- Cautious optimism ahead of “sexpartite” talks
- DVB Bulletin: 26 November 2014
- Wirathu leads Mandalay ‘peace march’
- Koh Tao murders: bail denied for Burmese suspects
- Burmese migrants recovering from coal mine blast
- Sexual violence by Burmese army still widespread, says NGO
- Musician Moon Aung’s visa application falls on deaf ears
- Rice price volatility in Burma must be addressed, says World Bank
Posted: 26 Nov 2014 09:42 AM PST
A sense of cautious optimism is emerging with respect to the upcoming "sexpartite" talks on constitutional reform, which will be held on Friday in Naypyidaw—nearly a month after the last round of multi-party talks failed to resolve Burma's political deadlock due to the presence of too many participants and the absence of genuine dialogue.
Although last month's talks were hailed as the first ever "quadripartite" talks between the Burmese government, parliament, military and political parties, the relatively large number of government representatives at last month’s “quadripartite” talks means that Friday’s “sexpartite” meeting will actually have fewer participants.
Commentators interviewed by DVB said this structure will make the talks more balanced than last time—and one politician even indicated that the sexpartite framework will provide a greater opportunity for lower-house speaker Shwe Mann and the ethnic MP to support Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to convince the government and military representatives that the Constitution must be amended before the 2015 elections.
"There are different views: Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann on one side, and the government and army on the other. We need to wait and see how successful they will be," said Khin Maung Swe, the leader of an alliance of ethnic and opposition political parties called the Federal Democratic Alliance (FDA).
During the last round of talks on constitutional reform Shwe Mann was part of a larger team of powerful figures representing the government side—including President Thein Sein, Union Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye and Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—making it more difficult for him to break ranks with the government team during negotiations with the other parties represented at the talks.
The individuals participating in this Friday's talks will include President Thein Sein; Aung San Suu Kyi; Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing; House Speakers Khin Aung Myint and Shwe Mann; and one representative from an ethnic political party.
The six-party talks were hastily arranged after Burma's bicameral parliament approved MP Myint Tun's proposal on 25 November calling for an emergency debate on constitutional reform. Myint Tun is a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) representing Bago Region in the upper house.
In February, DVB reported that Shwe Mann sent a letter to the parliamentary Committee for Implementing Constitutional Amendments which said that any constitutional changes must be made at least six months before the 2015 general election. In the letter, Shwe Mann gave the committee the following instructions:
"Firstly, study, review and make suggestions on amending clauses in Chapter 12 of the Constitution; amend the Constitution to lighten the burden on the public; and promote the role of the Union Parliament in finding solutions and assist the committee's work in amending the Constitution."
Among the provisions in Chapter 12 is Article 436—a controversial rule which many have condemned as a direct attempt to preserve the non-democratic nature of the 2008 Constitution. Article 436(a) essentially gives the military veto power over any proposals to amend the Constitution by requiring such proposals to be approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Coupled with the Constitutional provision which sets aside 25 percent of all parliamentary seats for the military, 436(a) present a formidable barrier to constitutional change.
In its February article, DVB quoted a lawyer for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party named Ko Ni, who said that when Shwe Mann referred to “lightened the public’s burden” he was alluding to the complicated logistical process of organising a nationwide referendum as required by 436(a) if an amendment is actually approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Under 436(a), if an amendment proposal manages to pass through parliament it must be then be approved in a nationwide referendum by "more than half of those who are eligible to vote."
Although the letter Shwe Mann wrote earlier this year indicated that he favoured modifying the military's veto power and streamlining the procedures required to amend the Constitution, it seems the lower house speaker has recently had a change of heart.
On 18 November, Shwe Mann told a press conference in Naypyidaw that any proposals to amend the Constitution will only be entertained by parliament after next year's elections. He also said that a nationwide referendum will be held in May 2015 to gauge public opinion on modifying the Constitution (while stressing that even if a majority of voters favour amending the Constitution any such amendments may only be approved by the new legislature after the 2015 elections).
It is unclear whether Shwe Mann was compelled by influential conservative figures to make this sudden announcement on 18 November or whether he actually supports such a conservative position and was only seeking to curry favour with the public—whose support Shwe Mann needs if he decides to run for president—by writing a letter to the parliamentary committee earlier this year which said that any amendments must be made at least six months before the election.
However, even if Shwe Mann supports Suu Kyi's efforts to simplify the amendment process or reduce the military's veto power, Pe Myint from the Myanmar Press Council (interim) believes this Friday's sexpartite talks will still be dominated by what he calls the "ruling group."
In an interview with DVB, Pe Myint said this week’s talks will include representatives from "the ruling group, the opposition group and the ethnic group. It might therefore appear as if the number of participants will be balanced. Nevertheless, we can say that in terms of representation the ruling group will have more people than the other groups."
Yet Pe Myint also thinks the smaller sexpartite framework stands a better chance of yielding a political agreement among Burma's political heavyweights.
"International political experts have said that in order for Burma to have a smooth democratic transition, it's necessary for the respective top leaders to reach some kind of agreement. I see the current [sexpartite] program as a possible means of achieving this goal," he said.
The views of ethnic leaders regarding Friday's six-party talks are somewhat mixed. For instance, Aye Thar Aung of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)—an influential umbrella group of ethnic political parties that won seats in the 1990 elections—believes the talks might help build consensus among some of Burma's key political players.
Speaking with DVB, Thar Aung said: "I think this meeting offers important leaders [a chance] to present their views on resolving Burma’s political deadlock."
However, Khun Okkar from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of armed ethnic groups that has been engaged in peace talks with the government—criticised the sexpartite structure for failing to include armed ethnic groups.
"If the talks are supposed to include the whole country, the UNFC should participate in the meeting,” he said.
A similar message was conveyed by Saw Than Myint, the spokesperson for the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an alliance of ethnic political parties that successfully contested the 2010 elections.
Saw Than Myint said, "We are happy about the sexpartite or ‘big six’ meeting between the president, two parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief, Daw Suu and one ethnic representative. But we don’t like the requirement that the ethnic representative must be a parliamentarian."
From the perspective of these two ethnic leaders (and many other individuals), the exclusion of ethnic groups that are not represented in parliament could render the "sexpartite" meeting nothing more than an ineffective talk shop—especially given that the long-standing armed conflict between ethnic groups and the Burmese army is the primary obstacle to realising lasting peace in Burma.
The absence of armed ethnic groups might be a formidable barrier to the meeting’s success; on the other hand, if the sexpartite's smaller size is more conducive to genuine dialogue, then the framework might also represent progress for at least one participant—Aung San Suu Kyi, who expressed disappointment with the quadripartite talks on 31 October due to the meeting’s lack of meaningful dialogue.
After the emergency sexpartite proposal was approved this week, Suu Kyi spoke with reporters outside parliament in a measured yet hopeful tone.
"I can't refuse this [opportunity]. The previous meeting with 14 people was unclear. This time, the parliamentary proposal is very detailed and there is no reason not to attend. Anyway, it is good that parliament passed it," she said.
Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:54 AM PST
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Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:49 AM PST
Nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu led a protest through the streets of Mandalay on Wednesday.
Dubbed as a peace ‘march’, nine political parties joined the now-infamous monk in calling for the signing of a nationwide ceasefire.
Posted: 26 Nov 2014 03:24 AM PST
A court on the Thai island of Koh Samui has denied bail to two Burmese migrants suspected of murdering two British tourists on the nearby island of Koh Tao on 15 September.
The judge's decision on Wednesday comes despite the efforts of a high-level delegation representing the Burmese government which offered bail on behalf of suspects Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, from Arakan State.
The 12-member team, led by upper house speaker Khin Aung Myint, had collected over US$60,000 in donations from parliamentarians in Naypyidaw to be laid down as bail money.
But the court judge ruled that the pair were a flight risk, citing the serious nature of the crimes, said Andy Hall, a British activist who champions migrant workers' cases in Thailand.
Aung Myo Thant, a lawyer who has interviewed the suspects several times on behalf of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, said, "The judge rejected the embassy's application for bail. When an embassy posts bail for its citizens, it is speaking as a representative of the country.
"But we will try again, offering both a financial guarantee and the embassy's official guarantee."
The Burmese team went to the prison to speak with Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun after the court's decision, he said.
Posted: 26 Nov 2014 01:16 AM PST
Five Burmese migrants injured in a coal mine blast in Malaysia's Sarawak State on 22 November are recovering, and three of them have been carried by helicopter to other hospitals in Malaysia, said Win Win Min, a diplomat in charge of labour issues at Burma's embassy in Malaysia.
The explosion killed one Burmese migrant and injured six others. One individual has already been discharged from the hospital and the condition of the remaining five injured migrants is improving, Min Min Win said.
"One of our workers died in the coal mine blast and six were injured. The incident happened on Saturday morning. Among the six injured persons, one was discharged from the hospital because his condition improved. Since the Sarawak hospital is full we sent two Burmese citizens by helicopter yesterday to Kota Kinabalu [the capital of Sabah State]. Another injured worker was sent to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur by a Malaysian Air Force plane. At the moment, none of the five hospitalized workers are in serious condition.”
Min Min Win added that the injured workers would get compensation because they have proper visa status, and that they are also planning to ask for additional compensation from the employment agency which dispatched them to Malaysia.
Aside from the six individuals from Burma, some workers from North Korea, Indonesia and Bangladesh were also injured in the blast. In addition, Burmese migrants in Malaysia told DVB that three workers from North Korean were killed in the explosion.
According to Burmese diplomat Min Min Win, a total of 32 Burmese citizens were working in the coal mine when the explosion occurred.
Posted: 26 Nov 2014 12:04 AM PST
Burmese government soldiers continue to perpetrate sexual violence against women on a widespread scale with impunity, according to a Women's League of Burma (WLB) report issued on 25 November, which the UN recently designated as "The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women."
The report—entitled "If they had hope, they would speak: The ongoing use of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma's ethnic communities"—contains excerpts from interviews that WLB conducted with various civic organisations, including the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma). One interviewee from ND-Burma quoted in the report described how intimidation faced by sexual violence victims and NGOs hinders their ability to obtain justice.
"Making information public is still a big problem – a lot of people are still very scared to speak out about their problems. When survivors live near to a military base, perpetrators surround their village. We get a lot of information that we can't publicise because people are too afraid. Our field staff regularly face intimidation as well – it puts us in a very difficult position because we often have to forgo justice to keep our staff safe," said the ND-Burma interviewee.
The WLB report also described how the growing number of large-scale development projects in ethnic areas has led to an expansion of the government's military presence in these regions, resulting in "burgeoning human rights abuses and undermining the safety of women."
In the course of implementing development projects in resource-rich ethnic states, the WLB said that across the country, “the military has been violating the terms of ceasefire agreements signed with Ethnic Armed Organisations, and directing harassment and persecution against ethnic communities and human rights defenders."
Another NGO interviewed by WLB, the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), indicated that it is difficult—if not impossible—to file a legal complaint for sexual violence in ethnic areas, especially in places where armed conflict is still ongoing.
In the report, a KWAT member was cited as saying, "The government says survivors can lodge a complaint with the Myanmar National Committee for Women's Affairs [MNCWA], and then follow legal procedures from there. But where are the MNCWA in conflict zones? The government is doing nothing to raise awareness about how women can obtain justice. That's why people stay silent— they want justice but they don't know how to get it."
In a press release accompanying the report, WLB said that in order to "achieve sustainable peace and help safeguard the rights of ethnic women" the Burmese government "must immediately stop its military offensives in the ethnic areas, pull back its troops, and begin political dialogue with the ethnic armed groups towards genuine federalism."
Emphasising the direct connection between sexual assault and Burma's overall peace process, the press release quoted WLB General Secretary Tin Tin Nyo as saying: "The Burma Army must be brought under civilian control, and there must be a negotiated settlement to the civil war that will grant ethnic peoples equality under a genuine federal system of government … If these actions are not taken, state-sponsored sexual violence against women of ethnic communities will not stop."
The press release also noted that although the Burmese government has made official commitments to advance the status of women—such as creating a "National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women”—little has been done to improve the lives of women in ethnic communities.
"The absence of concrete and time-bound plans of action has meant that amidst Burma's 'transition', the country's women continue to be denied their basic human rights," said the statement.
Another factor which has contributed towards the marginalisation of women's issues in Burma is the absence of women's voices in Burma's political and public life, according to the WLB.
The group’s press release said, "The dearth of women in formal decision-making positions, and the persecution of civil society organisations—in which women play a more active role—further undermines women's ability to address the challenges and abuses they face."
Following the release of the WLB report, Burma Campaign UK released a press statement which said that more than 2,000 postcards were delivered to the British Foreign Office calling on the UK's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to support the establishment of an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese army.
The Burma Campaign UK's statement noted that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called on Naypyidaw to investigate crimes of sexual violence. It also noted that Burma's government made an international commitment to end violence against by signing the Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.
Although the declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity, promote accountability and provide justice and safety for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, Burma Campaign UK's statement says that Burma "appears to have taken no steps to implement the declaration," an egregious omission which the NGO says "further strengthens the case for an international investigation."
The London-based group added: "Given the fact that the Burmese government is ignoring the call for action by the UN Secretary-General, and has failed to comply with the International Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is time for the international community to conduct its own investigation into sexual violence by the Burmese Army."
The London-based NGO's Campaigns Manager, Zoya Phan, thinks that Britain should take the lead in such an investigation.
The group's press statement quoted her as saying, “As a country with a strong commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict, Britain should take the lead in building global support for an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese military.”
Although the WLB report documents 118 incidences of sexual violence against women since 2010, it also says that WLB believes this figure only represents "a fraction of the actual number of cases that have taken place," and that such abuses are so widespread and systematic in Burma that they "must be investigated, and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law."
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Posted: 25 Nov 2014 11:02 PM PST
Burmese fans of singer-songwriter Moon Aung will have to wait to hear the rebel musician in concert after his application for a visa was rejected by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok.
"I won't be able to play in front of a Burmese audience yet," he told DVB on Tuesday. "I hoped in my heart that I could go back home, but not yet. Maybe one day. Everything is changing. Nothing is eternal. The change will come."
Moon Aung, who holds a Norwegian passport, became famous in his home country after he joined the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) at the Thai border following the 1988 uprising.
Renowned for his revolutionary songs, “Battle for Peace”, “Way to Freedom” and "Tempest of Blood", Moon Aung's melodies were popular among freedom fighters, activists and students, even though they were illegal in Burma.
Moon Aung has recently released a new album, “Peace Raindrops”, which he said he wants to distribute legally in his homeland.
He said he also nurtures a plan to play a charity concert for the benefit of Kachin refugees.
Ko Ye Lwin, a guitarist from “Flower of the Road”, a band which is on tour around the county collecting donations for refugees, said even if his visa were granted, he doubted that Moon Aung would be permitted by Burmese authorities to play live.
"He joined the armed struggle in the jungle," said Ko Ye Lwin. "However, he was never keen on holding a gun. Instead he fought back with his music."
Though President Thein Sein has said that exiled Burmese with no criminal record can return home, several Burmese have seen requests for visas rejected.
Moon Aung said that the embassy staff in Bangkok told him his application was denied because of (a) documentation; and (b) instructions from a senior official.
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Posted: 25 Nov 2014 09:20 PM PST
The price of rice in Burma has increased by 41 percent between 2009 and 2013, a rate much higher than neighbouring competitors Thailand and Cambodia. This has led to a decrease in Burmese rice exports and food security at home, according to a recent report by the World Bank.
"Price fluctuations are common in agricultural markets. However, rice price volatility in Myanmar [Burma] is more profound than in neighboring rice net-exporter countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand," the report, titled Rice Price Volatility and Poverty Reduction in Myanmar, said. "The economic liberalisation in 2004 removed local trade barriers and this reduced risks and price volatility in the domestic rice market. Even if Myanmar's price fluctuations decreased in recent years (compared to the mid-2000s), it remains high."
Noting that a majority of rural people in the country live close to the poverty line, the World Bank pointed out that many are at high risk whenever rice prices fluctuate.
Rice farming and its associated industries account for over 50 percent of the Burmese population's livelihoods, the report said, while purchasing rice takes between 25 and 50 percent of the average household's expenditure.
A high concentration of harvesting in November and December, leading to sharp drops in price in January with spikes in May, as well as poor infrastructure for transportation, add to the irregular trade in rice.
Myanmar Rice Association joint secretary Dr. Soe Tun said they are trying hard to stabilise prices.
"Our Rice Federation is buying rice to hold in reserve," he told DVB on Tuesday. "We have 3.5 billion kyat [US$3.5 million]. We borrowed 10 billion kyat from the government, and another one billion kyat from the Co-operative Bank. We buy when the rice price drops. We sell in August when the prices are higher. This is our current policy."
But, according to the World Bank, Burma's woes in the rice market must be resolved with investment in agriculture and infrastructure.
"There is a significant trade-off between lowering price volatility with short-term measures and maintaining price competitiveness. Long-term structural issues can be solved only through investments in agriculture and infrastructure, improved business environment, and social safety nets," said World Bank country director for Myanmar Abdoulaye Seck. "Open trade policy should be the one and foremost policy goal for Myanmar."
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