- The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (May 28, 2016)
- Fearing Extreme Weather, Farmers Scale Back Rice Cultivation
- Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘There Should Be No Political Prisoners In A Democratic Country’
- This Week in Parliament (May 23-27)
- Rangoon to Remove Unpopular Concrete Traffic Blocks
Posted: 27 May 2016 07:53 PM PDT
PwC Warns Investors Over Increased Scrutiny
Investors in Burma may find themselves under increased scrutiny if they have entered into business agreements with local companies tied to the previous administration, a major accounting and consulting firm has warned.
In an article published in the Bangkok Post newspaper this week, a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting (Thailand), the Bangkok branch of the global firm known as PwC, wrote that political change in Burma could bring uncertainty.
A National League for Democracy-led government took power in late March, and while the military retains control of key security-related ministries, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi can be expected to take a degree of control of the country's economy.
"Myanmar's NLD has not publicized a comprehensive economic plan, but the authorities have verbally committed to increasing transparency, fighting corruption and challenging many of the 'crony capitalist' characteristics of the old system," wrote manager George McLeod.
That could mean reviewing government contracts, land deals and tax arrangements, the article said, adding that the new circumstances "may force [existing foreign investors] to examine their relationships and the possibility that their local partner could have their public works projects, tax records and other past conduct revisited."
New investors, meanwhile, should look at how their local partners attained their wealth, especially if they may have benefited from relationships with officials in previous administrations.
"Local companies engaged in sensitive or highly regulated sectors with significant 'government touchpoints' such as natural resources, arms or rice exports [pre-2010] could be especially prone," it said.
Myanma Railways to Tender $2.2b Upgrade
Burma's newly formed Ministry of Transport and Communication will call for private companies to bid to take part in an upgrade of the railway line connecting the country's two largest cities, state media said.
The Global New Light of Myanmar said the work on the Rangoon to Mandalay line was valued at US$2.2 billion. It did not say who would fund the project, but noted that the government's rail operator, Myanma Railways, was working with Japan's aid agency, JICA, which has injected large sums into infrastructure projects in the country in recent years.
Citing Myanma Railways General Manager Ba Myint, the report said a transparent tendering process would begin before the end of this year, and the upgrades themselves would go on for 10 years.
"The first phase of the upgrading project will kick off on the Yangon-Taungoo railroad section next year following the tender process. …" it said. "Upon completion, entire journey from Yangon and Mandalay will take only eight hours."
Industry Group Says the Tin Industry in Burma's Borderlands Is 'Still Booming'
The special administrative region of the Sino-Burmese border area controlled by an ethnic Wa armed group continues to turn out large quantities of tin ore and stockpiles remain "sizable," a tin industry organization has said.
ITRI, a UK-based company that represents and provides data on the tin industry, this week published a news article headed with the words "Myanmar tin ore trade still booming."
It cited Chinese customs data that show China's imports of tin ore and concentrates from Burma totaled more than 46,000 tons in April. That makes total output from Burma for the first four months of the year 174,868 tons, of which about 21,000 tons is pure tin, ITRI said.
While detailed information on where the tin comes from is not available, analysts say the vast majority of tin mined in Burma comes from the Wa Special Region 2. The region is controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma's biggest non-state armed group. The army was formed by former cadres of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) after the party disintegrated following a 1989 mutiny. It is believed to have been provided with advanced weaponry from China.
Tin concentrates mined in huge quantities in the region's Man Maw area are refined inside China. Huge increases in the exports over the past few years have fueled a slide in global tin prices.
ITRI said that while production would decline during the next few months due to seasonal rains, production would rise again after October. However, this forecast "is based on some widely divergent underlying trends," the body said.
"Mining activity at some 200 sites in the Man Maw area is reported by informed sources to have declined considerably this year, with the number of workers having [been] more than halved from peak levels," it said.
"However there are sizeable stockpiles of ore above ground and available for processing and there is always a possibility of new sites being discovered and exploited."
Thai State Energy Firm Wants to Buy Chevron's Burmese Asset
PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) is hoping to buy at least one of US firm Chevron's oil and gas assets in Burma, a company official reportedly said.
Reuters said Pannalin Mahawongtikul, executive vice president for finance, discussed the explorer's plans with reporters. The company is part of the larger PTT, a public company spun off from Thailand's state energy firm. The government retains a majority stake in the group.
"We focus on projects which are operating, so that we can book revenue immediately after the purchase," Pannalin said, according to Reuters, signaling that Chevron's stake in the Yadana gas field was the major investment target outside of Thailand.
The newswire reported last month that Chevron was looking to offload its 28.3 percent stake in the Yadana and Sein gas fields in the Andaman Sea. France's Total is leading the consortium that produces gas from the fields and sends most of it to Thailand via pipelines.
Chevron is also selling an offshore oil and gas exploration block it won in a tender and on which it has signed a production sharing contract with the government, Reuters said, as part of efforts to preserve cash amid low global energy prices.
Burma Gives Tiny Bhutan New Aviation Rights: Report
The Burmese government has revised an agreement with Bhutan to allow airlines from the tiny Himalayan country to fly in and out of Burmese airports, according to Bhutan's publicly owned newspaper.
The newspaper, Kuensel, said in a report that a delegation from Burma's Department of Civil Aviation had visited Bhutan and signed a new version of a 2002 agreement on aviation services between the two countries.
Since that agreement, Bhutan's first private airline, Bhutan Airlines, has commenced operations and currently flies from the Bhutanese cities of Jakar and Trashigang to airports in India and Thailand.
The new agreement means the airline, as well as national carrier Druk Air, "have the right to operate passenger and cargo services with unrestricted capacity, frequency and aircraft type to and from all points in Myanmar other than Yangon and up to a total of five services each way per week to and from Yangon," the report said.
It also predicted that many of the people of Bhutan—who number only about 750,000—would be keen to visit their fellow Buddhist-majority country.
"With many holy Buddhist sites in Myanmar, Bhutanese pilgrims are expected to explore Myanmar as a destination," it said. "The agreement is also expected to promote trade between the two countries."
Posted: 27 May 2016 07:47 PM PDT
ZALUN TOWNSHIP, Irrawaddy Division — Aung Kywe remembers how he had to stand by helplessly last year when massive floods in the wake of Cyclone Komen affected the Irrawaddy Delta and destroyed half of his 14 acres of paddy.
That traumatic experience came on top of years of decreasing yields, Aung Kywe said, adding that this monsoon season he will leave much of his land in Kawkatkyi village, Zalun Township, fallow to avoid risking loss of money with another failed harvest.
"Paddy plots on the lower-lying land are almost sure to be flooded," he said, adding: "Paddy yields have also decreased year by year, from 100 baskets per acre to 75 baskets." A basket of rice weighs around 25 kilograms.
In neighboring Maubin Township, also located in the heart of Burma's "rice bowl" delta region, farmers spoke of similar measures to limit exposure to what many believe are increased occurrences of climate change-related extreme weather, such as drought, heat and floods.
Kyaw Minn, from Palaung village, said: "I will not grow monsoon paddy this year, but will cultivate other seasonal crops when the water level drops after the rainy season."
Farmers in the delta generally grow two rice crops, one in the rainy season and one in the cooler season in lower-lying areas that are fed with receding flood waters. They might also grow a third, short-cycle crop, such as beans, in the hot months before the monsoon.
Thein Aung, chairman of the Independent Farmers League in Irrawaddy Division, said that because of rising concerns among farmers, vast areas of land will go uncultivated this year.
"The farmers from our villages will not be growing paddy in a total of 200,000 acres situated on the lowlands," he said, before adding that the impact on overall paddy production would probably be limited as these fields are some of the least-productive tracts.
The Irrawaddy Delta is home to millions of subsistence farmers whose income and food security relies on their annual harvest, and to a lesser extent fishing.
The drop in rice production follows the devastating impact of Cyclone Komen, which ravaged the agricultural sector with heavy flooding in 12 out of 14 states and divisions from June to August last year.
Some 260,000 acres of monsoon paddy fields were flooded and 52,000 acres damaged, according to official figures, which showed that the cyclone and flooding killed 120 people nationwide and affected more than 400,000 households.
Sein Win Hlaing, chairman of the Paddy and Rice Producers Association, said: "Rice production declined by 20 percent last year due to the weather's impact." He added that the fall in rice production would hamper Burma's export volume, which stood at around 1.5 million metric tons of rice before 2015.
Cyclones and other extreme weather are set to increase further and this trend should ring alarm bells with the agriculture sector and the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government, said Tun Lwin, an independent meteorological expert and former government official.
"Traditional agricultural methods are no longer suitable for the changing weather conditions," he warned, adding that the monsoon would be shorter and produce more volatile weather.
Ba Hein, the minister for agriculture, livestock and natural resources for Irrawaddy Division, said development of the agricultural sector and of the water management infrastructure was ignored by previous, military-led governments.
"The delta has many rivers and streams, and these have not been properly managed," he said, adding, however, that the state government had limited funds to improve water management infrastructure and that it was unlikely that the central government would provide more resources soon.
His administration, Ba Hein said, would focus on helping farmers find solutions to the changing weather conditions and boost overall agricultural development by, for example, launching new contract farming systems in cooperation with the Myanmar Rice Producers Association.
Thike Soe, an officer of the Agricultural Department in Maubin Township, said his department was trying to educate farmers about the changing weather patterns and the need to use different rice varieties in order to adapt to the changes.
"There will be a shortage of water supply for cultivation and crop yields may decline. So, they should grow rice seeds that can be harvested in a shorter period," he said, adding that such varieties were available to farmers on local markets.
Soe Tun, chairman of the Myanmar Rice Association, echoed this idea but stressed water management should be improved in order to harness available water resources in times of drought.
"Myanmar has some alternative sources of water supply, including four major rivers. If the water from these rivers can be used efficiently, the country's agricultural sector is sure to resurge," he said.
This story originally appeared on Myanmar Now.
The post Fearing Extreme Weather, Farmers Scale Back Rice Cultivation appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 27 May 2016 07:40 PM PDT
Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we'll discuss human rights in the context of the new government's 100-day plan. I am joined by Ko Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, and Ko Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. I’m The Irrawaddy's Burmese-language editor Ye Ni.
Soon after U Htin Kyaw's government assumed power, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced the release of many political prisoners. Proposals were then submitted to the parliament to revoke legal provisions used by the previous military, and military-backed, governments to prosecute political dissidents. Ko Aung Myo Min, what do you think of these actions? Do you think there will be further human rights progress in the months to come?
Aung Myo Min: We have said that there should be no political prisoners in a democratic country, and we are grateful that [the government] has released them. It is also good that [the government] is trying to amend laws that can turn anyone into a political prisoner at any time, and is talking about ceasefires [between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] and national reconciliation.
But then, it is undeniable that the new government faces serious challenges in introducing change. The power of the military is still felt in all branches of executive power. While elected lawmakers sit in the parliament, the military still holds 25 percent of seats. And in some cases, I have found that [military representatives] have argued with and opposed elected lawmakers.
There is now a substantial degree of civilian participation in government. The president and most ministers are civilians. But then, the military and the army chief still have the final say on really important issues, and we still can't change this. As a result, there may be friction between the new government and the old [military-dominated] bureaucracy. But at the same time, things may proceed successfully if the military is willing to cooperate.
YN: Ko Bo Kyi, is it reasonable to say that all political prisoners have now been released?
Bo Kyi: It can't be said that all political prisoners have been released. There are still arrests being made. Currently, 64 [political] prisoners are still serving time, and over 100 are facing trial—so the number of political prisoners may even increase. But we can't just talk about numbers: We have to find and address the cause.
There are still political prisoners because there is no rule of law—[people] can't enjoy their rights to the full. As long as civil wars, land disputes and industrial disputes remain unresolved, there will still be political prisoners. I'm not suggesting that these problems be solved within 100 days. But they need to be comprehensively settled in the long run.
Meanwhile, the parliament should define 'political prisoner,' so that political prisoners can be treated with respect in prison and permitted certain entitlements. The 'socialist' concept that all those placed behind bars should be treated the same is a major hindrance to prison reform. Prisons are overcrowded, further eroding the fundamental rights of prisoners. There are situations in which prisoners are not treated as human. For example, Insein Prison [in Rangoon] can accommodate only 5,000 prisoners; when numbers reach 8,000 or above, they have to sleep on their sides. This is not how a human should be treated.
There are many ways in which prisoners [in Burma] are denied their right to life, good health and wellbeing. We need to think about prison reform—but reforming the prison system is not enough; we also need to enact associated security sector reforms. And we should work towards judicial independence, and provide security for judges so that they can make judgments without bias. Reforms will succeed only when we take all these things into consideration.
YN: Ko Bo Kyi, I'm interested in what you said about human rights progress being linked to security sector reform.
Ko Aung Myo Win, the U Thein Sein government formed the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to address human rights issues [in Burma]. What are your thoughts on the functioning of that commission and its complaints-handling mechanism? Do you think it is up to the task?
AMM: To be frank, it is not up to the task. That commission is responsible for both promoting and protecting human rights. But in terms of handling complaints and facilitating justice, its power is very limited and it does not receive proper recognition [from the government].
The commission is not authorized to make rulings—instead it forwards its findings about human rights issues to relevant government departments and offers advice. This bestows on ministerial and departmental personnel, who are charged with taking practical action, a very important role—but responses have generally been inadequate, despite the submissions of the human rights commission.
The human rights commission does not have the power to influence the army. For example, the commission investigated the case of Ko Par Gyi [a freelance journalist who died in military custody in 2014] and released a report, which called for the case to be transferred [from a military court] to a civilian court, and be heard publicly, because the military itself was implicated in the case. This didn't happen.
We heard that the suspects were tried at a military court. It seemed like a show of disrespect for the human rights commission. And the commission could do nothing. The military in the end just issued an empty statement saying that the suspects had been 'punished.' This shows that much remains to be done in terms of reforming the security sector.
Human rights abuses happen most frequently in ethnic minority areas where rule of law is weak and armed clashes [between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] are going on. The human rights commission cannot prevent human rights violations happening in ethnic minority areas. And the army does not take responsibility. Where are we supposed to find the rule of law?
YN: If only the military were willing, security reforms could be made. But take a look at the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law [enacted by the previous government in 2012 but based on earlier, colonial-era legislation], which permits local authorities to perform random house searches to check for 'unregistered' overnight guests. Do the military still need to enforce these laws on the grounds of 'security'? Can we say they are wrong to do such things even when they are done from the perspective of national security? Or can we say that they are right, because it guards against instability?
BK: We have to ask the following questions: Are we a real sovereign country? Can the military, which have taken responsibility for national security over successive periods, really protect the country?
We have to consider national security alongside the security of the individual. Everyone is responsible for protecting the sovereignty of their country. But while formulating laws, we must approach [them] not only from the perspective of national security, but from the perspective of personal freedom. If we pay too much attention to security, our country will go back to dictatorship. If we pay too much attention to personal freedom, it may disrupt the stability of the country. We have to strike a balance.
The practice of authorities checking houses for overnight guests dates back to the colonial period. The British imposed such laws to suppress Burmese patriots, and to prevent people from actively supporting them.
These laws have been applied in subsequent periods, however, with the military regime using them to suppress people and prevent them from supporting political dissidents. Its harmfulness is such that, even if a person living independently returns to sleep overnight at their parents' house without informing the authorities, he and his parents could be fined or imprisoned.
Such practices should be curtailed even in conditions of instability and chaos. Personally, I would suggest annulling the entire law. However, other surveillance mechanisms should be upgraded to protect the people and prevent crime. Our current surveillance capacity is lacking; it seems as if they can only catch those [criminals] who don't run. To enhance surveillance capacity, we need to have security sector reform.
YN: Ko Aung Myo Min, how would you compare the human rights situation in ethnic minority areas under the U Thein Sein government with the situation now?
AMM: It can't yet be said that the human rights situation [in ethnic minority areas] has improved. There is gunfire even as [the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] talk of ceasefire. Human rights violations are still going on. Furthermore, the Unlawful Associations Act [which criminalizes contact with ethnic armed groups] threatens everyone in such areas. We still see abductions, torture and killings in northern Shan State and in Kachin State. The rule of law is deteriorating further there.
In recent years people had begun to overcome their reluctance to file complaints—but now they think that, even if they complain, nothing will happen. This feeling has spread like an epidemic. It seems that people have no faith in the law, and have adopted a fatalistic attitude.
The camps of internally displaced persons are proof of human rights violations. Due to clashes, there are even camps in places such as Hsipaw [a highway hub town and tourist destination in northern Shan State]. Kachin State still has many camps and the number is increasing in Arakan State. That people have been forced from their homes is an abuse of their human rights
Sometimes the situation is complex. Previously, clashes occurred between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups, but they are increasingly taking place between ethnic armed groups. No matter which side commits what, innocent civilians are robbed of their security. Villages are destroyed—we don't know by whom—and it is bad regardless.
There are now camps in Arakan State which were not there before. And because of hatred and misunderstanding between communities, the two sides feel insecure and remain suspicious of each other, which could contribute to renewed conflict anytime. So, I have found no evidence that the human rights situation has improved in such areas.
YN: Thank you for your contributions!
The post Dateline Irrawaddy: 'There Should Be No Political Prisoners In A Democratic Country' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 27 May 2016 07:31 PM PDT
May 23 (Monday)
The Union Parliament approved the resignation of Kyaw Tint Swe from membership on the national legislature's Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission following his appointment as minister of the State Counselor's Office.
It approved the name change of a ministry—from Ministry of Health to Ministry of Health and Sports.
It also approved the president's proposal to arrange agricultural loans for farmers for the 2016-17 fiscal year, allocating 5 billion kyats (US$4.2 million) in loans from Burma's Central Bank.
May 24 (Tuesday)
The Lower House received the draft law to annul the "Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts," which was sent by the Upper House.
May 25 (Wednesday)
The Lower House approved the draft law to annul the "People's Council Law," which the Upper House had also earlier approved. The People's Council Law (Law No. 8/1974) was enacted during the rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party under the late Gen. Ne Win. Under the law, the party formed councils at different levels to supervise administrative and judicial work.
The Lower House also approved the draft law to revoke the "State Council Law" (Law No. 10/1974), which had also been earlier approved by the Upper House. Under the law, the State Council has the overall power to manage the country.
May 26 (Thursday)
The Union Parliament approved the draft law to annul the Law to Safeguard the State Against the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts.
In the Lower House, two lawmakers submitted urgent proposals, requesting the government take care of damage to roads, bridges and mobile towers caused by heavy rains and serious food shortages in Chipwe, Low Saw, and Khaung Lam Pu of Kachin State. Concerned ministers explained their response plans and the Lower House put the two proposals in the record.
May 27 (Friday)
In the Upper House, the minister for transportation and telecommunications replied to questioning from lawmaker Sai Than from constituency No. 5 of Karen State, saying that his ministry had no plan to issue licenses for smuggled unlicensed vehicles.
The Upper House was informed that the Lower House had approved the draft laws to annul the People's Council Law and the State Council Law.
Posted: 27 May 2016 07:24 PM PDT
RANGOON — To alleviate worsening congestion in the city, and in response to numerous car accidents, the Rangoon Division government is gearing up to remove concrete traffic blocks currently placed between the lanes of busy roads, according to Rangoon Traffic Police Col Aung Ko Oo.
Col Aung Ko Oo said the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), Rangoon's municipal council, would oversee the removal of the concrete blocks at eight sites in the city, including Myaynigone Junction, Eight Mile, and Pyay, Ahlone, Insein, Kabaraye Pagoda, Parami and Shwegondaing roads. But firstly, blocks will be removed from a section of downtown's Anawrahta Road—although some will remain in place for "safety reasons," which he would not specify.
According to Aung Ko Oo, the Rangoon Traffic Police had recommended to the divisional government that the concrete blocks be substituted with strips of vegetation or iron fencing, to divide the lanes of traffic. They also recommended creating more one-way systems, and better signposting of smaller link roads, as a means of managing congestion and improving safety. The concrete blocks, once removed, will be kept at a location in the Sawbwar Gyi Gone area. Their ultimate destination has not been made clear.
Under the previous mayor of Rangoon, Hla Myint, 1.6 billion kyats (US$ 1.4 million) were spent on the concrete blocks—over 44,000 in total costing a little over 30,000 kyats (US$25) each—partly to designate separate bus lanes, intended to curb the aggressive over-taking habits of Rangoon bus drivers.
Rangoon residents have complained that the concrete blocks, which were installed in busy road sections across the city, have not eased the city's traffic volume. Additionally, the blocks have caused a number of accidents, with vehicles crashing into these solid barriers. The project was considered a waste of public funds.
Kyaw Kyaw Htun, who represents Hlaing Constituency-1 in the Rangoon Division Parliament for the National League for Democracy, submitted a proposal last week on the subject of Rangoon's mounting traffic congestion, which was approved in the divisional parliament on Thursday.
Kyaw Kyaw Htun had claimed that removing the concrete blocks, regulating street vendors, and installing better sign-posting for smaller link roads, could decrease traffic congestion by 15-20 percent—although he envisaged it as a long-term strategy.
"We should not get rid of the street vendors. Because they are our citizens, we must understand their situation," said Kyaw Kyaw Htun.
Kyaw Kyaw Htun said he had advised the divisional government to develop an open-air market in a convenient location where the street vendors could operate—although he considered it unlikely to be implemented soon.
Kyaw Kyaw Htun also stated that the 960 police officers currently supervising traffic in Rangoon were insufficient. Around 120 extra traffic police officers are to be sent from the capital Naypyidaw to Rangoon—although Kyaw Kyaw Htun was skeptical that this would improve conditions markedly.
"We should not expect too much," said Kyaw Kyaw Htun.
As another means of addressing traffic congestion, the divisional government is currently searching for large car parking sites in Rangoon's outskirts. However, with limited public transport options besides overcrowded buses, it is unclear what effect this would have—if any—on congestion in the city center.
Myo Win, owner of the Dagon Hlaing bus line, which operates in Rangoon, welcomed the removal of the concrete blocks. He claimed that they had harmed his business, because the separate bus lines created by the blocks were too narrow; when a solitary bus breaks down, it effectively blocks the routes of multiple bus lines, prompting chaos.
Myo Win claimed that a city bus could complete its route almost six times in a day before the previous mayor installed the concrete blocks, after which it could manage only three laps [an argument which does not seem the take into account the sharp increase in traffic volumes in recent years]. This slower passage harmed some private bus line owners so gravely that they sold their all vehicles, he said.
Earlier this week, the Rangoon Division Motor Vehicles Supervisory Committee (popularly known by the Burmese-language acronym "Ma Hta Tha") announced that bus lines in Rangoon Division would be reduced from 357 to only 50. A regular criticism from Rangoon's residents was that public bus routes regularly overlap—with as much as 20 bus lines plying some road stretches in central Rangoon—worsening traffic congestion and the efficiency of bus services.
Kyaw Soe, a minister in the previous Rangoon Division government, has admitted that the 129.8 billion kyats (US$ 110 million) spent on road flyovers over the previous five years have failed to substantially alleviate traffic problems in the city.
In December, the Rangoon Division government announced that a traffic control center would be constructed around People's Park, with an estimated cost of 20 billion kyats (US$ 17 million).
The post Rangoon to Remove Unpopular Concrete Traffic Blocks appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
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