Friday, February 27, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Freelance Photographer Detained over Facebook Post Mocking Authorities

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 06:31 AM PST

Aung Nay Myo at an Arakan State refugee camp in 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Aung Nay Myo at an Arakan State refugee camp in 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)


A freelance photographer from Monywa was detained by local authorities on Friday for posting a satirical photo on his Facebook page that mocked authorities.

According to one of the photographer's close friends who wished to remain anonymous, Aung Nay Myo was first questioned by local Special Branch police officers on suspicion of possessing illicit drugs.

"It was 3am in the morning and the Special Branch guys came to his home and said they were looking for drugs," said the friend. "Since they found nothing related to drugs, they took him to the station and seized his computer, hard-disks and memory cards."

He added, "When we contacted the police and authorities, they said they received a message from an informer about drugs. But later, we found out that the arrest was connected to his posts on Facebook."

A complaint letter sent by a Special Branch officer to the Monywa Police Station accused Aung Nay Myo and "accomplices" of posting fabricated photos and text aimed at "harming, deterring and disturbing" the functions of government.

The letter requested that action be taken against Aung Nay Myo under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act.

The satirical image was a photoshopped version of an advertisement for an action movie called "Kun Lon 40 Days," depicting a battle in Kun Lon near Laukkai in northern Shan State between forces from the Communist Party of Burma and the Burma Army from November 1971.

The letter alleges that in the photoshopped version posted by Aung Nay Myo, President Thein Sein and former junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe are described as writing and producing the film.

The offending image also features the faces of notable officials, including Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann and Information Minister Ye Htut, photoshopped onto the bodies of men in military gear. The film title has been changed to read "Condom 40 Days."

A duty officer from Monywa police station confirmed that Aung Nay Myo had been detained and said that he would be charged under section 5 (a) and 5 (e) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, both of which carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Ant Bwe Kyaw of the 88 Generation Students, who is a close friend of Aung Nay Myo, told The Irrawaddy that he believed the photographer was targeted for his political activism.

"I don’t agree with what they did to Aung Nay Myo. For me, the case is intentionally orchestrated to trouble a person who is politically active," Ant Bwe Kyaw said. "He is always helpful to the 88 Generation Students, the National League for Democracy, and finally to the students who are now on the march for education reform. He simply annoyed the authorities."

At around 5 pm on Friday, Aung Nay Myo was transferred to Monywa Prison, and had a short meeting with family members, according to his sister Pont Pont.

"He said nothing about the case but said to [come and] see him again on Monday," she told The Irrawaddy.

The post Freelance Photographer Detained over Facebook Post Mocking Authorities appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Students Cry Foul Over Education Ministry Proposals

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 06:08 AM PST

A student protesting against the National Education Law in Rangoon on Nov. 16. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

A student protesting against the National Education Law in Rangoon on Nov. 16. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Nine representatives from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) met with Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and the Lower House Draft Law Committee in Naypyidaw on Friday, expressing concerns over what they believe to be an attempt by the Ministry of Education to derail reforms to the National Education Law.

On Feb. 17, state-run media published a draft bill amending the law which originated from the Ministry of Education, alongside the bill agreed upon during earlier four party discussions between the government, parliamentary representatives, students and the National Network for Education Reform. Students were told on Friday that both bills were now before parliament.

Nanda Sit Aung, a member of the Action Committee for Democratic Education, said that the students had told lawmakers an agreement over amendments to the law had been violated.

"There were two draft bills. One has been named as a proposal by students and the NNER, but in fact it was the one agreed to by the four party talks," Nanda Sit Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Dr Arkar Moe Thu, a university student and member of the NNER, said that during a Feb. 14 four party meeting, the ministry presented a draft bill that was eventually withdrawn after the government agreed to concede to the demands of students and NNER representatives.

Arkar Moe Thu told The Irrawaddy he now suspects that the government's concessions were a ploy to stop nationwide student demonstrations, which had been gathering momentum since the beginning of the ABFSU-led protest march from Mandalay to Rangoon on Jan. 20.

"I think they had been ordered to finish the decision on Feb. 14 in order to try to stop the student protests," he said. "The amendment bill was agreed and signed by the four parties but now they are being dishonest."

The ABFSU protest group announced last week that it would resume its march to Rangoon on Mar. 1, ahead of matriculation exams for high school students.

Nanda Sit Aung said that protests had been planned to prevent disruptions to student examinations.

The post Students Cry Foul Over Education Ministry Proposals appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Labor Official Warns Migrants to Complete Thai Work Registration

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 04:38 AM PST

Burmese workers transporting goods are seen inside the main market in Mae Sot, in Thailand's Tak Province. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Burmese workers transporting goods are seen inside the main market in Mae Sot, in Thailand's Tak Province. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A Burmese Labor Ministry official has warned Burmese migrant workers in Thailand that they should renew their Thai work permits before the permits expire on March 31.

Myo Aung, director general of the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Welfare, said during an interview in Chiang Mai on Friday that migrant workers should ensure they obtain and correctly fill in the registration papers and have their Thai employers request a renewal of their permits from the Thai Department of Employment.

"I want to say to our Myanmar migrant workers: fill in the registration form thoroughly because the work permit by the Thai DoE and the visa are as important as your passport," he said during a visit to Thailand, where he met with Thai labor officials and migrant labor rights groups based in Chiang Mai, Mae Sai, Mae Sot and Bangkok.

He said it was important that workers take fill in their own permit application to avoid local labor agents, who are known to overcharge migrants for helping with the registration process. "We want the workers to come and do it themselves. But due to a lack of knowledge and time, they rely on agents too much," said Myo Aung.

During the meetings, Myo Aung discussed the situation of some 600,000 Burmese migrants whose work permits are due to expire by the end of next month. In August, the group saw their four-year work visa expire and they were granted an eight month extension by Thai authorities.

There are some 2.6 million registered Burmese workers in Thailand and the group has been undergoing a drawn-out process of gaining legal work status in Thailand.

The process is complicated because many Burmese workers lack official documentation from their government, a situation Naypyidaw is trying to address through cooperation with Thailand and by providing documentation for migrant workers in joint Thai-Burmese centers located close to the border.

The process to at the centers is, however, known to be inefficient, time-consuming and costly, causing many Burmese workers and Thai employers to rely on agents.

Labor rights organizations in Thailand estimate there could be another half a million unregistered Burmese workers. The latter group is considered the most vulnerable to abuse and human trafficking at the hands of employers or agents. Many end up in Thailand's notorious fishing industry, known for keeping migrants in slave-like conditions on boats, or doing low-paid farm work.

"The problems we have to deal are mostly about undocumented workers, mainly in the fishing industry and at the plantations. We discussed these issues with the Thai labor officials," Myo Aung said, without explaining how his government would address the large-scale abuses.

The Burma Embassy in Thailand has been struggling to address even a fraction of the many problems that migrant workers face and few have been able to get consular service regarding their legal and work status.

Myo Aung said the embassy in Bangkok would address the problem by increasing its number of labor attaches from one to two in the coming months.

Often times, Thai police and immigration officials also take advantage of Burmese laborers and their lack of knowledge of procedures and the Thai language by demanding hefty bribes to complete or verify their registration.

A Burmese migrant worker in Chiang Mai, who only gave his name as Johnny, said he had obtained a Burmese passport and a Thai work visa, yet he had still fallen victim to bribe-seeking officials.

"Despite the fact that I had a valid visa in my passport and a work permit, the police detained me and… said I must pay a 2,000 baht [about US$60] fine for staying in Tak Province for more than 24 hours," he said. "It happened not only to me, but also to other Burmese migrants travelling from Mae Sot to Bangkok or other areas."

The post Labor Official Warns Migrants to Complete Thai Work Registration appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Lisu New Year Marked in Mogok

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 04:18 AM PST

A three-day celebration of Lisu New Year takes place in February in Mogok, Mandalay Division. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

A three-day celebration of Lisu New Year takes place in February in Mogok, Mandalay Division. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

MOGOK, Mandalay Division — Thousands of ethnic Lisu from Shan and Kachin states and Mandalay Division traveled to Mogok to celebrate the group's 50th New Year's gathering this week.

The Lisu, an ethnic minority primarily found in Shan and Kachin states and Mandalay Division, are gathered for three days beginning on Thursday in a celebration arranged by the Lisu Literature and Traditional Culture Committee of Mogok. Ethnic Lisu families have long celebrated the New Year from home in their respective towns and villages, but the communal meet-up in Mogok has only been taking place for the last 50 years.

"This celebration is the biggest one ever," said Aung Naing, vice chairman of the Lisu Literature and Traditional Culture Committee.

"About 20,000 Lisu from Shan, Kachin [states] and Mandalay Division celebrated the opening ceremony. We invited Lisu from all over the country," he said. "We believe that we [Lisu from different regions] will have more unity by celebrating this sort of ceremony here," Aung Naing said.

Commemorating the harvest season, New Year's festivities include the making of merit by donating to village, earth and mountain spirits.

On New Year's Eve, the Lisu traditionally plant a tree in front of their homes, and in the spirit of this ritual a tree was planted this week to serve as the celebration grounds' centerpiece. Around the tree, a plethora of shops, restaurants, games and other forms of entertainment have sprouted up to occupy revelers.

Dance troupes take turns performing around the tree in what amounts to a three-day dawn-to-dusk dance marathon.

"Ethnic Lisu will better understand the value of their culture, their dress, dance and performances by participating in this celebration," Aung Naing said, explaining that four unique styles of dress worn by attendees denoted the region from which they hailed.

Though the styles differ, all traditional garb includes the unifying colors of blue, black and red.

Khin Win, an attendee, said he was pleased to participate in the New Year celebration.

"I believe that we should have this kind of celebration to unite our ethnics in future by gathering in the same place to promote our traditional culture annually," he said.

Organizers say more than 100 million kyats (US$100,000) was spent to celebrate the 2015 New Year's gathering in Mogok, a town known for its rich ruby deposits.

There are about 60,000 ethnic Lisu living in Mogok, Mandalay Division, and the group's nationwide population is estimated at about 700,000.

The post Lisu New Year Marked in Mogok appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Photo of the Week (27 Feb, 2015)

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 03:21 AM PST

Migrant workers who fled from Karmine ride a vehicle to return home, from a temporary refugee camp in Lashio Migrant workers who fled from Karmine ride a vehicle to return home, from a temporary refugee camp in Lashio

The post Photo of the Week (27 Feb, 2015) appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

‘The Victims of the War Must Be Shown’

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 02:32 AM PST

The Irrawaddy English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe, Irrawaddy photographer J Paing, and Lynn Bo Bo of the European Photopress Agency (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

The Irrawaddy English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe, Irrawaddy photographer J Paing, and Lynn Bo Bo of the European Photopress Agency (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

In this week's edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, first aired on DVB on Wednesday, The Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe is joined by two photojournalists—JPaing of The Irrawaddy and Lynn Bo Bo from the European Pressphoto Agency — to discuss their experience of the Feb. 17 attack on a Red Cross convoy, amid the ongoing conflict in Laukkai.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: This week, we'll be discussing the work of photojournalists during the fighting in Kokang. The fighting between Burmese government troops and Kokang renegade troops has in progress since Feb. 9. During the fighting two Red Cross convoys were attacked. Government newspapers said that Kokang renegade troops were responsible for those attacks. Burmese photojournalists were with the convoy when it came under attack, and we'll be discussing how they took photos amid the gunfire, and how those injured were rescued. Photojournalists Ko Lynn Bo Bo from the European Pressphoto Agency and Ko J Paing from The Irrawaddy will be joining me. I am The Irrawaddy English edition Editor Kyaw Zwa Moe. Ko J Paing and Ko Lynn Bo Bo, the photos you took went viral on the internet and were published in international newspapers. Ko Lynn Bo Bo, as far as I know, the convoy came under attack and you had to run for cover. Would you be able to recount the situation?

Lynn Bo Bo: Approximately seven or eight vehicles were driving back from Laukkai in a convoy. Three of them were full of war refugees. We heard gunshots as we traveled down from Laukkai. The leader of the Red Cross convoy made a telephone call and learnt that there was an engagement between government troops and Kokang troops some way ahead. The convoy stopped for a while as we heard gunshots and the sound of artillery fire. We had to wait there for around 45 minutes. We resumed the trip when we no more heard gunshots, but then just after driving around for five minutes, we saw shells landing beside the convoy and there was a shower of gunfire which spread across the road. The first two or three vehicles stopped and our vehicle stopped as well. Then, we got out and had to crouch in the drain by the road.

KZM: During the attack, two people were injured. Ko J Paing, where did you take cover? How did you take photos?

J Paing: As soon as the vehicle stopped after the gunshots, I jumped out of it and took cover in a drain by the road. I then made sure I was safe from the gunfire. There were gunshots for one or two minutes. Then being a photojournalist, I was automatically taking photos of what I saw.

KZM: So, your camera was with you?

JP: Yes, it was with me. It is a wide lens camera and easy to carry. I was sitting in the front seat of the vehicle and I even went back to there to take a telephoto lens. And then, I searched for a safe place and…

KZM: There was still an exchange of gunfire that time when you went to take the photo?

JP: Yes, there was exchange of gunfire.

KZM: Didn't you think you might get shot? Weren't you afraid of getting hurt?

JP: When I went to take the photo, I checked that it was safe for me to do so. I took cover from the vehicle. I did not go around the vehicle in the open ground.

KZM: One of your photos was great. It was a monk crouching in the drain in fear. So, did you automatically take those photos because of your long experience in this career? How did you get idea to shoot that photo?

JP: As he was taking cover near me, I took his photo at close range. I also took the photos of those others taking cover. We approached the injured as cautiously as we could. We took their photos before taking action to rescue them.

KZM: After you took photos, you, Ko Lynn Bo Bo and Ko Soe Zeya Tun helped to rescue the injured. Would you recount what happened?

LBB: As we approached the vehicle in front of ours, we heard somebody saying that the driver had been shot. At first, we thought it was a minor case. But then, we saw that one man was shot in the abdomen. To be honest, until that time, we had no time to think about rescuing people. It is our nature to capture what is happening before us. I took the cover as much as possible and shot photos. The one who was shot in the abdomen was moaning in pain. He was 15 or 20 feet from me. The driver who was shot was crying for help. I took the picture of him first. The driver asked me to move him from there and said it was too hot there. I asked him if he could walk. He said yes and I asked him to run to us. I then checked with J Paing and Soe Zeya Tun if we could save another one who was shot in the abdomen. Red Cross members from the vehicles behind were also in the drain. Soe Zeya Tun and I had helmets and we thought it was safe for us compared to the others to get to the injured. We left our cameras. He was carrying two cameras and me too. So, we left our cameras by the vehicle and got to that man.

KZM: They survived and have recovered now, which is good news. Ko J Paing and Ko Lynn Bo Bo, you two saved a life and did your job at the same time. Here, we face with the dilemma with regard to the ethics of photojournalism. We have learnt about such cases in journalism training, for example, a man jumps out of a building which is on fire, you are a photojournalist and what will you do, to save him or to shoot the man falling from the building? Are those circumstances a real problem for photojournalists? It is the dilemma of saving a life or taking a great photo. What would you do under such circumstances?

JP: I took the photo of Ko Soe Zeya Tun and Ko Lynn Bo Bo and two other Red Cross members carrying the injured man. I sent the photo to the news agency and it was posted. And, there were comments that that photojournalist did not rescue the man while others were rescuing him. Some commented and criticized me, saying that I was just a news hunter. In fact, we all checked with each other what each of us could do. We consulted with each other. I did my job and took photos. I took care of the injured man on the Red Cross vehicle. I placed him on my thigh and tried to relieve his pain until we arrived at Kunlong Hospital. But, no one knew that. They only knew I took the photo. If I hadn't taken it and I was carrying that man, there would not have been that photo. So, in my view, I did my job.

KZM: A photo during the Vietnam War in 1972 has become famous in the media since. It is a photo of a Vietnamese girl running naked out of a bomb-hit village. The photographer took it and sent it to a news agency following day. The photo editor of the news agency took a look at that photo. The girl was naked and publishing it was contrary to ethical guidelines. If that photo was made public, the girl may feel mental trauma. But the photo editor made it public. And the question was raised around the world as regards whether it should have been made public or not. Some said it should not have been made public for the sake of the girl. But on the other hand, that photo did a great deal to help stop the Vietnam War as the entire world, even including people in the US, staged protests against the war after seeing the picture. So, Ko Lynn Bo Bo, what is your assessment of such circumstances?

LBB: I myself went through the incident in Laukkai. To be frank, the driver who got injured shouted at me not to take the photo. He gestured for me to not take a picture. But I took the photo of him making that gesture. I took the photo thinking I must record it. I was not thinking about whether it would be used or not while I was taking the photo. I made that photo public. The Voice Journal and Myanmar Red Cross Society also presented that photo. In our view, the victims of the war—pregnant women, elderly people and children—must be shown. It is ordinary people who bear the brunt of the war, leaving aside the question of which side is right and which side is wrong. In the attack on the convoy, it was Red Cross members who suffered. We went to Lashio Hospital the day we were to come back to Rangoon. Then that man showed me a copy of The Voice Journal. He was on the front page. Then, I apologized to him. I explained to him that we had to make it public so that people may know. I took his photo even though he requested me not to take it. As you have said before, it is controversial question that whether the man should be rescued first or the picture should be taken first. It is difficult to say which one is right and which one is wrong, as ethics are not written in black and white. But, if the journalist considers the consequences of what he does and if he does it with a clear conscience—

KZM: Their duty according to their profession is to make public the injustices and sufferings of people in the fighting, is it not? Because there can be good consequences for doing so. Can that photo arouse opposition to the war or serve as a call against attacks on a Red Cross convoy?

As far as I understand, since Burma initiated reforms in 2011, international newspapers have been using good photos of from Burma's photojournalists. International New York Times uses the photos of Ko Ye Thu Aung from AFP. Photojournalists like you, Ko Lynn Bo Bo, and Ko J Paing, Ko Soe Zeya Tun and some others, bravely take pictures amid clashes, the war in Kachin State and religious riots. How many photojournalists are there who take pictures amid clashes? As far as I know, there are not many. There were cases in which an angry crowd even tried to harm the photojournalists. So how many photojournalists are there who take pictures under such circumstances?

LBB: It can be said the number of such photojournalists has increased since 2012. The number has significantly increased after the 2012 by-election. It has been easier to learn as the internet has improved and more people have become interested in it. We went to Laukkai and took pictures. Some envy us and they also want to take these sorts of photos. But some news agencies do not dispatch their photojournalists for security reasons or because of other difficulties. Burma's photographers, especially in the news media, have improved rapidly in the last few years.

KZM: My final question is that you have experienced threats to your life, would you give up your career because of this? How do you feel about the purpose and pursuit of your career now?

LBB: It is very rare that journalists are welcomed and supported by the government. There will be challenges for us anywhere. I'm dedicated to continuing my career with honesty and a clear conscience.

KZM: Ko J Paing, why are you so crazy about your career?

JP: The experience we had is a lesson for us. We had both good and bad experiences. And I don't know what will happen in the future. But, I'm sure I will dedicate my life to my photojournalism career.

The post 'The Victims of the War Must Be Shown' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Govt Wrong to Suggest Wa, China Involvement in Kokang Conflict: UWSA

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 01:47 AM PST

Burma Army Commander-in-Chierf Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing meets with leaders of the United Wa State Army in Lashio, Shan State in April 2014. (Photo: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing / Facebook)

Burma Army Commander-in-Chierf Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing meets with leaders of the United Wa State Army in Lashio, Shan State in April 2014. (Photo: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing / Facebook)

RANGOON — A representative of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma's most powerful ethnic armed group, on Friday denied allegations made by the Burma Army that the UWSA is involved in the ongoing Kokang conflict in northern Shan State.

The Wa officer also urged the army to end speculation over the involvement of Chinese nationals in the fighting, saying that it risked misrepresenting the Wa and Kokang as tied to China, while they are in fact ethnic minorities of Burma.

Aung Myint, a spokesperson of UWSA, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the group sent a letter to President Thein Sein on Thursday informing him that the Wa were in no way supporting the Kokang rebels, while also calling for a meeting with the president.

Aung Myint said since the start of the conflict the government appeared to be playing nationalist politics by associating the Wa with the Kokang and China. "They tried to involve our name in the fighting, but they do not have any evidence for it. We found that this case is used in current politics; they wanted to divert public attention in the country by doing this," he said.

On Feb. 21, during a press conference in Naypyidaw, Lt-Gen. Mya Tun Oo of the Burma Army's Office of the Commander-in-Chief said Kokang rebels fighting under the banner of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) were using "Chinese mercenaries," along with soldiers from other ethnic armed rebel groups in Burma, including the Wa and Mongla groups, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Amry and the Shan State Army-North.

Aung Myint said the army was trying to cast the fighting as a Chinese-backed attempt at taking Burmese sovereign territory in northern Shan State. "They said… they found some soldiers spoke the Chinese language during the fighting, but Kokang soldiers speak Chinese. There are no Chinese soldiers there," he said.

Chinese state media have ran articles stating that Beijing was not supporting ethnic rebels in northern Burma.

The Chinese minority Kokang and the Wa and Mongla groups live in a mountainous region on the Burma-China border and have strong cultural and business links with China. The Chinese yuan is the de facto currency in the regions.

Their armed groups used to make up the bulk of the powerful China-backed Communist Party of Burma. In 1989, the party collapsed and splintered into ethnic armies that cut ceasefire deals with the then-military regime which granted them a degree of autonomy.

The groups have long been recognized minorities in Burma, but their association with the Chinese-backed communist insurgency has installed a suspicion against the groups among the Burmese public, which is weary of the giant neighbor to the north.

Reports in state media and remarks by army and government officials suggesting Chinese involvement in Kokang in recent weeks have successfully swayed opinion among the Burmese-majority public in favor of the army, which loathed by most following decades of military rule.

Aung Myint, the UWSA officer, said, "For us, we wanted to see peace, but it depend on them [the army] whether they want peace. They accuse all well-known armed groups based in Shan State, including us [of supporting the Kokang]. On this issue, we don't know how peace could proceed. People in the country could analyze this."

"We found that there are some Burmese people who support this fighting, but there are also some Burmese who have good analysis about this fighting," he added.

Burma's nationwide ceasefire process involving the government and an alliance of 16 ethnic groups came to a halt in September, as differences over key political issues, such as federalism, could not be bridged. Since then, fighting in northern Burma has escalated.

The Wa, which have long been accused of large-scale illegal drug trade and gun-running, have emerged as the most powerful rebel army in Burma with an estimated 20,000 fighters and sophisticated Chinese weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and possibly helicopters.

The UWSA has had a ceasefire with the government in past decades, but the issue of autonomy for the Wa region has yet be resolved.

The Kokang ceasefire lasted from 1989 until August 2009, when a Burma Army offensive took the Kokang region without firing a shot and raided the properties of MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng, replacing him with his Kokang rival Bai Souqian. At the time, Peng Jiasheng was believed to have fled to Wa territory with several hundred men.

The post Govt Wrong to Suggest Wa, China Involvement in Kokang Conflict: UWSA appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Let Us Stick to Humanitarian Work: Red Cross

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 01:14 AM PST

Red Cross members in military dress take part in an Independence Day parade on Jan. 4, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Red Cross members in military dress take part in an Independence Day parade on Jan. 4, 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — The Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) has asked state and divisional governments not to assign its members to Burma Army units and allow the organization to focus on its core humanitarian work, as the organization seeks to end its historically close relationship with the military.

The request comes on the heels of the Feb. 17 attack on a Red Cross convoy evacuating war refugees from Laukkai in northern Shan State, during ongoing clashes between the Burma Army and Kokang rebels.

"The public will no longer see Red Cross members visiting houses at night to check if there are overnight guests staying without permission," said MCRS chairman Dr Tha Hla Shwe. "We have asked that Red Cross members are not assigned to surprise vehicle inspections and security roles."

The MCRS has also decided not to participate in the Mar. 27 Armed Forces Day parade.

"We should no longer take part in Armed Forces Day since we are an auxiliary force for humanitarian work," Tha Hla Shwe said. "We will no longer join the parade, starting from this year."

Red Cross units were incorporated into the military in 1996, as part of a broader revision of combat strategy initiated by the former ruling junta. In 2006, Tha Hla Shwe became the first civilian leader of the MRCS in decades.

"The Red Cross spirit is helping those in danger and vulnerable people, in good faith and without expecting anything return from them," Htay Htay Yi, the platoon commander of the Kyauktada Township Red Cross told The Irrawaddy. "Though we are sometimes misunderstood as being an auxiliary force of the government, we stick to Red Cross principles whenever we do anything,"

Until this year, the Red Cross took part in the Armed Forces Day parade along with family members of soldiers, policemen, retired veterans, militia groups and firefighters.

The post Let Us Stick to Humanitarian Work: Red Cross appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Two Injured After Blaze at Mae Sot Migrant School

Posted: 27 Feb 2015 01:02 AM PST

A fire at a migrant school in Mae Sot on Wednesday injures two students and destroys four boarding houses. (Photo: Mae Tao Clinic Facebook)

A fire at a migrant school in Mae Sot on Wednesday injures two students and destroys four boarding houses. (Photo: Mae Tao Clinic Facebook)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A fire at a migrant school in the Thai-Burma border town of Mae Sot on Wednesday evening injured two students and destroyed four boarding houses.

The fire at the Mae Tao Clinic's school, the Children's Development Centre (CDC), founded by Dr. Cynthia Maung, spread from a nearby sugarcane field and quickly destroyed the boarding houses which are situated on the site where new clinic buildings are planned.

"The fire has put more of a burden on us," said Mann Shwe Hnin, headmaster of the CDC.

As international donors have increasingly sought to target projects inside Burma since the country's transition to quasi-civilian rule, funding for many border-based groups, including the Mae Tao Clinic, has declined.

Mann Shwe Hnin said, however, that the CDC had begun receiving support, including food, clothing and educational materials, from NGOs based in Thailand.

One of 65 migrant schools based along the Thai-Burma border, CDC currently provides education for some 860 Burmese migrant children in Thailand, of which 200 live in the boarding house complex.

Sixty-two boys, aged 11 years or older, had been staying in the now destroyed bamboo and thatch-leaf buildings. The two injured boys suffered minor burns to their hands, heads and shoulders and were being treated at the Mae Tao Clinic, according to Mann Shwe Hnin.

The fire also claimed the identification documents, school books and personal belongings of many of the students.

Thai officials, including from the Ministry of Education and other local authorities in Mae Sot, pledged on Thursday to lend assistance, according to Mann Shwe Hnin.

"We have listed all the students' information to send to the authorities so that they could have their documents back," he said.

The Mae Tao Clinic is planning to relocate to the site where Wednesday's fire broke out. Mann Shwe Hnin said the move would begin next month and be completed by November.

Up to 3 million Burmese migrants are said to be working in Thailand, although estimates vary. According to the Burmese government, about 2.6 million migrants have applied for legal documents since 2009.

Myo Aung, director general of Burma's Ministry of Labour, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that over 40,000 children were among those who applied for a Certificate of Identity through the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok.

Rights groups estimate that the number of Burmese migrant children in Thailand may be much higher than official figures.

In Tak Province alone, around 13,000 Burmese children are studying at 65 migrant schools, while some 10,000 children go to Thai public school, according to Naing Naing Htun, general secretary of the Burmese Migrant Teachers' Association.

It is estimated that some 25,000 children living with their families on plantation sites in Tak Province are not able to join either migrant schools or Thai schools, Naing Naing Htun said.

The post Two Injured After Blaze at Mae Sot Migrant School appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Authorities Clear Remnants of Michaungkan Protest Downtown

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 11:27 PM PST

A woman ties on a headband identifying her as a former owner of land in Michaungkan village, in Rangoon's Thingangyun Township, during a 2013 protest. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

A woman ties on a headband identifying her as a former owner of land in Michaungkan village, in Rangoon's Thingangyun Township, during a 2013 protest. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Police raided a land rights protest camp near Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon in the early hours of Thursday morning and charged 14 protestors under Burma's controversial Peaceful Assembly Law and a municipal ordinance.

They have been released on bail and will stand trial on March 11, on charges related to their protest of a land seizure by the military in the 1990s.

According to the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), the city's municipal body, the protestors were ordered on Wednesday to disperse because maintenance of the drainage system near their camp site was scheduled, but the protestors refused to leave.

Around 3:30 am on Thursday, the protestors were forcibly removed from the camp and charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Act and Article 68 of the Yangon City Development Act, which relates to following authorities' orders in relation to city development.

Violation of both laws is punishable by up to one year in prison, fines or both.

The protest camp was established last year, and Thursday's raid ended a more than 300-day sit-in, in which participants were demanding that their land—confiscated by the former military regime in Michaungkan village of Rangoon's Thingangyun Township—be returned, or compensation paid out.

A court last week sentenced 14 other Michaungkan protestors to six months in prison on charges of unlawful assembly and wrongful restraint, after they moved their protest camp from Maha Bandoola Park, where the protestors arrested Thursday were stationed, to the entrance of City Hall.

The post Authorities Clear Remnants of Michaungkan Protest Downtown appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Singapore’s Founder Sedated, on Life Support

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 09:25 PM PST

Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, left, during Singapore's National Day celebrations in August 2013. (Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters)

Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, left, during Singapore's National Day celebrations in August 2013. (Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s 91-year-old founding father, remains on life support in intensive care while being treated for severe pneumonia, the government said on Thursday.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Lee is sedated and on mechanical ventilation. His doctors have restarted him on antibiotics, and are continuing to monitor him closely, it said.

Lee was admitted to Singapore General Hospital on Feb. 5.

Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee ruled for 31 years until 1990, and has been credited with transforming the city-state from a sleepy tropical port to a wealthy, bustling financial hub with one of the highest incomes in the world.

In his 2013 book, "One Man’s View of the World," Lee said he signed a legal document informing doctors not to keep him alive if his death is imminent.

"Some time back, I had an Advanced Medical Directive done which says that if I have to be fed by a tube, and it is unlikely that I would ever be able to recover and walk about, my doctors are to remove the tube and allow me to make a quick exit. I had it signed by a lawyer friend and a doctor," he said.

He said: "There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach. In such cases, one is little more than a body."

He said "with every passing day I am physically less energetic and less active."

A founding member of the ruling People’s Action Party, Lee became prime minister in 1959 as Britain was gradually handing over colonial power to the new local administration. Singapore joined Malaysia in a federation in 1963, but the two split two years later. Even after Lee retired, he continued to work for the government, first as "senior minister," a non-executive advisory post created for him, and from 2004 until 2011 as "minister mentor."

Faced with rising discontent over the high cost of living, an influx of foreign laborers and growing income inequality, the PAP suffered its worst election results in 2011.

Under Lee and his successors, including his son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore—known for its ban on chewing gum sales and canings for crimes some countries would rule as minor—has strictly controlled public speech and assembly though has become socially more liberal and allowed greater artistic freedom in recent years.

Lee commands immense respect among Singaporeans, who this year will celebrate the 50th independence anniversary.

In his latest book, he said he took his greatest satisfaction from making Singapore "meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races—and that it will endure beyond me, as it has."

"Singapore, as it stands, is the one corruption-free spot in a region where corruption is endemic," he said.

The post Singapore’s Founder Sedated, on Life Support appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Citywide Art Festival to Celebrate Rangoon’s Heritage

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 09:18 PM PST

A painting from one of several art exhibitions to be held next month in Rangoon. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

A painting from one of several art exhibitions to be held next month in Rangoon. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Galleries in downtown Rangoon are preparing to jointly host exhibitions as part of the Yangon Art and Heritage Festival, which will be held across the city next month.

Part of the larger festival organized under the theme "My Yangon My Home," more than 10 art galleries will celebrate the beauty of Burma's biggest city, its timeworn architecture and the people that call it home.

"I am living in Yangon and working here. The value of the buildings downtown can't be assessed. I worry that those buildings might disappear and I love Yangon, so I am participating in the festival," said Ko Sid, founder of the Myanmar Ink Art Gallery.

During the whole of March, Ko Sid said he will separately show collections from three artists under the unifying theme "We Love Yangon." About 50 paintings depicting the colonial architecture of Rangoon and its bustling street life will be on display.

The Yangon Art and Heritage Festival will run from March 1-22 and will also include photography competitions, cartoon and sculpture exhibitions, and musical performances at a variety of public venues, as well as at the residence of the British ambassador, whose embassy is supporting the event.

Aung Myint Tun, manager of the Lokanat Gallery, said they will have a solo show of gallery member and artist MKM, who specializes in artistically rendering the buildings of the downtown area. The show, "About Yangon: Extension," will be held from March 1-7 as part of the festival.

"It's good to have this kind of festival. We will be more mindful of the surroundings in which we live and be cognizant of [the value in] preserving the city's ancient buildings. Instead of neglecting them, we can be more aware of them thanks to this festival," MKM told The Irrawaddy. The painter's works depict downtown streetscapes and scenes from Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's most sacred Buddhist shrine.

Tin Maung Lwin, owner of the Peace Art Gallery on Maha Bandoola Garden Street, said that his art space would hold a "Yangon in Transition" exhibition from March 1-22, displaying more than 20 works from four artists: Kin Maung Yin, Bo Saw, Bagyi Lynn Wunna and Yee Nan Thike.

"We will convey the situation of Yangon in the show," he said, adding that the paintings would be for sale and priced at US$1,500-$3,000.

A painting of Rangoon's original Student Union building on the Rangoon University campus—which was demolished in 1962 by the dictator Gen. Ne Win after protests against his military coup—is among the paintings.

The galleries' exhibitions are collectively known as the Yangon Art Route, a festival project aiming to foster an appreciation for contemporary art and Rangoon's heritage that can be embraced without having to hail one of the city's ubiquitous taxis.

"We will invite the visitors to walk together to the galleries in downtown on the evening of the opening day of the festival," said Burmese artist Htein Lin, who is curating the art exhibitions along with international counterparts Jose Abad Lorente and Diana Valarezo.

The post Citywide Art Festival to Celebrate Rangoon's Heritage appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

China Bans Ivory Imports for 1 Year to Protect Elephants

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 09:12 PM PST

Ivory tusks are displayed after the official start of the destruction of confiscated ivory in Hong Kong May 15, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Ivory tusks are displayed after the official start of the destruction of confiscated ivory in Hong Kong May 15, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

BEIJING — China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports that took immediate effect on Thursday amid criticism that its citizens' huge appetite for ivory has fueled poaching that threatens the existence of African elephants.

The State Administration of Forestry declared the ban in a public notice posted on its official site, in which it said the administration would not handle any import request.

In an explanatory news report, an unnamed forestry official told the state-run Legal Evening News that authorities hope the ban would be a concrete step to reduce the demand for African tusks and to protect wild elephants. The official said the temporary ban would allow authorities to evaluate its effect on elephant protection before they can take further, more effective steps.

China is the world's largest importer of smuggled tusks, although Beijing has campaigned against illegal ivory. Six tons of illegal ivory was pulverized last year in the southern city of Dongguan, and Chinese courts have stepped up prosecution of illegal ivory trade.

The government also has warned its citizens not to bring back any ivory, but critics say the public awareness campaign is inadequate as many Chinese do not know that tusks can only be obtained by killing the elephant.

After China acquired a legal stockpile of ivory in 2008, demand for ivory has surged among increasingly affluent Chinese who see ivory as a status-defining luxury, and high profits have fueled a strong underground market for the product.

Wildlife protection advocates welcomed the step but said it falls short of addressing a root issue in China—its large stockpile of legal ivory that provides for a legitimate domestic market.

"This domestic ivory market confuses consumers, removes stigma about ivory consumption, provides cover for criminals to smuggle ivory, hinders law enforcement and stimulates poaching of elephants," said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, which issued a scathing report suggesting Chinese government officials were involved in procurement of illegal ivory in Africa, called the announcement a "window dressing."

"It is unfortunate that [Chinese authorities have] not announced a much-needed policy change by banning all domestic trade in ivory—this is the policy change that could actually make a difference for elephants in Africa," said Shruti Suresh, wildlife campaigner for the agency.

The post China Bans Ivory Imports for 1 Year to Protect Elephants appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Stuck in Limbo, Bangkok’s Hidden Urban Refugees Scrape By

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 09:08 PM PST

A Pakistani refugee who is a member of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic minority sect, carries his month-old daughter Asfa to their new accommodations after they were released from a detention center in Bangkok on June 6, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

A Pakistani refugee who is a member of the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic minority sect, carries his month-old daughter Asfa to their new accommodations after they were released from a detention center in Bangkok on June 6, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — They were a middle-class family in Pakistan, living in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen and a PlayStation for the three kids. Fluent in English, the father ran his own moving company while the mother taught art.

A death threat signed by a Muslim extremist group—with three bullets attached—compelled the Christian family to leave it all behind 18 months ago. Now they live in a barren room in Bangkok, where the children share a double bed and the parents sleep on the floor. They cook on a propane burner on a tiny balcony. A picture of Jesus—the source of their solace and their troubles—hangs on the inside of the door.

This, increasingly, is the life of the asylum-seeker and refugee. There are 14 million of them under the mandate of the UN refugee agency, and more than half do not live in the camps they are often associated with. A growing number live in cities and towns around the world. Across Asia, from India to the Pacific islands, there are about half a million such "urban refugees," according to the agency.

The Pakistani family no longer fears for their lives, but they face other fears—arrest, hunger and the possibility that they will never be able to live freely.

Unable to work legally and with no legal status in Thailand, they and others like them must remain mostly hidden while they scrape by on odd jobs and donations from churches, aid groups and individuals. Their children, all elementary-school age, don't go to school and spend entire days indoors.

"We just wanted to save our lives," said the father, who has overstayed his visa and like the dozen other asylum-seekers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. "We didn't know anything when we arrived. Now we are just trying to survive."

Many asylum-seekers pin their hopes on an elusive prize: resettlement in a third country such as the United States or Canada through a process overseen by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. That can take five years or more, and it often doesn't happen at all.

The surge of urban refugees challenges reluctant host countries like Thailand, which in the past has allowed refugees from surrounding countries into border camps, but doesn't legally recognize asylum-seekers or refugees.

It's relatively easy to obtain a Thai tourist visa, one reason the number of asylum-seekers in Bangkok has jumped several-fold to more than 8,000 over the past few years, according to numbers from the UNHCR. The biggest and fastest-growing contingent here is from Pakistan, experts say, while other big groups come from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Somalia and Syria.

When they land, many are shocked to discover they face arrest once their visas run out. They expect the UNHCR will protect them, but refugee advocates say Thai police generally ignore UN letters declaring them to be "persons of concern." Thailand never signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees' rights; neither have neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, where thousands more asylum-seekers live.

So these urban refugees scrape by in limbo, freer than those in camp settings but in some ways more vulnerable.

"This is the future," said Mireille Girard, the Thailand representative for the UNHCR. "We really have to adjust to providing assistance in urban environments."

Despite the hardships, many say they will never return home. They are too afraid.

"We'll just face the same sort of threats again," said the Pakistani mother. "I'm not willing to sacrifice my children for that."

In Pakistan, the couple and some Catholic friends helped run a small, free school for poor children. One morning in 2013, a warning signed by a militant Muslim group was slipped under the door of the school office.

"Stop giving missionary education to Muslim children. Otherwise, we will shoot you and your children," said the threat, which was viewed by The Associated Press.

Ten days later, the school received another warning—this time with the bullets. The school volunteers filed a complaint to the police; the AP viewed a copy of the document, which had been stamped by local police to indicate they had received it. The couple's account was corroborated by several people contacted by the AP.

The couple said the school never taught Christianity to Muslim children, but did teach Bible stories and prayers to the Christian kids when their Muslim classmates were not there. They said that sometimes the Muslim kids would hang around, hear the prayers and recite them at home.

Human rights groups say Pakistan's religious minorities are increasingly persecuted—not only Christians but Hindus and Ahmadis, an Islamic sect rejected by mainstream Muslims. They say that although no one has been executed under the country's harsh blasphemy law, it has been used to threaten non-Muslims and incite mob violence. In November, a Christian couple was killed by a mob for allegedly desecrating the Quran.

An estimated 12,000 religious minorities have fled Pakistan since 2009, according to Farrukh Saif, who heads a minority advocacy group that supports asylum-seekers in Bangkok.

The threatened couple fled to Thailand because friends said it was easy to get a tourist visa and because other Christians had gone there.

"People told us, 'Save your lives first, then worry about the other things,'" the father said.

After hiding for a month, they packed two suitcases of their belongings and boarded a midnight flight for Bangkok.

When they arrived in the steamy Thai capital, relief quickly turned to anxiety.

The food, the language—everything was new. The father went to the UNHCR to register as an asylum-seeker and was shocked to learn he would have to wait two years—until September 2015—just to get his first interview in the "refugee status determination" process. Now, for new arrivals, the wait is three years.

The UN agency has more than 60 staffers in Bangkok working to verify thousands of asylum-seekers' stories and determine whether they are refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, said the UNHCR's Girard. Each case must be examined to screen out those trying to exploit the system, such as those being trafficked by smuggling rings.

"We have to be very strict in recognizing who is a genuine refugee and who is not," she said.

For those waiting, money quickly becomes an issue.

After exhausting their savings, the Pakistani family visited churches for support. Most turned them down. Eventually, one congregation offered about US$100 a month.

The mother found a job teaching English to Thai children. She earns 8,000 baht ($250) a month, enough to cover rent, utilities and a bit of food.

The father, jobless for many months, recently found work at a nursery, but that means their three children are alone in the apartment all day. And now both parents could be arrested for working illegally.

"When I go to work, I don't know if I'm going to come back to my kids or not," said the father.

Those arrested typically wind up in the Immigration Detention Center. The only way out is paying for your own flight home or finally gaining resettlement overseas. Some stay in detention for years.

Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director for the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation, said the Thai government fears that recognizing asylum-seekers and refugees would draw more of them. He said Thailand's location and ease of access will draw desperate people anyway, and reforms are needed to address that reality.

Government ministries have had informal discussions about legislation that would protect asylum-seekers and refugees for one year, without granting the right to work, Veerawit said.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the permanent secretary at Thailand's Foreign Ministry, said the proposal merits a serious look, but is not in the pipeline for formal consideration.

The first interview with the United Nations can be traumatic.

People are asked to provide evidence of persecution. Some break down in tears or can't express themselves clearly, said Medhapan Sundaradeja, the Thailand director for Asylum Access, a nonprofit group that gives asylum-seekers free advice.

Decisions can take months. Inconsistencies can lead to cases getting rejected, though asylum-seekers can appeal.

Files of people recognized as refugees are then sent to potential host countries to be considered for resettlement, a process that typically takes another 12 to 18 months.

But of the roughly 860,000 most vulnerable refugees worldwide believed to need resettlement in 2013, only 80,000 spaces were available. The United States accounted for about 70 percent of those.

The Pakistani father says they have no choice but to wait. He has no doubt what Muslim extremists will do if he returns: "I know they will kill both of us, my wife and me, and they won't spare my children."

So he waits and dreams of a life where they don't need to hide and where his children can freely attend school.

"We just want to go where our lives are safe," he says with a sigh, "and we have some freedom."

The post Stuck in Limbo, Bangkok's Hidden Urban Refugees Scrape By appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Quality Talk?

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 05:00 PM PST

Earthmovers prepare the ground at the Thilawa special economic zone. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Earthmovers prepare the ground at the Thilawa special economic zone. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

The unexpected suspension of the Myitsone dam project in late 2011 raised the hopes of many Myanmar people that a new approach to infrastructure planning may be on the horizon.

The previous military government had been characterized by opaque deals and projects that gave little regard to their impact on local communities. But under President U Thein Sein's administration—and with the engagement of a new set of donors and companies—a new emphasis on "international standards" in infrastructure projects has emerged.

With expectations of community dialogue and consent, this is potentially a positive shift in broadening the benefits of development projects to meet community, as well as corporate, interests.

Yet there is growing evidence that the uptake of international standards may not be as much of a step forward as was hoped—even in flagship infrastructure projects such as the Thilawa and Dawei special economic zones. The days of "bulldozer consultation" may be over, but there has not necessarily been any real change in corporate accountability.

'The Companies Are on the Way'

A recent survey by the Dawei Development Association in the area of the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) project in southern Myanmar found that many people who attended consultation meetings—organized by the main construction company Italian Thai Development (ITD)—felt intimidated. Their concerns were not even heard, let alone addressed.

"The only thing they told us was that the companies were on the way. We were not allowed to say what we would like to say," said a resident of Hsin Phyu Tine village near Dawei.

Of particular concern was the way ITD sought to portray widespread community support for the project, especially from religious leaders. Local communities complained that promotional materials in the project's visitor center displayed—allegedly without consent—photos of ITD staff "consulting" with local monks at village meetings. To avoid future misrepresentation of their position, some local community members held up signs and banners at their next meeting stating their disapproval of the project.

In Mon State last year, Thai engineering and construction company Toya-Thai held a set of consultation meetings about a proposed coal-fired power plant in Ye Township. Yet residents of Andin village, which is close to the project site, sent a complaint letter to Toya-Thai claiming that the meetings had not provided them with sufficient information and that the company had failed to answer key questions on environmental and health issues. Even more worryingly, villagers claimed that at their most recent meeting in December, organizers bused in a group of outsiders to take part while those living closest to the project site were excluded.

Similar concerns have been raised by communities affected by the Thilawa SEZ project on the outskirts of Yangon. Last year a formal complaint was submitted to the project's primary donor, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—Japan's development agency—on behalf of communities affected by initial project phases in Alwan Sot and Thilawa Kone Than villages. Displaced communities felt that they were pressured into signing inadequate compensation agreements and cited poor housing and living standards, loss of income and lack of education opportunities at the relocation site.

Yet curiously, the JICA investigation into the complaint found the resettlement process had not breached any JICA principles. The complaint over insufficient compensation was dismissed because it had been negotiated through consultation meetings—a process that the community stressed was deeply flawed.

The message from JICA seemed to be that community grievances wouldn't be considered a breach of standards as long as there was nominal consultation.

Having a Say

Of course new infrastructure projects can never please everyone. Even the most meaningful, inclusive and responsive engagement with communities may not yield universal consent. Yet even when projects go ahead against the wishes of some, local communities should, as a minimum, be given a say in their future—for example through input into the conditions of relocation, or reducing the health or environmental risks of projects.

Communities should also not be portrayed as being uniformly opposed to infrastructure development. It is not always a zero-sum game between corporate and community interests. For example, while there may be vocal opposition to the coal-fired power plant project in Ye Township, communities in Dawei and Thilawa are generally open to certain elements of the planned special economic zones.

The core issue is that in all of these examples, despite there being scope for genuine dialogue, consultations were perceived by communities to be largely meaningless.

But what of other donors, such as the World Bank? With their explicit goal of poverty reduction, surely they set an example of meaningful consultation? Could they provide a model for companies and other donors in Myanmar?

Sadly the answer remains unclear. The World Bank's US$86 million National Community Driven Development Project, approved in November 2012, has been plagued by accusations of insufficient consultation and inflexibility—especially worrying for a project with "Community Driven" in the title. And the Bank's record in other countries in the region is patchy. So issues over consultation clearly run beyond companies such as ITD and Toya-Thai, with multilaterals and Western actors also likely falling short.

The raw use of corporate (and government) power in the planning of infrastructure projects like the Myitsone dam was plain to see. There was never any expectation of local consultation or consent and communities were forced to accept whatever compensation was offered.

The new emphasis on community consultation presents a different vocabulary and holds out a vision of "international standards" where the benefits of development may be shared more widely. Yet underneath the new clothing of international standards, the experience of many communities is not as different as we might think. Corporate and donor power—as shown in Dawei, Andin and Thilawa—can still be wielded in unaccountable ways.

Spreading the benefits of development projects so that all interests are served is crucial. Yet this will require donors and companies to do more than just tick the box of "consultation."

Tamas Wells is editor of the Paung Ku Forum. This article first appeared in the February 2015 edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.

The post Quality Talk? appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma Military Wins Rare Praise in War with Ethnic Chinese Rebels

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 04:30 PM PST

Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing at a parade in Naypyidaw marking Armed Forces Day in March 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing at a parade in Naypyidaw marking Armed Forces Day in March 2014. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Fighting between the Burma army and ethnic Chinese rebels has handed the long-feared military a public relations coup, with an explosion of praise on social media and even former political prisoners expressing grudging support.

Fighting erupted on Feb. 9 in the Kokang region of northeast Burma, on the border with China, between government forces and ethnic Chinese rebels called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

Various ethnic minority rebel groups have battled the government in Burma since its independence in 1948.

During its 49-year rule, the military became notorious for abuses in ethnic minority areas in the hills and for crushing calls for democracy in towns and cities.

A semi-civilian reformist government came to power in 2011 but the military retains an effective veto over politics. Rights groups have documented abuses including rape and torture in areas where the military is fighting insurgents.

But since the latest clashes began, suspicion of the army has given way to approval, especially on social media platforms such as Facebook where many people have changed profile pictures to symbols of the military, or Tatmadaw as it is known.

The clashes over the Kokang region have stirred traditional suspicion of Burma's giant neighbor to the north.

"This is the duty of the Tatmadaw—everybody says this in our country. I also agree on this," Zagana, a comedian and actor who was locked up for dissent during military rule, told Reuters.

Dozens of government soldiers have been killed in the fighting and Zagana visited some wounded ones and posted photographs on his Facebook page.

But he said he was not pro-military and called for the army to negotiate an end to the fighting.

The MNDAA was formerly part of the Communist Party of Burma, a powerful Chinese-backed guerrilla force that battled the Burma government before splintering in 1989.

The rebels are seen as having instigated the fighting with Chinese backing, though China has rejected that claim.

The military has responded to its approval with more openness. State-run media carries daily updates and reporters have been invited to rare briefings.

"In the case of Kokang, the Tatmadaw is seen as playing its role as the guardian of the union and Myanmar's national sovereignty," said Yun Sun, an analyst with the Washington-based Stimson Center.

"This role is not entirely clear in other conflicts," she said, referring to clashes in other parts of the country with ethnic minority forces, where the military is often perceived to be fighting for its own interests.

The post Burma Military Wins Rare Praise in War with Ethnic Chinese Rebels appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Govt Seeks Donations to Restore Bagan’s Ancient Murals

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 04:00 PM PST

Ananda Temple, in central Burma's Bagan Archaeological Zone, is famous for its ancient mural paintings. (Photo: Ko Soe / The Irrawaddy)

Ananda Temple, in central Burma's Bagan Archaeological Zone, is famous for its ancient mural paintings. (Photo: Ko Soe / The Irrawaddy)

Burma's Department of Archaeology, National Museum and Library has called on the public to pitch in for the preservation of hand-painted murals in the famed ancient city of Bagan, urging well-wishers to make cash donations to restore hundreds of paintings in pagodas scattered across the area.

The department's Deputy Director General Thein Lwin told The Irrawaddy that while the department, which operates under the Ministry of Culture, has received support from several foreign organizations and the UN cultural body, Unesco, it is not financially strong enough to carry out all of the necessary restorations.

"As there are more than 400 pagodas [housing murals], it is not easy for us to take care of them with our annual budget. There has been international assistance, but still it is not enough," he said. "If people make contributions, we can preserve the murals."

Ananda Temple, one of Bagan's most well-preserved and frequently visited temples, is among the sites with intricate murals requiring regular maintenance. This and many other pagodas in the Bagan Archaeological Zone had fallen into disrepair over the centuries since they were built, ultimately undergoing whitewash treatments by the former military junta in the 1990s.

The restorations have been criticized for—among other things—obscuring original features of the artifacts. Ananda Temple has since undergone further restoration with technical assistance from the Archaeological Survey of India.

Thein Lwin said that the walls have undergone four rounds of whitewash removal and the paintings have been "restored to their original condition," adding that with the help of Unesco the department has already restored paintings in about 100 temples.

The Burmese government has taken steps to nominate Bagan as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and officials within the organization have predicted that it will be added to the roster within the next few years.

The Bagan area spans about 42 square kilometers (16 miles) and is peppered with more than 3,000 temples, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, when some 55 Buddhist kings ruled the Bagan Dynasty.

The post Govt Seeks Donations to Restore Bagan's Ancient Murals appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

National News

National News

Parliament approve next round of China loan

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Succeding on its second try, the government persuaded has Pyidaungsu Hluttaw to accept a US$300 million from Exim Bank of China on February 25, but only after lengthy debate.

University rector cancels journalist's lecture

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Mandalay University authorities last week cancelled a planned presentation by a prominent foreign journalist just an hour before it was due to go ahead.

Migrant worker tells of Kokang kidnapping ordeal

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

A migrant worker captured by soldiers from an unknown armed in the Kokang region managed to escape after being held at gunpoint and tortured.

Birds culled after Monywa flu outbreak

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Poultry breeders have moved fast to control an outbreak of bird flu, state-owned media have reported.

Licensed bus drivers fail refresher course

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Efforts to improve bus drivers' driving skills have a long way to go, transport officials are concluding. A major initiative was launched in May last year following the death of 14 passengers and the injury of 29 others in a bus crash on the Nay Pyi Taw-Yangon Highway. But the results have been disappointing.

Spanish tourist stabbed on Bago highway

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

A Spanish tourist was treated at Yangon General Hospital after a violent robbery on February 23 along the Yangon-Bago highway left him with a broken arm and a stab wound on his leg.

OMI continues freedom of information push

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Open Myanmar Initiative (OMI) will continue to press for a freedom of information law, its spokesperson said last week. On February 28, OMI was to host a workshop at Yangon's Orchid Hotel for representatives of non-governmental sectors on the issue.

Monks back down on education law draft allegations

Posted: 26 Feb 2015 02:30 PM PST

Student leaders were to meet senior monks over the weekend in a bid to head off a potential dispute over amendments to the National Education Law that the monks have said could harm Buddhism.