Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Rangoon Expansion Plan Clouded by Company’s Shady Past

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 05:44 AM PDT

A man rides his bike at Kanhla village, an area to be included in the New City Project, outside Rangoon, on Aug. 30, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun)

A man rides his bike at Kanhla village, an area to be included in the New City Project, outside Rangoon, on Aug. 30, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun)

RANGOON — Old habits die hard, especially in Burma.

With the recent revelation that Rangoon Division's chief minister secretly awarded a multi-billion dollar development project in the former capital to a little-known company, it seems clear that Burma hasn't yet shaken off the chronic nepotism that its former military rulers embraced for decades.

In his message to lawmakers in the divisional parliament on Aug. 22, Chief Minister Myint Swe said his government had awarded the contract for the Rangoon city expansion project to Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit company because the company was financially strong.

However, sources close to the project plans, government officials and businesspeople interviewed by The Irrawaddy tell a different story.

A minister in the Rangoon divisional government said the company, which has since had the contract revoked following a public outcry, is run by two low-profile Chinese businessmen, Xiao Feng and Xiao Sen, who have a close relationship with Myint Swe. Their names do not appear on the US sanctions list.

The minister said the Chinese executives have lived in Burma for many years, including back when ex-Rangoon Mayor Aung Thein Lin—the predecessor to the current mayor, Hla Myint—was head of the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), a government municipal body that also oversees land use in Rangoon.

"They were introduced to Aung Thein Lin via a middleman. When Aung Thein Lin was gone in 2011 and Myint Swe became the chief minister of Rangoon, they approached him through his son. Xiao Sen is always around him [Myint Swe]," said the minister, requesting anonymity given the sensitivity of the case.

Before becoming chief minister, Myint Swe served as a lieutenant-general in the Burmese army in 2005 and was involved in the crushing of the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Widely known as a favorite of Burma's then-dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the chief minister was even nominated for vice president in 2012 but could not take the position because of a family member's Australian citizenship. Burma's Constitution forbids people from serving in either of the country's two highest offices if they have family members who are foreign citizens.

A high-profile businessman in Rangoon confirmed that the Chinese executives were friendly with the chief minister, and wondered whether they received the multi-billion-dollar contract fairly to develop and expand the city.

"They are very close to Myint Swe as well as ex-Construction Minister, Khin Maung Myint, a former major-general in the army. They are Chinese. Given the opaque manner in which they were chosen for the project, it might be nepotism," the businessman told The Irrawaddy.

Myint Swe was not available for comment. But last week, after facing criticism from lawmakers for a lack of transparency, the Rangoon divisional government backpedaled on its decision to grant Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit the contract. Instead, it said it would put the development project to tender in the near future and would give all private companies a chance to participate. It did not specify dates for the tender.

According to a company registration list available from the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit was registered as a public company last year. When The Irrawaddy visited the company's official address in Shwe Pyi Tha Township, it found an apartment building with no office spaces inside.

Interestingly, although the company had vowed to complete 70 percent of the development project within three years at a cost of US$8 billion, with an initial investment of 1 billion kyats ($1 million), The Irrawaddy found that it has not yet received an operating license number yet.

And even though it registered with the Burmese government as a public company only last year, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit has been an active business in Burma for several years under different names.

According to members of Rangoon's business circle, during Aung Thein Lin's mayoral term from 2003-11, the company signed a deal with him to convert People's Park into a glitzy shopping mall. Aung Thein Lin previously served as a brigadier-general and currently sits in the Lower House of Parliament.

The Chinese executives behind Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit are also believed to be running other companies in the country, including Nature World Company, which developed a controversial handicrafts center in People's Park. The center was so tall that members of the public complained about its proximity to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous Buddhist monument in the country, and as a result its third floor was demolished in 2013.

Nature World, which said the YCDC approved its application to build the handicrafts center in 2009, declined to respond to rumors that it was owned by Chinese executives, the Myanmar Times newspaper reported.

Earlier last year, under the name Crown Advanced Construction, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit won an 8.6 acre plot of land owned by the YCDC to develop a residential complex on the grounds of a used-car market in front of Junction Square shopping mall in Rangoon. An official from the construction project confirmed to The Irrawaddy that his company is owned by Xiao Sen.

"We also belong to Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit public company, which is run by the same owner," he said under the condition of anonymity, adding that Xiao Sen was in charge of Nature World as well.

The Rangoon expansion plan will see the city's official limits expanded by some 30,000 acres, into Kyee Myint Daing, Seik Gyi Kha Naung To and Twante townships, right across from the Rangoon River. The plan will include the construction of affordable apartments, a school for 1,000 students, a home for the aged, and five six-lane bridges.

In Alat Chaung village, Kyee Myint Dine, Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit had urged residents to leave their homes by October to make way for a river-crossing bridge that would connect to Rangoon.

During a recent public consultation meeting with the residents, Thet Oo, the Burmese managing director of Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit, said the company would provide new housing by January, according to a video of the meeting viewed by The Irrawaddy.

But when The Irrawaddy contacted Thet Oo to inquire more about the development project, the managing director declined to comment.

As for the leadership of Myanmar Say Ta Nar Myothit, he said, "I'm the president of the company."

Htet Naing Zaw and Thalun Zaung Htet contributed to this report.

The post Rangoon Expansion Plan Clouded by Company's Shady Past appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Sex Sells in Burma’s Sin City

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 04:41 AM PDT

Female sex workers solicit passersby on a bridge in Mong La, eastern Burma. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom / The Irrawaddy)

Female sex workers solicit passersby on a bridge in Mong La, eastern Burma. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom / The Irrawaddy)

MONG LA, Special Region 4 — Nowhere in culturally conservative Burma is it easier to find sex than in Mong La, a Sino-Burmese border town with a reputation for the illicit. Dozens of prostitutes line two bridges in the center of town, scantily clad and freely distributing business cards that offer their bodies to passersby.

Potential customers pull up beside the women, and negotiations begin. Typically, these conversations take place in Chinese, the language used by most residents here. If a price is agreed to, it's off to a room at one of a growing number of hotels in Mong La, part of an autonomous enclave in eastern Burma known as Special Region 4.

While the sex industry is legal and regulated in parts of the world as near as Thailand or far as the Netherlands, here it is an unregulated, unlawful and flourishing trade.

Along with gambling and animal trafficking, Mong La's black market includes prostitutes, and it has sprung up to meet a demand that comes largely from China.

So too have many of the women selling sex.

While China is frequently the destination for Burmese victims of human trafficking, here in Mong La some Chinese sex workers have fallen prey to trafficking in the other direction. A 2008 earthquake in Sichuan provided a major source of sex workers, according to an ethnic Shan woman who deals gold in Mong La. Much like Cyclone Nargis forced many Burmese into the sex trade, the devastation wrought by the Sichuan quake left women there vulnerable to exploitation.

Lured by promises of jobs in Mong La, women were trafficked across the porous border by Chinese businessmen.

"For a month, they did not put those girls to work. They let them stay at beauty salons, beautified them … and finally they agreed to work as sex workers," the local Shan woman said.

Just as they tolerate a steady stream of illegal Chinese entrants daily, local authorities appear unconcerned that these women, here without visas, are selling sex.

"They sell sex in public, but there is no problem for them. There is no action taken. They are free even though they are illegally staying here," said Min Thu, a Mong La resident.

A representative for the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), which governs Special Region 4, declined The Irrawaddy's interview request.

Business cards offering photos and phone numbers are also slipped underneath hotel room doors. Some hotels are said to take money from women or their pimps to display photos of sex workers, and a phone number to call, in rooms where hoteliers elsewhere might hang a perfunctory scenic painting.

While most of the prostitutes are Chinese, the town does have at least one brothel offering Burmese women. More discreetly than the women on the bridges, a dozen or so Burmese wait for customers inside a shop advertising "cold drinks" on a sign outside. They too find themselves servicing a largely Chinese clientele, and communication can be difficult—even negotiating a price sometimes ends in frustrated failure—but the trade is lucrative, one woman told The Irrawaddy.

Most of the women said that they came from Rangoon, where they would not be able to earn as much money. Ma Khine, a Burmese sex worker, said that women in her industry could earn between 2,500 yuan (US$407) and 4,000 yuan per month in Mong La.

"I just arrived here two months ago," said Ma Khine, who came from Burma's biggest city. "We can earn more money here than in Rangoon."

The post Sex Sells in Burma's Sin City appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Burmese Students Demonstrate Against National Education Bill

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 04:23 AM PDT

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

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

RANGOON — A network of Burmese students' unions staged a protest against the National Education Bill on Tuesday, saying the legislation does not guarantee freedom for the country's universities.

The Confederation of University Student Unions, a collection of several unions across Burma, led the demonstration at the campus of Dagon University in Rangoon, which was attended by about 100 students from that university, Rangoon's Economic University, the Computer University and the University of Foreign Languages.

The bill, which was approved by Burma's Parliament in July but has not been signed by President Thein Sein, does not guarantee students the right to form unions.

"We have found out that the formation of a National Education Commission [in the bill] will centralize and control educational freedom," said Sithu Maung, founder of Confederation of University Student Unions.

"We want universities that can be managed freely—free from the control of ministries. The education law does not guarantee this," he added.

The confederation issued a statement last month outlining its opposition to the bill.

"The National Education Commission as stated in Section 4 of National Education bill has been found to grant opportunities to centrally control the whole educational system," the Aug. 26 statement said.

"The Higher Education Coordinating Committee also gives the authorities central control of the whole higher education sector."

The demonstrators on Tuesday called for the two new bodies outlined in the bill to be scrapped.

"We are not asking to abolish the law. We are rejecting this law because proper stakeholders have not been included and educational freedom is not granted," Sithu Maung said, adding that similar protests were also planned in Dawei and Myeik in Tenasserim Division.

"This [demonstration] is a way of pressing for reform. We have to use this last method as we have attended education meetings held in Rangoon, but we were left out of education discussions at the national level. We can't accept such a law coming out of dishonesty."

The bill has also been rejected by the National Network for Education Reform, a civil society umbrella group of which the Confederation of University Student Unions is a member. Protests have also been staged by students' unions at universities and colleges around the country, including in Sagaing, Mandalay, Monywa, Kyaukse and Shwebo in central Burma last month.

The post Burmese Students Demonstrate Against National Education Bill appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Dethroned Burmese Beauty Queen Blasts Pageant Boss

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 03:55 AM PDT

Burma's former beauty queen May Myat Noe gives a news conference, seated next to the 2014 Miss Asia Pacific World crown, at a restaurant in Rangoon on Sept. 2, 2014. (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters)

Burma's former beauty queen May Myat Noe gives a news conference, seated next to the 2014 Miss Asia Pacific World crown, at a restaurant in Rangoon on Sept. 2, 2014. (Photo: Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters)

RANGOON — A dethroned beauty queen from Burma said Tuesday she won't return her bejeweled US$100,000 crown until pageant organizers apologize for calling her a liar and a thief.

May Myat Noe—the country's first winner of an international beauty contest—lashed back at her accusers at a tightly packed news conference.

She denied accepting breast implants, as claimed by David Kim, director of media for the South Korea-based Miss Asia Pacific World. He said the surgery was provided free of charge, part of efforts to boost the teen into super-stardom.

Kim said May Myat Noe was stripped of her title last week because she was dishonest and unappreciative, and that she ran off with her tiara after learning of the decision.

May Myat Noe said she boarded a plane for Burma before getting word.

She said she did not intend to steal the crown, but also wasn't going to give it back without a "sorry," not just to her, but also to Burma.

"I'm not even proud of this crown," she said after opening a blue box and placing the tiara on the table in front of her.

"I don't want a crown from an organization with such a bad reputation."

Her mother, who accompanied May Myat Noe on the trip to South Korea, cried when asked about the experience.

The Miss Asia Pacific World pageant, now in its fourth year, is no stranger to controversy.

In 2011, Wales representative Amy Willerton and several other contestants alleged that the contest had been fixed after a woman representing Venezuela was apparently named runner-up of the talent round before competing.

The argument with organizers—captured on video and uploaded to YouTube under the title "Confessions of a Beauty Queen"—was widely circulated in the pageant community.

Some of the contestants also accused officials of asking the women for sex in return for higher placement in the contest, and charged that the police called into investigate the allegations were bribed.

Those allegations were denied by Kim.

"It is not true that the girls were sleeping with the organizers or the director," he said. "The police already announced that these were just rumors. We checked everything, the CCTV in the hotel, everything. It was just rumors."

Burma, which only recently emerged from a half century of military rule and self-imposed isolation, started sending contestants to international pageants again in 2012.

May Myat Noe's win was widely covered in local media.

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‘If Men Can Do It, I Can Also’

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 03:26 AM PDT

Khin Su Kyi receives an award for her second film,

Khin Su Kyi receives an award for her second film, "Vaiolenz Against Violence." (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Up-and-coming Burmese filmmaker Khin Su Kyi won the best documentary award last month in Burma's first youth film festival, for her second film, "Vaiolenz Against Violence," which she directed, filmed and edited herself. The 21-year-old, who is earning a degree in law, spoke to The Irrawaddy about why she made the film and the challenges that women directors face in Burma.

Question: What is 'Vaiolenz Against Violence' about?

Answer: It is my first-ever documentary. It is a musical documentary about the lives of prisoners of conscience and how my father, despite being a musician, did not teach us music. This was my story idea.

Q: Why did you want to compete in the youth film festival?

A: I first competed in the 'Human Rights, Human Dignity' film festival [in Rangoon] and won an award with the movie "Article 18." Then I decided to shoot a documentary, and I found an announcement about the youth film festival online. So, I planned to shoot a documentary about youth and I shot 'Vaiolenz against Violence.' 'Article 18' is about the peaceful assembly and procession law in Burma. The message I wanted to give through 'Article 18' was that while Burma's Constitution provides freedom, articles are used to restrict it. 'Vaiolenz against Violence' is my second work, but at the same time it is the first one I have created single-handedly.

Q: Which award did you win with 'Article 18'?

A: I made it together with two of my friends and it won the best documentary award at the student level.

Q: You said you made 'Vaiolenz against Violence' alone, so what difficulties did you face in making it?

A: I made it alone because I wanted to shoot it as a girl. 'If men can do it, I will also be able to do it,' I told myself. I made the documentary alone, from shooting to editing. I wanted very much to shoot the nightlife of youths. But because I don't have lighting equipment, it was not convenient for me to shoot night scenes.

Q: How did you get the story idea?

A: Since the documentary is about youth, I tried to make sure young people would feel like watching it. If it was too long, it might get boring. My father is a musician and so are my brothers, so I've wanted to shoot a musical documentary for a long time. Then this idea coincided with the youth film festival and I happened to shoot it.

Q: What does 'Vaiolenz against Violence' mean?

A: Vaiolenz is the name of the metal music band formed by my brothers. It translates to violence. With 'Vaiolenz Against Violence,' I mean that the Vaiolenz band doesn't like violence.

Q: How did you feel when the film won an award?

A: I was really pleased. I was also happy when 'Article 18' won an award. But I could not be happy completely because it was not made by me alone, and therefore I couldn't say that I won the award because of my skills. As for 'Vaiolenz against Violence,' I made it alone and therefore it can be seen as proof of my skills.

Q: When did you start learning to be a director? Where did you learn?

A: I started a career in journalism two years ago. I loved the feeling of shooting with a camera when I became a journalist. I liked watching the photos or movies that I shot. My father also taught me. He was my very first teacher. In November last year, I started to attend documentary training given by [Burmese documentary maker] Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi at the Human Rights, Human Dignity Film Institute.

Q: What are your future plans as an artist?

A: Mainly, my focus is documentaries. I prefer documentaries and therefore will continue to shoot them. … Violence against women is rarely documented in this country and I want to shoot a documentary about that. Mainly, I want to document real lives and my experiences.

Q: What difficulties have you encountered as a female director?

A: In my opinion, men and women are the same since birth, and women must be able to do what men can do. To shoot with a camera is not a difficult thing in this age, but for a girl, there are difficulties. In this country and some other developing countries, women are not treated equally. Most of the time, the ideas of women tend to be rejected. I am not calling for priority to be given to women. I just want gender equality.

Q: There are many girls like you who like directing but dare not do it. What words of encouragement would you give them?

A: 'Dare not' can also mean 'cannot afford to do it.' To do directing, you need support. I still can't afford to buy my camera. I shot with my father's. Again, women are not able to focus only on work. They need to do household chores and there are women whose wishes are seen as less important than their family duties. For example, some women abandon their journalism careers after marriage. Their career is subjugated to family commitments. If husbands and wives share family duties and men support women as much as they can, women will be able to continue their chosen careers.

Q: Women are given more attention these days in Burma. What do you think of it?

A: Yes, the role of the women is more and more recognized these days. But, particularly, it is important that women are allowed to take part in decision-making. For example, there are internally displaced women and women that suffered violence during conflict. No one else, but only they themselves, will know how they feel. They should be taken into consideration in the peace process.

Q: How would you describe the life of youths?

A: Youths like freedom. They will do what they like. Parents will teach their children to make decisions on their own, as they have to walk by themselves. So, it is important that we make the right decisions. It is also important that youths do not misuse freedom, which would put them on the wrong track. So they should listen to the advice of their parents and make decisions on their own.

The post 'If Men Can Do It, I Can Also' appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Burmese Children’s Rights Violated in Thai Detention Centers: HRW

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 02:13 AM PDT

Rohingya women and children who arrived by boat from Burma pass the time at a closed shelter in Phang Nga, Thailand, in October 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Rohingya women and children who arrived by boat from Burma pass the time at a closed shelter in Phang Nga, Thailand, in October 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday urged the Thai government to stop arbitrarily and indefinitely detaining migrant children, including Burmese, in violation of international law.

In a 67-page report launched in Bangkok, the US-based international rights group details how Thailand's immigration detention centers violate children's rights, risk their health and well-being, and imperil their development.

Thailand is home to an estimated 375,000 migrant children, according to the International Organization for Migration, and those in detention often suffer physical and emotional harm, according to the HRW report.

Alice Farmer, the children's rights researcher at HRW, told The Irrawaddy that about one-third of the 105 people interviewed for the report were Burmese children and adults.

She said some migrant children from Burma were locked up in Bangkok's immigration detention centers for days, weeks or even years. Some refugee children, including Rohingya Muslim children from western Burma, "may be held indefinitely, as it is not possible for them to be sent back to Burma," she added.

The report highlighted that newborn infants and toddlers are among those detained in squalid conditions and with inadequate access to education, nutrition and other basics services.

"Children are held with unrelated adults in violation of international law. Families are often split up," Farmer said. "Cells are squalid, with broken toilets, inadequate sanitation, and insufficient mattresses and blankets. They are sometime so overcrowded that children do not have room to lie down and sleep. Children lack adequate access to primary education and sometimes have as little as an hour or two of outdoor recreation time per week."

Despite limited reforms in immigration detention centers, she said conditions remained about as dire as they were in 2008, when HRW began documenting rights abuses faced by migrants and refugees in Thailand.

Sometimes migrant children reach out to the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok for help.

"The embassy assists the children of the migrants whose parents have lost their legal documents due to accidents," Win Maung, the Burmese ambassador to Thailand, told The Irrawaddy. He said that if migrants or their advocates contacted the embassy regarding the detention of migrant children, he would speak to the Thai government on their behalf.

"We have had a committee comprising diplomats and NGO [representatives] working in Bangkok to protect [Burmese] migrants since 2009, and any migrants can contact us," he said.

Farmer said Thailand could adopt alternatives to its current form of detention that would better protect children's rights, as in the Philippines and other countries.

"The solution is to provide family shelters, bail programs or programs that allow for release upon recognizance," she said. "Such solutions in fact cost less than detention."

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Ooredoo to Focus on Pay-as-You-Go in Burma

Posted: 02 Sep 2014 12:49 AM PDT

An Ooredoo banner advertisement is displayed in downtown Rangoon. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

An Ooredoo banner advertisement is displayed in downtown Rangoon. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

DUBAI — Qatar's Ooredoo will focus on adding more pay-as-you-go subscribers in Burma a few weeks after it launched operations, the unit's CEO said on Monday, but may provide monthly mobile contracts and fixed services in the long term.

Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor Group last year won telecom licenses in the Southeast Asian country, whose mobile penetration is about 10 percent, among the lowest globally.

Ooredoo has sold more than 1 million pre-paid SIM cards following its Aug. 2 launch.

Ross Cormack, Ooredoo Myanmar chief executive, said his firm had not decided whether to expand into post-paid contracts.

Subscribers on such contracts usually spend more on telecoms services and are also less likely to switch provider.

"We have the functionality to deliver it, but at the moment we've huge demand for exactly what we're offering in pre-paid," Cormack told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Ooredoo's license allows it to launch fixed services, but the company has yet to decide if and when to do so.

"We see a lot of opportunities in different areas and the challenge is structuring the right approach in terms of what's the best order of priority," said Cynthia Gordon, Ooredoo chief commercial officer.

Ooredoo declined to say how much it paid for its license, its capital expenditure or when it hoped to break even.

Its 3G network, which currently covers 7.8 million people, offers mobile Internet and many subscribers are getting online for the first time, said Cormack.

"The biggest demand has been browsing, with Facebook close behind and other social networking probably third," said Cormack. "Self-generated content is where a lot of people spend their time, which is why Facebook is popular here."

In June, the International Monetary Fund forecast Burma's economy would expand 8.5 percent in the current fiscal year, growth Ooredoo believes it can exploit.

"There's a huge enterprise opportunity as the country opens up," said Cormack.

Ooredoo hopes to expand coverage to reach 25 million of Burma's 51 million people by the end of the year and 97 percent of the population within five years.

Such a build out will lead to greater network sharing, a common practice in emerging markets, especially in rural areas, because it allows operators to share costs and avoid unnecessary duplication of infrastructure.

"Everybody is in start-up mode so is focusing on getting coverage up," said Cormack. "The further out we get in time the more we would love to share. It's not just towers but fiber and any other passive infrastructure. I would expect a high percentage of sharing long-term."

Ooredoo and Telenor will also compete against state-run Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which has partnered with Japan's KDDI Corp and Sumitomo Corp.

The Japanese firms said in July they would invest US$2 billion expanding MPT's mobile and broadband network.

"As long as we listen to customers and deliver the services they want we're confident we will be very successful long term," added Cormack, who acknowledged monthly average revenue per user (ARPU, an important industry metric) was likely to be low.

In neighboring India, ARPU was 113 Indian rupees ($1.87) in the three months to March 31, data from country's regulator shows, while ARPU in Bangladesh was $3.41 at 2012-end.

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British Migrant Rights Activist Faces Thai Defamation Trial

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 10:17 PM PDT

British labor right activist Andy Hall with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: andyjhall.files.wordpress.com)

British labor right activist Andy Hall with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (Photo: andyjhall.files.wordpress.com)

BANGKOK — A British human rights activist who investigated alleged abuses at a Thai fruit processing factory went on trial Tuesday in the first in a series of criminal lawsuits filed against him by the company.

Natural Fruit Co. Ltd. is accusing activist Andy Hall of defamation in the wake of a report he helped author last year for the Finland-based watchdog group Finnwatch that detailed poor labor conditions in seafood and pineapple export companies in Thailand.

The report investigated a factory owned by Natural Fruit that employs hundreds of migrants from neighboring Burma, and found the company illegally confiscated passports, paid below minimum wage and overworked staff in sweltering conditions so hot that heat strokes were common. Natural Fruit disputes the accusations.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division criticized the trial. Natural Fruit, he said, "has decided to take a punitive approach rather than address the problems in their factory."

"This is all about trying to intimidate people who are prepared to investigate human rights abuses …. and if [Hall] is convicted, it could have a chilling effect on independent research on human rights in Thailand."

Hall, 34, faces up to seven years in prison.

There are four criminal and civil cases pending against Hall, whose passport was confiscated by Thai authorities as a condition of bail set in June. The first, which began Tuesday, relates to defamation charges for an interview on the subject he gave to Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television.

The trial comes after the United States earlier this year demoted Thailand to the lowest level in its annual rankings of governments' anti-human trafficking efforts, principally over its failures to do enough to stop abusive practices in the Thai seafood industry.

The so-called "tier 3" rankings for Thailand means the country could face US sanctions.

Hall has worked in Thailand for years and is an outspoken activist on migrant issues. Millions of impoverished migrants, largely from Burma and Cambodia, have left their countries to work in Thailand. Some do not have legal papers, and many work low-skilled jobs for long hours at pay below their Thai counterparts. They typically lack health and social security benefits.

Thailand's elected government was overthrown in a bloodless May 22 military coup, whose leaders have silenced their once-thriving political opponents, threatening them with prosecution if they disturb the public order.

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Making a Mockery of Democracy

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 05:00 PM PDT

 U Win Tin, a co-founder of the National League for Democracy and a former political prisoner, was clear about his political goals. (Photo: Steve Tickner)

U Win Tin, a co-founder of the National League for Democracy and a former political prisoner, was clear about his political goals. (Photo: Steve Tickner)

When the generals who previously ruled Myanmar first said in 2003 that they wanted to introduce a "discipline-flourishing democracy," it was far from clear what they meant. Presumably, it would be different from so-called "Western-style democracy," but beyond that, it was anybody's guess what they had in mind.

At the time, more cynical observers suggested that the term was nothing more than a euphemism for military rule behind a democratic façade. Most likely, they said, the new, post-junta dispensation would have a constitution and an elected parliament made up of civilians, or generals and colonels who had become civilians, but the military would retain effective veto power over any attempts to change that constitution.

All of this turned out to be true. Under Myanmar's 2008 Constitution, the Tatmadaw, or armed forces, controls 25 percent of seats in both houses of the national legislature, and amendments require the approval of more than 75 percent of lawmakers. Other provisions also empower the Tatmadaw's commander-in-chief to assume direct and absolute control in the event of a national "emergency"—which could mean a popular uprising or any other threat to the military's de facto supremacy.

Now, four years after a deeply flawed election that was boycotted by the National League for Democracy, it is more obvious than ever that the cynics were right.

It is undeniable that progress has been made. Political parties can now operate openly, and although the government has become less tolerant of the media during the past year, there is nevertheless more press freedom and freedom of expression than at any time since the military seized power in 1962.

But, as U Aung Tun, a Myanmar journalist living in the United States, pointed out in an opinion piece for Asia Times Online last year, Myanmar's "discipline-flourishing democracy" is a "near equivalent to the term 'illiberal democracy' coined by US journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria."

The whole idea of a "discipline-flourishing democracy" is based on the notion that there could be different kinds of democracy, one suitable for the West and another for countries outside Europe and North America. This is very similar to the idea of "Asian values" that was touted in the 1990s by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and Singapore's senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew. They argued that Asian people would have to forego personal freedoms for the sake of political stability and economic progress—and that this political model was somehow rooted in Asian cultures.

Their claim that "Western-style" democracy doesn't suit Asian nations has since been echoed by China, which has been promoting its own philosophy of "harmony." A commentary in the online edition of the state-run People's Daily published in March 2005 explained what the word means in a Chinese context: "Harmony is both an ancient social ideal as well as our actual choice. Harmony will open up a broader world for future humankind and provide humanity with inexhaustible driving force for its development."

Again, a different set of values for Asian and non-Asian cultures.

Critics would of course argue that "discipline-flourishing democracy," "Asian values," and China's state philosophy of "harmony" are all merely excuses for maintaining authoritarianism. And the proponents of these concepts have conveniently forgotten that the first time Asian—and at that time also African—nations declared their set of values was at a conference that was held in the Indonesian city of Bandung in April 1955.

That event brought together 25 Asian and African nations, among them Myanmar and other countries that had just managed to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Indonesia's President Sukarno played host to "Third World" leaders such as India's dignified statesman Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Egypt's firebrand leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sir John Kotelawala of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), Myanmar's U Nu and the mercurial Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. The Bandung conference led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961.

Although democracy as such was not on the agenda in Bandung, the participants were clearly opposed to the idea of one set of values for the West—which at that time meant the colonial powers—and another for the then mostly newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.

At that time, it was the Western powers that advocated the idea that there could be two sets of values, one for themselves and another for the peoples of the Third World.

Rights for All

A. Appadorai, general secretary of the Indian Council of World Affairs, wrote in a booklet published half a year after the Bandung conference that "when European people think of peace, they think of it only in the terms of Europe. In the imagination of European thinkers the world seems to be confined to areas inhabited by European races. The vast continent of Asia … containing as it does some of the most ancient civilizations, and holding the vast majority of the world's population, does not come into the picture at all."

The participants at the Bandung conference made it clear that human rights should be the same for "all peoples everywhere." They referred to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that there should be no double standards.

Several decades later, however, some authoritarian leaders in Asia began to argue the opposite under the guise of "Asian values" and similar concepts. But there can be no nation, no culture in the world that does not have freedom, including personal freedom, as a fundamental value.

Ordinary Decent Values

In practice, that means that people want to be able to speak their minds without fear of arrest, and to decide for themselves who should hold power in their own country. In no culture anywhere would a parent want to see their sons and daughters dragged away in the middle of the night to a prison or torture center simply for expressing a political preference. Abhorrence of such abuses of power is universal, and any attempt to justify them in the name of "Asian values," "harmony" or "discipline-flourishing democracy" is an insult to the values of decent people everywhere.

I have sometimes heard the bizarre argument that democracy is an alien concept in Myanmar because "dimokresi" is a loanword from the English language. This is utter nonsense. Even setting aside the fact that other countries equally remote from the West have their own words for democracy—Thais, for example, use "prachatipatai," a word derived from Pali and Sanskrit that is similar to the terms for democracy used in Laos and Cambodia—the English language clearly has no special claim to the concept either. After all, "democracy" is borrowed from the Greek words "demos" and "kratos," meaning "common people" and "strength" or "rule," respectively. So according to the argument of those who don't think Myanmar could or should be a democracy, only Greece and perhaps some parts of India would have the right to be democratic.

It is high time to remind everyone of what was discussed and said in Bandung in 1955. There cannot be two different sets of values, one for the West and another for Asia and, presumably, the rest of the world. We are all human beings, and as such have the same need to protect ourselves from tyranny and repression, wherever it may occur or whatever shape it may take.

And it is worth remembering the words of Myanmar's foremost advocate of democracy, the late journalist and writer U Win Tin: "What we have to do these days is make way for a new politics that can break down the mechanism of the military dictatorship, rather than being corralled into a political arena made by the government."

The first step would be to accept the fact that cultures may be different, but certain values are undeniably universal.

This article first appeared in the September 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.

The post Making a Mockery of Democracy appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Modi Visit Draws Pledges of Support From Japan

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 10:27 PM PDT

 India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) enjoys a cup of green tea next to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a tea ceremony at the Omotesenke, one of the main schools of Japanese tea ceremony, in Tokyo Sept. 1, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) enjoys a cup of green tea next to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a tea ceremony at the Omotesenke, one of the main schools of Japanese tea ceremony, in Tokyo Sept. 1, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

TOKYO — Japan and India agreed Monday to step up their economic and security cooperation as visiting Prime Minister Narendra Modi won pledges of support for his effort to revitalize the lagging Indian economy.

Modi, who brought a delegation of more than a dozen Indian tycoons to Japan, said he hopes to elevate still relatively low-key business ties with Japan to a "new level."

In a joint statement issued after their talks, the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of upgrading defense ties, a priority for both given China's growing assertiveness in the region. Modi also welcomed Japan's relaxation of restrictions on exports of defense-related equipment and technology.

He and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "recognized the enormous future potential for transfer and collaborative projects in defense equipment and technology," the statement said.

As part of their "Investment Promotion Partnership," the two sides set a target of doubling Japan's foreign direct investment in India. Abe also pledged to raise public and private investment and financing from Japan to 3.5 trillion yen (US$33.6 billion) within five years and to provide an aid loan of 50 billion yen ($480 million) to the India Infrastructure Finance Co.

Abe said he would work with Modi to "strengthen the cooperative relationship between our two countries."

The statement listed construction of high-speed railways and other transport systems, cleanups of the Ganges and other rivers, food processing and rural development and construction of "smart cities" as priorities.

In a speech to Japanese business leaders on Monday, Modi promised to set up a team to facilitate trade and investment.

Modi became prime minister in May with pledges to transform India's troubled economy and is keen to win more support for ambitious energy and construction projects, including high-speed railways.

"When I became prime minister, there were high expectations. Not just high expectations, but people expected speed in decisions," Modi told leaders of Japan's five big business groups. "I give you the assurance that what we have done in the past 100 days, the results will be seen very quickly."

In the joint statement, Abe reiterated his hope India will adopt its bullet train technology, promising Japanese financial, technical and operations support.

Japan and India agreed also to continue joint and Japan-US-India military exercises and to accelerate talks on the purchase by New Delhi of US-2 amphibian aircraft.

The two sides said they would step up talks on nuclear energy cooperation, claiming "significant progress" despite having failed to reach a last-minute agreement on safeguards sought by Japan. The two sides meanwhile pledged to strengthen work on preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons and on nuclear safety.

The statement said Japan and India will cooperate on advanced, clean coal technology, which is expertise sorely needed to help combat the choking pollution in India's major cities.

The two countries said they are in the process of finalizing a commercial contract on production and export to Japan of rare earths, which are minerals used in mobile phones, hybrid cars and other high-tech products.

During Abe's first term in office, in 2006-2007, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperating in building an industrial corridor between Mumbai and New Delhi, two of India's biggest cities. At that time, Modi was chief minister of the fast-growing, business-friendly state of Gujarat.

In a gesture toward his golf-loving Japanese hosts—Abe golfs frequently—Modi boasted of having beefed up the links in Gujarat during his years as chief minister.

Since taking office, Modi has traveled to neighboring Nepal and Bhutan and attended a summit of the BRICS emerging nations—Brazil, Russia, India and China. He helped launch an effort to open bank accounts for the poor in India and has set up an investigative team to look into corruption. Meanwhile, the economy has picked up pace in what some analysts are calling the "Modi bounce."

Japanese businesses are increasingly looking to expand trade and investment in fast-growing Southeast Asia and India, a market of nearly 1.3 billion people.

The post Modi Visit Draws Pledges of Support From Japan appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Hong Kong Activist’s Newspaper Column Scrapped Amid Democracy Row

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 10:23 PM PDT

Protesters sit outside the office of Hong Kong's chief executive during a demonstration demanding freedom of speech and press freedom in Hong Kong on Feb. 23, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip)

Protesters sit outside the office of Hong Kong's chief executive during a demonstration demanding freedom of speech and press freedom in Hong Kong on Feb. 23, 2014. (Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip)

HONG KONG — A well-respected Hong Kong newspaper has axed a weekly column by a political activist and hedge fund manager as the Asian financial center braces for a wave of protests against China's decision to rule out full democracy.

Columnist Edward Chin Chi-kin was told by the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal on Friday that his half-page weekly column that he had written since 2006 would be canceled due to a new page design, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

Chin, a member of a movement called Occupy Central that has threatened to blockade Hong Kong's financial district amid the democracy row, branded the move "a political decision," the Post said.

Chin and the Hong Kong Economic Journal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The editorial policy of the Hong Kong Economic Journal had changed after it was bought in 2006 by Richard Li, chairman of telecom group PCCW and the younger son of billionaire businessman Li Ka-shing, the Post quoted Chin as saying.

Richard Li was not immediately available to comment.

In a statement late on Monday, the Independent Commentators' Association, of which Chin is a member, expressed "deep concern" over the move.

"It is not hard for someone to associate the coincidence with political censorship," it added.

In July, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association said press freedom in the former British colony had entered its darkest period in decades.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a policy of "one country, two systems."

The pro-democracy activists want universal suffrage, but Communist Party rulers in Beijing say any candidate for the territory's chief executive has to be first approved by a nominating panel—likely to be stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists and making it almost impossible for an opposition democrat to get on the ballot.

Police on Monday used pepper spray to disperse protesters angry at China's decision. They said on Tuesday they arrested 19 people during scuffles. No one was injured.

The post Hong Kong Activist's Newspaper Column Scrapped Amid Democracy Row appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Acid Victims’ Photo Shoot Draws Attention in India 

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 10:12 PM PDT

A woman wearing a dress designed by 22-year-old Rupa poses in a photo shoot featuring five victims of acid attacks in India. (Photo: Stop Acid Attacks / Facebook)

A woman wearing a dress designed by 22-year-old Rupa poses in a photo shoot featuring five victims of acid attacks in India. (Photo: Stop Acid Attacks / Facebook)

NEW DELHI — A fashion photo shoot featuring five victims of acid attacks is drawing wide attention in India. While the country keeps no official statistics on acid attacks, there are regular reports in the media of attackers targeting victims to disfigure or blind them, often because of spurned sexual advances.

The 41 photos show 22-year-old Rupa and four friends laughing and striking playful poses while wearing some of her fashion designs.

"I told them to be natural. I didn't do any makeup or editing. I told them, you look beautiful and you have to be the way you are," said the photographer, Rahul Saharan, who volunteers with the Stop Acid Attacks charity and is working on a documentary about acid victims. "They are very confident, so it was not too hard for me."

The photos have been shared widely since being posted Aug. 8 on the Facebook page run by the group, and have also been picked up by TV stations and newspapers.

The joy and confidence the five women display defy the horrific stories they tell.

Rupa's face was doused with acid when she was 15 years old by a stepmother unwilling to pay her marriage expenses. The wedding was called off. The photo shoot has brought in funding that will enable her dream of opening a boutique to come true.

Laxmi, now 22, was also 15 when she was attacked by her brother's 32-year-old friend after she refused his marriage proposal. Earlier this year, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama presented her with the International Women of Courage Award for campaigning against such attacks.

Ritu, 22, was attacked by her cousin during a property dispute. Sisters Sonam, 22, and Chanchal, 17, were asleep when acid was poured over them by a group of men who had been harassing them in their village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

In all five cases, the girls' attackers were convicted, though such crimes in India often go unpunished.

Some 1,500 acid attacks are reported worldwide every year, according to the London-based group Acid Survivors Trust International, though it says the actual number is likely higher. India passed a law last year severely limiting sales of acid, but Stop Acid Attacks said it has since counted at least 200 attacks.

The post Acid Victims' Photo Shoot Draws Attention in India  appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Market Growth and Moral Decline in Mong La

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 05:13 AM PDT

A view from a hill on the outskirts of Mong La in Special Region No. 4. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom / The Irrawaddy)

A view from a hill on the outskirts of Mong La in Special Region No. 4. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom / The Irrawaddy)

MONG LA, Special Region 4 — Economic growth? Yes. A model for development? That depends on who you ask. President Thein Sein last week described Mong La as an example of the economic dividend that can come from ending armed conflict, saying the Sino-Burmese border town owes its development to the 25-year peace it has enjoyed since rebels here signed a ceasefire with the government.

And while there is little doubt that business is booming, the economy of "Burma's Sin City" is a curious thing to put on a presidential pedestal.

All manner of illegal trade, from prostitution and gambling to narcotics, arms and wildlife trafficking, have long flourished in the rebel-run town, which is part of a wider swathe of territory known as Special Region 4. Locals say the public infrastructure that has grown up around the once sleepy border village has been funded by vice-based tax revenues.

Mong La is administered by the National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA), a 2,000-men-strong armed group that is a remnant of the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma. The NDAA signed a ceasefire with Burma's central government in 1989.

Its leader, whose Chinese name is Lin Mingxian, also goes by Sai Lin or Sai Leun. For a quarter century, the ethnic Sino-Shan leader has helped nurture the often unsavory ties between Mong La and its neighbor to the north.


The Chinese character of Mong La is irrefutable, as is the dominance of Chinese moneyed

interests. Business is transacted in the Chinese currency, the yuan. If you carry a functioning cellphone in Mong La, it's because you possess a Chinese SIM card using a Chinese telecommunications network. Mandarin Chinese is overwhelmingly the language used on the streets, and electricity too is supplied from China, with power lines strung across the border to fuel Mong La's debauched border economy.

Much of that economy is based on the steady stream of Chinese nationals that pour across the border daily to take advantage of the vice on offer.

The Burmese government has made a token attempt to limit the Chinese influence, rather ineffectively ordering that inhabitants of the region speak Burmese. Chinese characters are used for most of the signage around town.

Access to Special Region 4 has long been a matter of course for the Chinese, but only relatively recently has it become an easily visited destination from inside Burma. Prior to the installation of Thein Sein's nominally civilian government in 2011, Burmese and foreigners alike needed to obtain permission letters from Burma's government.

Today, just two-and-a-half hours by car from Shan State's Kentung Township, visitors can freely walk the streets, visit its open-air markets (teeming with illegal wildlife parts), and try their luck at any of Mong La's dozens of casinos. Operators of the latter, however, are quick to make clear that photography is not permitted on the premises.

Although Mong La is a far more welcoming place than it was four years ago, the NDAA does not appear to have extended this mindset to its media relations. Sai Sam, an officer from the rebel group's liaison office in Kengtung Township, refused to meet with The Irrawaddy last week.

"You can travel there [Mong La], there is no problem. But our leaders are not available to give interviews," Sai Sam said in a one-minute telephone interview that would prove to be the extent of the government's press availability.

When asked whether The Irrawaddy might visit the NDAA liaison office in Mong La, Sai Sam said that the officers there did not speak Burmese well, and that there was thus "no need" to visit. Like the town's casino operators, NDAA soldiers also refused to have their photo taken.

Panning across the cityscape, multiple construction projects attest to the economic growth that the town is experiencing. The price of land has risen accordingly, fueled by Chinese investment.

While much of the development has been the product of wealthy Chinese businessmen, Chinese nationals are also filling out the ranks of the town's employment sector, on average earning about 200 yuan (US$32) per day.

A wage like that, while higher than what most Burmese can earn, is not enough to become a homeowner in Mong La, according to Nang Moe Khan. The ethnic Shan woman estimated the cost of a plot of land and house at 200 million kyats ($206,000). The steep price makes homeownership impossible for many, and an NDAA requirement that a family member must have served in the armed group's ranks makes untold others ineligible to by a house.

Some Chinese businesses operate under a kind of "build-operate-transfer" arrangement with the Mong La government—a common contract sees hotels constructed and operated by Chinese businesses for 30 years before they hand over ownership to the Mong La government.

The length of these agreements would seem to indicate that Chinese influence in the region will not be going away any time soon.

With all the money changing hands here, from the multimillion-dollar hotel projects to the 3 yuan ($0.50) bribes paid to the NDAA by Chinese seeking to cross the border illegally, there's no doubt that Mong La offers one form of economic development. But is it really a peace dividend worthy of emulation?

The post Market Growth and Moral Decline in Mong La appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Flooding Damages Paddy Fields and Homes in Sagaing

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 04:56 AM PDT

Hundreds of residents of Pegu town, Pegu Division, suffered from severe flooding last month following heavy downpours. This week residents in Sagaing Division have been hit with flooding. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Hundreds of residents of Pegu town, Pegu Division, suffered from severe flooding last month following heavy downpours. This week residents in Sagaing Division have been hit with flooding. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

MANDALAY — Heavy rains over the past week in Sagaing Division have flooded more than 600 acres of paddy fields and some 1,500 homes, according to township administrators and residents.

The annual monsoon rains came late this year to this mountainous region of upper Burma, and for some months farmers have been longing for a change in the dry weather. But the unexpectedly heavy rains over the past week ruined their crops and left many people worried about the possibility of even greater storms on the horizon.

In Depaeyin Township, about 400 acres of paddy fields were flooded, as were 250 acres of paddy fields in Kantbalu Township. Hundreds of homes were inundated.

"If the rain continues for the next two days, our paddy fields will not recover and all the young plants will die," said Thein Maung, a farmer from Zee Gone village in Kantbalu. Water flooded more than 150 homes in Zee Gone village alone.

"Before we were hoping for rain, but now we worry that rain will keep falling. The weather change has been getting worse in recent years and we are now afraid for our livelihoods," he added.

In Shwebo Township, heavy rains damaged the Sin Kut reservoir, located near the town, and water overflowed into Sin Kut village, Min Kyaung village and the Shwebo University compound. Some bridges connecting the villages were also damaged.

"The water is receding today, but more than 300 homes were filled with mud and some belongings were destroyed," said Ma Swe, a resident in Shwebo. "Authorities from the township administration office are repairing the bridges and cleaning the drains."

The northern part of Sagaing Division was also affected by the rains, with landslides destroying a mountain road connecting Khandi and Lahae townships. Homes were also flooded in both townships.

"The road was newly repaired three months ago. But now, even a motorbike cannot go on it because of the landslide and heavy rain," said Aung San Myint, who lives in Khandi. "There are no authorities yet to take care of that road so travelers are facing difficulties."

Last month, flooding in Pegu Division had displaced more than 15,000 people from their homes as of Aug. 8, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

The post Flooding Damages Paddy Fields and Homes in Sagaing appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Night Market Slated for Rangoon by Year’s End

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 04:41 AM PDT

A general view of a weekly night market in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia's state of Sabah on Borneo island. (Photo: Reuters)

A general view of a weekly night market in Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia's state of Sabah on Borneo island. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Burma's restaurant association is planning to open Rangoon's first open-air night market—a concept that has proven a major tourist draw in neighboring countries—by the end of this year.

"There is no place for office staffs, students and families to visit at night," said Kyaw Myat Moe, general secretary of the Myanmar Restaurant Association. "So we are planning to have a night market, tidy and clean, which will be of good quality with fair priced goods all in one place. It will become one more place to visit at night and a tourist attraction."

He said that around 150 businesses would participate in the night market, including food stalls, book shops, handicrafts venders, fortune tellers and more.

"For starters, we will open only at one place in Rangoon. Right now, near Maha Bandoola Park is being considered for the night market," he said.

He said the association was assessing the viability of options around the park, which is located in downtown Rangoon. Organizers are also negotiating with the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) on how many nights per week the market will be open, as well as drawing up the regulations that will govern participants.

"We will have an educative program for shop owners to sell their goods at fair prices, because it could harm the image of the market if they are selling their goods at very expensive prices," Kyaw Myat Moe said, adding that the association would also discuss health and hygiene standards with night market sellers.

The Myanmar Restaurant Association has already informed Burma's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism of the plan.

"The night market will open at the end of this year after the arrangements for cleanliness, water, electricity, waste, emergency management and car parking are in place," Kyaw Myat Moe said.

He said that although the total nights per week that the market would be open was not yet decided, its operation on Saturday and Sunday nights was guaranteed, in keeping with the practice of many other countries.

Crews will be on hand to clean up the area following the market's closure each night.

"Families will be able to leisurely walk, shop and eat, and foreigners will be able to buy Burmese foods and goods at fair prices in the night market," he said.

Night markets are a common feature of many Asian cities, and some of the world's most well-known exist in Thailand, China, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Plans for the night market come as tourists to Burma are poised to grow by about 50 percent this year, to 3 million foreign arrivals. Burma's tourism sector saw the highest relative growth in Southeast Asia last year, with the number of tourists spiking 52 percent, according to a report by the UN World Tourism Organization.

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Burmese Climbers Reach Hkakabo Razi’s Peak

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 04:27 AM PDT

A member of a Burmese team climbs Hkakabo Razi in Kachin State. (Photo: Invitation of Nature Foundation / Facebook)

A member of a Burmese team climbs Hkakabo Razi in Kachin State. (Photo: Invitation of Nature Foundation / Facebook)

Two climbers reached the top of Burma's official highest mountain on Sunday, becoming the first Burmese-only team to summit Hkakabo Razi in Kachin State.

The Universities Hiking and Mountaineering Association and the Invitation of Nature (ION) Foundation are backing the expedition that could end a dispute over whether the peak is truly the country's highest.

Eight men all in their 30s began their ascent on July 26, and two reached the summit of the ice-capped mountain at 5pm on Sunday, said Myo Thant, the chairman of the ION Foundation.

"Team leader Aung Myint Myat and Wai Yan Min Thu reached the summit, which is very narrow at the top so only a couple of climbers can stay there," he said, adding that the rest of the team stayed at a point about 3,000 feet below the peak.

Hkakabo Razi was officially recorded as 19,296 feet (5,881 meters) above sea level during British colonial rule in 1925. It has since been regarded as the tallest mountain in the country, and therefore all of Southeast Asia.

A Japanese-Burmese expedition first climbed Hkakabo Razi in 1996, with Japanese climber Takashi Ozaki and local guide Nyama Gyaltsen reaching the summit.

Myo Thant said the young climbers did not use the path on the mountain's eastern face that was used in 1996. Instead they ascended from the north—a more difficult climb—and planted a Burmese flag on the summit, he said.

"It was a dream of the foundation to be able to climb to the summit as Myanmar climbers," he said.

Prior to the climb, the team had studied the mountain since 2011, climbing to the base camp at 12,800 (3,900 meters) in December 2012 and spending a total of 55 days on the mountain during that expedition. They also climbed other mountains in Kachin, Chin and Karen states, Pegu Division and in China's Yunnan Province.

The ION Foundation is planning to confirm the height of the peak when the team returns, in the hope of settling a dispute over whether it is higher than nearby Gamlan Razi.

Last year, a joint team of Burmese and Americans—with the backing of tycoon Tay Za—became the first to climb Gamlan Razi, and recorded its height as 19,258 feet (5,870 meters) above sea level. The team claimed that the mountain was actually the highest in the country, as the earlier estimate overstated Hkakabo Razi's height, which their digital estimations found could be less than 5,800 meters (19,028 feet).

The current expedition—which is expected to cost more than US$60,000—is supported by Kanbawza Bank and Premier Coffee.

The post Burmese Climbers Reach Hkakabo Razi's Peak appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Will the Karen Go Solo on the Nationwide Ceasefire?

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 03:56 AM PDT

Nai Hong Sar, in a white shirt, prepares for a UNFC meeting on Monday in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy)

Nai Hong Sar, in a white shirt, prepares for a UNFC meeting on Monday in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. (Photo: Saw Yan Naing / The Irrawaddy)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A threat by the Karen National Union (KNU) to withdraw from a major ethnic alliance has raised concerns that the Karen rebels will move ahead to sign a nationwide ceasefire accord with the government before other armed groups are ready.

On Monday morning, a faction of the KNU led by its chairman, Saw Mutu Say Poe, announced that the KNU would temporarily suspend its membership in the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an alliance of 12 ethnic groups. Another faction led by the KNU's deputy chairman, Naw Zipporah Sein, quickly followed up with its own announcement, saying it had no desire to follow suit. Now both sides are talking to see if they can reach an agreement.

The rift came as a shock to other ethnic groups in the UNFC, who have expressed concerns that their own negotiations with Burma's government may be affected by the recent developments.

Inside sources in the UNFC speculate that the KNU chairman and his followers might try to sign the nationwide ceasefire accord, perhaps as early as this month. The sources, requesting anonymity, said they believed the KNU chairman wanted to withdraw from the UNFC because other UNFC member groups were not yet ready to sign. Even the KNU's deputy chairman and her followers are not yet ready to sign, KNU sources say.

KNU general-secretary Kwe Htoo Win explained the chairman's reasons for leaving the UNFC. "Some of their policies and decisions don't match with our policy. Our circumstances are different, even though we have a common interest," he said. He added that the chair group of the UNFC, the Kachin Independence Organization, tended to dominate the alliance.

A well-informed KNU source—who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media—said it was clear that the strategies of the KNU and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), were heading in different directions. He speculated that disagreements could even lead to a coup by the KNLA.

Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, deputy commander-in-chief of the KNLA, wants to move cautiously with the peace process. "It is too early to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement," he said, adding that he worried that some KNU leaders would do so quickly and without proper consultation.

UNFC leaders are also requesting more time. "It is not that we don't want to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement," Nai Hong Sar, general-secretary of the UNFC, told The Irrawaddy. "We want to sign it, for sure. But we want to sign it later, after we reach a political settlement."

Before suspending the KNU's membership, Mutu Say Poe called for greater freedom to act apart from the UNFC. In a proposal submitted during the ongoing UNFC congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand, he said the KNU should have the authority to make decisions about its own affairs. "The destiny of the Karen will be created by the Karen," the proposal said.

The proposal also criticized a constitution that is being written by the UNFC as unrepresentative of all members, drawing comparisons with the undemocratic 2008 Constitution by the Burmese government. It also accused the UNFC of creating too much bureaucratic red tape.

Some UNFC members predict that the KNU will not be the only ethnic group to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement alone. They believe other groups that do not belong to the UNFC, including the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), will likely also sign the agreement individually.

They predict that if the government can secure signatures from these three groups, which each have strong militaries, while opening the door for other ethnic groups to sign later, it might be enough to please the international community without actually appeasing all ethnic groups.

The post Will the Karen Go Solo on the Nationwide Ceasefire? appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Burma Releases Preliminary Results From First Census in Decades

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 02:39 AM PDT

Burmese Immigration and Population Minister Khin Yi announces preliminary results of the nationwide census in Rangoon on Saturday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Burmese Immigration and Population Minister Khin Yi announces preliminary results of the nationwide census in Rangoon on Saturday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Preliminary results have been released from Burma's first census in since 1982, detailing the number of people who now live in the county's cities, states and divisions.

The results, released by the Ministry of Immigration and Population and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on Saturday, indicate that the total population of the country is 51.4 million—lower than many previous estimates. The government estimated there were more than 57 million people in Burma at the time of the 2008 Constitution referendum, and the number has been widely estimated at more than 60 million in recent years.

Millions have gone abroad as jobs in Burma have been scarce and poorly paid compared with the country's economically dynamic neighbors. Uneven migration may also account for the census' finding that there are almost 1.7 million more women than men in Burma.

"The provisional census data does not include migrant workers," Immigration and Population Minister
Khin Yi said at a press conference in Rangoon. "We don't know the number of Burmese migrant workers."

More detailed results expected in May 2015 will include some information on Burmese who are living overseas from immigration data, but many will likely still be missed out as they are working abroad illegally, mainly in Thailand and Malaysia.

Some areas could not be reached by census enumerators in March and April, so estimates have been made about the populations in those places.

More than 1 million people in Arakan State were not allowed to fill out the census as they insisted on identifying themselves as Rohingya, a name for a Muslim minority group that is not recognized by the government. This segment accounts for 31 percent of the total population of Arakan State.

Some 25 village tracts in Kachin State controlled by the Kachin Independence Army were not included in the census, but their population was estimated at 46,660. The government was also not able to take the census in areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) Brigade (5) in Karen State, but, according to KNU-provided data, the population there was 69,753.

According to the provisional census data, Burma's urban population is 14,864,119, accounting for 29.6 percent of the total. Rangoon tops the list of the most populous cities with 5,209,541 persons, followed by Mandalay with more than 1.23 million and the administrative capital Naypyidaw is third with more than 1.16 million.

Haka in Chin State has the smallest urban population with just 48,226 people, followed by Dawei in Tenasserim Division with 125,239 and Loikaw in Karenni State with 128,837.

Population density is highest in Rangoon Division with 723 persons per square kilometer. The population density for the city itself was not calculated.

The average population density across the country is 76 per square kilometer, with Chin State the most sparsely populated area with only 13 per square kilometer, followed by Kachin State with 19 per square kilometer.

The post Burma Releases Preliminary Results From First Census in Decades appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

KNU Chairman Threatens to Withdraw From Ethnic Alliance

Posted: 01 Sep 2014 12:27 AM PDT

Members of the UNFC at the congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Saturday. (Photo: Seamus Martov / The Irrawaddy)

Members of the UNFC at the congress in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Saturday. (Photo: Seamus Martov / The Irrawaddy)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In a heated twist to the congress of a major ethnic alliance, the chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU) walked out in the middle of meetings over the weekend and threatened to withdraw from the grouping.

Mutu Say Poe, chairman of the KNU, which is one of the biggest rebel groups in Burma, left the congress of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) on Sunday morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand, citing disagreements over policy and the council's structure. He was joined by the KNU's deputy chairman and secretary, as well as a member of its central executive committee and an administrative staffer.

But two other KNU delegates stayed behind—including joint secretary Padoh Mahn Mahn as well as David Tharckabaw, who is deputy chairman of the UNFC—revealing a new schism in the already divided Karen rebel group. On Monday, while the faction led by Mutu Say Poe said in a letter to the UNFC that they were indefinitely suspending their membership in the alliance, the other faction said in a separate letter that they wanted to remain members. Both sides will meet to discuss the matter before making a final decision, the letters said.

The KNU's participation or absence from the UNFC could have ramifications as the government seeks to sign a nationwide ceasefire deal with ethnic rebel groups around the country. While some KNU leaders have been cautious about engaging in peace talks after six decades of civil war, the chairman is more pro-government and enthusiastic about the nationwide ceasefire deal.

He and the four other KNU delegates walked out of the UNFC congress after calling for changes to the ethnic alliance's structure that were widely opposed. "A majority of UNFC members do not agree with the KNU's proposed structure," Nai Hong Sar, general secretary of the UNFC, told The Irrawaddy. "So they [the KNU] said they needed to discuss with their leaders back at their headquarters."

The UNFC is currently led by a chairman and deputy chairman, with a central executive committee and a policy implementation body. Mutu Say Poe proposed a looser structure, with a new "political leadership body" leading policy and the secretariat to implement policy—changes that would likely decrease the KNU's responsibility.

Nai Hong Sar said confusion over the KNU's membership in the UNFC would not spill over to ceasefire negotiations with the government. "It will have no effect on the KNU's representation in the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)," he said, referring to a grouping of 16 ethnic groups, including many from the UNFC, which is preparing to sign the nationwide ceasefire deal. Nai Hong Sar and a KNU secretary Pado Kwe Htoo Win are both spokesmen for the NCCT.

The UNFC is holding its first congress in three and a half years. The meetings were expected to wrap up late last week but were continuing on Monday.

With reporting by Saw Yan Naing.

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Ethnic Strife Blurs Burma’s First Census in 30 Years

Posted: 31 Aug 2014 09:58 PM PDT

A volunteer collects census data in Arakan State. (Photo: Reuters)

A volunteer collects census data in Arakan State. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Following an incomplete count due to ethnic conflicts in parts of the country, Burma said on Saturday that its first census in 30 years shows the population to be 51.4 million, some 10 million less than expected.

The provisional findings of the census, taken between March and April with support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), was released by Minister of Immigration and Population U Khin Yi.

The census was mired in controversy from the outset, as the government and UNFPA were criticized for basing the counting on 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, a classification that critics say is outdated and inaccurate.
Ethnic groups said their political representation and claims to ethnicity would be compromised if they were undercounted.

The estimated population included some 1.2 million people who were not counted in three areas affected by ethnic conflicts: northern Arakan, and Kachin and Karen states.

The government said that the estimate of 1.09 million uncounted people in northern Arakan State was based on pre-census mapping of households by immigration officers.

Much of the controversy surrounded the counting of the Rohingya—Muslims who live in western Arakan State and who are often described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

The government had promised international sponsors that ethnic groups could choose their classification. But a day before the census kicked off, presidential spokesman Ye Htut indicated that use of the term Rohingya would be prohibited, so those who wanted to identify themselves as Rohingya were excluded from the count.

The government describes the Rohingya as Bengalis, a term that implies they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. However, most have lived in Burma for centuries.

Preliminary findings from the census also found a gender gap, with 26.6 million females and 24.8 million males, and it also showed the population pressures building up in the country's cities.

"For the first time in decades, the country will have data it needs to put roads, schools, health facilities and other essential infrastructure where people need them most," Janet Jackson, the UNFPA representative in Burma, said in a news release. More detailed data will be released in May 2015.

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