Monday, March 30, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Govt, Rebels Say They Agree In Principle on Nationwide Ceasefire Text

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 07:03 AM PDT

From left to right, MPC advisor Hla Maung Shwe and NCCT members Nai Hong Sar and Lian H. Sakhong, speak during a press conference on Monday evening. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

From left to right, MPC advisor Hla Maung Shwe and NCCT members Nai Hong Sar and Lian H. Sakhong, speak during a press conference on Monday evening. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — As government officials and ethnic armed groups moved closer to completing the seventh round of nationwide ceasefire talks on Monday, ethnic representatives and a government advisor said they in principle reached an agreement on the content of a ceasefire text.

Lian H. Sakhong, an ethnic Chin leader of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which represents an alliance of 16 armed groups, said during a press conference, "We have discussed all the [ceasefire text] points and we have no problem, we got an agreement."

He said an issue that remains to be solved is whether all 16 NCCT members can sign a nationwide ceasefire accord.

The government refuses to recognize some of the NCCT members, such as the Kokang rebels' Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, as signatories to an accord.

Lian H. Sakhong and another NCCT representative, Nai Hong Sar, announced the progress that was made in a press conference with Hla Maung Shwe, a government advisor at the Myanmar Peace Center.

Minister Aung Min and members of the government's Union Peace Making Committee (UPWC) were not present at the press conference, nor were Burma Army representatives.

Hla Maung Shwe said the UPWC was "ready to sign" the agreed-upon ceasefire text.

NCCT representatives said they would have to take the text back to their members, the various ethnic armed groups, for approval before any accord can be signed.

Several important key points that the government, army and the NCCT were unable to agree upon in the past have been left out of the accord and would have to be addressed in the political dialogue that is supposed to follow after the signing of an agreement.

It remains to be seen whether the sides can finalize the NCA wording on Tuesday, the last day of the negotiations, and whether all parties involved will accept the draft ceasefire text.

"We understand there are many important points they have not discussed. For us, we have to think deeply about signing the NCA [nationwide ceasefire accord]," said Tar Bong Kyaw, general secretary of the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, which supports the Kokang rebels and is involved in fierce fighting with the army in northern Shan State.

Nationwide ceasefire talks first began in mid-2013 and appeared to be progressing well until in September last year talks hit a deadlock as key differences could not be bridged.

Since then, heavy fighting has become increasingly frequent between government forces and Kachin and Palaung fighters. In mid-February, a full-scale conflict erupted in northern Shan State between the Kokang rebels and the Burma Army, displacing tens of thousands of civilians and leaving dozens of soldiers and rebels dead.

The post Govt, Rebels Say They Agree In Principle on Nationwide Ceasefire Text appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Trash Talking Rangoon Residents Refuse to Recognize Regional Representative’s Garbage Grab

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 04:31 AM PDT

Myint Swe, front, leans forward to pick up a water bottle in Latha Township. The Rangoon Division chief minister was participating in a collaborative cleaning day, during which all staff of the Yangon City Development Committee take to the streets to clean for a day. (Facebook)

Myint Swe, front, leans forward to pick up a water bottle in Latha Township. The Rangoon Division chief minister was participating in a collaborative cleaning day, during which all staff of the Yangon City Development Committee take to the streets to clean for a day. (Facebook)

RANGOON — Myint Swe has been taken to task on social media over the weekend, after his attempt to beautify the city, and perhaps his own image, were criticized by residents annoyed by the woeful state of municipal services.

As part of a Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) initiative, the Rangoon Division Chief Minister on Saturday helped collect trash on the streets of Rangoon's Latha Township.

"We do a collaborative cleaning activity every Saturday," said Khin Hlaing, a committee member for the YCDC's western district. "On that day, YCDC departmental staff collect garbage together at some place in the city. The Chief Minister picked up trash while overseeing the cleanup in Latha."

A picture of Myint Swe bending down to collect plastic refuse widely circulated on Facebook afterward. Some users praised the example he set for municipal staff, but others were quick to criticize.

One Facebook user said that one-day cleanups were insufficient for keeping city streets clean, and called for more waste bins and systematic waste collection. Another said that the chief minister should use his authority as head of the divisional government to make policies to end littering, rather than preening on a public forum.

"If they put waste bins in each ward, at intersections and under lampposts, and collected garbage at regular times, there would be no garbage on the street," said a third user, reflecting the prevailing sentiments of those who commented on the photo.

Waste management in Rangoon is operated in a piecemeal manner by a team of YCDC employees, hampered by a shortage of waste bins and an upsurge in consumer goods purchases, with streets often cluttered with plastic debris and discarded leftover food in alleyways and gutters.

Khin Hlaing told The Irrawaddy that Rangoon's sanitation system had suffered from many years of neglect, and long-term initiatives to improve waste management and reduce blight were needed.

"No matter whether it is the chief minister, the mayor or YCDC members, everyone needs to have a long-term commitment to cleaning up the city, not only on fleeting occasions," he said.

The post Trash Talking Rangoon Residents Refuse to Recognize Regional Representative's Garbage Grab appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Pandal Scandal: Water Festival Party Pavilions Sold on the Black Market

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 04:13 AM PDT

eople party on a pandal during Thingyan in Rangoon in 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

eople party on a pandal during Thingyan in Rangoon in 2013. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — It's the biggest party in Burma, and some Rangoon moguls will spare no expense to get in on it. Local businesspeople who supply the city with 'pandals' every year during Thingyan celebrations said a new cap on party permits has exacerbated black market sales.

Pandals, large stages that people pay to drink and dance on as they douse passers-by with fire hoses, are a staple of Thingyan, the Burmese New Year holiday commonly referred to as Water Festival. But the good times aren't as free as they appear. Rangoon's municipal governing body, Yangon City development Committee (YCDC), each year issues permits to local entrepreneurs to build and oversee the raucous party stations, situated in various parts of the city.

While the committee issued 57 permits in 2014, that number plummeted to 36 this year. Many of the permit-holders, who are selected by lottery, are turning to the black market to squeeze a bit more cash out of the event. Several applicants said that the permits are now being leased out for up to 60 million kyats—a staggering US$60,000—for some of the more popular locations.

"I heard from my friends that permit leasing fees are up to 60 million kyats on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, which more people want to go to than Pyay and Kandawgyi roads," said Thet Khant Oo, who was awarded one of the coveted permits after trying for several years. He said the YCDC ordinarily allows the construction of large pandals—up to about 120 by 40 feet—mostly on those three roads, where people like to congregate. A pandal on that scale, he said, could cost up to 70 million kyats to build, so this year's engorged permit fees might make it difficult to break even.

A pandal hopeful known by his nickname, Willis, told The Irrawaddy that the black market exchange in permits is nothing new, but in years past it has at least been more affordable. Willis leased a spot last year for about 30 million kyats. He said if this year's price were comparable, he "might pay it."

"I think it's because the YCDC is allowing less pavilions this year," he said. "I hope at least we can enjoy the Water Festival even we can't make a profit this year."

The YCDC defended the cuts on the grounds that the congested former capital has a number of "difficult areas." Soe Thein Aung, deputy head of the city's road and bridge department, said that the YCDC will be monitoring the festival and that rule-breakers will be punished accordingly.

Leasing permits is illegal, but the penalties are hardly deterrent. The YCDC doesn't actually make a profit from the permits; when an applicant wins one, they hand over a deposit of six to 10 million kyats, depending on the size of their stage. Each permit winner also pays a non-refundable 2 million kyats for sanitation and water supply.

If permit holders are found to have leased the rights to their location, Soe Thein Aung said, the permit will be revoked and they will be charged 3 million kyats, to be withdrawn from the deposit—a drop in the bucket compared to what they could receive from a lessee.

Soe Thein Aung said that this year's Water Festival will feature 13 pandals on Kaba Aye Road, 11 on Kandawgyi and 12 others scattered about the city. The celebrations will be held from Apr. 13 to 16. Rangoon is the biggest destination for the Thingyan Water Festival, followed by Mandalay and Naypyidaw.

This year's dramatic blow to the number of permitted large pandals wasn't wholly out of the blue. While the YCDC allowed 57 in 2014—that was a big increase from the previous year, when there were only 34.

The post Pandal Scandal: Water Festival Party Pavilions Sold on the Black Market appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Victim of Red Cross Convoy Ambush in Kokang Dies

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 03:40 AM PDT

A funeral for 45-year-old Moe Kyaw Than was held on Sunday in Kunlong. (Photo: Facebook / Myanmar Red Cross Society)

A funeral for 45-year-old Moe Kyaw Than was held on Sunday in Kunlong. (Photo: Facebook / Myanmar Red Cross Society)

RANGOON — A volunteer who was shot during an attack on a Red Cross convoy last month in northeast Burma succumbed to his injuries on Friday, according to a statement released by the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) on Saturday.

Moe Kyaw Than, 45, died at Mandalay General Hospital, where he had been referred by Lashio Hospital earlier this month. He was hit in the abdomen and received initial treatment at Kunlong General Hospital on the day of attack, Feb. 17.

"There were seven wounds to his intestines. As a consequence, he suffered blood poisoning, causing his heart and liver to weaken. So we referred him to the hospital in Lashio for better treatment," said Dr. Thein Myo, the head of Kunlong General Hospital.

The MRCS convoy was ambushed by unknown assailants as it was traveling near Laukkai, the administrative capital of Kokang Special Region, where insurgents have been in conflict with the Burma Army since early February.

The fleet of seven vehicles, which was transporting more than 100 displaced persons from Laukkai, as well as MRCS staff and at least two journalists, was attacked while driving between Laukkai and Chin Shwe Haw after an aid mission to the devastated township.

Two members of the convoy were injured, including Moe Kyaw Than, during five minutes of gunfire. Both victims were transported to Kunlong General Hospital for medical treatment after members of the convoy spent 30 minutes hiding in a street-side gutter, according to The Irrawaddy's photographer JPaing, who was traveling with the group.

In its statement, the MRCS said Moe Kyaw Than had intended to return to work at the organization pending a full recovery.

"A Red Cross member has to help anyone in distress," he was quoted as saying during his treatment in Lashio. "We will all die someday, wherever we are. But before we die, we should do something meaningful if we can. I want to keep doing it after a full recovery."

"I feel bad losing one of my comrades," said Thein Myo, who is also the president of the Red Cross chapter in Kunlong and had served as the deceased's supervisor. "He did his job well even though he knew it was dangerous. I'm proud of him."

Moe Kyaw Than is survived by his wife and five children. A funeral was held on Sunday in Kunlong.

"There were several hundred mourners, including from nearby villages. I have to say it was a fine funeral," Thein Myo said.

The post Victim of Red Cross Convoy Ambush in Kokang Dies appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Thailand Detains 76 Burmese Migrants Found on Train, Including Rohingya

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 03:18 AM PDT

Thai police process Rohingya at an immigration center in southwest Thailand on Jan. 31, 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

Thai police process Rohingya at an immigration center in southwest Thailand on Jan. 31, 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — Thai authorities said on Monday they had found a group of 76 migrants from neighboring Burma, including six suspected Rohingya, in a sign that one of Asia’s busiest smuggling routes is still thriving despite Bangkok’s vow to stamp out trafficking.

It follows the discovery in January of a group of 98 suspected Rohingya trafficking victims, including dozens of children, who were found in pickup trucks in southern Thailand.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Burma since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Arakanese Buddhists killed hundreds. Many head to Malaysia but often end up in smuggling camps in southern Thailand where they are held captive until relatives pay the ransom to traffickers to release them.

The latest group was stopped at Tong Sung district in Thailand’s southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province. They were heading to Malaysia in search of work, Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of Nakhon Si Thammarat Provincial Police, told Reuters.

"They were sitting with Thai passengers and upon inspection by authorities were found to have no travel documents," said Anuchon, adding that police have yet to determine whether traffickers were among the group.

"It seems they wanted to go to Malaysia for work and had boarded the train at different locations along the route. It is difficult to say whether traffickers are among them."

Thailand is ranked one of the world’s centers of human trafficking. It was downgraded to the lowest "Tier 3" status last June on the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with minimum standards for its elimination.

Last week, Thailand’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to introduce harsher punishments for human traffickers, including life imprisonment and the death penalty in cases where their victims had died.

Thailand’s military government said in January it was "confident" it had met the minimum standards to improve its ranking in this year’s U.S. State Department ranking.

But a government report aimed at lifting Thailand from the list of the world’s worst offenders showed it had identified fewer victims of human trafficking last year than in 2013 and convicted fewer perpetrators.

Anuchon said the 76 migrants were being questioned by immigration police and would likely be charged with illegal entry.

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Mandalay Police Initiate Legal Complaint Against BBC Reporter

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 03:12 AM PDT

Police and protesters in Mandalay on Friday, March 27, 2015. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Police and protesters in Mandalay on Friday, March 27, 2015. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A Mandalay-based Burmese journalist working for the BBC could face criminal charges for allegedly hitting a policeman after an officer initiated a legal complaint against him, Mandalay police said.

Police Inspector Win Bo said one of his men had filed a complaint at Chan Mya Thar Si Police Station against reporter Nay Myo Lin on Friday over a supposed altercation between a policeman and the journalist, while the latter was driving a motorbike to cover a demonstration.

"The police got an injury on his left eyebrow," Win Bo said, citing a first information report, which is needed for a lawsuit to proceed. He said the BBC journalist was not being officially charged and he declined to state what criminal charge could be brought against him.

Win Bo suggested that if Nay Myo Lin would come to the police station the case could be resolved without legal procedures.

According to the first information report, police tried to stop protestors on motorbikes and several drivers fell. The report alleges that Nay Myo Lin was among those caught up in the accident, after which he allegedly hit an officer out of anger.

Burma's junta-era Criminal Code carries punishments with prison terms of up to several years for those charged with injuring or disturbing public servants on duty.

Several dozen Mandalay-based activists and students on Friday were demonstrating and calling for the release of students who were arrested during the Letpadan crackdown on March 10.

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Suu Kyi Meets Karen Leader to Discuss Peace, Politics

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 12:33 AM PDT

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends a rally for constitutional reform in Loikaw, Karenni State, on Nov. 8, 2014. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi attends a rally for constitutional reform in Loikaw, Karenni State, on Nov. 8, 2014. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with Chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU) Mutu Say Poe for two hours on Sunday, according to a party official present at the meeting.

Sunday's meeting was the third of its kind between the KNU and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), and was focused on a more substantive discussion about the peace process, constitutional reform and upcoming elections, the NLD official said.

"We shared our views on the upcoming elections," Nang Khin Htwe Myint, a central committee member of the NLD, told The Irrawaddy. In turn, she said, the KNU, which is a key negotiator in the country's peace process, briefed the NLD about recent ceasefire and political discussions between Burma's ethnic armed groups and the government.

"The NLD does not want backsliding in the reform process, and the KNU shares this view about the peace process," she added.

Following the meeting, leadership of the two groups agreed to meet regularly in the future, but dates for further meetings have not yet been disclosed.

In August 2014, the United Nationalities Federal Council met with Suu Kyi and urged her to observe the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

She also met with KNU Vice Chairman Zipporah Sein twice last year for introductory talks to "exchange concerns," according to Nang Khin Htwe Myint.

During Sunday's meeting with the KNU, she said, the NLD agreed to collaborate with a political framework working group led by ethnic minority leaders.

The post Suu Kyi Meets Karen Leader to Discuss Peace, Politics appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Fighting Reported Between Govt and Arakan Army

Posted: 30 Mar 2015 12:26 AM PDT

Soldiers from the Arakan Army have reportedly clashed with government troops in western Burma. (Photo: Facebook / Arakan Information Department)

Soldiers from the Arakan Army have reportedly clashed with government troops in western Burma. (Photo: Facebook / Arakan Information Department)

RANGOON — Fighting broke out on Sunday between government troops and the Arakan Army in western Burma, in what is believed to be the first time in a decade that ethnic Arakanese armed rebels in the region have come to blows with the Burma Army.

The Arakan Army is largely based in Laiza, Kachin State, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is headquartered, but ethnic rebel soldiers from the group have begun returning to Arakan State in recent months. A report from the Arakan Information Department, which disseminates information about the Arakan Army on Facebook, said two Burma Army soldiers were killed and two were detained near Kyauktaw Township in the weekend fighting, during which the department said Burma Army guns and ammunition were also seized.

The fighting began at 3 am and continued until 7:30 am on Sunday, the report said, adding that the Arakan Army had suffered no casualties.

The Arakan Army formed in 2008 and has been active in Laiza, where it trains with the KIA. Most recently, the Arakanese armed group has been in the news since claiming its involvement in ongoing hostilities in northeast Burma that have primarily pitted the government against ethnic Kokang rebels.

Arakanese armed rebel forces belong to one of two groups, the other known as the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), which last clashed with the Burma Army about 10 years ago and signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012. The ALP has participated in ongoing peace negotiations as a member of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT).

The Arakan Army is also considered part of the NCCT by other ethnic rebel groups, but the government does not recognize its claim to membership.

A statement from the NCCT on Saturday said the group was concerned that ongoing hostilities between the Burma Army and a handful of ethnic armed groups was undermining the country's stalled peace process.

The statement asked for the government's "tolerance" and "cooperation" in working to resolve Burma's long-running ethnic conflicts, saying: "While having negotiations to reduce fighting in northern Shan and Kachin [states], there is ongoing fighting, in which ground forces and the Air Force were used in fighting in northern Shan. Our work will be in vain, and it is sad to see that there is ongoing fighting there. Peace—expected by people in Burma and also internationally—will be far away by doing this."

The statement was issued just one day after Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech on Armed Forces Day that "in the implementation of a ceasefire and the peace process, the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration [of ethnic armed groups] is essential."

The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) term has been a contentious sticking point in peace negotiations, with ethnic groups preferring to address the issue as a matter of security sector reform (SSR). One of the essential unanswered questions in ongoing peace negotiations is the fate of the tens of thousands of rebel soldiers serving more than a dozen ethnic armed groups across Burma.

Peace talks are due to reconvene on Monday after a one-week pause, with the government speaking positively about prospects for a long-sought nationwide ceasefire agreement, while some ethnic leaders have expressed doubt about the ability of negotiators to bridge remaining differences.

The post Fighting Reported Between Govt and Arakan Army appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma’s Military Milestone

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 11:46 PM PDT

Troops on parade in Naypyidaw to mark Burma's 70th annual Armed Forces Day on Friday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Troops on parade in Naypyidaw to mark Burma's 70th annual Armed Forces Day on Friday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

The Burmese military celebrates its 70th Armed Forces Day this month. Over those seven decades, the military have wreaked incredible carnage on the country, yet staged an ostentatious military parade in the capital, Naypyidaw, with rows of tanks, marching soldiers and rockets. It was an emblem of the slow pace of change in a country that is supposed to be marching towards democracy.

While the prevailing narrative is that the country has embarked on a reform process that will shake off military control of the government, the reality is that the process is looking increasingly shaky and showing clear signs of backsliding. Within the military there is a smug certitude that the transition to civilian control will be nominal and only advance at a pace that guarantees that the Defense Services, or Tatmadaw, and its political and business interests, remain intact, while escaping justice for past and ongoing abuses is ensured.

Despite a plethora of international punditry that predicted that the military would relent and back reforms that could include constitutional amendments that could erode or end its quota of 25 percent of seats in parliament, drop a provision that bars Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president, and place the military officially under civilian control, the army has agreed to none of these changes. Indeed, the military spurns civilian oversight and remains pugnaciously unapologetic over its legacy of repression.

The Tatmadaw's truculence and allergy towards accountability for human rights abuses has hardened noticeably over the past year. The torture and extrajudicial killing of freelance Burmese journalist Par Gyi in October, an incident the military initially owned up to but then dissembled into a defense of "shot while trying to escape," has not been resolved, and the Tatmadaw refuses to cooperate with any investigation. Early this year, the rape and murder of two young ethnic Kachin schoolteachers allegedly carried out by locally deployed army personnel evinced strong denials and even threats of lawsuits by the Tatmadaw to anyone who publicly claimed the army was involved. This is not a small problem: the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, wrote in her recent report to the UN Human Rights Council that the Tatmadaw actively pursues "criminal proceedings for defamation or providing false information when making allegations against the military," intimidating any civilian who makes claims of killings, sexual violence in conflict and other serious crimes.

David Scott Mathieson. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

David Scott Mathieson. (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

Since Burma's independence in 1948, the military has been involved in abusive, drawn-out wars with various ethnic groups along its borders with Thailand, China, and India. The prospects of a nationwide ceasefire agreement with 17 ethnic armed groups have faded away with recent fighting. In the past few weeks, hostilities have escalated in Kachin State, the scene of armed conflict since 2011 that has entailed many well-documented army abuses often reminiscent of past decades of brutal pacification practices. In the ethnic Chinese Kokang enclave in northern Shan State, numerous reports have emerged of abuses against civilians in army operations, with tens of thousands fleeing the area into China and further south in Burma. Increased use of airstrikes, hitherto quite rare in Burma's counterinsurgency operations, spilled over into China recently, killing five Chinese citizens, wounding several others, and eliciting unprecedented threats from China against the Tatmadaw if it didn't moderate its behavior.

With general elections scheduled for October, the military is strengthening its hold over civilian structures. Military personnel are reportedly being transferred to the Myanmar Police Force, which has been responsible for recent violent dispersals of student protests, including arrests of student leaders in Rangoon on Friday. More officers are also being redeployed to the Ministry of Home Affairs General Administration Department (GAD), a little-understood entity that serves as a key instrument of local-level surveillance. The hardline stance of the Home Affairs Ministry is better understood when one realizes its minister is serving Tatmadaw Lt-Gen Ko Ko, implicated in a Harvard University report as the commander of a military offensive between 2006-2008 in which widespread war crimes were committed.

The Tatmadaw has long been deeply involved in corrupt official and unofficial business activities, which augments the funds it receives through the powers granted in the 2008 Constitution to set its own budget. Army involvement in widespread land grabs has accelerated, as reported by Global Witness recently, while the involvement of the military-controlled Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) in extractive industries is well documented. Its joint venture in the bitterly contested Letpadaung copper mine project has been the scene of numerous civilian protests that have been violently suppressed by the security forces.

In numerous speeches, the commander in chief of the military, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, has made clear that the military intends to preserve its role in "safeguarding the constitution," a euphemism for a refusal to allow any constitutional reform. In a rare, lengthy interview with Channel News Asia in January, the commander in chief defended the military quota in parliament and their continued control over key ministerial portfolios. The supposedly reformist president (and former general and military era prime minister), Thein Sein, defended the Tatmadaw in a recent interview with the BBC when he said: "In fact the military is the one who is assisting in the flourishing of democracy in our country. As the political parties mature in their political norms and practice, the role of the military gradually changes."

This has been a frequent line from Thein Sein and other officials, but it seems aimed at misleading public opinion in Burma and abroad since, sadly, there are no signs of change.

This month's milestone of military longevity would have been cause for celebration if it had been a farewell party for the army from its role in politics and business. Instead, it was a salient reminder of the Tatmadaw's failure to reform. The international community should have seen this coming, but now that most diplomats concede that the reform process has stalled and reversed, concerned governments should find their voice and speak more clearly about the necessity of constitutional and other reforms as the price of its continued support.

David Scott Mathieson is Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of New York-based Human Rights Watch

The post Burma's Military Milestone appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Solar-Power Airplane Departs from Mandalay

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 11:33 PM PDT

Bertrand Piccard, one of the French pilots, waves before departing from Mandalay with the Solar Impulse 2. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Bertrand Piccard, one of the French pilots, waves before departing from Mandalay with the Solar Impulse 2. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

MANDALAY — After a ten-day delay due to poor weather conditions, Solar Impulse 2, an aircraft powered entirely by solar energy, left Mandalay for China on Monday morning.

The plane departed the Mandalay's Tada-U Airport at 3:30 AM to head for Chongqing, southwest China.

"The flight will take around 19 hours," Bertrand Piccard, one of the French pilots, told the media just before the departure.

Solar Impulse 2 made a landing at Mandalay's Tada-U Airport shortly before 8 pm on March 19. Piccard and Andre Borschberg are taking turns to fly the French plane in a world record attempt at solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe.

After the stop in Chongqing, the plane will head to the eastern coastal city of Nanjing before flying across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii.

Solar Impulse 2 began its flight at Abu Dhabi on March 9, and then headed to Oman and to the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Varanasi, before landing in Mandalay.

The post Solar-Power Airplane Departs from Mandalay appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

K-Pop’s 4Minute to Perform in Rangoon

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 11:25 PM PDT

K-Pop rising stars 4Minute will perform in Rangoon on Apr.3. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

K-Pop rising stars 4Minute will perform in Rangoon on Apr.3. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

RANGOON — Korean all-female pop band 4Minute will grace the stage in Rangoon later this week, much to the pleasure of those fans who can afford to attend the extravagant event.

Tickets ranging from 25,000 kyats (US$25) to a staggering 600,000 for VIP seats are now available at Royal Garden Hotel in Rangoon. The show will be held at the Myanmar Event Park on Shin Saw Pu Pagoda Road at 7:30 pm on Apr. 4.

The K-Pop wave took Burma by storm in the late-2000s, and a number of glitzy stars have since made stopovers in the commercial capital since 2011, when political reforms ushered in a new era of relative openness to foreign influence.

4minute, a popular group back home, is a five-member female ensemble founded in 2009. The group will be promoting their latest album, "Crazy."

Members Jihyun, Jiyoon, Hyuna, Gayoon and Sohyun will be making limited press appearances on Apr. 3. Hyuna, perhaps the most well-known member of the group internationally, was featured in the pervasive PSY hit "Oppa Gangham Style", and has released several solo albums.

Many were taken aback by the costly tickets for 4Minute's performance, but previous events have been even more pricey; in August 2014, another K-Pop band, 2NE1, charged up to 900,000 kyats for the best spots.

Even in Burma's largest urban center, Rangoon, the average earner's monthly salary doesn't come close to 600,000 kyats, leaving many fans anxious to see who will turn up in those primo slots.

The post K-Pop's 4Minute to Perform in Rangoon appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

In Thailand, a Mercurial Junta Leader Known for His Sharp Tongue

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 09:58 PM PDT

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha prays before the first cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha prays before the first cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on Sept. 9, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — Ear tugs. A flying banana peel. Sarcastic remarks about getting smacked, or punched—or even executed. Such is life for the press corps covering Thailand's notoriously testy military ruler.

Since leading a putsch that ousted Thailand's elected government last May, general-turned-prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been thrust from the relative privacy of army life into the public arena of the politician. He has pounded on the podium during news conferences, lambasted his questioners, and simply stomped away. In one case, he summoned two journalists for asking "inappropriate" questions about when and whether elections would be held. His government, meanwhile, has engaged in censorship and leaned on media outlets to censor themselves.

But the mercurial junta leader has also presided over light-hearted press briefings filled with humor—even song—in which journalists have joked back. The media found it less funny Wednesday when Prayuth sardonically suggested he might execute journalists deemed overly critical. Manop Thip-osod, a spokesman for the Thai Journalists Association, said earlier this month that the way Prayuth communicates "has to change."

Some of Prayuth's most memorable comments and interactions with the media since he seized power:

Don't Argue

May 26, 2014 — In his first official speech following the coup, Prayuth said: "I'm not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it. … Everyone must help me. [But] do not criticize, do not create new problems. It's no use."

On Bikinis

Sept. 17, 2014 — After two British tourists were murdered on the Thai island of Koh Tao, Prayuth triggered an uproar by insinuating that foreign visitors—attractive ones, at least—were endangering themselves by dressing skimpily. "I'm asking if they wear bikinis in Thailand, will they be safe? Only if they are not beautiful."

Freedom of Expression

Sept. 23, 2014 — Speaking after the junta forced the cancellation of a university seminar on the demise of foreign dictatorships, Prayuth was asked whether the junta would open a channel for critics to express their views. "I'm opening one right now. You're yapping right now. I never stopped you, did I?"

Podium Smack

Sept. 24, 2014 — After a reporter jokingly asked if he would only ever seek the premiership through a coup, Prayuth shot back by threatening, in jest: "I'll smack you" with the podium.

Multiple Personalities

Nov. 3, 2014 — "I'm well aware that I have a short temper," Prayuth told the press. "Today I've calmed down a lot. … I have to thank you for the warnings and suggestions. And I won't change my personality, because I already have several personalities."

Ear Massage

Nov. 20, 2014 — A video posted on Facebook by a Bangkok Post reporter in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen showed Prayuth patting the baseball cap-clad head of a cameraman in front of him. He then began nonchalantly tugging and twisting the man's ear as he fielded questions. A government spokesman later said the gesture was good-natured teasing.

The Banana Peel

Dec. 24, 2014 — When journalists kept asking Prayuth to face the camera during a public event they were covering, the junta leader took the peel of a banana he was eating and hurled it at one of their heads. The act drew surprised laughter from officials and the press.

Don't Ask Dumb Questions

Feb. 3, 2015 — After two homemade bombs exploded outside a luxury shopping mall in Bangkok, slightly injuring one person, Prayuth was asked if the perpetrators were trying to discredit the government. "Everybody knows that," he snapped. "Otherwise they would have exploded the bombs in the jungle. Why the hell are you asking this?"

Noodles and Big Brother

Feb. 12, 2015 — Asked about security forces the junta has deployed to control ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's movements, Prayuth said: "If she wants to go to eat some noodles, or go anywhere, then she can go. But when they don't allow her to go, then she cannot eat."

On Power

Feb. 19, 2015 — "It all falls on me because I'm the prime minister. Let's say I exercise every power [I have], do you want that? … Do you want me to shut down the media? …. If my powers were that vast, I could just have people executed if they do something wrong, but I haven't done anything like that."

Punch in the Face

March 6, 2015 — "The other day I was asked by a reporter what kind of job the government has done. I almost punched that person in the face. [We've] done so much. Can't you see?"

Birthday Plans

March 16, 2015 — "I'm staying home. In the barracks," he said, a few days before turning 61 on March 21. "Do not bother me. I was born alone."

Philosophy on Gardening

March 19, 2015 — When the Supreme Court indicted Yingluck on charges of neglect for a money-losing rice subsidy program, Prayuth took questions from reporters, then paused shortly after to pluck gardenias from a pot outside his office. "Some withering flowers have to be discarded," he said pensively. "These plants, we have to take care of them every day. This flower is old. Don't pay attention to it."

Too Much Democracy

March 23, 2015 — "In the past, our society experienced many problems because we were too democratic," Prayuth declared in a speech. Still, Thailand remains "99 percent" free, he said, because if it wasn't "we'd jail [our opponents] and put them before the firing squad. Then it would all be over and I wouldn't have to lie awake at night."

Importance of Seafood

March 25, 2015 — Responding to allegations of abuse and slavery involving the fishing industry, Prayuth asked the media not to report the issue without considering how it might affect the country's reputation. "If they aren't buying the [seafood], you must be responsible—you who like to fan the news."

Execution, Maybe?

March 25, 2015 — In an exchange regarding the limitations of reporting about the junta, Prayuth said: "A little criticism, that's acceptable. But if you're saying everything is a failure … how the heck could that be? The past was worse."

He warned there would be consequences for going too far, and a reporter asked him to clarify what those might be. The reply: "Execution, maybe? You're asking a silly question. Just don't do it."

Later, as he prepared to depart on an official visit to Brunei, reporters joked that the death threat had killed their need to ask questions. "I'll use the guillotine," Prayuth shot back. "I'll deal with the media a little bit. We love each other already. I'm asking you to help a little, not to defend me, but to create love and unity. We've come to this point anyway, so let's turn a crisis into an opportunity."

The post In Thailand, a Mercurial Junta Leader Known for His Sharp Tongue appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Modi’s Popularity in Rural India Punctured by Discontent, Suicides

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 09:53 PM PDT

Laborers work in a paddy field in Birnaraya village in Karnal district in the northern Indian state of Haryana September 2, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Laborers work in a paddy field in Birnaraya village in Karnal district in the northern Indian state of Haryana September 2, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

VAIDI, India — More than a dozen debt-laden farmers have committed suicide in recent weeks in India, and discontent in many rural areas against government policies is turning into anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi less than a year after he swept into office.

Unseasonal storms have badly damaged the winter crop in large parts of the fertile northern plains, most likely contributing to the suicides, and villagers have blamed Modi for not stepping in to help the distressed farmers or ensuring that crop prices remained stable.

The farmer suicides in India's most politically sensitive region are the latest in several setbacks for Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is hoping to consolidate power by winning local elections in large, predominantly rural states over the next two years.

The government has delayed a comprehensive health plan as it shifts focus from subsidies to investment, while religious tensions have made minorities uneasy. Nevertheless, Modi has made progress with economic reform in his first year—although not as rapidly as some investors would like—and has reined in inflation.

In a village in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Dharmendra Singh mourned his brother Babu Singh, who committed suicide after rain destroyed wheat growing on the five-acre farm he leased from a landlord.

Babu Singh, who had run up debts amounting to US$13,000, soaked himself in kerosene and set himself on fire on March 19. He succumbed to burn injuries six days later.

"My brother was banking on the crop so the loss came as the last straw," Dharmendra Singh said in his village, Vaidi, 185 km (115 miles) southeast of Delhi.

"For God's sake why hasn't the government reached out to us? We overwhelmingly voted for Modi as he promised to take care of us but he has stabbed us in the back."

In more than a dozen villages visited by Reuters this week across the state that sends the most lawmakers to parliament, farmers said there was a "crisis" in the countryside, where 70 percent of India's 1.2 billion people live.

Angered by low farmgate prices and the lack of state compensation for crop damage, some villagers said they have ostracized local members of Modi's BJP and barred them from attending weddings.

Parties crushed by the BJP in last year's general election have coupled the discontent with street protests against a land acquisition bill that will make it easier for businesses to buy farmland, a potent issue in the countryside.

For the BJP, the next major election will be in November in the large, mostly rural state of Bihar, and a poor performance will be a huge setback.

India's states send representatives to the upper house of the federal parliament, where the BJP is struggling to form a majority to match its domination of the lower house.

Couldn't Live Without Dignity

With global food prices low, an anti-inflation policy that has hit rural incomes and the shift from subsidy to investment spending, debt-laden farmers were already suffering when rain devastated standing winter crops across north India.

Over 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres) of crops were damaged, but the government says there is no clear link to the suicides.

"Only the state governments can figure out cases of farmers' suicides," said a senior federal farm ministry official, who did not wish to be identified.

"We'll work closely with the affected states if they ask for any specific help."

In the case of Singh at least, his family says there is no doubt why he died.

The rains earlier this month washed out his entire crop. The fields would have paid for his son's education and daughter's wedding, relatives said.

"He knew that he couldn't pay his debt and live with dignity after the crop loss. A little help from the government could have saved my brother," Dharmendra Singh said.

It is not unusual for federal and state government compensation for crop damage to trickle down slowly, but farmers said they expected more from Modi, who came to power promising efficient and responsive government.

Modi tried to address the issue in a radio address last week, arguing that the land bill would help create rural jobs. But in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, farmers were not impressed.

"Instead of ensuring some concrete help to farmers, especially after rains this month, Modi and his government are spending time and energy on the land bill," said Buddha Singh, a district chief of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, a leading farmers' body.

The turnaround is dramatic—Modi swept Uttar Pradesh last year, winning 73 of 80 seats with rural voters swayed by a promise to pay high crop prices along with religious tensions that favored his Hindu nationalist party.

Now the same farmers say they regret their support.

"Modi has let us down. We have decided to socially boycott BJP politicians, including lawmakers we elected," said Jitendra Kumar, a farmer in Sisola Khurd village.

"Some of us had joined BJP as part of its membership drive but we are now going to surrender it."

The post Modi's Popularity in Rural India Punctured by Discontent, Suicides appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Singapore Stands Still as Nation Bids Farewell to Founding Father Lee

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 09:20 PM PDT

Pallbearers carry the casket of former leader Lee Kuan Yew as they depart for the final journey to the crematorium at the National University of Singapore on Sunday. (Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters)

Pallbearers carry the casket of former leader Lee Kuan Yew as they depart for the final journey to the crematorium at the National University of Singapore on Sunday. (Photo: Edgar Su / Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Grieving Singaporeans were joined by world leaders on Sunday to pay their final respects to the country’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, as the nation came to a near-halt to honour its "founding father".

Tens of thousands of people waving flags braved heavy rain and lined the streets to catch a last glimpse of Lee as his coffin was taken by gun carriage on a 15 km procession through the streets of the country he helped build to his state funeral.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, India’s Narendra Modi, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and former US President Bill Clinton were among the leaders brushing shoulders with Lee’s family and Singapore politicians at the ceremony attended by 2,200 people.

Lee, who died aged 91 on Monday, is credited with founding modern Singapore and transforming it from a small, colonial British trading port into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

His death has prompted an unprecedented show of mourning and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s son, battled tears as he delivered a 40-minute eulogy in English, Malay, and Chinese.

"His was the original Singapore Roar: passionate, formidable and indomitable," he said.

"To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: 'look around you'".

Public warning sirens sounded across the country to mark a minute’s silence, with buses and trains coming to a halt.

Earlier, booms from a 21-gun salute had reverberated around the city’s business district, fighter jets had flown overhead in formation and two navy ships near the marina made an 'L' 'K' 'Y' signal with their flags as Lee’s coffin was taken from the country’s parliament to the funeral.

Singaporeans, many dressed in the mourning colours of black and white, waited for hours to watch the procession, shouting "Lee Kuan Yew" as it passed. More than 100,000 people lined the streets to bid farewell to the departed leader.

"His biggest achievement is to help elevate people’s living standards," said Huang Jiancong, 54, who was standing at the start of the route, carrying a Singapore flag.

Lee’s influence on the international stage—he was both a regular visitor to the White House and held up as a role model by China’s Deng Xiaoping—was reflected in the funeral’s turnout of serving and former leaders from across the globe.

The younger Lee said Singapore’s first prime minister had elevated the country to the global arena and so despite being so small, "Singapore’s voice is heard, and we enjoy far more influence on the world stage than we have any reason to expect."

Vice President Li Yuanchao represented China while Clinton and ex-secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a close friend of Lee’s, came for the United States. Britain’s William Hague, leader of the House of Commons, represented Singapore’s former colonial power.

However, most of the serving leaders in attendance were from Asia, perhaps a reflection of the region’s ascendancy during Lee’s lifetime.

Lee’s death, less than five months before the city-state’s 50th anniversary of independence, has triggered a huge outpouring of grief among its population of 5.4 million people.

Almost 500,000 went to see Lee lying in state over the past four days, many queuing in the tropical sun for up to 10 hours to pay their final respects. More than 1 million have visited condolence sites set up at community centres across the country.

It has also revived memories of Lee’s iron-fisted approach to opponents who tried to cross him, something his former colleagues said was needed for the country’s security.

"To those he believed were out to destroy Singapore, he put on his knuckle-dusters," Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister who succeeded Lee, said in his eulogy.

Commercial activity in the country known for its business-focus slowed for the ceremony, with many shops and the country’s two large casinos closing.

Screens along Orchard Road, the main shopping street, all showed the ceremony.

"I saw Singapore change from nothing to today. I hope Singapore will carry on without Mr Lee," said Tan Soon Wah, 60.

The sombre mood extended beyond Singapore, with India and New Zealand observing an official day of mourning on Sunday.

Lee’s body was cremated in a private ceremony for his family later on Sunday.

The post Singapore Stands Still as Nation Bids Farewell to Founding Father Lee appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

‘The Majority of Buddhists Do Not Try to Harm People of Other Faiths’

Posted: 29 Mar 2015 05:00 PM PDT

A group of young monks in Rangoon prepare to collect alms. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

A group of young monks in Rangoon prepare to collect alms. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne is the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a grassroots social movement in Sri Lanka which advocates community-led development programs and conflict resolution through the Buddhist philosophy of nonviolence. Founded in 1958, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has provided aid to villages destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, assisted civilians displaced by Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, and sought to bring peace between the country's fractious and feuding communities.

The Irrawaddy recently spoke with Dr. Ariyaratne to discuss his conception of grassroots development, the integral role of Buddhism in promoting positive social change in Burma, and the use of nonviolent action in defeating injustice.

Please tell us about your experience of Burma.

I have visited Myanmar once, in July 1987. I was invited by The Venerable Dhammanyanika Maha Thero. He lived in a forest hermitage in Mandalay. I stayed there for about five days and spent seven days in total in Myanmar. I presented the Dhammanyanika with a Bo sapling from the sacred Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, a Buddha relic and a map of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy [a city in central Sri Lanka], where a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined. I received his blessings for my peace efforts in Sri Lanka.

The first thing that impressed me was the great religiosity of the people of Burma and the high level of spirituality which great Sangha leaders like The Venerable Dhammanyanika possessed and radiated into the world. I strongly believe that the justice, peace and wellbeing of a society is directly proportional to the mass of spiritual consciousness generated by the people in that society. The opposite is also true. Dictatorial regimes, violence, suffering and injustices in a society will continue to prevail if people in general are nonspiritual.

Secondly, I was very interested to see the natural environment intact, without too many western development schemes entering the country. In other words, I saw a great potential for an indigenous development pattern to emerge in Myanmar. Whatever development we should embark upon should never harm our natural habitat, which provides all of our life support systems.

Thirdly, seeing the temple as the hub around which community life functioned was a great relief to me, as there I saw the possibility of economic and spiritual aspects developing in a balanced way in the future.

You are a celebrated leader in the use of grassroots development to improve the lives of ordinary people in Sri Lanka. What connection do you see between Buddhist principles and economic development?

Buddhist philosophy and principles do not teach us only to prepare for the afterlife. It is very much a philosophy that has to be put into practice here and now, in this life. Therefore the Buddha's teachings apply to individuals, families and wider societies as well as to their ethical, social, economic and political life.

So, in Sri Lanka for the last 58 years the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement tried to apply Buddhist teachings to every aspect of human life in society. Ours was an integrated approach for transformation of our country spiritually, morally, culturally, socially, economically and politically. From the ocean of knowledge contained in Tripitaka and related Buddhist literature, we extracted teachings relevant to these domains and applied them to contemporary problems.

You started Sarvodaya with students and uneducated villagers. When villagers are poor and deprived of education, they will usually feel disempowered. What lessons can you impart for people striving to become more confident and stand up for themselves?

We started our movement by getting together students, teachers, poor and deprived people in our villages, in a well-organized manner, to donate their labor, time and skills voluntarily to satisfy the needs of the community. Lack of a formal education does not imply that people are ignorant or uneducated. Even if one does not attend school, that person's inherited knowledge and wisdom can manifest themselves if a proper environment is created.

What we did was to go and live with village communities for a period of time, working with them and donating our labor and skills to meet their basic needs like constructing wells to provide drinking water, constructing tanks and irrigation channels to provide the need for water for their agricultural purposes, access roads to the villages, community centers, preschools and primary schools, play grounds, houses, toilets and so on. We called this mass people's action "Shramadana." Creating a Shramadana camp, where we live for several days at a time, provides the physical, psychological and social environment for people to engage themselves in activities to satisfy their needs, away from conflict situations.

What was important was to create a self-reliant and scientifically designed program for integrated village development with the participation of the local community. We were not interested in party or power politics, or capturing power or making wealth. We were engaged in a 'Dana' (beneficence) activity with 'Sila' (self-discipline) with lot of time during the day allocated to 'Bhawana' (meditation). In a country where the majority of people are Buddhists nobody could openly oppose us. Non-Buddhist groups enthusiastically joined us, as we had no barriers in a movement based on "Sarvodaya"—the awakening of all.

You have sometimes been critical of the approaches taken in development by international institutions. There are now many international development organizations setting up programs in Burma or Myanmar. What is your advice for them, and for the host country?

We live in a world where we cannot continue to have strict national barriers. We have to be a member of a community of nations, so we have to help one another. Unfortunately, various development bodies come from industrialized countries with ulterior motives. Maybe their hidden agenda is political or religious conversions. They are a hindrance for the kind of nonviolent humanitarian activities we do.

Last week when I was in Nepal I heard that large-scale conversions of poor Hindu and Buddhist villagers into Christianity is being aided by handouts. No country should allow this kinds of assistance to be given in other countries. Islamic and Christian religious leaders should not allow these kinds of immoral actions. If not we will find it very difficult to contain the extremist Buddhist groups emerging in our countries.

We have to remember that our national freedom, culture and spiritual values should be preserved while economic development is pursued.

Lately there have been some intriguing connections between Sri Lanka and Burma. Last year, U Wirathu visited Sri Lanka and attended a rally organized by the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force. Wirathu leads the nationalist 969 movement in Burma and has been accused of instigating deadly violence against minority Muslims in Burma and organizing boycotts of Muslim businesses.

Sarvodaya was the largest and the most effective civilian peace force in our country. Sarvodaya was based on Buddhist principles of truth, nonviolence and denial of the self, and it respects and welcomes all religions and any of their adherents who accept nonviolence as a principle. Similarly, we have people of all races who work as equals within the movement.

Therefore we were able to carryout our program during the civil war to assist all those who suffered, without any discrimination. Our five-fold program, which was popularly known as The 5R program, included Relief, Rehabilitation, Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Reawakening. When the war ended all parties supported us to do everything we could to heal the wounds.

We are not interested in various extremist groups either in Sri Lanka or Burma. We don't take them seriously. The majority of Buddhists are nonviolent and pious and do not try to harm people of other faiths. If non-Buddhists also conduct themselves in that manner there will be religious amity.

I do not have any answers to the problems in Burma, but I have no doubt that if a group of courageous Buddhists uphold the Buddha's teachings of "may all beings be well and happy", and they come together to help people satisfy their basic human needs without any discrimination against any religions or racial groups, then they will succeed in contributing to peace more than by any other means.

How do you think the virtues of nonviolence, mindfulness, meditation, love and kindness could be reintroduced into Burmese society?

In society there are always people who are power hungry. They gather power and riches, and perform public worship and engage in charities to bolster their image. But they will have to reap the consequences of their bad karma one day. So, the ordinary people should practice Sila, Samadhi and Panna and not get distracted by what a powerful few are doing.

Your life and the lives of your colleagues have been threatened many times. What have you learned that can support those dedicated to peace and justice in Burma who face threats in the course of their work?

Those who nonviolently take action against injustice will always face threats to their life and property. One must be spiritually strong to bear all this and even face torture and death. Otherwise they should not engage themselves in social activism. Those of us who employ nonviolent direct action against any evil should be highly spiritually motivated people who should continuously engage ourselves against our inner defilements. Only a person armed with spirituality should commit to nonviolent action.

The process of development and national reconciliation can be slow and frustrating, and sometimes seem to go backwards. How can people avoid losing hope?

The process of development and social reconciliation is indeed slow. Those who engage in such work should exercise extreme patience. If you say that you have reached the limits of your patience, then you are not fit to be a nonviolent activist. If one follows the Bodhisathwa ideals, such a person will never get frustrated.

Are there any other messages you would like to impart to Burmese people today?

I would like to tell the Burmese people that you are very lucky, because the worst of materialistic civilization has not yet come to you. Build on your Buddhist values and Buddhist civilization and I am sure your rulers will turn around to build a nonviolent social order where Buddha Dharma is accepted as a universal philosophy and the sovereignty of the people will prevail.

More information on Sri Lanka's Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement can be found at the movement's website.

The post 'The Majority of Buddhists Do Not Try to Harm People of Other Faiths' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Simple and Elegant Fare Served up at Hummingbird in Rangoon

Posted: 27 Mar 2015 05:01 PM PDT

Click to view slideshow.

"We hope you don't mind a bit of construction," said the pleasant female voice on the other end of the phone. I paused to wonder whether she knew I lived in Rangoon. If the threat of digestive mayhem isn't enough to dissuade me from eating at any number of street side stalls, then there's no way some bare walls and some plastic sheeting would keep me from visiting the much buzzed about Hummingbird, in its mosquito-heavy, pre-grand-opening iteration.

Hummingbird is so named after the delicate creature known for its rapid wing movement, often found in South America. When Chef Wayne Third dreamed up the menu, he was most definitely doing so in Spanish. I can just picture the slender Kiwi chef in dream land, traipsing all over Latin America, taking a little guacamole from here, a little chimichurri from there, and re-creating traditional dishes using local Burmese ingredients, along with a US$26 imported steak or two.

The menu covers everything from empanadas to ceviche, along with some creative pairings, such as salmon cubes served over a mango puree and topped with green onion. Third has been "cheffing"–as he likes to call it–for 37 years in places as diverse as Zanzibar and Belize, and as much as he loves different flavors, it all comes down to keeping things simple.

"I love the simplicity of food," he says, and the dishes at Hummingbird excel when he heeds his own words. Take the ceviche ($7) for instance: classically done, initially sour, then moderately spicy, perfectly textured. In Third's words "It's a very simple dish to do, but it's a very simple dish to get wrong." Third gets it right, and his ceviche is not even the tiniest bit tough.

Similarly, the sea bass ($14) is accompanied by a remarkable beetroot risotto. Presented on a bed of chimichurri, the taste is rich but at no point overpowers the fish, and the grains are creamy, never clumpy.

Some of the most innovative pairings, however, fall flat. Steer clear of the prawn and watermelon dish adorned with random bits of dried coconut, which is reminiscent of the flavor of fruit chopped on a cutting board that hasn't been properly washed, so you end up with garlic-tasting bananas, or in this case, fish-flavored watermelon.

Overall, the cuisine is solid, the dishes are beautiful to look at, and the chef has his heart in the right place. And that place, of course, is dessert. Third can talk about Latin America for hours, but you can't get the French pastry chef out of him. Hummingbird is already doling out sumptuous chocolate tarts and lemon meringue pies, and there are whispers of in-house sorbets in the future.

Given that there was plenty of bare wiring when I visited, and that my tour of Hummingbird's three distinct floors was romantically lit by an iPhone, I don't want to say too much about Hummingbird's ambience before it's fully up and running, which is scheduled to happen on Apr. 29. Renovators have gone out of their way to preserve and rediscover some of the building's original characteristics, and the place promises some high ceilinged, dimly lit, leather sexiness, with a open rooftop patio with limitless potential and charm.

If anything, I hope the grand opening will reveal more about Hummingbird's character. At the moment, it seems like they've taken an amalgam of Rangoon's existing successes–the font and style Port Autonomy's menu, the ginger beer and vodka-based cocktails that made Union such a success, and the dark, wooden and leather furniture set atop colonial-era rescued tiles of Gekko–and put them all under one roof. It may just be a question of finishing the renovations, but I do have to believe there's more than one winning combination possible in Yangon, and that a place like Hummingbird can arrive at that magical combination of delight and surprise, both in and out of the kitchen.

Hummingbird is located at 76 Phone Gyi Street in Rangoon's Lanmadaw Township.

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‘The Government Has to Take Great Care in Dealing with China’

Posted: 27 Mar 2015 04:30 PM PDT


Kyaw Zwa Moe, English edition editor of The Irrawaddy, with political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and International New York Times reporter Wai Moe. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

On this edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe speaks with political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and International New York Times reporter Wai Moe to discuss how the Mar. 13 aerial attack on a Chinese village by the Burma Air Force will impact upon the diplomatic relationship between China and Burma.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: China-Burma relations have reached a sensitive stage after recent clashes between Kokang rebels and the Burma Army. On Mar. 13, a bomb dropped by Burma's warplanes killed five Chinese citizens and injured eight others. In the aftermath, diplomatic relations between the Burmese and Chinese governments suffered. Political commentator Dr Yan Myo Thein and reporter Ko Wai Moe from the International New York Times will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ko Yan Myo Thein, looking back at China-Burma relations, the recent incident is a bad development. After 1988, China and Burma maintained fairly friendly relations, described as Pauk Phaw [fraternal warmth]. Looking back at history, the current tension is the most severe since the 1967 anti-Chinese race riot in Burma. What is the worst possible scenario that can develop from the current tensions? Do you see any changes in the Burmese government's foreign policy, its policy toward China and China's foreign policy?

Yan Myo Thein: It affected the Pauk Phaw relations between Burma and China to some extent. The vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of China telephoned our Commander-in-Chief. Then the Burmese government dispatched a special delegation to China. The situation has never been this intense since 1967. Personally, I think Burma is important for China because its route to the Bay of Bengal cuts through Burma. Oil and gas pipelines are built through Burma into China. And China is also thinking of investing in the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port. So, Burma is important for China. From a regional political point of view, China is also important for Burma. For example, its relations with China can give Burma bargaining power in dealing with western countries, including the US.

KZM: China and Burma had closer ties after 1988. The two governments were similar. While the Chinese government mounted a crackdown on student protestors, the military regime clamped down on the pro-democracy uprising in 1988. So, the two governments were close. The international community imposed sanctions against Burma after that time. Some have suggested that Burma has dropped the bomb to provoke China. At the same time, from the point of view of Burmese government, it can be said that it owes a debt of gratitude to Chinese government. Because China gave overall support to the Burmese government while western countries imposed sanctions on Burma. It also defended Burma against recriminations from the international community. So, to what extent can the tension harm the relationship between the two countries?

Wai Moe: It is fair to say that the fall of the Burmese Communist Party was partly due to pressure from China. After a shift in Deng Xiaoping's policy, China had gradually given a great deal of political support to Burma's government, including an unprecedented amount of support after 1988. Though Burma was an international pariah after 1988, China continually protected it. And then this tension has arisen all of a sudden. Last month, chief of Burma's Military Intelligence, Maj-Gen Mya Tun Oo, said that Chinese citizens were involved in the Kokang fighting. That strained relations between the two countries. Chinese netizens reacted with anger to the allegation. The Chinese government even put its troops at the border on alert. The situation got worse to the extent that it seemed a war might break out. So, the relationship is fairly strained. To outsiders it also seems that the Burmese government is trying to reduce its reliance on China and foster its relationship with western countries.

KZM: Undeniably, Burma has built closer ties with western countries after U Thein Sein's government opened the door to the international community in 2011. The US and other EU countries have entered Myanmar. At the same time, Myanmar takes it for granted that it cannot neglect China, because it is its neighbor. Looking at the history of Burma's foreign relations, the government has always had great concerns about China. I think the Burmese government will get into trouble if it totally neglects China and leans towards western countries.

YMT: I share your view. Another point is that China brokered the meeting between Burma and the US in 2003, in Beijing. That time, U Khin Aung Myint, U Kyaw Hsan and U Yan Win were present at the meeting. So, it can be said China has played an important part in helping normalize relations between Burma and the US. As Ko Kyaw Zwa Moe has said, it is difficult for the Burmese government to completely reduce its reliance on China and focus on its relations with western countries, including the US.

KZM: It is not a pragmatic policy, I think.

WM: Yes, you are right. I think the Kokang case is quite striking during the last sixty years of ties between China and Burma. The Burma Army alleged for the first time that Chinese people are involved in the fighting. It seems that the Burmese government wants to open up a new chapter in its relations with China.

KZM: China will be displeased with the latest developments. The bombs were dropped in their territory and their citizens were killed. To China, it is like the rebellion of a government which it has supported militarily, economically and financially. The Burmese government was first among the global community to recognize the new regime as the legitimate government of China in December 1949. I think Burma is very cautious in dealing with China. During General Ne Win's leadership, he dealt well with China. But then, he told his men that China was the main threat to Burma. His regime was deeply concerned and exercised caution in dealing with China. The current leaders, I think, will find it difficult to deviate from the path their predecessors took.

YMT: Here is a question. Is the Burmese government doing things in the same way the Chinese government has constantly dealt with the Burmese government? For example, when China supported the Communist Party of Burma in the past, it was through the Chinese Communist Party, perhaps trying to make it appear that Chinese government was not associated with it. It manifested itself in form of party-to-party support. The allegations of Chinese government and Chinese military involvement were made by the Burma Army. So, the question is if the Burmese government will be handling the issue diplomatically, steering itself clear of the Burma Army's allegations. At the beginning, the Burmese government accused China and then it withdrew its allegations. This makes it obvious that Burmese government has to take great caution in dealing with China.

KZM: There are allegations that some Chinese men, particularly from Yunnan Province were fighting for Jeng Piasheng in the clashes because their state-run newspapers like Global Times featured interviews with him. So, the Burmese government would doubt whether or not it was China's state policy to support the Kokang rebels as the state-run newspaper featured the interview. To what extent can the current tension affect China policy towards Burma? Though the relationship between China and Burma is said to be characterized by Pauk Phaw, China would only view Burma as a small country. Burma is small in size, amongst other things, compared to China. Ko Wai Moe, what changes do you expect to see in the foreign polices of Burma and China?

WM: The Chinese Ambassador relayed the response of the Chinese Central Military Commission to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. China reportedly called for the speeding up of reforms. So, this means China no longer has as much trust in Burma as it did in the past. The likely response of China is that it will call on Naypyidaw to focus more on reform and regional stability. It is also making contact with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and increasing direct contact with the commander-in-chief as opposed to the government. So, we can expect China will make more policy changes with regard to the Kokang issue.

KZM: There has been a talk that the government has deliberately incited the fighting so as to win the support of people. This view is also widely shared on social media. What do you think of it?

YMT: Some parts of the issue are quite hard to explain. In fact, the Burma Army in the past has benefited from the Kokang forces. The armed revolution of Communist Party of Burma failed thanks to the Kokang armed group. I think the way the Burma Army has responded to a group to which it owes gratitude may impact the trust offered by other ethnic armed groups. Under the five principles of peaceful co-existence, it is difficult for China to directly interfere in the internal affairs of Burma. As Ko Wai Moe suggested, China may give recommendations or hold negotiations. But the real question is if the Chinese government is happy to see the emergence of a true democratic government in Burma.

KZM: Looking back on the past 20 or 30 years, the policy of China is that it has a lot of ties with Burma, especially economically. It takes resources from Burma. The relationship between two countries is more of a state-to-state relationship.

YMT: Speaking of the economy of Burma, more than the half of the country's businesses are in the hands of Chinese businessmen. More than the half of Burma's natural resources have been signed over to Chinese companies to exploit. All of this was done by the current president and the current government, which succeeds the previous government. So, people need to see clearly who created all these problems.

KZM: Ko Yan Myo Thein, Ko Wai Moe, thank you for discussing a complicated issue.

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The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Mar. 28, 2015)

Posted: 27 Mar 2015 04:10 PM PDT

The Irrawaddy Business Roundup

Myanmar Airways International (MAI) plans to expand its fleet in mid-2016, adding additional Asian routes and flagging the possibility of adding European destinations to its schedule. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Japan's Wacoal Could Be First Apparel Firm in Thilawa SEZ

Japanese underwear manufacturer Wacoal Holdings Corp. may become the first firm to open an apparel factory in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

The new Japanese-backed SEZ just outside of Rangoon is set to open in June. So far, garment manufacturers who have looked at setting up in the there have ended up opening factories elsewhere.

News agency Kyodo reported that Wacoal would this month establish a firm in Burma named Wacoal Myanmar Co to pave the way for the opening of a factory making brassieres. The report put the company's decision to move into its fifth Asean country down to rising labor costs in Thailand.

"The move is aimed at beefing up Wacoal's production system in Southeast Asia and the manufacturer's cost competitiveness," the report said.

The factory would eventually employ more than 700 workers, the report said, adding the new company would be set up in Burma with an investment worth about US$4 million.

A group of factories from Hong Kong had previously announced they would open in Thilawa SEZ, but the moves never came to fruition.

Jacob Clere, a project manager at the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, told The Irrawaddy that while investment in Burma's garment sector has been returning after years of sanctions, apparel makers have not so far been choosing Thilawa SEZ to host their factories.

"There has been reluctance from garment manufacturers to set-up in Thilawa," Clere said by email. "Several times investors have expressed interest, but I think there is a fear of being the first mover. If Wacoal is setting up there I think it's a positive development with good potential for jobs creation and skills transfers."

Burma Investment Suffering From Poor Access to Finance: World Bank

A new report by the World Bank published this week identifies a lack of access to finance as the main barrier to investment in Burma's economy, and calls for the government to step up its economic reform efforts.

The World Bank's Investment Climate Assessment was based on the results of the 2014 Enterprise Survey. Some 1,000 foreign and domestic non-agricultural businesses were interviewed for the survey, the first of its kind looking at the challenges faced by companies operating in Burma.

The report identified the low availability of finance as the "top constraint for business operations."

"Only 1% of fixed-asset investment costs are financed by bank borrowing, while 92% of firms rely on their own funds," a summary of the report said.

Other issues identified by the report included the "complicated, non-transparent, and uncertain" rules around land-use rights and corruption among other problems.

"Almost all firms face power outages, the worst level in the region. As a result, firms are forced to rely on their own power generators for electricity," the summary added.

The World Bank called for Burma's government to focus its program of economic reform on removing these obstacles, and on making the private sector more effective.

"Improving regulation, taxation and eliminating corruption should be continued and expanded," it said. "Creating a more competitive private sector and attracting more investment, particularly foreign direct investment, can help support the reform process."

A World Bank press release quoted President's Office Minister Tin Naing Thein welcoming the report.

"The government is fully committed to engaging the business community in shaping business-friendly laws and regulations through regular and coordinated public-private dialogues," the minister was quoted saying.

Burma's Flag Carrier Ponders 2016 Expansion, Flights to Europe

Myanmar Airways International (MAI) has ambitions of expanding its reach to South Korea and Japan, and may even try to connect Burma directly with Europe, according to a trade publication.

A report in Airfinance Journal this week said that MAI chairman Tin Maung Htun spoke to the publication about the airline's plans for the future.

Burma's flag carrier—the international branch of the state airline—would not be adding any new aircraft to its fleet of four Airbus aircraft until mid-2016, "when it hopes to acquire Airbus narrowbodies to aid the introduction of more Asian routes and perhaps also flights into Europe," the report said.

"[Tin Maung Htun] said the number of aircraft [MAI] will add to its fleet depends on the market, how much money the carrier has and whom it will partner with," the report said, adding that the airline would likely stick with Airbus planes as its pilots were trained to fly them.

"We would like to fly all over the world, but right now we are flying to Cambodia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and around China," Tin Maung Htun was quoted saying. “We are trying to expand to Korea and Japan."

India's Exim Bank Extends More Than $350m in Credit for Exports to Burma

The Export-Import Bank of India will offer loans worth almost US$354 million to Indian companies exporting the materials for irrigation projects and railway upgrades, according to a statement.

The statement posted on the website of India's Embassy in Rangoon said that the Indian government-run Exim bank would open up two lines of credit that can be taken up by Indian companies exporting goods to Burma for specific projects.

One line of credit, or LOC, worth $198.96 million will finance 18 irrigation projects in Burma. The second, worth $155 million, is for the new rolling stock and equipment for Burma's dilapidated railway network, as well as the upgrade of three railway workshops.

The cash will be made available through the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank, it said.

"Exim Bank’s LOCs afford a risk-free, non-recourse export financing option to Indian exporters," the statement said. "Besides promoting India's exports Exim Bank’s LOCs enable demonstration of Indian expertise and project execution capabilities in emerging markets."

India announced in late 2013 that Exim Bank would begin offering credit to Indian exporters to Burma. According to the statement, India's Exim Bank has already opened seven lines of credit, totalling $247.43 million and financing railway, refinery, manufacturing and power transmission projects.

The export-import banks of China, the United States and South Korea have all also announced plans to lend to companies exporting to Burma.

ADB Calls for Education Shake Up to Improve Human Resources

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has highlighted the failings of Burma's education system as a major policy challenge for the government to address if it wants to keep the economy growing.

The ADB's annual report on the state of Asia's economies, published on March 24, included a prediction that gross domestic product growth would accelerate to an impressive 8.3 in the next financial year. But the Asian Development Outlook 2015 also gave a warning that the weaknesses of Burma's education system were harming the country's economic prospects.

"Employers cite inadequate human resources as a serious barrier to doing business," the report said. "They complain that the low quality and relevance of education, compounded by low average attainment, leaves young workers ill-equipped for either work or further training because they lack basic knowledge and skills for problem-solving or teamwork."

School enrolment data shows that secondary education is "the bottleneck," the ADB said, pointing out that while four-fifths of the 1.1 million children who started first grade in 2002 completed primary school, only one-tenth passed the matriculation exam that Burmese teenagers take to get into university.

The report praised the government's efforts to address the problem, namely with the 2016-2020 National Education Sector Plan, but also pointed out that spending on education remained relatively low.

"From [fiscal year] 2011 to FY2013, the government more than tripled spending on education in nominal terms, but this brought spending to only an estimated 2.0% of GDP," it said. "Critically, the education plan will provide an evidence-based roadmap for further increases in financing."

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Students Hit the Streets, Police Make Arrests

Posted: 27 Mar 2015 04:55 AM PDT

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RANGOON — Protesters took to the streets across Burma on Friday to demand the release of all students and their supporters detained following the police crackdown at Letpadan on Mar. 10.

At least eight people were arrested, three in Rangoon and five in Myin Chan, Mandalay Division.

Protests in support of the detained students took place on Friday in Burma's biggest cities Rangoon and Mandalay as well as in Myin Chan; Monywa, Sagaing Division; Chauk, Magwe Division; Taungoo, Pegu Division; and Hinthada and Myaung Mya in Irrawaddy Division.

In Rangoon, one of the leaders of the core group of student protesters who were beaten and arrested in Letpadan, Nanda Sit Aung, was detained on Friday along with two others, according to Police Lt-Col Win Kyi of Rangoon's West District police office.

"[Police] caught Nanda Sit Aung and two other people in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township," he told The Irrawaddy.

About 60 people attended the Rangoon protest which ended after about 30 minutes. Around 20 demonstrators were students who had taken part in the peaceful march from Mandalay to Rangoon, begun on Jan. 20, in protest at the National Education Law.

Protesters carried student flags, shouted slogans and held signs which said "No Violence" and "For the safety of the public, take action on the people responsible for the crackdown."

Before Nanda Sit Aung was arrested, he shouted to the crowd that their goal of education reform was still not finished and that they needed to continue their push.

On Thursday, Burma's Upper House of parliament voted to pass an amended National Education Law which incorporated some of the students' demands.

Ei Ei Moe of youth organization Generation Wave told The Irrawaddy, "we will continue to hold protests again and again until the government releases the detained students and their supporters and takes action on the people responsible for the crackdown."

On Thursday, authorities filed criminal charges against 69 students and their supporters who have been held in Tharrawaddy prison for more than two weeks following the police crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division.

In Mandalay, about 20 youth riding motorcycles and holding symbolic "fighting peacock" flags shouted slogans as they distributed pieces of paper on which was written "The violent government must step down."

Police and township administration officers attempted to halt the protesters but they managed to avoid authorities, concluding their protest after one hour.

Demonstrators in Myin Chan were not so lucky, with police halting the protest shortly after it began, arresting student leaders and some locals.

Nyan Myint Than and Si Thu Myat, second year students of Myin Chan Degree College were arrested together with Sein Win, Kyaw Than Tun and Ma Phyu—locals who supported the students.

Family members said they were currently detained at Myin Chan Myoma Police station.

Zarni Mann is reporting from Mandalay.

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Make Multilingual Education a Priority: Linguistic Experts

Posted: 27 Mar 2015 03:50 AM PDT

Linguistic Experts

(From Left to Right) Salai Bawi Lian Mang, CHRO director; Kenneth Van Bik, ethnic Chin Lecturer; James A. Matisoff, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the University of California; and Swathi M. Vanniarajan, Professor and Department Chair at San Jose State University, speaking to the media following a seminar on language in Rangoon, Thursday, March 26, 2015. (Photo: Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy)

Linguistic experts called for the safeguarding of ethnic minority languages and for multilingual education in both primary and secondary schools, following a two day seminar in Rangoon.

Local and international experts and other stakeholders attended the seminar, titled "Continuum of the Richness of Languages and Dialects in Myanmar," from Mar. 25-26.

Salai Bawi Lian Mang, director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, which hosted the seminar, said experts discussed academic papers on linguistics and the language policies of other countries including Singapore, Malaysia, India and countries in Africa.

He said that challenges to preserving ethnic minority languages in the country included a lack of protection for minority languages under current laws and an absence of funding for multilingual education.

He also noted the importance of finding the right balance between learning the national language Burmese and ethnics' own mother tongues, since without one or the other, employment opportunities and communication across different communities may be affected.

"Our recommendations made after two days of discussion include having a program guaranteeing the continuous uses of ethnics' languages and dialects; multilingual teaching to young people; and the need for institutional and financial support for multilingual development," Salai Bawi Lian Mang said.

James A. Matisoff, Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, at the University of California and one of the seminar's panelists, voiced support for ethnic groups' efforts to have their native languages taught in schools.

"Bilingualism/multilingualism is a norm in the society," he told The Irrawaddy, highlighting Burma's rich ethnic diversity.

The 77-year-old professor, who is also Principal Investigator with the Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary & Thesaurus and speaks fluent Lahu among a raft of other languages, encouraged young children to learn their mother tongues in order to keep them alive. Despite there being some 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, he said, it is estimated that by the year 2100, there will only be 3,000 left.

"I think it is very important… to offer education to the children not only in the national language, but also to some extent in their native language. Children are capable of learning many different languages. It is good for them, for their natural development, and it makes them smarter," Matisoff said.

"In fact, researchers have shown that it is very good for young children to be exposed to multiple languages when growing up."

Many of Burma's minority ethnics speak their own languages at home and in their communities while learning and speaking Burmese at school. But the language barrier is often difficult for young children to overcome.

Under the incumbent government, the teaching of ethnic languages has been permitted, but generally only outside school hours and at the primary school level.

In Mon State, a curriculum that includes Mon language instruction has been taught since mid-2014, making schools in the state the first to teach an ethnic minority language in a government school in more than 50 years.

A key challenge in Burma is encouraging respect for the diversity of spoken languages, said Salai Bawi Lian Mang.

"Diversity is a force for us in building our multi-ethnic country. If we can set strong policies on language, this will act as a driving force in building our democratic nation," he said.

Linguistic experts from the United States, Japan and Rangoon University were joined at the seminar by ethnic representatives from political parties and armed groups as well as state and division parliamentarians.

"This kind of cooperation we see between scholars and local stakeholders is a step towards regaining the Myanmar greatness of the past," said Kenneth Van Bik, an ethnic Chin lecturer at the San Jose State University in California, referring to a period when Burma boasted some of the best education levels in Southeast Asia.

Born in Hakha, Chin State, and a proficient speaker of various Chin dialects, Van Bik said that despite the presence of more than 50 ethnic sub-groups in the state, only about a dozen languages were still actually spoken.

"This seminar is only a beginning toward the goal of regaining the past glory of this nation, which has so much potential to offer the world," he said.

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