young teachers from Myitkyina, were found dead on Tuesday in the room they shared on the grounds of the local Kachin Baptist Church school.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Friday that the women had suffered stab wounds and head injuries, and a source from the hospital in Muse where the victims were sent for post-mortem analysis said the pair had been raped—a report yet to be confirmed by an official release of the autopsy results.

According to Amnesty International, soldiers from the 88th Battalion's 503rd Infantry Division were stationed in the village on the night the attack occurred. Kaung Kha villagers have laid blame for the attack at the feet of the Burma Army.

In emotional scenes, about 50 rights activists and members of the Kachin community, dressed in black, gathered at Maha Bandoola Garden Park on Friday morning to lay flowers at the Victory Monument and denounce the murders.

"Over many decades, the Burma Army has committed crimes against humanity through its treatment of ethnic women," Khin Ohmar, the coordinator of Burma Partnership, told mourners. "The Burma Army has their own code of conduct which they need to respect. The people who lead the army need to tell their soldiers to stop raping ethnic women."

Mar Mar Cho, coordination officer of the Women's Organizations Network, echoed Khin Ohmar's comments at the memorial.

"We have asked many times for the government to bring justice to those who rape women, but they never take action against their soldiers."

The Burma Army has denied its soldiers are responsible for the accusations, after sending an investigation team to the area on Wednesday. State media reported on Friday that an investigation into the deaths is ongoing.

"For our government, such a brutal incident is unacceptable," presidential spokesman Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy. "But, it is too early to say who was involved in the crime as we are still investigating."

The Kaung Kha case is the latest incident in which the Burma Army has been scrutinized over allegations of sexual violence. A report released last year by the Women's League of Burma documented 104 cases of sexual violence against women between the 2010 elections and Jan. 2014, the majority of which occurred in tandem with military offensives.

A funeral is being held in Myitkyina today for the two women.

The post Kachin Community Mourns Slain Schoolteachers in Rangoon appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Trio Still at Large Following Irrawaddy Division Prison Break

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 03:32 AM PST

Clothes believed to have been used by the escapees are left behind on a wall of Hinthada Prison in Irrawaddy Division. (Photo: Facebook / Hinthada Human Rights Group)

Clothes believed to have been used by the escapees are left behind on a wall of Hinthada Prison in Irrawaddy Division. (Photo: Facebook / Hinthada Human Rights Group)

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Division — Police in Irrawaddy Division are combing their jurisdiction in search of three inmates who escaped from Hinthada Prison earlier this week.

Thet Paing Soe and Tun Tun Khaing, who were serving time for theft, and Kyaw Zeya, whose trial is ongoing, broke out of the prison in Hinthada Township at around 1 am on Jan. 21 and are still at large despite the division-wide search operation underway.

"We are trying to arrest them," Aung Naing Moe, a police officer and spokesperson for the Irrawaddy Division Police, told The Irrawaddy. "We've been blocking all of their escape routes."

Aung Naing Moe said the photos, profiles and criminal records of the escapees have been sent to every police station in the division in hopes that the information will help put the escapees back behind bars.

According to prison authorities, the three inmates were in a cell on the upper floor of Ward No. 5, which is also used as the prison's meditation hall, when they managed to break out of the detention facility.

The men are believed to have climbed over a 15-foot high wall using blankets and clothing. Prison authorities did not discover their escape until 5 am.

"Police are searching for the escapees in Hinthada. A few days ago, I heard that they asked a liquor shop owner they are acquainted with for knives and money," said Kyaw Thet Oo from Hinthada Rights Defenders and Promoters, a local advocacy group.

Thet Paing Soe was serving a three-year jail term for stealing a motorbike and his accomplice in the crime was Tun Tun Khaing, who was serving a one year prison sentence. Zyaw Zeya was still standing trial for stealing a coil of iron wire from a fish breeding farm.

In September 2014, three inmates broke out of a prison in Einme, Irrawaddy Division, by taking an iron-cutting saw to their cell's bars. It is unclear if the escapees were subsequently apprehended, but police officers deemed responsible to the security lapse were punished for negligence of duty.

On Tuesday, state media reported that Burma's deputy home affairs minister told Parliament that more than 11,000 fugitives remain at large in the country.

The post Trio Still at Large Following Irrawaddy Division Prison Break appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Jade Mining to Continue Despite Conflict, Ministry Says

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 03:24 AM PST

Small-scale miners work hard for rewards in Kachin State's Hpakant. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Small-scale miners work hard for rewards in Kachin State's Hpakant. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Jade mining operations in northern Burma's Kachin State will not be officially halted due to ongoing conflict in the area, according to a Ministry of Mines official.

Fighting between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intensified in areas near Hpakant last week, causing thousands of civilians to flee and seek shelter in nearby churches.

"So far, we don't plan to stop jade mining operations due to recent fights," Assistant Director of the Ministry of Mines Min Thu told The Irrawaddy on Friday. The official added that operators have been advised to extend their licenses no later than Feb. 11.

"There will be new plots for new mining companies to work there, and we encourage recently licensed companies to extend their permits soon," he added. The ministry grants three-year concessions for a fee of 300,000 kyats (US$300).

Jade mining in the area was suspended in 2012 following the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA, an ethnic armed group fighting for greater autonomy in the resource-rich state.

Mines reopened in September 2014 amid growing concerns about armed conflict in the militarized area.

According to a senior official from the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise, prior to the 2012 suspension there were about 700 companies mining in Hpakant and Lone Khin townships. He could not speculate on the number of mines that are currently in operation since licensing resumed last year.

During the two-year hiatus, many of the area's impoverished residents took to hand-picking stones in the vacated lots. Locals said that many people still practice small-scale mining and hand-picking within company grounds and in their waste heaps.

Picking on company grounds is illegal and often dangerous, but for many it is still worth the risk.

Local gems trader U Cho said local hand-pickers have targeted specific companies to loot and vandalize.

"Early this year, I heard the Kyaing International jade mining company was burned down by local hand-pickers. Someone said this company was owned by former Snr-Gen Than Shwe's son, and he works with the Chinese so they burned it," said U Cho.

Other mines have also been targeted by rogue civilians, including the Aung Hein Min mine in Mhawwangyi, he said. "The KIA told these companies to stop their operations because of the recent situation, that's what I heard."

The KIA is one of the only major ethnic armed groups in Burma that has not reached a bilateral pact with the government, even as negotiators continue their push for an inclusive, nationwide agreement to conclude the country's myriad other insurgencies.

Kachin State is among the world's last remaining sources of jade, and is also rich in other gems, minerals and valuable timber. Resource extraction has long been both a major cause and source of revenue for conflict in the remote ethnic state bordering China.

The post Jade Mining to Continue Despite Conflict, Ministry Says appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Supplies Dwindling for Trapped Hpakant Villagers

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 03:18 AM PST

Local residents in a village on the road linking Myitkyina and Hpakant in Kachin State carry passing vehicles by ferries on a river. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy)

Local residents in a village on the road linking Myitkyina and Hpakant in Kachin State carry passing vehicles by ferries on a river. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy)

Up to 2,000 displaced villagers in conflict-wracked Hpakant Township, Kachin State, are facing dwindling supplies and restrictions on movement more than a week after the Burma Army clashed with Kachin rebels in the area, according to local sources.

The trapped villagers say Burma Army troops are not allowing them to travel outside the villages in which they have sought shelter, with the affected civilians having taken refuge at local churches in three Hpakant Township villages after fighting broke out on Jan. 15.

Rev. Samson Hkalam, the general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a Myitkyina-based Christian organization, accused the Burma Army of using the trapped civilians as leverage or for strategic advantage, should further fighting with the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) take place.

"The villagers want to leave the conflict zone, but they [Burma Army] are not allowing the villagers to leave," he said.

Samson Hkalam said a convoy of aid vehicles was dispatched to distribute food, water and other supplies to the trapped villagers and attempt to extract them from the conflict zone over the weekend.

"Some vehicles arrived there to rescue the villagers, but they are still waiting [for the villagers]. They [villagers] really want to leave, but they can do nothing as the Burma Army troops are not allowing them to leave," said Samson Hkalam.

About 10 vehicles from KBC and the international medical aid provider Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) traveled on Sunday to Hpakant to distribute supplies to the villagers, but the convoy had not yet returned to Myitkyina, according to Samson Hkalam, who said they were waiting for approval from the Burma Army.

"We don't even know whether they got approval to reach the villagers. They [Burma Army] should let the villagers go. The villagers should be in a safe place. Now they are afraid for their safety," he said.

The fighting in Hpakant Township, about 50 miles from the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, has displaced as many as 2,000 people who are currently sheltering in local churches with limited access to food, water and medical supplies.

Burma Army troops are deployed in the area where the villagers are trapped and KIA troops remain stationed at a base nearby. Sources close to the KIA said that the rebel group wanted the villagers out of the conflict zone so that they can effectively engage in combat with government troops without fearing for civilians' safety.

Brang Mai, a Kachin schoolteacher in Myitkyina, accused the military of using the trapped villagers as "human shields" and said local villagers told him that some men among the displaced were being forcibly conscripted into the Burma Army.

"Local villagers told me that they [Burma Army] will mix civilians in their ranks when attacking KIA bases. They forced men to join the troops," said Brang Mai.

Lamai Gum Ja of the Kachin Peacetalk Creation Group (KPCG), which serves as a mediator between the KIA and the Burma Army, said his team also attempted to visit the trapped communities on Tuesday, but failed because Brig-Gen Saw Min, the head of the Burma Army's unit in Hpakant, told him that the military could not ensure their security.

"He said that they can't take responsibility for us. They can't guarantee our safety. So, we scrapped our plan to visit there," said Lamai Gum Ja, who added that security concerns are being cited by the army in denying relief groups and NGOs access to the displaced civilians.

The displaced have sought shelter in several churches of Hpakant Township's Aung Bar Lay and Hka Si villages since the fighting broke out on Jan. 15. The fighting also resulted in a Burma Army blockade of the road linking Hpakant to Myitkyina.

"The situation of the trapped villagers will deteriorate if they can't leave [the conflict zone] soon," said Samson Hkalam of the KBC.

Clashes between government troops and the KIA have flared intermittently since a ceasefire broke down in mid-2012, with an estimated 100,000 people having been displaced by the violence.

The KIA is one of two major ethnic armed groups without a bilateral ceasefire accord with the government, and the conflict in Kachin has blighted an otherwise largely successful push by the central government to end decades of civil war with Burma's ethnic minorities. The government has said it hopes to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Union Day, Feb. 12, setting an ambitious deadline that looks increasingly unlikely to be met.

Maran Seng Awng, a spokesperson for the Kachin Peacetalk Creation Group, stressed the volatility of the situation in urging a speedy resolution to the trapped villagers' predicament.

"Fighting can resume at any time there," he said. "The villagers want to move to safer places in Lone Kin and Hpakant towns, but they are not allowed to go anywhere. Villagers are afraid that they will be used as human shields."

The post Supplies Dwindling for Trapped Hpakant Villagers appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Nepal Plunges into Turmoil as Politicians Scuffle over Constitution

Posted: 23 Jan 2015 01:00 AM PST

Constitution assembly members shout slogans during a parliamentary session in Kathmandu on Thursday. (Photo: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)

Constitution assembly members shout slogans during a parliamentary session in Kathmandu on Thursday. (Photo: Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)

KATHMANDU — Nepal plunged deeper into crisis on Friday after feuding politicians, throwing microphones and shoes, failed to meet a deadline to table a new constitution, seen as a key step to stability in the Himalayan buffer state wedged between Asian powers China and India.

Opposition party lawmakers stormed the well of parliament late on Thursday to prevent the ruling coalition from pushing ahead with a vote to salvage the draft of a charter marred by political rivalries.

"Political leaders must explain to people why they failed to fulfil their commitment," said Subas Nemwang, chairman of the Constituent Assembly tasked with preparing the charter.

Landlocked Nepal has been in political limbo since 2008, when it’s 239-year-old monarchy was abolished. An interim constitution was put in place a year earlier at the end of a civil war fought by Maoist rebels.

Bitter disagreements over how to carve out new provinces have rendered the government unable to move forward, with consecutive parliaments missing deadlines to present a new constitution, stoking further insecurity in a nation traumatized by its bloody past.

Protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire on Thursday as the Maoist-led opposition called for a general strike to pressure the government into meeting their demands. On the same day, opposition lawmakers stormed parliament’s main chamber to disrupt the session, throwing microphones and shoes and injuring at least three security officers in the fray.

It could take months before another attempt is made to agree on the charter, Nemwang said, although parliament was due to meet again on Friday.

The constitution is an integral part of the 2006 peace deal that ended an insurgency which caused nearly 18,000 deaths.

The Maoists and regional parties want to create ten states in the mostly mountainous country and name them after different ethnic groups to empower them.

But the members of the ruling alliance fear Nepal, whose economy is dependant on aid and tourism, cannot afford to fund that many administrations, and say affiliating states with ethnic groups could fuel communal tensions.

The United Nations has called on Nepal’s politicians to rise above narrow interests to reach an agreement.

Many Nepalis say politicians are insensitive to the economic paralysis in part caused by their rifts.

"Political leaders don’t have any interest other than making money for themselves," said Kale Sarki, a cobbler in Kathmandu.

"I don’t care about the constitution. With or without it I must continue to work here to support my family."

The post Nepal Plunges into Turmoil as Politicians Scuffle over Constitution appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma Govt Says Kachin Rebels Trying to Scuttle Peace Deal

Posted: 22 Jan 2015 10:49 PM PST

Soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army man their position at the front line near Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State in January 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army man their position at the front line near Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State in January 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Burma's government has accused ethnic rebels of trying to scuttle a nationwide peace deal, as tensions soar in the northern state of Kachin, where an activist said sporadic clashes between the army and insurgents have trapped more than 1,800 villagers.

Meanwhile, emotions were running high in the state capital, Myitkyina, where a funeral is planned Friday for two ethnic Kachin volunteer teachers, said Tin Soe, an official with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The United States has called on authorities to investigate allegations by activists that the women were raped and killed by army soldiers.

The government has been seeking a nationwide peace pact following more than six decades of armed conflict with ethnic minority groups seeking greater autonomy. More than a dozen armed groups have agreed to sign a ceasefire but insurgents in Kachin and Shan states have so far held out, saying they want the right to self-determination.

Information Minister Ye Htut said the government wants to reach a deal by Feb. 12, the day when a group of ethnic leaders signed an agreement 68 years ago with independence hero Gen. Aung San as part of efforts to break free from their colonial British masters.

He accused members of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of trying to derail those efforts by briefly abducting a state minister earlier this month, detaining three policemen and carrying out several attacks in the jade-mining region that remains largely under their control.

These are "deliberate acts of provocation against the army with the intention to harm the peace negotiations," he said on his Facebook page Monday.

Rebels and civilians in Kachin have blamed the government.

KIA spokesman La Nan said his group is committed to the peace process and accused the Burma Army of escalating military operations and systematically attacking Kachin outposts since 2013.

While there have been few battles in recent days, Tin Soe said several bombs have gone off at police stations and government offices. He didn't know who set them. It did not appear that anyone was hurt.

He said more than 1,800 people have been trapped for nearly a week in the village of Kansi because of sporadic clashes, a claim denied by Ye Htut.

Tin Soe said more than 100 trucks are on standby to take the civilians to safety, but army checkpoints set up on the road have so far prevented an evacuation. However, three trucks carrying food, each with a Buddhist flag and monk on board, were able to enter the village in recent days, he said.

The post Burma Govt Says Kachin Rebels Trying to Scuttle Peace Deal appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Wirathu Stands by Offensive Language Against UN Rights Envoy 

Posted: 22 Jan 2015 08:47 PM PST

Nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu is greeted with respect at a monks' conference in Rangoon in June 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy).

Nationalist Buddhist monk U Wirathu is greeted with respect at a monks’ conference in Rangoon in June 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy).

RANGOON — Following a stinging rebuke by the United Nations' human rights chief, Burma’s ultranationalist Buddhist monk fired back Thursday, saying he didn’t regret calling a U.N. special envoy a "whore" and a "bitch" after she criticized a bill opposed to interfaith marriage and religious conversions.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee visited Arakan State last week, where hundreds of people, most of them minority Muslims, have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced since 2012 in violence which the monk U Wirathu has been accused of inciting.

She had criticized several pieces of legislation proposed by a coalition of nationalist Buddhist monks, including a bill that would place curbs on interfaith marriage and conversions, saying they were discriminatory toward women and minorities and could inflame tensions.

"We have explained about the race protection law, but the bitch [Lee] criticized the laws without studying them properly," U Wirathu shouted from a stage at a protest rally last Friday to the loud applause from the crowd. "Don’t assume that you are a respectable person because of your position. For us, you are a whore."

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged Burma’s religious and political leaders to condemn the "insulting, sexist" language used by U Wirathu.

"It’s intolerable for U.N. Special Rapporteurs to be treated in this way," he said.

On Thursday, U Wirathu told The Associated Press when contacted by telephone that it was time for the international community to butt out of his country’s internal affairs.

"It was nothing compared to the insult Ms. Yanghee Lee gave to our country," Wirathu said.

Newfound freedoms of expression that accompanied predominantly Buddhist Burma’s transition from a half-century of military rule in 2011 lifted the lid on deep-seated prejudice against members of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, and those seen as defending them.

Most of Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya live under apartheid-like conditions in Arakan State. Denied citizenship by national law, they have limited access to adequate health care and education, and face restrictions on movement. More than 100,000 have fled the country in the last two years.

The post Wirathu Stands by Offensive Language Against UN Rights Envoy  appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Thai Ex-Premier Yingluck Impeached, Faces Criminal Charges

Posted: 22 Jan 2015 08:42 PM PST

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the Army Club after meeting the Election Commission in Bangkok on Jan. 28, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand's former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the Army Club after meeting the Election Commission in Bangkok on Jan. 28, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — Thailand's military-appointed legislature on Friday voted to impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for her role in overseeing a government rice subsidy program that lost billions of dollars, a move that could further polarize a divided nation plagued by political turmoil and coups for a decade.

The vote, which means Yingluck will be banned from politics for five years, came just after the attorney general's office announced separate plans to indict her on criminal charges for negligence related to losses and alleged corruption in the rice program.

No date has been set for the formal indictment, but if convicted, Yingluck could face 10 years in jail.

Yingluck's supporters see the moves as part of an effort to deal a final blow to her political party after the military seized power in a coup in May, overthrowing a government elected by popular vote in 2011.

Impeachment required a three-fifths vote of the legislature's 220 members, and on Friday 190 voted against Yingluck. Most members of the legislature are part of the military or political opponents of Yingluck and past governments allied with her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Yingluck did not immediately comment, but in an appearance before parliament on Thursday, she denied she was responsible for any corruption and questioned the fairness of an investigation by the anti-corruption commission, which had recommended she be charged.

"The rice subsidy scheme was run by groups of people. It was a resolution of the Cabinet… why am I singled out?" Yingluck asked. "To bring the case against me alone, therefore, shows a hidden agenda under an unjust practice, and is a political agenda."

She also said the anti-corruption commission lacked the legitimacy to judge her because the junta terminated the constitution when it took power on May 22.

National Anti-Corruption Commissioner Wicha Mahakhun told lawmakers Thursday that Yingluck was to blame. "Despite the warnings against it on several occasions, the prime minister, who should have stopped the damage, instead insisted on running the program until the damage became even more devastating."

The rice subsidy program, which paid farmers double the market price for their crops, ultimately incurred national losses of more than US$4 billion and temporarily cost Thailand its place as the world's leading exporter.

Supporters say the program was intended to benefit Thai farmers and reduce the income equality gap in the country. The policy had helped Yingluck's government win power in 2011.

Surasak Threerattrakul, director general of the attorney general's Department of Investigation, said Friday that Yingluck will also face criminal charges for negligence of duty as a state official overseeing the program.

Surasak told reporters at a news conference in Bangkok that the attorney general had examined evidence and testimony against Yingluck "and found that the case was complete enough to prosecute."

The post Thai Ex-Premier Yingluck Impeached, Faces Criminal Charges appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

As Obama Visits, Signs That India Is Pushing Back Against China

Posted: 22 Jan 2015 08:37 PM PST

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second right, gestures as China's President Xi Jinping, second left, and his wife Peng Liyuan look on before their meeting in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in September 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second right, gestures as China's President Xi Jinping, second left, and his wife Peng Liyuan look on before their meeting in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in September 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

NEW DELHI — When Sri Lanka unexpectedly turfed out President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an election this month, it was the biggest setback in decades for China's expansion into South Asia—and a remarkable diplomatic victory for India.

Despite New Delhi's protestations, diplomats and politicians in the region say India played a role in organizing the opposition against pro-China Rajapaksa.

His successor, President Maithripala Sirisena, has said India is the "first, main concern" of his foreign policy and that he will review all projects awarded to Chinese firms, including a sea reclamation development in Colombo that would give Beijing a strategic toehold on India's doorstep.

India has pushed back against China elsewhere in the region since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May, improving ties with Japan and Vietnam, both locked in territorial disputes with Beijing, and contesting a port project in Bangladesh that could otherwise have been a cakewalk for China.

The new robust diplomacy, which Modi calls "Act East," has delighted Washington, which has been nudging India for years to dovetail with the US strategic pivot toward the region.

When US President Barack Obama makes a landmark visit to India starting Sunday, he will be the chief guest at New Delhi's showpiece Republic Day military parade, and rarely for a presidential trip, is not scheduled to visit any other country before returning to Washington.

Evan Medeiros, Obama's point man for Asian diplomacy, told a conference at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday that Obama would discuss Modi's shift from "Look East" to "Act East" when he was in India.

"We are looking very seriously at ways in which the US and India can work more together in the Asia Pacific on a whole range of issues," said Medeiros, director for Asia at the White House's National Security Council.

Medeiros also referred to a trilateral security dialogue involving the United States, Japan, and India.

Washington made no bones about its distaste for Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa, who critics accuse of war crimes, corruption and nepotism. But until last year India was indecisive, perhaps afraid of pushing the hero of the war against Tamil separatists even closer to China.

That changed in September, when Rajapaksa allowed a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo, without informing India, as it was bound to under an existing agreement.

"That was the last straw," a senior Indian diplomat said.

"He told Modi: "The next time, I will keep you informed," the diplomat said, a promise that was broken when the submarine visited again in November.

In the build up to the Jan. 8 election, India played a role in uniting Sri Lanka's usually fractious opposition, for which the station chief of India's spy agency was expelled, diplomatic and political sources say.

"At least that was the perception of Mahinda Rajapkasa," said M.A. Sumanthiran, a prominent member of the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of parties close to India. "He managed to get one of their top diplomats recalled."

The Indian government denies any of its officers was expelled. But Sumanthiran said Modi had in a meeting encouraged the Tamil alliance to join forces with others in politics.

"The Indians realized that you can't do business with this man and they were hoping for a change," he said.

On Jan. 16, Sri Lanka said it would review a US$1.5 billion deal with China Communication Construction Co. Ltd. to build a 233-hectare patch of real estate on redeveloped land overlooking Colombo's South Port.

In return, China was to get land on a freehold basis in the development. This is of particular concern for India, the destination for the majority of the trans-shipment cargo through Colombo.

"The message is clear, that you do not ignore Indian security concerns," said the Indian diplomatic source.

Modi is looking for similar good news elsewhere in South Asia. He has already visited Nepal twice, becoming the first Indian prime minister to travel to the Himalayan buffer state with China in 17 years, and signing long-delayed power projects.

India has muscled into an $8 billion deep water port project that Bangladesh wants to develop in Sonadia in the Bay of Bengal, with the Adani Group, a company close to Modi, submitting a proposal in October. China Harbor Engineering Company, an early bidder, was previously the front-runner.

"Modi is willing to engage on long-term issues that stretch beyond India's border, including maritime security in the South China Sea, as well as North Korea and Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria," said Richard Rossow at policy think tank CSIS.

"That's when we start to think about India as a regional global provider—or as a global provider of security."

However, the bonhomie has limits—India and the United States do not see eye-to-eye on Pakistan, New Delhi's traditional foe that enjoys substantial funding from Washington.

Tricky conflicts over trade and intellectual property hold back business, and India has limits to its ability to project force outside its immediate neighborhood.

But Modi's policies mark a departure from India's traditional non-aligned approach to foreign power blocs.

"Having the US president at the Republic Day celebration is a good thing, he is blessing Modi," said Mohan Guruswamy, of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think-tank.

"And that is a lesson to the Chinese that you have to mend your fences with us."

The post As Obama Visits, Signs That India Is Pushing Back Against China appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Child Soldiers: An Ongoing Battle in Burma

Posted: 22 Jan 2015 04:00 PM PST

Samboo, a 12-year-old soldier in the Karen rebel army, poses with a gun in a jungle camp near the Thai border in this file photo from January 2000. (Photo: Reuters)

Samboo, a 12-year-old soldier in the Karen rebel army, poses with a gun in a jungle camp near the Thai border in this file photo from January 2000. (Photo: Reuters)

Today's release of children by the Myanmar Army underscores the government's commitment to being delisted from the UN Secretary General's Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict. Currently, the Tatmadaw Kyi [Burma Army] is among the seven national armies listed for recruitment and use of children in the Annexes of the report. The "list of shame," as it is colloquially referred to, also includes 50 armed groups which are known to use and recruit children across the world.

As part of the Joint Action Plan (JAP) the Myanmar government signed with the United Nations in 2012, the Tatmadaw Kyi pledged to undertake a series of time-bound measures to release all children present in its ranks. It promised to raise national awareness on the issue of child soldiers and also vowed to reform age verification mechanisms, recruitment procedures and accountability mechanisms to ensure children are not recruited and used as soldiers in state forces.

Some changes are visible: Since the adoption of the JAP, 553 children have been discharged from the army and reunited with their families. In 2013 the government launched a massive nation-wide awareness raising campaign with billboards and posters put up in 66 cities and radio and television programs routinely disseminating information on this issue. Families of victims are less fearful to complain to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and use the hotline number to transmit information on cases of alleged recruitment of under-18s to the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (UNCTFMR). The government maintains that pocket cards, which lay down clear instructions not to recruit under-18s, have been distributed within all battalions of the Tatmadaw Kyi and to some Border Guard Forces (BGFs). Military focal points in the 14 Regional Military Commands (RMCs) across the country have been trained to ensure that the terms of the JAP are fully understood by all commanding officers. A military directive was issued in June 2014 which stops battalions from recruiting directly and allows recruitment only through trained recruitment units. Since 2007, 312 perpetrators have been identified by the Myanmar government as being responsible for underage recruitment, including 48 officers.

These are significant steps toward ending child recruitment and use. Why then, one may well ask, does underage recruitment and use by the Tatmadaw Kyi continue? Since 2013, a total of 723 cases of underage recruitment have been reported to the UNCTFMR, of which 474 either are still children or were under-18 at the time of the signing of the JAP, including 126 children allegedly recruited in 2013 and 2014.

Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International.

Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia program manager for Child Soldiers International.

A 29-page report, "Under the radar: Ongoing recruitment and use of children by the Myanmar army," released on Friday by the UK-based NGO Child Soldiers International (CSI), shows that military officers and civilian 'brokers' continue to use deliberate misrepresentation to entice new recruits, including children. Poor and uneducated boys continue to be frequently intimidated and coerced. A commonly deployed tactic is to offer a child a good job with a decent salary (as a driver, for instance), and lure them to the nearest recruitment centre or battalion. In 2014, cases of underage recruitment were mostly being reported to the UNCTFMR from the Yangon [Rangoon], Ayeyarwaddy [Irrawaddy] and Mandalay regions.

CSI's research finds that the practice of falsifying age documents, including National Registration Cards—now also called Citizenship Scrutiny Cards—and family lists, continues unchecked and no effective measures have been taken to establish accountability for this practice. An unofficial system of incentives to reward military recruiters and punishments for failure to meet recruitment targets still exists at the battalion level. Bonuses in cash or in kind are also known to be provided to recruiters for exceeding recruitment targets and, in some cases, serving soldiers who want to leave the army are told that they will only be discharged if they find new recruits.

While some steps have been taken to strengthen recruitment procedures within the Myanmar army, effective mechanisms to monitor and oversee recruitment have not yet been established. In 2013, the Tatmadaw Kyi set up Scrutiny Boards at each of the 14 RMCs to review the files of recruits entering the military through mobile recruitment units and battalions. However, there is no public information available which shows that Scrutiny Boards have rejected potential recruits on the grounds of age. Lacking in operational independence, the Scrutiny Boards are unable to exercise genuine control over the recruitment process.

The Myanmar military has taken some form of disciplinary action in cases of child recruitment brought to their attention. However, only a handful of prosecutions have been initiated against civilians, including brokers, who play an important role in luring children into recruitment. In addition, there are significant legal and political obstacles to holding military personnel criminally accountable for underage recruitment.

There is a need to step up responses to ongoing underage recruitment. Ensuring that all children are registered at birth and possess an identity document that clearly lays out their age is a tangible way of providing protection to children against unlawful recruitment.Until safeguards within recruitment procedures are implemented in practice across the country at all levels and until effective age verification mechanisms are put in place and properly enforced, the situation will not significantly improve.

Support by the international community to the Myanmar authorities to ensure that it strengthens recruitment procedures—implementing effective age verification measures that are monitored and hold violators accountable—is needed to bring in long-term prevention. Significant resources are required to achieve this objective and should be allocated as a matter of priority. Until that is achieved, children in Myanmar will continue to remain at risk of being recruited and used as soldiers.

Charu Lata Hogg is the Asia Program Manager for Child Soldiers International, a London-based NGO working to end underage recruitment across the globe.

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