Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Helicopter Still Missing in Burma, Rescuers Say, Denying Crash Report

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 06:05 AM PDT

A helicopter used in search efforts for two Burmese mountaineers in Kachin State. (Photo: Facebook / Htoo Foundation)

A helicopter used in search efforts for two Burmese mountaineers in Kachin State. (Photo: Facebook / Htoo Foundation)

RANGOON — Rescue officials say a Thai helicopter that lost contact with ground control in the search for two mountaineers in northern Burma still has not been found, refuting some news reports that indicated the chopper had been found crashed.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday that the missing helicopter had crashed in the northern mountains of Burma's Kachin State. Citing "sources with the Htoo Foundation," which is leading search efforts for the mountain climbers, the Xinhua report said authorities had received the information from villagers in Kachin State's Naung Mon area early on Tuesday, and that the army and police personnel were attempting to access the supposed crash site.

But Phyo Ko Ko, a spokesman from the Htoo Foundation, told The Irrawaddy instead that rescue workers had received information on Monday from local authorities that a woman in Gha Htu village claimed to have witnessed a helicopter falling to the ground.

"As soon as we got that information, we deployed the search to the site where we got the information that the helicopter was falling down, but nothing has been found until now," Phyo Ko Ko said on Tuesday.

The helicopter lost contact with ground control on Saturday, about 20 minutes after taking off from Putao airport in Kachin State. It was bringing rations to a rescue team based in Tahomdum village that is searching for two Burmese climbers who went missing on Mount Hkakabo Razi nearly a month ago.

Three people were on board the chopper, including Shwe Yin Taw Gyi, the nephew of Burmese mountaineer Namar Johnsin and personal assistant to the Htoo Foundation's patron Tay Za, who is one of Burma's richest businessmen. A Thai pilot, Chat Chawal, and Burmese pilot Aung Myat Toe were also on board.

Phyo Ko Ko said two helicopters and a team on the ground consisting of local residents, police officers and soldiers had been deployed in search of the missing helicopter. The team will focus its search efforts on the route between Putao and Tahomdum that the missing helicopter is thought to have taken.

"We have confidence in the pilot, since he is well-experienced in flying helicopters. He may be using caution and watching the weather conditions from a safe location. Unfortunately, the weather was not favorable, so we believe that he is waiting for the weather to improve with the others safely," said Advance Aviation, the Thai company that contributed the missing helicopter to the search effort, as quoted in the state-run newspaper The Mirror on Tuesday.

Phyo Ko Ko said the Htoo Foundation was continuing the search for the helicopter and the two missing climbers, Aung Myint Myat and Wai Yan Min Thu, who were last heard from on Aug. 31 after becoming the first from their country to summit Hkakabo Razi, long believed to be the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia.

More members of the team, equipped with advanced technology such as remote-controlled pilotless aircraft, will arrive on Tuesday night, the foundation stated.

The rescue effort has enlisted international assistance, including a four-member rescue team from Italy that arrived to Putao on Monday, and a 15-member team from a Chinese organization called Blue Sky Rescue arrived there on Tuesday, Phyo Ko Ko said. Another two members of the Blue Sky team are due to join the effort in Putao on Wednesday, equipped with advanced technology such as remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft.

Blue Sky also sent a separate 15-member team to Mount Hkakabo Razi from the Chinese side.

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Education Organizations Continue Opposition After Controversial Law Passes

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 05:54 AM PDT

Blindfolded students wearing graduation gowns protest against the National Education Bill on the campus of Dagon University in Rangoon in early September. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

Blindfolded students wearing graduation gowns protest against the National Education Bill on the campus of Dagon University in Rangoon in early September. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A Myanmar Teachers' Federation representative said that independent education organizations plan to develop a joint strategy to continue their opposition to the controversial, new National Education Law, which was passed by Burma's Union Parliament on Friday.

"The NNER has a plan to revise their national educational policy," Arkar Moe Thu, secretary of the federation, said Tuesday. "We will hold more meetings and consultations with the public to ask what [education law] they want," he said, adding that the groups were also considering setting up their own, parallel higher education institutions.

In recent months, the teachers' and students' organizations and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), backed by a coalition of 200 civil society groups, have fiercely opposed the law. NNER includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, the Thinking Classroom Foundation, Buddhists monks, ethnic education groups and Christian churches.

NNER has warned that the new law fails to guarantee independence for higher education institutions and would perpetuate military regime-style controls on universities and colleges through the formation of a "National Education Commission" and a "Higher Education Coordinating Committee."

"These two committees are not in keeping with a democratic education system, but are meant to revitalize a military dictatorship," Arkar Moe Thu said.

On Friday, however, MPs of the ruling Union Solidarity Party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the legislature's military block approved 19 of 25 amendments to National Education Bill proposed by President Thein Sein, passing the bill into law. MPs voted down six proposals by the president, including a suggestion that full implementation of education reforms is postponed until 2027.

In June, to the anger of the NNER, Parliament already passed the bill. The vote on Friday dealt with some further adaptations to the law suggested by the president to the Parliament's Joint Bill Committee. MPs could only vote for or against the proposed amendments.

"The Parliament has approved what the Joint Bill Committee suggested," said Myat Nyarna Soe, secretary of the Upper House's Education Development Committee.

The NLD MP said he disagreed with the criticism of the National Education Law, saying that it sets out a broad range of long overdue reforms for Burma's education system.

"Even though there were lots of people who reject this law, in our country's history, education changes were never made by [changing the] law," he said, adding that the new law would, for example, outline clear standards and requirements for the country's education system.

Under previous decades of military rule, Burma's education suffered due to a lack of funding and strict junta controls, leading to a demise of the education system, once considered among the best in Asia.

Myat Nyarna Soe said further laws would made to supplement the National Education Law, which he referred to as the "mother law", adding that separate "sectoral laws" would be drafted to stipulate specific reforms for higher education, basic education and vocational teaching.

He said that certain other criticisms of the National Education Law—such as that it lacks details on the right to association for students and teachers, and does not guarantee access to mother tongue-based language education for Burma's minorities—could be addressed during the drafting of the sectoral laws.

"People should start to prepare or lobby on this from now," Myat Nyarna Soe added.

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Sacred Buddha Images Tour Inle Lake at Famed Festival

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 04:40 AM PDT

Competitors take part in traditional boat races as part of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

Competitors take part in traditional boat races as part of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

INLE LAKE, Shan State — Hundreds of Buddhist pilgrims from across Burma make their way to southern Shan State each year, destined for the famed Inle Lake and its Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival.

The annual celebration, which is held to mark the end of Buddhist Lent, is arguably the most famous and significant among a plethora of pagoda festivals held across Burma each year.

During the two-week festival, the Buddha images of the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda undertake a tour around Inle Lake, transported inside a golden royal barge that is pulled along by teams of Inle Lake's iconic leg-rowing mariners.

Devotees in the villages that surround the lake have an opportunity to host the sacred images—so completely covered by centuries of gold leafing that their original forms are indiscernible—and make offerings to the Buddha.

The arrival of the royal barge, which resembles a drake-like mythical bird known as a karaweik, is an annual spectacle not to be missed for many of the ethnic Inthas that call the lake home.

Although the royal barge spends each night at one of the villages along the lakeshore, allowing even the most water-wary a chance to pay homage to the images, following the vessel across the lake offers a more rewarding experience for some.

"Seeing the royal barge moving gracefully behind the line of leg-rowing draw boats is a wonderful feeling," said Ma Myint Kyi, who lives in the village of Lin Kin.

Many boats, filled with pilgrims from near and far and a smattering of foreign tourists, eagerly awaited the royal barge this week near the village of Pwae Sar Gone in a scene typical of the two-week festivities.

From the shore, the sound of traditional drums and gongs in the distance is the prelude. Suddenly, a man shouts out: "There they are! There they are! The royal barge is coming!" as a host of boats, Buddhist flags fluttering, come into view.

As the royal barge makes its way through a crowd of boats, the vessels' occupants—men and women, young and old—put their palms to their chests, bowing to pray and pay homage to the royal barge.

"I used to bring my kids to show our tradition of leg-rowing and the spirit of this pagoda festival. The magnificent view of the royal barge on the beautiful lake and the strength of the rowers is always encouraging us to maintain our tradition and our lake," said Hal Hal Win, a mother of two from Nan Pan village.

The Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival will wrap up on Oct. 11 this year. The festival also includes boat racing events, with the competition seen as a form of cultural preservation. Participants are strictly confined to "leg-rowing," a unique traditional means of propulsion on the lake that some fear modern outboard motors threaten to make obsolete.

"We believe the leg-rowing culture will not fade away if we have the boat races like this every year during the festival," said Toe Aung, chairman of the pagoda's board of trustees. "That's why we do this competition, in order to maintain our culture."

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Govt, Unesco to Study Bagan’s World Heritage List Nomination

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 03:30 AM PDT

Inside the shrine of Arnanda Temple in Bagan. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Inside the shrine of Arnanda Temple in Bagan. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Ministry of Culture officials said they are scheduled to meet with Unesco officials and international archaeological experts in Bagan on Oct 10-12 to discuss what studies are required to complete the World Heritage List nomination for the Buddhist temple complex in central Burma.

"The meeting will focus on how to designate ancient zones in line with World Heritage site status criteria, and if local people are compliant with Unesco rules and regulations," said Thein Lwin, deputy director-general of the Archaeological, National Museum and Library Department at the Culture Ministry.

The Bagan Consultation Meeting is set to be held at the Bagan Archaeological Museum and more than a dozen Unesco officials and archeological experts from the United States, Australia, Japan, England and Nepal will attend, he said.

Thein Lwin said that cultural heritage management, preservation works, verification of outstanding universal value, and studying the authenticity and integrity of Bagan pagodas will also be discussed.

Last month, Culture Ministry officials already held workshops in cooperation with Unesco to compile historical maintenance records on each of the more than 3,000 pagodas in Bagan, along with photos and pictures of the buildings. Plans were also made to carry out examinations of the conditions of art work and murals.

"It is a daunting task to survey the conditions of these ancient pagodas. What techniques shall be used in conducting the surveys? We have to make detailed list of the condition of every artistic work and mural at the pagodas. So, it will take time," said Thein Lwin.

In mid-June, Unesco accepted the first inscription of a Burmese heritage site, the Pyu Ancient Cities, on the World Heritage List. It began offering technical assistance at the Pyu sites in 2012. Shortly after enlisting Pyu, it announced it would begin cooperation with Burmese officials on studying the conditions of the Bagan temples and developing guidelines on their conservation.

In March, President Thein Sein visited Bagan and ordered the Culture Ministry to begin preparations for a nomination for a World Heritage listing of the temple complex.

Thein Lwin said it would take at least three years to complete the studies required for the World Heritage List nomination because of the massive scale of the temple complex.

The Old Bagan City area covers about 26 square km (16 miles) and was constructed from the 9th to the 11th century, a period when some 55 kings ruled the Bagan Dynasty.

The region is known to have been struck by earthquakes three times, with a particularly heavy one in the 1970s doing extensive damage to the pagodas, stupas and religious edifices.

In 1992, the then-military regime ordered a detailed survey and restoration works on the pagodas, in many cases using methods that have been criticized by international experts, who said little attention was paid to historical accuracy and that damage was caused to the structures' historical value.

A subsequent 1996 bid by the regime to enlist the ancient city as a Unesco heritage site fell flat.

Also controversial, and problematic for the current Unesco World Heritage listing, was the former regime's decision to let crony businessmen develop large hotels, restaurants and golf courses in the archeological zone and close to the temples.

Currently, the expansion of such businesses and urban buildings for the rapidly growing number of tourist visitors continues in the area, underlining the need for the government and Unesco to develop zoning guidelines.

"Bagan is a big challenge to us. We have to discuss and design a plan to control and manage urban expansion with the help of scholars. There are many problems. We have yet to do a lot work for Bagan to get Unesco recognition, while also ensuring all parties concerned [hotel and restaurant owners] are not affected," said Thein Lwin.

During the Social Party-era of Gen. Ne Win, Sakura, Bagan, Than Te, Thripyitsaya and Ayeya hotels were built in the archeological zone, while some hotels built during the 1990s include Tharapa and Nan Myint. Currently, Eden and Adventure hotel projects are under construction.

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Thilawa SEZ Holdout Hit With Trespassing

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 03:05 AM PDT

A man looks at his watermelon field near the Thilawa economic zone outside Rangoon in October 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

A man looks at his watermelon field near the Thilawa economic zone outside Rangoon in October 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — The last holdout resident living in the Phase I area of the Thilawa special economic zone (SEZ) is facing trespassing charges after refusing to vacate his home on land designated for the project, located about 20 miles southeast of Rangoon.

Kyaw Win, together with his wife and two children, was briefly detained at the Thanlyin police station on Friday, and was later released on bail. The trespassing charge is being brought by Thanlyin's assistant deputy police commissioner, Kyaw Zay Ya.

Kyaw Win's family is the last to refuse to move to Myaing Thar Yar village, a relocation site arranged by the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee for those formerly residing in the SEZ's Phase I area. He has been charged with trespassing under Section 447 of Burma's Penal Code.

"I said I cannot move yet because the compensation to build a [new] house is not enough," Kyaw Win told The Irrawaaddy. "I haven't gotten extra land to keep my cows either."

Kyaw Win has continued to live on and cultivate a one-acre plot of land within the 400-hectare Phase I area of the Thilawa SEZ. He accepted the first installment of compensation, nearly 5.5 million kyats (US$5,500), and says he was told to sign a contract acknowledging receipt of the payment, without understanding the details of the agreement.

"The last time I signed it [contract of agreement] not because I agreed. I signed it because I was pressured by the secretary of the Thilawa SEZ [Management] Committee, Than Than Thwe, who warned that I would be reported to Rangoon's divisional government [for refusing to sign]. I was afraid I might get sued, that's why I signed it," Kyaw Win said.

He was told he would be given a total of about 7.7 million kyats in total compensation, which was to cover property he owned in the Phase I area, moving expenses and 5 million kyats to build a new home in Myaing Thar Yar.

After accepting the first compensation installment, Kyaw Win began to build a new house at the relocation site but realized that the compensation would not be enough to complete the house or buy additional land on which to grow crops and raise livestock. "It cost over 70 lakh [7 million kyats] to build a house," Kyaw Win said.

He has since refused to accept the rest of the compensation.

"They [the Management Committee] said they would create conditions not worse than our original situation; they claim they have given [sufficient] farmland and land to raise livestock. That hasn't happened," Kyaw Win said. "They said they would give us jobs. This hasn't happened either. How can I make a living at Myaing Thar Yar?"

The rest of the villagers, a total of 67 families, have taken the compensation given to them and moved to the relocation village.

Kyaw Win said he would move only if those resettled to make way for Thilawa were provided with secure jobs, a more generous compensation package and a larger land allotment at the relocation site.

The relocated villagers' compensation claims were considered by the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee on a case by case basis, but most received no more than half of the 5 million kyats that Kyaw Win received to construct a new house.

No compensation for the land itself was given as the land was claimed to be confiscated by the government in the 1990s, a contention that has been disputed by some of the displaced. Three villagers have filed a complaint over the issue with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and a response from the agency, which has a 10 percent stake in the SEZ, is expected by November.

Lawyer Myint Thwin, who has provided legal counsel to the Thilawa villagers, said charging Kyaw Win with Section 447 was unlawful, given that the SEZ's managers had themselves failed to follow Burma's 2012 Farmland Law and its by-laws. He cited the fact that the Farmland Law requires that compensation arrangements be negotiated by the landholder and acquisitioning party, not simply set by the latter, as occurred at Thilawa.

Many of the villagers including Kyaw Win had continued to pay taxes on the land until 2012, Myint Thwin added, despite the fact that the land was "confiscated" in the 1990s. Furthermore, only land claimants had legal standing to bring trespassing charges, not the Thanlyin police, the lawyer said, while acknowledging that eminent domain provisions were on the books allowing for the seizure of private lands for public benefit in certain cases.

"They have to notify or compensate all people from the area according the 1894 Land Acquisition Act," he said. "If they want to expel Kyaw Win now, they have the right to do so only after they have given compensation according to the 2012 Farmland Law and by-laws."

The Thilawa Social Development group, a local community group helping those affected by the SEZ, released a statement on Monday saying Kyaw Win's case served as an ominous bellwether.

"The charges against Ko Kyaw Win and his family send a message to the rest of us in Phase II. If we don't agree to move, we could be arrested the same way," Mya Hlaing, a member of the group and resident of the 2,000-hectare area that comprises Phase II, said in the statement. Initial surveying work on the Phase II tract began earlier this year.

"We don't want to cause problems," Mya Hlaing continued. "We just want to be compensated enough so that we can continue to live in the same way and take care of our families."

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Tokyo Calling

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 10:53 PM PDT

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing paying his respects at Col Suzuki Keiji's tomb in Japan. (Photo: Myawaddy)

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing paying his respects at Col Suzuki Keiji's tomb in Japan. (Photo: Myawaddy)

Last week, Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing paid his first official visit to Japan at the invitation of General Shigeru Iwasaki, Chief of Staff of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. This marked the first visit by a commander-in-chief to Tokyo since Gen Ne Win visited Japan in the 1960s.

The recent visit will be seen as part of the Burmese armed forces' outreach to allies—new and old— after the political opening in the country. Under Ne Win's socialist government, Japan was Burma's largest donor but scaled down its assistance and aid programs after the US and other Western nations imposed sanctions on the regime following the crackdown on the 1988 democracy uprising.

But after recent reforms in Burma, Tokyo has not missed the chance to renew its old friendship, including by boosting defense ties between the two nations.

In May, Japan's military chief, Gen. Shigeru Iwasaki, met with President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw where the two officials reaffirmed their countries' goals of enhancing defense cooperation and exchanges at all levels.

During his four-day visit, the Japanese general also met with Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, holding discussions on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, including Japan's sovereignty row with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China has been aggressively asserting its claims.

The Japanese Defense Ministry released a statement at the time saying that the two generals discussed bilateral defense cooperation and agreed on "the importance of exchanges at every level between the Self-Defense Forces and Myanmar Armed Forces."

During his recent trip, Min Aung Hlaing also paid a visit to the tomb of the late wartime Japanese officer Col Suzuki Keiji and his old residence.

Col. Suzuki, who ran a special operations directorate known as Minami Kikan, played a key role in British-ruled Burma during the early stages of World War II when late independence hero Gen Aung San, then a young nationalist fugitive, sought overseas military assistance to liberate the country.

When he was in Amoy, now known as Xiamen, in southern China, Japanese intelligence officers intercepted Aung San. There, the young nationalist leader met Col Suzuki who convinced him to receive military assistance from the Japanese for an uprising in Burma. Col Suzuki, whose Burmese name was Bo Mogyo (Thunder), had earned the respect and trust of Burmese nationalists.

Aung San subsequently brought a group of young men known as the legendary "Thirty Comrades" to be trained by Japanese officers in 1941. This was the beginning of the Burma Independence Army or BIA.

The Kempeitai (the Japanese army's military police) and other sections of Japan's security forces also trained Ne Win, one of the "Thirty Comrades" who became chairman of the now defunct Burma Socialist Programme Party. Many officers who were trained by Japanese forces in the early 1940s also served as ministers in the Ne Win government.

Ne Win maintained close relations with Suzuki and Minami Kikan members until Suzuki passed away in 1967.

In 1981, Ne Win bestowed the remaining six veterans of Minami Kikan with honorary awards—the Aung San Tagun or 'Order of Aung San'—at the presidential palace in Rangoon. Colonel Suzuki’s widow showed up for the ceremony. Even after he resigned as party chairman in 1988, Ne Win held gatherings of old Minami Kikan members as late as the mid-1990s.

Japanese forces invaded Burma from Thailand to liberate the country from the British in 1942. Burma was then under Japanese occupation, headed by a puppet government. Aung San then formed an anti-fascist organization and joined with British and allied forces to drive out the Japanese in 1945.

During the war, Japan lost 190,000 soldiers in Burma. Thus, it is safe to say that Burma holds a special place in many Japanese hearts.

With the recent opening in Burma, it is also part of Burma's strategic interests to balance against its powerful neighbor, China. Naypyidaw hasn't wasted any time patching up, or initiating, relations with former or prospective allies. Since assuming the position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing has visited several countries in the region including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Thailand (twice), and is currently visiting South Korea.

Last year saw significant developments in Japan-Burma relations. In May 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Burma, the first visit by a Japanese PM since 1977. During the visit, Abe wrote off nearly US$2 billion in debt and pledged up to US$498.5 million in new loans. Thein Sein then travelled to Japan in December. Training vessels from Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force also made a first ever port call to Burma, for a five-day mission, in September.

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Burma Wants Country off UN Human Rights Agenda 

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 10:17 PM PDT

Burma's Minister for Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

Burma’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Wunna Maung Lwin addresses the 69th United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

UNITED NATIONS — Burma’s foreign minister says his country is working to end violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State and urged the world against "jumping to conclusions" about a situation that has drawn global condemnation.

Wunna Maung Lwin also insisted Burma has addressed "all major concerns related to human rights" since it emerged from a half-century of dictatorship with a 2010 election, and he said the Southeast Asian state should be removed from the U.N. Human Rights Council’s agenda. He spoke to the U.N. General Assembly of world leaders.

Buddhist mob attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims have sparked fears that religious intolerance is undermining Burma’s democratic reforms. More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since extremist mobs began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people.

Burma authorities view the Rohingya, estimated to number 1.3 million, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not one of the country’s officially recognized ethnic groups. Discrimination against the Rohingya has intensified as Burma has emerged from military rule, and some see in the communal violence the warning signs of genocide.

The foreign minister said his government is working on an "action plan" to bring peace to Arakan State, where the violence has been especially severe.

"The history, the diversity and the complexity of the issue must be fully understood before jumping to conclusions," the minister said. "In addressing the root cause, we are working for peace, stability, harmony and development of all people in Rakhine State [Arakan]."

He also announced that Burma’s Parliament has approved the country’s accession to the Biological Weapons Convention, the 1972 treaty that banned the development, production and stockpiling of such weapons.

The announcement came two months after four reporters and the chief executive of the weekly Rangoon-based Unity journal were sentenced to 10 years of hard prison labor for violating Burma’s national security for stories about a weapons factory. The magazine published stories in January alleging the military had seized more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of farmland in central Magwe Region to construct a weapons factory. It reported allegations that the factory would produce chemical weapons.

After the arrests, Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut acknowledged that the factory belonged to the Defense Ministry, but told the Thailand-based online news site The Irrawaddy that claims it had anything to do with chemical weapons were "totally baseless."

Human rights groups said the arrests were signs that reporters still face intimidation and arrests, even as official censorship has been lifted.

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Killer Elephants Creating Ghost Villages in Burma

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 05:00 PM PDT

A local villager shows a set of elephant tracks at the base of the Pegu mountain range in Rangoon Division. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

A local villager shows a set of elephant tracks at the base of the Pegu mountain range in Rangoon Division. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

THABYU VILLAGE, Rangoon Division — The village of Thabyu sits at the foot of the Pegu mountain range, more than 70 miles north of Rangoon, and though it is called a village, the settlement these days consists of just four huts and a monastery. Of the four huts, only one is occupied, giving Thabyu the feel of a ghost town.

At about 4 a.m. on Sept. 10, an uninvited guest came to Thabyu's lone occupied residence. It was not a human, but a 10-foot-high wild elephant that is said to be the most ill-tempered pachyderm in the region.

The two people sleeping in the house, upon realizing that the giant animal was trying to break into their home, tried to frighten the beast away by shouting and setting off firecrackers. But the elephant was unfazed, and continued to linger around the hut. Only after the two started the engines of a pair of tractors parked in front of the hut did the elephant retreat into the surrounding bamboo forest.

"That elephant has stamped nearly 12 people to death," Ko Pu, one of the hut's inhabitants, recounted some days after the early morning elephant encounter. "It came to our hut to search for things like rice, fish paste and salt to eat. If an elephant visits your place, you either frighten it away or run away if you can't scare it off. Otherwise, you will be stamped to death."

It has been about 10 years now that more than a dozen villages in the west of the Pegu mountain range have faced a growing threat from wild elephants. The pachyderms migrate from one place to another from season to season in search of food. This often takes them to human dwellings, where they proceed to ravage huts and houses in the hunt for sustenance.

According to the tally of some locals, at least 50 people have been killed by elephants in the last decade.

Ten years ago, dense forest surrounded the village of Thabyu, where area residents engage in small-scale farming to make a living. But in the last decade, companies have leased much of the land from the government to grow crops. Ko Pu said even the very place where he and his wife live in Thabyu is now owned by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL).

As a result, Thabyu is not the only ghost village in the area.

Even in the larger villages that remain populated, various "project plantations" have been cultivated under the ownership of private companies, and former military officers and government ministers. Forests were systematically cleared to make way for the plantations, but afforestation efforts were almost nonexistence and few trees have been planted to make up for the clearings.

This has resulted in a shortage of arboreal pastures for wild elephants, bringing them to the door fronts of people like Ko Pu. Thabyu used to be home to about 20 families, according to Ko Pu's wife Nay Chi Nu, who added that she and her husband have not relocated like the rest because of a nearby sesame field that they rely on for an income.

"Elephants do not usually visit houses in the rainy season, but when they are short of food in the summer, they visit houses frequently," Nay Chi Nu told The Irrawaddy.

The area has long hosted populations of wild elephants, and human inhabitants are a relatively new phenomenon. Many residents at the base of the Pegu range are victims of land-grabs elsewhere, and have settled here over the years.

"We work here because our lands in the villages were grabbed. To be frank, it seems like we are grabbing their [elephants'] pastures," a local from the neighboring village of Thae War said.

Wild elephants are currently lingering around Thabyu due to its proximate sugarcane plantations, but most will move on to another place at the end of the harvest. Some suggest that there may be as many as 80 elephants living in the region at the moment.

Authorities have stuck notifications on trees stating that the place is a habitat of wild elephants—and that killing them is punishable by law—while urging villagers to inform them of any cases of rampaging elephants.

When authorities are informed, however, the cost to dispatch and host a team to handle the animal is often more than the financial losses incurred by a rampaging elephant. That makes local residents and land-leasing companies reluctant to seek authorities' help, according to a staffer of a company that grows sugarcane on land owned by UMEHL, a state-owned conglomerate.

Because most companies won't bear the cost of an elephant removal team, employees are instead expected to sacrifice sleep to scare away wild elephants, said Naing Win, who works on a sugarcane plantation.

Even the pastures of the Myaing Hay Wun timber elephant camp in Taikkyi Township, where acres of forested area still exists, are not enough for elephants there, according to a ranger from the camp.

"In the past, there were only 13 elephants at Myaing Hay Wun. But now, there are more than 20 and the pastures are insufficient. … We don't even have enough pastures for elephants at our camp. Needless to say, wild elephants are short of food," he said.

Standing in the all but deserted village, Ko Pu says the best defense is a collective one, and he hopes the region's scattered inhabitants will again take up residence in Thabyu. As it is now, the scattered nature of their dwellings does not easily allow them to help each other if they come into conflict with an elephant.

"Therefore, I would like to have people live together in Thabyu village," he said. "I have also told the people living in the fields to come and live with us when the rainy season is over since their fields are not too far from us. If there are many people, we can protect ourselves from the danger of elephants collaboratively."

The post Killer Elephants Creating Ghost Villages in Burma appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Indian Police Arrests 140 for Hindu-Muslims Clashes

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 10:10 PM PDT

Motorcycles burn after they were set on fire by a mob during a clash in Vadodara, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, September 25, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Motorcycles burn after they were set on fire by a mob during a clash in Vadodara, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, September 25, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

NEW DELHI — Police in western India have arrested 140 people after two men were stabbed during violence between Hindus and Muslims that left more than a dozen injured and was triggered by an image posted on Facebook, officials said on Monday.

The violence in the state of Gujarat coincides with a visit to the United States by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is set to meet President Barack Obama later on Monday on a trip emphasizing India’s economic potential.

For almost a decade Modi was unwelcome in the United States after Washington revoked his visa in 2005 over accusations of religious intolerance stemming from riots three years earlier in Gujarat, when he was the state’s chief minister.

Gujarat’s government deployed riot police to control the clashes in the city of Vadodara over the weekend and appealed to religious leaders to intervene to curb them. Mobile telephone Internet and bulk text messaging has been suspended for four days as a precautionary step.

"We arrested 140 people on Sunday evening after two men were stabbed," the city’s police commissioner, E. Radhakrishnan, said. "The injured are under medical observation and those who have been arrested are being interrogated."

Trouble was sparked by an image widely distributed on social media website Facebook that some Muslims considered offensive to Islam, said a senior administration official in the city.

India has a dark history of religious violence, especially between the Hindu majority and Muslims, who account for more than 150 million people, making India the world’s third most populous Muslim nation.

Modi contested the 2014 general election from Vadodara but gave up the seat in favor of Varanasi, the Hindu holy city in north India, from which he had also contested.

At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died during a month of rioting in Gujarat in 2002. Critics say Modi did not do enough to stop the violence. Courts have found insufficient evidence to back that up.

A U.S. nonprofit filed a civil lawsuit on Thursday, timed to embarrass Modi during his trip to New York and Washington and seeking compensatory and punitive damages for alleged crimes against humanity over the 2002 riots.

Modi’s early training was in a movement that sees Indian culture as being primarily Hindu. Emboldened by his emphatic election victory in May, Hindu hardliners have been agitating across much of India against religious minorities.

The latest violence has marred celebrations of the Navratri festival that involves men and women in prayer, music and dance. It follows a campaign by radical Hindu groups to bar Muslims and other religious minorities from taking part in the traditionally tolerant festivities.

"The idea of banning Muslims from Hindu festivals has upset the minority but we are determined to keep the celebrations open to all," Radhakrishnan said, adding that tension had begun to ebb.

Police in Vadodara this month arrested a Muslim cleric who had labelled Navratri a "festival of demons".

The post Indian Police Arrests 140 for Hindu-Muslims Clashes appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Death, Hunger Stalk Indian Tea-Estate Workers

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 10:04 PM PDT

Workers gather tea leaves at a tea garden estate in Darjeeling, about 50 miles from the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri, in October 2006. (Photo: Reuters)

Workers gather tea leaves at a tea garden estate in Darjeeling, about 50 miles from the northeastern Indian city of Siliguri, in October 2006. (Photo: Reuters)

BUNDAPANI, India — Death arrived soon after the Bundapani tea estate closed last year.

Deprived of health care and food rations, workers who had been scraping by on US$1.50 per day were left with nothing. Bundapani's owner didn't raise the alarm for two months as the workers, abandoned at the feet of the Himalayas, slid silently into catastrophe.

"I have become like a beggar," said Ramesh Mahali, 59, struggling to stand. He has been unable to properly feed himself or his family since the closure.

His wife, Puliya, seeming 20 years older than her 50, sat emaciated on the floor, her tiny arms mummified by malnutrition. She cannot move anymore, so Ramesh cannot leave her to look for work. Nearby, his daughter-in-law stared upward, suffering from tuberculosis. Beneath her, the dirt floor of the house was slowly being eaten away by the rains.

Seven workers died in the two months it took the government to become aware of the crisis, and the toll has continued to climb since. In the past year, at least 69 tea workers have died across Bundapani and four other shuttered tea plantations in West Bengal, according to the Right to Food campaign, an advisory committee to the Supreme Court that is monitoring the deaths. More than 16,000 people have been left in extreme poverty at the estates, spread across the Dooars plains below Darjeeling, source of the famous brand known as the Champagne of teas.

The government has launched emergency food and medical relief, but conditions remain grim. Despite the aid, 14 people at Bundapani alone have died in the past eight months, either from malnutrition or inadequate medical care.

Dozens of men have left to find work, but women and those too weak to travel — like the Mahalis—remain in houses on the estate, where 7,000 people still live.

In estates visited by The Associated Press, many workers were clearly underfed and a number were suffering from diseases commonly related to malnutrition, such as tuberculosis. Several people said relatives had recently died. Many were skipping meals, living on rice broth.

The government relief—2 kilograms of rice a week per worker—falls below standard rations at refugee camps.

Their situation highlights how eastern India's tea industry has changed little since colonial times. The decisions of individual estate-owners still determine the fates of whole communities.

The government has done little to penalize owners who abandon their workers, and in practice, they have few obligations beyond their own conscience to ensure workers' well-being. Powerless, workers are dying in a system closer to the 19th than the 21st.

"This is kind of the last hangover of a straightforwardly colonial relationship," said Harsh Mander, special adviser on food to India's Supreme Court.

Tea covers most of the plains under Darjeeling. Mile after mile of shiny green bushes, shaved flat into cubes, like a giant hedge maze.

Established by the British in the 1830s, the plantations are among the only examples of large-scale organized agriculture in India, where most farming is done by small-holders. The plantations became an essential image of empire and Darjeeling itself is still popularly known for its Raj-era holdouts, living the gin-touched days of gentlemen recluses.

Colonial plantations relied on indentured laborers. Workers now have the right to leave and access to free primary education, but their dependency on the estates for housing and food means that in practice, little has changed.

There are tea plantations in other Indian states, including Assam and Kerala, but West Bengal's are widely seen as having the worst labor conditions. Most of its 200,000 tea workers are paid 95 rupees ($1.50) per day, three-quarters the state minimum wage and below the UN's $2 a-day threshold for extreme poverty.

Even in functioning plantations, malnutrition is common. At the Khopalasi Primary School, which is attached to a working estate on the outskirts of Siliguri, teachers said half their pupils were malnourished.

To survive, workers rely on additional benefits from the plantations, including food, housing and medical care, valued at about 65 rupees ($1) per day. When a plantation closes, the health care and food rations disappear immediately; workers find themselves in a disaster situation overnight.

The five closures are being largely blamed on their owners' mismanagement. Most of West Bengal's 279 plantations are functioning normally, although margins have tightened as rainfall has declined dramatically recently. In 2006, a wave of closures caused hundreds of deaths. But owners of working plantations say the industry is now healthy, and that only those who failed to modernize are seriously struggling.

The closures are being prolonged as owners engage in lawsuits that prevent them from reopening under new ownership, trapping workers in limbo. India's clogged court system means these challenges can take a decade, even as workers live on emergency rations. One of the estates, Dheklapara, has been in dispute for 13 years.

Some owners have sold plantations only to renege on the deals, inviting more lawsuits. Often, ownership is so disputed even workers are unsure who their employer is. Most are only distantly aware of the progress of the lawsuits, since no one updates them.

Three of the currently closed plantations are owned by one man, Robin Paul, a Kolkata-based businessman who owns the Surendragnagar, Dharanipur and Red Bank estates, where at least 40 people have died. Paul is known as a wealthy real estate agent in Kolkata, and a patron of a Bengali music festival in the city.

Sunil Bakhshi, 71, who recently gave up his position as chief clerk at Surendranagar, said he hadn't been paid since 2003. Bakshi said eight people had died at Surendranagar in the last 18 months. He hadn't heard from Paul in several years, though the owner's representatives have been in contact with the estate.

"The condition here is so bad, so pathetic. Now we don't even have enough to eat," said Bakshi. "We are told to do our work and our dues will be cleared soon."

When reached by the AP by telephone, Paul declined to comment. Court documents show that bankruptcy proceedings at his estates have dragged out for years.

Bundapani's owner, Rakesh Srivastava, runs a hotel in the area. Attempts to contact him and the other owners of other closed tea plantations were unsuccessful. Lawyers for Srivastava refused to comment, and calls to several of Srivastava's phones went unanswered.

The abandoned workers, meanwhile, are caught in a struggle between the West Bengal government and tea-worker unions, which are known for their militant tactics.

The unions have published inflated reports of starvation deaths to gain leverage in wage negotiations. West Bengal's government has insisted that no tea workers have died from starvation, though it has started emergency food aid to the closed estates.

Aside from their 2 kilograms of rice per week, workers get an additional kilogram per relative, as well as a monthly unemployment payment of 1,500 rupees, around 80 cents per day.

Anuradha Talwar, an activist from the Right to Food campaign, said that workers were not necessarily dying of hunger, but from extreme deprivation. She said the closure of plantation health facilities was the main cause of deaths, in particular because families could not afford the trip to local hospitals.

If the plantation had not closed, "these people would not have died," Talwar said. "These people are in a situation where they cannot afford basic things essential to survive."

M.D. Rizwan, the joint labor commissioner for West Bengal, said the regional government is urgently seeking to reopen the plantations through negotiations, but that its powers to seize the estates are limited.

The national government has extensive powers for seizing plantations being run inadequately, but has so far declined to use them.

Last month, the state's chief minister asked the national government to take over closed estates using India's Tea Act, which allows the seizure of plantations making consistent losses, where the tea goes largely unpicked or wages unpaid.

But Mander, the Supreme Court adviser, said the government wasn't doing enough to discourage owners from abandoning their plantations, or to extricate the properties from legal tangles.

Wage negotiations are also underway; tea workers are expected to get another 30 rupees (50 cents) per day. But that won't help people who are essentially trapped on closed plantations.

Bakshi, the retired clerk from Surendranagar, believes they can only wait.

"We are helpless," he said.

The post Death, Hunger Stalk Indian Tea-Estate Workers appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Hong Kong Protesters Stockpile Supplies, Prepare for Long Haul

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 09:58 PM PDT

A vehicle drives among protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong on September 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters) 

A vehicle drives among protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong on September 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters extended a blockade of Hong Kong streets on Tuesday, stockpiling supplies and erecting makeshift barricades ahead of what some fear may be a push by police to clear the roads before Chinese National Day.

Riot police shot pepper spray and tear gas at protesters at the weekend but withdrew on Monday to ease tension as the ranks of demonstrators swelled. Protesters spent the night sleeping or holding vigil unharassed on normally busy roads in the global financial hub.

Throughout the night, rumors rippled through crowds of protesters that police were preparing to move in again. As the sun rose many remained wary, especially on the eve of Wednesday's anniversary of the Communist Party's foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

"Many powerful people from the mainland will come to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government won't want them to see this, so the police must do something," Sui-ying Cheng, 18, a freshman at Hong Kong University's School of Professional and Continuing Education, said of the National Day holiday.

"We are not scared. We will stay here tonight. Tonight is the most important," she said.

The protesters, mostly students, are demanding full democracy and have called on the city's leader Leung Chun-ying to step down after Beijing on Aug. 31 ruled out free elections for Hong Kong's leader, known as the Chief Executive, in 2017.

China rules Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, with universal suffrage set as an eventual goal.

Protesters massed in at least four of Hong Kong's busiest areas, including Admiralty, where Hong Kong's government is headquartered, the Central business district, Causeway Bay, one of the city's most bustling shopping areas, and the densely populated Mong Kok district in Kowloon.

Organizers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets after the protests flared on Friday night. No independent estimate of numbers was available.

"I must stress that the events happening now cannot be attributed to the students or Occupy Central. It has evolved into a civil movement," said Alex Chow, the leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

Protesters set up supply stations with water bottles, fruit, crackers, disposable raincoats, towels, goggles, face masks and tents, indicating they were in for the long haul.

Some lugged metal road barricades into positions on the edge of crowds, presumably to slow a police advance. In at least one location, several minivans and a truck were parked in rows in an apparent effort to block a road.

Exercise Restraint

Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations.

The movement presents Beijing's ruling Communist Party with a difficult challenge. Cracking down too hard could shake confidence in market-driven Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from the rest of China. Not reacting firmly enough, however, could embolden dissidents on the mainland.

The outside world has looked on warily, concerned that the clashes could spread and trigger a much harsher crackdown.

"The United States urges the Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint and for protesters to express their views peacefully," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a daily briefing on Monday.

Human Rights Watch voiced concern about police use of force, and called on Leung to "show the kind of tolerance for peaceful protest for which Hong Kong is known, not the intolerance for it in the mainland."

The demonstrations, labeled "illegal" by China's Communist-run government in Beijing, are the worst in Hong Kong since China resumed its rule over the former British colony in 1997.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper said on Tuesday that the government would not change its policy "just because of the chaos created by the oppositionists," and it suggested that the authorities might let the protests run their course.

"Without changing the earlier decision, the central and Hong Kong governments can exercise a certain degree of restraint in handling the shutdown of the city's financial areas, so as to leave some time for local people to realize the harm done by the protesters' illegal acts," it said.

The protests are expected to escalate on Wednesday, with residents of the nearby former Portuguese enclave of Macau also planning a rally.

"Maybe the police are planning a bigger operation for the coming night, so most of them need to rest and prepare," Stanley Fong, a 22-year-old property agent, said of the relative lack of police out on Monday night.

Resolutely Opposed

Televised scenes of the chaos in Hong Kong over the weekend have already made a deep impression outside the financial hub.

That was especially the case in Taiwan, which has full democracy but is considered by Beijing as a renegade province that must one day be reunited with the mainland. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said Beijing needed "to listen carefully to the demands of the Hong Kong people."

Britain said it was concerned about the situation and called for the right of protest to be protected.

Earlier, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing was "resolutely opposed to any country attempting in any way to support such illegal activities like 'Occupy Central.'"

Banks in Hong Kong, including HSBC, Citigroup , Bank of China, Standard Chartered and DBS, shut some branches and advised staff to work from home or go to secondary branches on Monday.

Financial fallout from the turmoil has been limited so far. Hong Kong shares ended down 1.9 percent on Monday.

The protests have spooked tourists, with arrivals from China down sharply ahead of the National Day holidays, which are normally a peak. On Monday, Hong Kong canceled the city's fireworks display over the harbor, meant to mark the holiday. The United States, Australia and Singapore issued travel alerts.

Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Elzio Barreto,; Venus Wu, Yimou Lee, Diana Chan, Kinling Lo, Twinnie Siu, Bobby Yip and Stefanie McIntyre in HONG KONG.

The post Hong Kong Protesters Stockpile Supplies, Prepare for Long Haul appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Democratic Voice of Burma

Democratic Voice of Burma

130 firms to exhibit at October oil & gas fair

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 03:42 AM PDT

One hundred and thirty firms from 22 different countries will exhibit a range of services and products at Burma's inaugural oil and gas trade fair, which is to be held at the Myanmar Convention Centre on 15– 17 October.

The event – known as Oil & Gas Myanmar 2014 – will showcase a number of international exhibitors, including strong representations from Singapore and the UK, as foreign companies look to launch themselves into Burma's potentially lucrative energy sector.

"Providing international businesses with a gateway to enter Myanmar's [Burma's] oil and gas industry, we will begin to see an influx of foreign companies, building and growing a more robust value chain of support services," said Carol New, the senior project manager for the event's co-sponsor, Singapore Exhibition Services, speaking to state media.

"Having released its oil and gas resources to the international market, many international firms are looking for local agents and partners, as well as setting up operations in Myanmar," she added.

Representing domestic energy firms, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Services Society (MOGSS) said it welcomes the inaugural industry exhibition.

"The event not only creates access for international firms to enter Myanmar, but also for existing energy companies to engage and easily source for suppliers," said MOGSS Chairman Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing, cited in state-run The New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday. "The industry is certainly headed down a path of rapid growth and will need a healthy pool of support services and suppliers to thrive and prosper."

Burma's Ministry of Energy recently approved a number of domestic and foreign companies to explore 24 onshore and 20 offshore blocks. Following a competitive tender bidding process, in March the ministry announced 20 winning bids for 30 offshore blocks. Major foreign players such as ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and Total all won offshore exploration contracts.

A joint bid by British E&P firm BG and Australia's Woodside was the single largest winner in the bidding process, earning the rights to explore and develop two shallow-water and two deep-water blocks. Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell, the largest oil company in the world, was granted three deep-water blocks, the most allotted to any single company.

Since July, the Myanmar Investment Commission has approved more than 15 new oil and gas companies to invest in onshore blocks, all of whom have signed production-sharing contracts with the government.

Bullet Points: 30 September 2014

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 02:59 AM PDT

On today's edition of Bullet Points:

  • Burma tells UN to drop rights scrutiny
  • No sign of Hkakabo Razi helicopter
  • Michaungkan activists ordered to leave park by 3 Oct

You can watch Bullet Points every weeknight on DVB TV after the 7 o'clock news.

Michaungkan activists ordered to leave park by 3 Oct

Posted: 30 Sep 2014 02:21 AM PDT

Protestors that have been occupying a sidewalk of downtown Rangoon for more than six months have been given a deadline of 3 October to vacate the site and dismantle their encampment.

More than 100 residents of Thingyangun's Mighaungkan village have participated in a series of sit-ins and other demonstrations demanding the return of land they say was confiscated by the Burmese military in 1990.

A group of about 200 had initially set up camp at Thingyangun's Myasaryan Pagoda in late November 2013. About one week after the demonstrations began, on 2 December, approximately 400 villagers showed up at the site to receive funeral rites from local monks, proclaiming that they were "ready to die" for their land.

Shortly after, demonstrators reported that they were attacked by a group of thugs who claimed to be military cleaning personnel. Within days of the incident, which reportedly left at least eight people injured, police issued an eviction order demanding that the site be cleared by 9 December.

Protest leaders and the Land Investigation Commission negotiated a three-month hiatus of the occupation after the commission promised to deliver results within that time.

Parliamentarian and Commission member Aung Thein Linn told DVB in December that the government was committed to solving the dispute. "Otherwise," he said, "it will be damaging to our country's image, especially while the SEA Games are being held."

The country was at that time hurrying to prepare for a major regional sporting event, the Southeast Asian Games, which drew international attention and visitors.

Three months later and still unsatisfied, about 100 protestors resumed the sit-in, this time bringing their grievances to Maha Bandula Park in downtown Rangoon, across the street from City Hall.

One week later, on 30 March, they were forcibly dispersed in an early morning raid by city officials and dozens of plain-clothed men.

The demonstrators vowed to keep fighting and have maintained a presence at the park ever since.

In August, a 72-year-old protestor died at the encampment after 138 days of her sit-in. At that time, her fellow activists reiterated that nothing would make them accept the loss of their land, even death.

During the military regime, land was routinely confiscated by the government for state use. Since the reforms began in 2011, protests have been increasingly common all across Burma as villagers have attempted to reclaim lost assets.

New land legislation introduced in early 2012 has met major criticism, with some claiming that the new laws legitimise government and corporate acquisition while offering little protection for individuals. A government commission established in 2012 has begun fielding Burma's thousands of land-grab claims but has yet to provide satisfactory recourse.


Burma tells UN to drop rights scrutiny

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 11:56 PM PDT

Burma’s foreign minister Wanna Maung Lwin was in New York on Wednesday to address the United Nations General Assembly.

The former general told delegates that the UN ought to drop their focus on human rights in Burma.


Thai PM to visit Burma and Italy in October

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 10:06 PM PDT

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha will visit Burma on 9 and 10 October and then attend the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Italy on 16 and 17 October. 

Government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said the prime minister’s foreign affairs team had confirmed the two schedules. 

The trip to Burma is in response to an invitation from Naypyidaw in its capacity as the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

It was earlier reported that Gen. Prayuth would call on Burmese President Thein Sein in Naypyidaw and meet Thai people in Rangoon, the nation’s former capital.

The trip to attend ASEM in Milan, Italy, is also in response to an invitation. It will be an important trip for  the prime minister, who heads the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which staged a coup on 22 May, as leaders of Asian and European countries will be there.

It was reported that Gen. Prayuth will explain the situation and facts about Thailand if there are any relevant inquiries. 

Karen rebel killed as troops clash in Pegu

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 08:40 PM PDT

A Karen rebel fighter was killed and another injured when a clash broke out on 27 September in Pegu [Bago] Division between Burmese government forces and the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), an armed faction of the Karen National Union (KNU).

A KNU liaison officer in Taungoo District told DVB that a firefight erupted on Saturday afternoon in Kyaukkyi after troops from the Burmese army's 361st Light Infantry Battalion entered territory held by the KNDO 3rd Battalion without prior warning.

Kyaukkyi KNU liaison officer Saw Maung Aye confirmed that one KNDO soldier was killed and another injured in the skirmish.

He accused the Burmese army of provoking the clash by repeatedly encroaching into KNU territory without informing the Karen command ahead of time.

"Our central leadership will be speaking to government officials about the incident – we assume that this means the Burmese army does not want peace," said Saw Maung Aye.

Burmese Information Minister and government spokesperson Ye Htut told DVB on Monday that the clash occurred due to a misunderstanding and a lack of demarcation, but insisted it had no connection to the recent fighting between a Burmese unit and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) in Myawaddy.

"The clash was due to a misunderstanding between both sides on the ground," said Ye Htut. "But there's absolutely no link between this incident and the fighting that took place in Myawaddy last week."

Asked about the alleged encroachment into Karen territory, Burma's Information Minister said, "The Burmese army battalion, unaware of the geographical boundaries, ended up in [KNDO] territory."

He added that military commanders on both sides "have the utmost wish to see peace since they are the ones who have to spend all their time at the frontline".

DKBA liaison officer Saw Soe Myint told DVB on Monday that a further clash had occurred that day between Burmese and DKBA forces in Kyarinseikgyi Township with two injuries confirmed on the DKBA side.

Shan Herald Agency for News

Shan Herald Agency for News

Myanmar/Burma: Armed Groups, Contested Legitimacy and Political Transition

Posted: 29 Sep 2014 09:51 PM PDT

Catalyst for change
The following presentation is delivered by Harn Younghwe, Brussels-based Euro Burma Office (EBO), at the Conference on National Dialogue and Mediation Processes held in Helsinki in March 2014-Editor

Legitimacy is the key challenge for the Burma Army or Tatmadaw, even after 50 years of absolute rule. It no doubt has the coercive power to continue ruling. But no one, not the ethnic population, not the person in the street, and not even the international community, sees the military as the legitimate and rightful ruler.

The armed struggles that have beset Burma since independence in 1948 have involved multiple armed groups seeking recognition and representation, and demands for political transition of the military regime. Recent reformist moves by the state have given hope of an opportunity for real change. A proposed nationwide ceasefire aims to bring in all armed groups – those that have already signed ceasefires and those that have not. A subsequent National Dialogue looks to include all stakeholders – armed groups, political parties and civil society. The Dialogue is not just about resolving armed insurgencies, but about the future of the country.

State Legitimacy
Even after writing a new constitution in 2008, holding elections and establishing a 'democratic' system of government, President Thein Sein's administration of ex-generals still face a legitimacy deficit. For many Burmese, the rightful heirs to political authority are symbolised in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK), daughter of independence hero General Aung San, her National League for Democracy (NLD), and the ethnic nationalities.

The Tatmadaw's vision of the great Myanmar nation began in 1044 with King Anawrahtaand, and continued by Tabinshwehti (1531) and Alaungpaya (1752), who conquered neighbouring kingdoms from Manipur in India to Thailand. According to this narrative, the British conquest (1886–1948) was an aberration of 62 years. The Tatmadaw's mission is to re-establish thismighty empire – at the expense of the ethnic nationalities who constitute at least 40 per cent of the population and whose homelands make up about 60 per cent of the territory.

The ethnic nationalities' competing national vision acknowledges their temporary subjugation by three Myanmar kings, but mostly they had their own kings and traditional rulers, including during British rule, and were not part of the Myanmar empire. In fact, they agreed to join their territories to Myanmar at the 1947 Panglong Conference and claim that they and not the Tatmadaw are the legitimate co-rulers of the nation.

British annexation of Burma in 1886 had excluded a number of provinces: Chin Hills (now Chin State) Frontier Area; Kachin Hills (now Kachin State) Frontier Area; Shan States (later Federated Shan States – now Shan State) Protectorat; Karenni States (now Kayah State) independent Protectorate; and Trans-Salween area (now Karen State) Frontier Area. These were nominally administered separately as a buffer zone with French Indochina. The current Arakan and Mon States were part of British Burma.

In the process of independence after World War II, Prime Minister Aung San (from the predominant Bamar ethnic group) negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders, which promised them equality – hence subsequent demands for federalism. But while the 1947 Constitution recognised the various constituent states it gave them no power. Everything was centralised –Burma effectively replaced the British as the new colonial power.

In 1962 the Tatmadaw, claiming that federalism would break up the country, seized power, promising to oversee gradual democratisation. Since then the Tatmadaw has re-written history. Many Bamar are not aware of ethnic viewpoints and few understand why ethnic people have been so 'troublesome'.

Competing Claims to Legitimacy
Given the disappointment with the 1947 Constitution, most ethnic political movements began as independence movements. At the grassroots, ethnic people still want to be freed from the Bamar, whom they do not distinguish from the Tatmadaw. But in the last 25 years, ethnic leaders have been per107 suaded that independence is not an option and have generally accepted the idea of a federal union with equal power and autonomy.

In addition to President Thein Sein's government, the Tatmadaw, DASSK, and the ethnic nationalities, competing claimants to legitimacy include:
• the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP),
• the previous ruling National Unity Party (NUP),
• the governments of the seven ethnic States and seven Regions,
• the more than 18 ethnic armed groups who are negotiating ceasefires with the government,
• the ethnic parties that won seats in the 1990 elections,
• the ethnic parties that won seats in the 2010 elections,
• the more than 50 opposition parties,
• thousands of civil society movements, rights-based groups and informal community groups that have over the years spoken up on behalf of the 'people', in the absence of organised opposition.

USDP is a military creation – no more than 30 per cent of the Bamar population supports it. Most people – Bamar and non-‐Bamar – support the NLD because they believe DASSK can bring about freedom from military rule. However, observers and activists question NLD's capacity to run the country. Instead of building up the party it waited 25 years for DASSK's release. All ethnic armed groups include both hardliners bent on armed struggle and moderates who want to convert to a political struggle. The situation is fluid, but generally today moderates predominate.

In Burma, policies and strategies are second to personalities. Disputes (between or within groups) are generally over who will lead. Burmese society was 'atomised' under 50 years of military rule. There was no organised societal groupings or political parties. Civil society and political parties have started to revive but remain small, localised and often ethnically based.

Other than the USDP, NUP (previous government party) and the NLD, there are no national political bodies.
Women in Burma have equal status – in theory. But in reality most Burmese women play a supporting role and are generally discouraged from leadership.

Women are active and are the 'doers', but they are rarely recognized as such. Various cultural perceptions and practices sustain gender inequality. For instance, in some communities and locations, women's touching men's heads is considered to diminish men's power.

Peace Process
The Myanmar peace process came from within, not from international pressure. President Thein Sein, in his inaugural speech on 30 March 2011, surprised everyone by stating that his top priority was to build national unity by addressing decades of armed conflicts with ethnic nationalities caused by 'dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism'. Never before had any ruler made it a priority to address the ethnic problem let alone acknowledge its root causes.

This was followed on 18 August 2011 with an offer of talks with armed groups seeking peace. Informal talks began on 19 November and the first ceasefire was signed on 11 December with the Restoration Council for the Shan State/Shan State Army – South (RCSS/SSAS). To date, 13 other ceasefire agreements have been signed, and a nationwide ceasefire is being proposed. However, while the government is signing agreements and making commitments, it does not seem to be able to control the Tatmadaw. Serious ceasefire violations continue.

The government initially mimicked 1990s ceasefire models, which were negotiated surreptitiously as 'gentlemen's agreements', which granted special economic privileges in exchange for an undertaking not to join the democracy
movement. Except with the Kachins, nothing was put on paper. Similarly the President and his Chief Negotiator, Minister Aung Min, thought they could grant special economic privileges, sign ceasefire agreements and get the ethnic armed groups to disband. The idea was that the armed groups would embrace democracy, form political parties, contest elections, and argue their case for a federal system in parliament. A critical flaw in this concept was that most armed groups that agreed to ceasefires in the 1990s (again except the Kachins) were not the main ethnic political movements. Most used their privileges to trade in opium and other illicit drugs.

109 The ethnic nationalists want political settlement, not economic privileges. They have also rejected the notion of surrendering their arms without guarantee that their grievances would be favourably heard in a parliament that is more than 95 per cent controlled by the government.

Ethnic civil society groups have protested their exclusion from talks and the possibility of armed groups 'selling out'. A Norwegian initiative to provide 'peace dividends' for ceasefire areas, intended to support implementation, was criticised by some civil society actors as an economic incentive to deliver ceasefires. The EU's promotion of the government's Myanmar Peace Centre as a neutral inclusive space was also disputed as an attempt to impose the government's programme. Also, the newly unfettered Myanmar press tended to equate ceasefires simplistically with peace, causing other stakeholders to worry they were being excluded from negotiations.

 Initially the government did not have a clear plan as two different government negotiators pursued competing agendas. In May 2012 the government consolidated its peace initiative behind Aung Min and formed the Union Peacemaking Central Committee (UPCC). Under the UPCC is the Union Peace Working Committee (UPWC) led by Minister Aung Min as Chief Negotiator. The MPC was also established in November 2012 to support Aung Min.

The Birth of the National Dialogue
Ethnic groups in Myanmar are extremely diverse with different historical and cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, political aspirations and revolutionary histories. They are geographically dispersed along the nation's international borders.

In February 2012, 19 ethnic armed groups were invited to coordinate their individual ceasefire negotiations and plan together how to transform their ceasefire talks into a collective political dialogue as part of an inclusive peace process.

An Ethnic Peace Plan emerged that called for an extra-parliamentary dialogue to seek a political solution in the form of a federal union. Subsequently, the ethnic armed groups met monthly to share notes and coordinate. In response
to growing resistance to the government's plan, the Chief Negotiator proposed a Panglong-type conference (which was extra-parliamentary) to resolve theproblem, instead of his original scheme to amend the constitution through parliamentary debate.

Recognising that they alone could not force the government to agree to a federal system, the ethnic armed groups invited some of the 2010 election-winning ethnic parties and ethnic civil society actors to a workshop in May 2012. They discussed the approaching end of President Thein Sein's government in 2015, whereas the solution to the problems may entail negotiations beyond that, especially as armed groups did not plan to relinquish arms before 2015. How could they ensure that the next government would continue the talks? What
guarantees could they seek?

The rudimentary concept of an inclusive National Dialogue with deadlockbreaking and consensus-building mechanisms began to emerge. A more permanent Working Group for Ethnic Coordination (WGEC) was established in June 2012. To gain an even broader acceptance for the National Dialogue concept, an Ethnic Nationalities Conference was convened in September 2012. The Conference endorsed the idea and tasked the WGEC to further develop a Six- Step Road Map:

1. develop a Framework for Political Dialogue,
2. agree the Framework with the government,
3. organise conferences by States and Regions, as well as by ethnic nationalities,
4. hold a nationwide Ethnic Nationalities' Conference to discuss the Framework,
5. hold a Convention based on the Panglong spirit, with equal representation from ethnic nationalities, democratic forces and the government,
6. implement the Union Accord within the agreed timeframe. From September to January 2013, the WGEC Core Group worked out the details for a National Dialogue, which was then taken in February 2013 to all the ethnic armed groups' headquarters for their endorsement. The documents were subsequently released for public consultation with ethnic political parties and civil society in March 2013.

111 The key concepts of the Framework, as presented to Aung Min in May 2013, include that it must be jointly managed, must continue beyond 2015 and must be inclusive. It stipulates a nationwide ceasefire to facilitate the peace process, and a joint military code of conduct to ensure that the ceasefire holds. A joint monitoring mechanism would then oversee adherence to the code, with a joint ceasefire committee to facilitate the monitoring mechanism. All signatories must be removed from the government's Unlawful Association List and other
restrictive laws.

The concepts were all accepted by Aung Min, who was so enthusiastic he prematurely announced in June that a nationwide ceasefire would be signed by all groups in July 2013. Caught by surprise, the armed groups back-pedalled. But despite the negative reaction and criticism from within the government's own ranks, the MPC began seriously negotiating the draft Framework and the text of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Transforming the Process
Originally, the government may have envisioned the process narrowly as a quick win: provide economic incentives in exchange for laying down arms, gain support for the government's democratisation plan, and win international
kudos. But the ethnic armed groups saw an opportunity to push for what they really wanted – a political dialogue on the future of the country. There had been no opening in the last 50 years and they were determined to make it work in their favour.

The government could not depend on its own support base, which was not open to such rapid changes. Instead, small circle of reformers began to see that winning over the ethnic armed groups would help build the momentum they needed to press ahead with the reform agenda. The armed groups also saw that if the reformers gained momentum, they could actually get the government to commit to a political dialogue. So what began as a one-sided push became a common process. The government and the armed groups both then began parallel informal campaigns to win over doubters within the parliament, military, political parties, civil society actors and the ethnic population.

This effort received an unexpected boost when the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament in alliance with DASSK, started to publicly attack Minister Aung Min and the MPC for not being inclusive enough and for being too tentative.
This fit the ethnic armed groups' agenda exactly: in defending itself the MPC fully endorsed the Framework.

The armed groups were then encouraged to brief DASSK, the Commanderin- Chief, and finally on 31 August, the Union Peacemaking Work Committee (UPWC) chaired by Vice President Dr Sai Mawk Hkam, an ethnic Shan. This was a key move since the Work Committee includes key actors within the executive, the military and the parliament.

The proposal was well received and UPWC agreed to report to the UPCC and meet again on a regular basis with the ethnic armed groups, thereby elevating the negotiations to a higher level.

New developments have been achieved on the part of ethnic armed groups. In October 2013, an ethnic leaders' summit was held in Laiza, Kachin State in northern Myanmar. This is the first time in the post-independence history of Burma that top leaders from major ethnic armed organizations could have a summit 'in' the country. The summit formed the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordinating Team (NCCT) to draft the nationwide ceasefire agreement and lead
negotiation efforts. In November (right after the summit), ethnic leaders held a meeting in Myintkina, Kachin State, with military representatives to discuss nationwide ceasefire. In the meeting, military representatives proposed its own nationwide ceasefire agreement draft. Strong wording and demands surprised ethnic leaders, but both sides agreed to study each other's draft proposals.

In January 2014, NCCT held another ethnic leaders' conference in Law Khee Lar, Karen State. The outcome was the updated version of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

In March 2014, NCCT and representatives from the government's negotiation team, military and parliament met in Yangon. They agreed to form a joint committee to jointly develop a nationwide ceasefire agreement - known as "One Text" or "Single Text". Up to this meeting, both sides were proposing its own drafts one version after another.

The joint committee will consist of nine mem113 bers each from the NCCT and the government (three each from the executive branch, the military, and the parliament). The government proposes that the NCA be signed no later than the first of August. A National Dialogue might begin in late 2014. Major threats to the process include the commitment of the Tatmadaw, which will be determined by whether the Commander-in-Chief is prepared to sign the agreement and to arrange intra-military talks to separate troops in the conflict zones; and the inclusion of the Kachin Independence Organisation and the United Wa State Army, the two largest armed groups.

The situation remains uncertain at the time of writing and much could go wrong, but the opportunity is there for Burma to resolve its outstanding problem of the last 60 years. A lot of preparatory work has already begun on fundamental issues: power- and revenue-sharing; reform of the security sector, the judiciary and land; and community, ethnic and minority rights – to name but a few! How can international peacebuilders best support this domestic process? The conflicts are too diverse, multi-layered, deep-rooted and complex for a single mediator. The National Dialogue will require technical support of domestic and international experts. International peacebuilders might best use their experience and knowledge to help build capacity of multiple local stakeholders and allow them to work their way through, rather than try to impose a solution.