Friday, July 3, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Garment Industry Rejects Minimum Wage Proposal

Posted: 03 Jul 2015 03:46 AM PDT

Workers iron and arrange clothing at a garment factory at Hlaing Tar Yar industrial zone in Rangoon on March 10, 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

Workers iron and arrange clothing at a garment factory at Hlaing Tar Yar industrial zone in Rangoon on March 10, 2010. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Garment manufacturers in Rangoon announced that they will push back against a minimum wage proposed by the Burmese government, claiming they cannot afford to pay laborers the 3,600 kyats (US$3.24) per eight-hour day recommended by an expert committee.

More than 150 members of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) convened on Thursday to discuss the proposal, which was announced earlier this week by Burma's National Minimum Wage Committee.

Following two years of research and analysis, the committee settled on the number based on recommendations by both unions and employers against escalating commodity prices in Burma's emerging market.

Once approved, the wage would apply to all sectors with the exception of small and family-owned businesses employing less than 15 people.

The committee's memo, published in state media, invited individuals and organizations to submit appeals and recommendations within two weeks, after which a stakeholder meeting will be held before a wage is officially enacted.

The MGMA members, a mix of mostly South Korean, Chinese and a handful of Burmese factory owners told reporters that they plan to formally oppose the proposal and submit an alternative offer of 2,500 kyats per day for all those working in the cutting, measuring and packaging (CMP) industry.

Khaing Khaing Nwe, the secretary of MGMA, said employers in CMP would agree to gradually increasing the wage to 3,600 kyats over the coming years if manufacturers find that they can support the raise.

"As we get paid for the job when it's done," she said, "we can't afford to raise the price of the product. We depend on our orders."

Manufacturing associations representing Chinese and South Korean factories—which are members of the MGMA but spoke on behalf of their national associates—warned that they would shut down operations in September if the proposed wage were implemented.

Representatives said that about 30 Chinese and 60 Korean factories employing some 200,000 workers would be affected by the wage and would likely cease working in Burma due to the costs.

Burma's budding garment industry has presented the loudest opposition to the proposed minimum wage, which is higher than that of neighboring Bangladesh, but still one of the lowest in the region.

Minimum wages vary by region in Vietnam and China, but both float above $100 per month across sectors in most regions. In Cambodia, which also has an enormous garment manufacturing industry, the minimum wage is set at $128 plus bonuses and overtime, leaving the average garment worker with a salary of $183 to $200 per month, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Trade representatives in Burma have lobbied for quick implementation of the country's minimum wage, warning dissenting voices in the garment sector that they risk slowing down the process for millions of other employees. Aung Lin, chairman of the Myanmar Trade Union Federation (MTUF), said the wage needs to be implemented immediately to avoid predatory investment in all sectors.

"Foreign investors will look out for their own interests, they will not prioritize the development of our people's human resources," he said. "We cannot say that a situation whereby people from this country are barely surviving, nearly starving, is good enough. We have to think about upgrading it."

Additional reporting contributed by Thit Nay Moe.

The post Garment Industry Rejects Minimum Wage Proposal appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Military Opposition to Charter Change Could Entrench Public Trust Deficit

Posted: 03 Jul 2015 03:23 AM PDT


Lawmakers cast ballots on possible amendments to the constitution in Naypyidaw on June 25 (Photo: Reuters)

Lawmakers cast ballots on possible amendments to the constitution in Naypyidaw on June 25 (Photo: Reuters)

The military's opposition to constitutional amendments, recently shot down in Burma's Parliament, may harm efforts to conclude a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups and could undermine trust between the government and the international community, who have closely watched the reform process under President Thein Sein.

This is the view of various lawmakers who, speaking during recent parliamentary deliberations, have said that broader reforms will not go further without the support of the Burma Army to amend parts of the military-drafted 2008 charter.

Only constitutional change will demonstrate that the military and the government are genuine about instituting a democratic, federal system in the country which provides for the full rights of all ethnic nationalities.

Many MPs, including Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) members, supported amending several articles, including article 436 which states that key amendments to the charter require the support of 75 percent of the Parliament.

"Without supporting votes from [military MPs], we could not reach the 75 percent [threshold] to amend the article. We cannot amend the constitution if they keep blocking it in parliament," said Pe Than of the Arakan National Party.

The government claims to support the establishment of a federal system, but this requires acknowledging the rights and views of ethnic people, including those ethnic parliamentarians calling for constitutional change.

The vetoing of key changes to the nation's charter could have far-reaching ramifications for the ongoing peace process which the incumbent government is desperate to finalize before the end of its term in office.

"The leaders of ethnic armed groups will not have trust in the army or parliament anymore," said Pe Than, adding that this waning trust could make it difficult to conclude a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

"I feel that [military lawmakers] are sitting in parliament to protect their constitution. We cannot amend their constitution unless they allow us to do it. This will only lead to [cementing] military dictatorship in this country while the democratic system fades," he said.

This reporter believes that the Burma Army should focus on protecting the country's security, not intervening in politics, and should set a time frame outlining their withdrawal from the political stage. There are enough challenges in reforming this country without the military flexing its muscle in parliament.

Min Oo, a National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker from Pegu Division, voiced concerns over the army's latest legislative intervention while addressing a parliamentary session on Thursday.

"I am concerned that the image of the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] will fade if the Constitution is not amended. We have seen that the Tatmadaw has more power than other lawmakers and civil servants in the country. This is why this [article 436] should be amended," he said.

"If the Tatmadaw wants respect from the people, it should not take more power than the people. They should demonstrate that the army and civilians have equal rights."

Some proposed constitutional amendments do appear to enjoy at least a level of support among the ruling USDP. Speaking in parliament on Thursday, USDP lawmaker Aung Thein Lin said his party supported amending article 262, to allow elected parliamentarians in states and divisions to select their own chief ministers.

"Ethnic [nationalities] want their own people to run their region. But [at present] the president can appoint his own minister to run their regions. Our party has proposed to amend this article in order to have peace," Aung Thein Lin said.

NLD MP Khin Mwe Lwin said amending some sections of the constitution was the only path to achieving true democracy in the country. Amendments, in turn, the MP said, could enhance trust between Burma and the international community and attract more aid and investment.

For Pe Than, the sooner the unelected military bloc of MPs exits parliament, the better.

"If they keep blocking amendments to the constitution in parliament, people will run out of patience," he said. "They blocked all [the clauses] we tried to amend, so there is no road to reform. Our people have no trust in them."

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Interview with Christoph Burgener

Posted: 03 Jul 2015 02:35 AM PDT

Outgoing Swiss Ambassador to Burma Christoph Burgener, who attended a preliminary meeting of ethnic peace negotiators in Chiang Mai on Thursday, speaks to The Irrawaddy about Switzerland's involvement in the peace process and progress towards a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

The post Interview with Christoph Burgener appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Nai Hong Sar: ‘If They Continue to Hold a Hard Line, Peace Will Be Difficult’

Posted: 03 Jul 2015 02:34 AM PDT

Nai Hong Sar, a senior negotiator for Burma's ethnic armed groups, says

Nai Hong Sar, a senior negotiator for Burma's ethnic armed groups, says "not just yet" to calls for disarmament from the commander in chief. (Photo: Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

With the road to peace in Burma looking bumpier than ever, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing met with China's Asian affairs envoy Sun Guoxiang this week in Naypyidaw, where the commander in chief told the visiting diplomat that it was important for the country's ethnic armed rebels to abandon their armed struggle and lay down their guns, a process in conflict resolution circles known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).

But with trust in the Burma Army damaged due to ongoing conflict between the government and at least three ethnic armed groups, some have balked at the idea of disarming in the face of a powerful military establishment still willing to engage in hostilities with ethnic rebels.

Nai Hong Sar, leader of the ethnic armed groups' Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and a member of a recently created negotiating body that intends to replace the NCCT, spoke to The Irrawaddy this week about apprehensions when it comes to DDR and security sector reform, as well as discussing the broader peace process.

The commander in chief on Monday told the Chinese diplomat Sun Guoxiang that ethnic rebels should accept the DDR process. What is your take on that?

Yes, he did. They [the military] said so in March too. They would like us to initiate a DDR process. But we can't disarm and demobilize all of our troops given that [the military] was not trustworthy for more than 60 years. Our country does not fully enjoy democratic rights. Considering that the military has taken up a very large share of power, we can't accept the one-sided view that all of our troops must be disarmed and demobilized.

We accept the principle that there must be only one military in a country. However, much will depend on whether or not a federal union will be established, and whether or not the military will be restructured in line with that federal union. They [the military] do not seem open to changing at all and we can't accept that.

We would like to turn our troops into something like state security forces, which would be under the military leadership of the entire country. By separating the troops like that, it would prevent the military from staging a coup. Again, because of our experience and distrust in the military, I think it would be better to do something like that to provide a guarantee for both sides.

Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing also said that everyone, every organization, should act in line with the law as the country is moving forward to multi-party democracy. What are your thoughts on that?

The phrase 'in line with the law' can be interpreted in different ways. For example, if we sign a ceasefire, we will have to abide by the laws of the government in the country. But the phrase 'in line with the law' can mean all of our freedoms are controlled by their laws in negotiating with them about the future. So, how can we accept that? If we did, we would not be able to do anything.

They have called for adhering to all the laws, including the 2008 Constitution. Today, we are holding political talks with them [on equal terms] and we should have our own freedoms. It is unacceptable that one side totally controls the other with its laws.

I heard that the government and the military do not accept the amended nationwide ceasefire agreement drafted by ethnic armed groups at Law Khee Lar [last month in Karen State] as well as the new negotiating team formed there. What can you tell me about that?

I am not sure about that. At first, that was the case, but then U Aung Min [the government's chief peace negotiator] agreed to meet and give us their response. Until then, we have no idea.

Is it a cause for concern with regard to the peace process that the commander in chief is calling for DDR under such circumstances?

If [the government and military] continue to hold a hardline attitude, it will be difficult to achieve [peace]. The government often implies that we are [deliberately] delaying [the peace process] or that we do not want to sign a ceasefire during the term of the current government. This is not true. In fact, we want a secure situation. Under such circumstances, the sooner a ceasefire is achieved, the better.
But we want a secure situation.

Ethnic armed groups have said the nationwide ceasefire should be open to all ethnic armed groups, but the government does not appear to be receptive to the idea. What's your view on this impasse?

They do not accept the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army [MNDAA], Ta'ang National Liberation Army [TNLA] and Arakan Army into the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement]. They have not yet stated clearly whether they would consider accepting those three groups. And we are very unhappy about that.

We stated clearly before signing the NCA draft on March 31, and it is also written into the bilateral agreement, that we were only signing a draft version of the NCA. A draft is not final. We, the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, can't make the final decision. The Union Peacemaking Working Committee [UPWC] will have to submit the draft to the Union Peacemaking Central Committee [UPCC]. Likewise, we also have to submit the draft to top [ethnic armed group] leaders so that they can amend and add clauses as necessary.

After that, we will have to hold another round of talks. We have clearly stated that [we have to submit the draft to our leaders and seek their approval] in the [bilateral] agreement. It was also reported by the media. But now, [the government] says they do not want to amend and add clauses to the draft NCA. And we are very sorry to hear that. It is disappointing. They said one thing in the past and are saying another at present. How can we trust them?

The post Nai Hong Sar: 'If They Continue to Hold a Hard Line, Peace Will Be Difficult' appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Thein Sein To Consider Second Term: Japanese Media

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 11:37 PM PDT

Burma's President Thein Sein attends a session of the 21st Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh in 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Burma's President Thein Sein attends a session of the 21st Asean and East Asia summits in Phnom Penh in 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — In a rare interview with Japanese news agency NHK, Burma's President urged infrastructure investment and indicated that he would consider seeking a second term as head of state.

The comments were made during Thein Sein's visit to Tokyo to attend the 7th Mekong-Japan Summit.

"I hope Japan will invest actively to improve infrastructure and create jobs in our country," Thein Sein told NHK, adding that he would consider a second term if that were the will of the people.

NHK World reported on Friday that "Thein Sein indicated that he will seek re-election."

Burma's state-run Global New Light of Myanmar provided a lighter take on Friday, reporting that "he placed more emphasis on peace and development than party politics," and that he would "carry out everything he could for the national interests."

Burma's landmark general election is set to place in early November, the first nationwide poll since elections in 2010 that were boycotted by the opposition and largely considered fraudulent.

The newly elected Parliament will nominate a president to take office early next year.

President Thein Sein took office in 2011, and has since led a "reformist" administration through the subsequent transition from military rule to quasi-civilian leadership.

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Karen Leaders Prepare for National Conference

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 11:04 PM PDT

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RANGOON — Preliminary meetings ahead of the forthcoming Karen National Conference kicked off in Rangoon on Thursday, uniting ethnic Karen people from various parts of the country to discuss potential post-ceasefire political dialogue.

Initial meetings held at the Myanmar Convention Center focused on consolidating a Karen agenda in preparation for the summit, during which a more concrete plan will be hammered out.

Padoh man Nyein Maung, a central committee member of the Karen National Union (KNU), said the group aims to cement a unified vision in the face of a fast-changing political situation, proclaiming that "the decisions to be made by the conference will reflect the needs of the entire Karen people."

In its pre-conference message to the Karen people, the KNU central committee said it remained committed to securing a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA),and vowed not to reverse progress made with the government to that end.

The pre-conference will also cover specific issues such as the confiscation of minority peoples' farmlands, according to Karen Ethnic Affairs Minister for Rangoon Division Saw Tun Aung Myint.

Other issues to be discussed include politics, social security, education and the preservation of language and literature, he said.

The preliminary meeting will take place from July 2 to 4, and the Karen National Conference should take place during the last week of this month, according to Karen peace and women's rights activist Susanna Hla Hla Soe.

Political dialogue will commence within 90 days of signing long-awaited nationwide ceasefire agreement. A recent shake-up of the ethnic negotiating team triggered speculation that the peace process, which has been ongoing for about 17 months, will carry on long into the next administration.

Government negotiators, however, have expressed optimism that a peace accord could be achieved before elections that are set to be held in November.

This week's preliminary meeting was organized by the Karen Unity and Peace Committee and will be attended by religious leaders, ethnic armed group representatives, political figures, youth organizations, CSOs, lawmakers and Karen representatives from various parts of the country.

The post Karen Leaders Prepare for National Conference appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Forced Labor Shows Back-Breaking Lack of Reform in Burma’s Military

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:59 PM PDT

 A victim of forced labor displays the scars on his shoulder during a Reuters interview in a village at Buthidaung Township in northern Arakan State on June 10, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

A victim of forced labor displays the scars on his shoulder during a Reuters interview in a village at Buthidaung Township in northern Arakan State on June 10, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

BUTHIDAUNG, Arakan State — In the fertile river valleys near Burma's border with Bangladesh, stateless Rohingya Muslims say there is no let-up in soldiers forcing them into hard labor, despite the government launching a campaign three years ago to end the practice.

The military, which ruled Burma for nearly half a century before handing power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, has vowed to end forced labor. President Thein Sein, a former general, promised in 2012 to eradicate what was once a military custom within three years.

But army units in the north of Burma's restive Arakan State still routinely force minority Rohingya to porter loads, tend military-owned fields and maintain military infrastructure, according to interviews with 16 villagers in three hamlets.

Evidence of ongoing forced labor could complicate Burma's efforts to convince the United States to drop sanctions introduced during military rule.

The northern borderlands of Arakan State are closed to foreigners, and access by UN agencies and humanitarian organizations is tightly controlled by the government. A Reuters team had to seek special permission from the state government to visit.

In the area, villagers described cases in which two local units—Light Infantry Battalion 552 and Light Infantry Battalion 352—pressed scores of villagers into work in recent months, sometimes accompanied by beatings or threats of violence.

Burma's military did not respond to questions on forced labor and the central government spokesman, Ye Htut, declined to comment.

Maung Maung Ohn, the chief minister of Arakan State, denied that the military carried out forced labor there.

"If forced labor was really happening in Rakhine [Arakan] State, we would have already heard about it and taken action," Maung Maung Ohn said.

But the villagers said the practice was widespread. They spoke on condition that they only be identified by their first names, and that the names of their hamlets not be mentioned, out of fear of retribution by the army.

Rohingya teenager Sadek said he was walking along a dusty village street in early May when a soldier grabbed him by the collar and, wordlessly, dragged him away.

Along with 31 other men and boys, Sadek said he was loaded up with heavy sacks of rice and ordered by soldiers of 552 Battalion to march for two days through forest-covered hills with little food and water—and no pay. Some who resisted were beaten.

"By the end of it, I felt like I was going to die," the 15-year-old said, adding he was released after some days.

Sadek's story was backed by five other villagers who said they were dragooned into becoming porters with him.

Behind forced labor in Arakan State is a cocktail of military impunity, racism, and a system that encourages local army units to be economically self-reliant, said Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, a rights group that focuses on the Rohingya.

The Arakan Project has received information on up to 8,000 Rohingya, including hundreds of children, forced to work in 2014, Lewa said. The military was the overwhelming perpetrator.

"Anyone can take advantage of Rohingya. The authorities treat them as beasts of burden, as slaves," she said.

Forced labor has actually dropped in much of Arakan State where police or civilian agencies are in control, but persists in border areas like Buthidaung Township in Arakan State, which is dotted with military bases, she said.

Forced labor is in turn helping fuel an exodus of Rohingya that has seen more than 100,000 flee the state in the last three years on often-deadly boat journeys with human traffickers, said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.

"Part of the reason people are getting on boats is because of abuses like this," he said.

In two of the hamlets, villagers complained of recruitment by both 552 Battalion and 352 Battalion for work maintaining military bases and ploughing, planting and harvesting military-owned fields. Some work was unpaid, while in other areas wages up to 1,000 kyat (US$0.90) per day, were given along with rice.

In one village near the base of 352 Battalion, the villagers said they were obliged to send five men per day to work for the unit.

In early June, two village leaders were detained overnight at the base after objecting to the arrangement, said one of the detained men, Noor, 42.

"Some villagers say 'don't send anyone.' But we really can't deny the army," Noor said.

The post Forced Labor Shows Back-Breaking Lack of Reform in Burma's Military appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

India’s Push to Save Its Cows Starves Bangladesh of Beef

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:45 PM PDT

A Sadhu or a Hindu holyman tends to a newborn calf at a goushala or a cow shelter in the old quarters of Delhi on June 19, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

A Sadhu or a Hindu holyman tends to a newborn calf at a goushala or a cow shelter in the old quarters of Delhi on June 19, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

GHOJADANGA, India / DHAKA, Bangladesh — Some 30,000 Indian soldiers guarding the border with Bangladesh have a new mandate under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government this year—stop cattle from crossing illegally into the Muslim-majority neighbor.

Roughly every other night, troops armed with bamboo sticks and ropes wade through jute and paddy fields and swim across ponds to chase ageing bovines, and smugglers, headed for markets in Bangladesh.

The crackdown is one of the clearest signs yet of how Indian policies, increasingly influenced by Hindu nationalist ideology, are having an economic impact on neighboring countries as well as the sizeable Muslim minority at home.

About 2 million head of cattle are smuggled into Bangladesh annually from India. The $600 million-a-year trade has flourished over the past four decades and is considered legal by Dhaka.

Modi's government, which came to power with the help of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wants to put an end to it.

Interior Minister Rajnath Singh traveled this spring to the frontier with Bangladesh, calling on India's Border Security Force to halt cattle smuggling completely so that the "people of Bangladesh give up eating beef," media reported at the time.

"Killing or smuggling a cow is equivalent to raping a Hindu girl or destroying a Hindu temple," said Jishnu Basu, an RSS spokesman in West Bengal, which shares a 2,216 km (1,375 miles) border with Bangladesh.

So far this year, BSF soldiers have seized 90,000 cattle and caught 400 Indian and Bangladeshi smugglers.

Bangladeshi traders who operate auctions to facilitate the sale of cattle to slaughter houses, beef processing units, tanneries and bone crushing factories estimate the industry contributed 3 percent to the country's $190 billion economy.

The hit to GDP from India's policies is not yet known. But H.T. Imam, a political adviser to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said there was "absolutely no doubt" that the beef trade and leather industry were suffering.

Syed Hasan Habib of Bengal Meat, Bangladesh's top beef exporter, said it had to cut international orders by 75 percent. The company exports 125 tons of beef a year to Gulf countries.

He said the price of cows had gone up by 40 percent over the past six months because of India's move, and they had been forced to close two processing units.

Habib plans to import cows from Nepal, Bhutan and Burma to meet domestic demand, but he said Indian cows had better quality meat and raw hide.

Bangladesh Tanners Association president Shaheen Ahmed said 30 of 190 tanneries had suspended work due to lack of hides, and about 4,000 workers were jobless.

A senior official in India's home ministry said Bangladesh should find new sources of beef because India would stick to its stance.

India is home to 300 million cattle and is the world's largest beef exporter and fifth-biggest consumer.

But since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which is closely linked to the RSS, came to power last year, the rhetoric on cow protection and the beef ban has increased.

Critics say tougher anti-beef laws discriminate against Muslims, Christians and lower-caste Hindus who rely on the cheap meat for protein. Butchers and cattle traders, many of them Muslim, say the push threatens thousands of jobs.

The rhetoric has also emboldened vigilante cow protectors.

"I was chained to a tree and beaten by members of the cow protection force. They forced me to recite a Hindu prayer," said Mohammed Tarafdar, who was caught smuggling two calves near the Bangladesh border in April.

"My religion permits me to eat and sell beef, so why should Hindus have a problem?" said Tarafdar, sitting in a crammed prison cell in Basirhat district.

Some BSF soldiers said they could not understand why they were chasing cows. Some animals are caught and auctioned by the BSF, only to be bought and smuggled again.

Two soldiers were killed by a gang of Bangladeshi smugglers, while three dozen have been injured by the animals.

"It is a wild chase, but not of a kind a soldier appreciates," said Vivek Tyagi, a BSF commander at the Ghojadanga check post.

The post India's Push to Save Its Cows Starves Bangladesh of Beef appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Southeast Asia Plans Fund to Help Migrants, But Offers Decried as Inadequate

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:08 PM PDT

Migrants react aboard a boat tethered to a Thai navy vessel in waters near Koh Lipe island on May 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Migrants react aboard a boat tethered to a Thai navy vessel in waters near Koh Lipe island on May 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

KUALA LUMPUR — Southeast Asian nations proposed on Thursday setting up a fund to tackle illegal migration, in one of the first coordinated actions after thousands of "boat people" arrived on the region's shores, but rights groups dismissed the offers as mere tokens.

And representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) who met in Kuala Lumpur gave no updates on efforts to rescue hundreds believed still stranded at sea.

More than 4,000 migrants have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma and Bangladesh since Thailand launched a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs in May. The United Nations estimates 1,200 people are still at sea, most of them Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

Some Asean members pledged monetary support for sheltering migrants after Malaysia said it alone should not be burdened with the problem.

"I proposed, although not all Asean officials have agreed, a minimum of $100,000," said Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi.

Singapore's Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Masagos Zulkifli, said the island nation pledged $200,000.

But the sums were dismissed as insufficient by rights groups.

"The money may not even last a month, depending on what they use it for," Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

Commenting on the missing boat people, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, Ahmad Pozi Abdul Kahar, said "they might be turning back to their own country."

He did not elaborate but many boats are believed to be drifting freely after being abandoned by the traffickers.

Burma has said that very few of the migrants in the boat crisis were Burmese nationals.

Most of Burma's 1.1 million Rohingya are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in the western state of Arakan. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with majority Buddhists in Arakan State in 2012. They are denied citizenship and have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination.

"Not all [boat migrants] come from Myanmar Rohingya, only one third," said Zahid, adding that "the rest come from Bangladesh and other small states near the Bay of Bengal."

Asean's reluctance to call out its member Burma on the refugee crisis is seen as another step backwards in resolving the crisis.

"Asean states need to step up and admit that one of the member states, Myanmar, is one of the root causes of the crisis," said Sunai.

"Failure to address the root causes will lead to a situation that no matter how much Asean makes donations, it will never be able to match up with the gravity of the problem."

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Ethnic Peace Team Meets in Thailand Before Govt Talks

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 05:15 PM PDT

Naw Zipporah Sein (L) and Swiss Ambassador Christoph Burgener (C) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on July 2, 2015. (Photo: Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy)

Naw Zipporah Sein (L) and Swiss Ambassador Christoph Burgener (C) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on July 2, 2015. (Photo: Nyein Nyein / The Irrawaddy)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — In the lead-up to a meeting with the Burmese government's chief peace negotiator, ethnic leaders convened in northern Thailand on Thursday to discuss the nation's peace process.

A Special Delegation team, formed at an ethnic leadership summit in Karen State last month, has stepped in as the negotiating bloc of Burma's ethnic armed groups during peace talks with the government.

The governemnt's negotiating body, the Union Peace-making Working Committee (UPWC), has yet to formally accept the group as its counterpart, but will send its chief liaison, Aung Min, for initial talks in Chiang Mai on Friday.

The UPWC and the now-defunct Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), which was replaced by the delegation, agreed to a preliminary draft of a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in late March, but the newly formed body takes issue with several parts of the accord.

Last month's surprise shake-up triggered fears among analysts that the 17-month process could be prolonged further due to lingering disagreements about the document.

Naw Zipporah Sein, leader of the delegation and vice-chairperson of the Karen National Union (KNU), told reporters on Thursday that the new team is committed to finding an acceptable path to peace.

"We will discuss with the government about how to continue the peace process, to find a way forward in the nationawide ceasefire process and achieve peace," she said.

Several issues are outstanding in talks between union peacemakers and the new bloc, but Zipporah Sein said this week's conference will be an initial meeting focused mainly on setting a timeframe for further discussions.

"We will share [with the government] our aims for the Special Delegation. It was formed by decision of high-level ethnic leaders, and [our goal] is to be able to move forward with talks toward achieving the NCA," she said.

Thursday's meeting was joined briefly by outgoing Swiss Ambassador to Burma Christoph Burgener, who was in Thailand for a brief visit. Switzerland is the current chair of the Peace Support Group (PSG), an international donor coordination network.

Addressing the delegation members at the end of the meeting, Burgener said he came to pay respect to players in the nation's peace process as he was leaving his post.

"I would like to pay respect to all the stakeholders… so I came here to Chiang Mai to say goodbye to the ethnic leaders," he said, "to assure all the stakeholders, the ethnic minority groups as well, that Switzerland will support them in the peace process."

Burgener said he had witnessed "huge progress" toward peace throughout his tenure.

"I hope the dynamics will go on. The worry is that these dynamics will come to a standstill and would be the worst [outcome]," he said.

Remarking on the current state of negotiations, the delegation's second-in-command, La Ja of the Kachin Independence Army, reiterated the group's commitment to picking up where the NCCT left off.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of Thursday's meeting, La Ja expressed optimism.

"We hope for the best," he said. "We, both sides, can find a way to overcome the current deadlock."

The post Ethnic Peace Team Meets in Thailand Before Govt Talks appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Military Slams Proposal for States to Choose Chief Ministers

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:57 AM PDT

 Aung San Suu Kyi walks past military MPs as she is about to take the admission oath in Burma's Parliament in 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Aung San Suu Kyi walks past military MPs as she is about to take the admission oath in Burma's Parliament in 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Burma's unelected military lawmakers on Wednesday argued firmly against a proposed constitutional amendment that would grant state-level parliaments the right to nominate chief ministers.

At present, chief ministers are appointed by the president and subject to approval by sub-national legislatures.

The proposed changes to Article 261 (b), (c), (d) and (e) would invert the process, granting the nominating power to state lawmakers, subject to the president's endorsement.

The proposal would allow the president to turn down a candidate, at which point the state or divisional Parliament would offer another elected prospect.

The Union Parliament's military contingent spoke out against the proposal when it was floored for debate on Wednesday, with members claiming it would disrupt the balance of power between the legislature and the administration.

Military lawmaker Brig-Gen Aung Kyaw spoke on behalf of his unelected peers, arguing that such a change would allow the legislature to influence the president.

"Appointment of a chief minister with the approval of the regional Parliament is power-sharing at its best, and [provides] checks and balances between the two branches," Aung Kyaw said, claiming that opposing agendas in various regions could lead to nominations that benefited the interests of some while ultimately jeopardizing national unity.

"As our country is now in a transitional period, stability is the main concern," he continued. "Changes to this article should not be made at this moment, and we should leave them alone."

Wednesday's discussion was part of a series of parliamentary sessions regarding constitutional reform. Last week, the Union Parliament voted down a seminal proposal geared toward curbing the military's power in Parliament.

The military-drafted charter reserves 25 percent of seats for unelected uniformed representatives, and requires that most amendments be backed by more than 75 percent of lawmakers, effectively granting veto power to the armed forces.

Article 261 is among the provisions requiring a super-majority for amendment, making it unlikely to pass when it comes to a vote.


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Htin Lin Oo’s Appeal Rejected in Religious Offense Case

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 07:47 AM PDT


Htin Lin Oo outside the Chaung-U Township court on June 2. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Htin Lin Oo outside the Chaung-U Township court on June 2. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

The Monywa District court rejected an appeal on Monday against the two year sentence handed down to columnist and former National League for Democracy (NLD) member Htin Lin Oo for offending religious feeling, according to his lawyer.

"The district court said the appeal could not be heard as they should not interfere with the decision of the Chaung-U court," said lawyer San Tun Aung.

On June 2, the Chaung-U Township court sentenced the former NLD information officer to two years' imprisonment with hard labor under the Penal Code's Article 295a, which prohibits "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings."

Htin Lin Oo is serving his sentence in Monywa Prison where he is due to remain until December 2017.

"We don't understand why the district court couldn't interfere with the decision of the township court. We will try to submit an appeal again to the divisional court. We believe the divisional court will accept the appeal if there is rule of law," said San Tun Aung.

Htin Lin Oo's sentence stems from a speech he gave at a literary event in Chaung-U Township in October, during which he spoke out against the use of Buddhism in the service of discrimination and ultra-nationalism.

A 10-minute excerpt of the speech was widely shared on social media and attracted the attention of some influential critics, including the Buddhist nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, also known as Ma Ba Tha, and the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union.

While around 50 Ma Ba Tha members gathered outside the courthouse for the verdict last month, the township court's judge determined that Htin Lin Oo's speech had deliberately defamed the Buddhist religion.

The NLD sought to distance themselves from their colleague, first relieving him of his position then expelling him from the party altogether.

The post Htin Lin Oo's Appeal Rejected in Religious Offense Case appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Student Protesters Charged for Rally Against Military MPs

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 03:05 AM PDT

Student leader ZeyaLwin gives a speech during a protest against military representatives in Parliament in front of City Hall in Rangoon on June 30, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Student leader ZeyaLwin gives a speech during a protest against military representatives in Parliament in front of City Hall in Rangoon on June 30, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Five student leaders involved in a protest in Rangoon against the continued presence of military lawmakers in Parliament have been charged with unlawful assembly, according to a senior police officer in the commercial capital.

On Tuesday, a peaceful march led by students in downtown Rangoon drew several hundred protesters, with demonstrators calling on the military to relinquish its constitutionally guaranteed allotment of 25 percent of seats in the Union Parliament and regional legislatures.

The protest took place five days after Parliament rejected a handful of proposed changes to the country's 2008 Constitution. The vote took place via secret ballot, but in deliberations leading up to it, arguments for and against changes to the charter broke cleanly: Elected parliamentarians spoke in favor of the proposed amendments, while lawmakers appointed by the military argued against the changes that ultimately failed to win enough votes, leading many to conclude that the military voted as a bloc against the bill.

Police Lt-Col KyawHtut of Rangoon's Western district, where the protest took place, confirmed that the student leaders have been charged under Article 18 of Burma's Peaceful Assembly Law.

"We filed a case against Zeya Lwin, Paing Ye Thu and three others under Article 18 yesterday at Kyauktada and Pabedan[townships'] police stations because they didn't seek permission," KyawHtuttold The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

"If we are able to identify more participants of the protest, we will charge them," he added.

Paing Ye Thu, one of the protest leaders, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that he hadnot received any official indication from police that charges were being brought against him. He added that he would boycott any trial that might result from Tuesday's protest.

"I would neither go to the court hearing nor apply for bail. Instead, I would go to jail," he said, describing his decision as a stand in principle against Article 18.

Article 18 stipulates thatorganizers of any rally in Burmareceive prior permission from relevant authorities,with violators subject to a maximum sentence of sixmonths in prison and/or a fine not exceeding 30,000 kyats (US$25).

"We did what we believe was something for the good of the country," Paing Ye Thu said."All people know it. We will face whatever comes."

Additional reporting by May SittPaing.

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Aid Transparency Improving but Not Enough: Report

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 03:03 AM PDT

 An infographic released in June by the organization Publish What You Fund showed there was little transparency in relation to aid to Myanmar in 2013.  (Graphic: Courtesy of Publish What You Fund)

An infographic released in June by the organization Publish What You Fund showed there was little transparency in relation to aid to Myanmar in 2013. (Graphic: Courtesy of Publish What You Fund)

RANGOON — International aid donors are falling short on commitments to provide open data on their spending and operations in developing countries, according to a report released in Washington on Wednesday.

In 2011, major international development donors, including many of those currently active in Burma, committed to improving aid effectiveness by providing open information on their spending, in part through the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), a voluntary code.

While some US donors are making progress, most, including the largest aid funder, USAID, are falling short of reaching agreed transparency standards by the end of this year, according to the 2015 US Aid Transparency Review released by the Publish What You Fund alliance group.

A similar review of European Union donors released in June found that organizations such as Sweden's SIDA and the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) were "very good" at fulfilling reporting requirements in 2013.

But more than half of EU development flows to some of the poorest and most aid dependent countries did not meet open data targets in that year. Just 21 percent of EU aid to Burma was visible in 2013, the report said.

A total of 45 percent of all Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Burma for the same year was visible on another data register at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Burma signed up to the IATI in 2014 and aid transparency appears to be on track to improve significantly this year with the provisional launch of a new aid data management system in the country, available online at

Around 80 percent of overseas development aid to the country has reportedly been recorded on the site which is under the auspices of the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development, with funding and technical support from the European Union.

The site states that US$5.31 billion in aid has been recorded as having been committed to Burma since 2011, when the new quasi-civilian government began to initiate reforms and international organizations flooded into the country.

The website displays information about key aid donors to Burma and the sectors to which aid has been committed. Japan is by far the largest donor, with some $2 billion in aid committed.

Aid commitments are also broken down by states and regions, revealing some wide differences in the areas in which aid is being spent. Individual projects are also listed.

The site as currently presented comes with a disclaimer to the effect that the data depends on donors voluntarily submitting information in a continual basis, and in a compliant fashion.

Open data is designed to help governments manage aid better, encourage coordination among donors and improve accountability over how aid is spent.

However, large data frequently comes with its own challenges, including how to interpret, analyze and use the information presented.

According to an EU report on the Publish What You Fund website in February, "training will also be offered to Parliament, civil society and other stakeholders around the country to show them how the system can be of use to them."

The post Aid Transparency Improving but Not Enough: Report appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

5 Arrested With Firearms in Mandalay Could Face Treason Charges

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 01:55 AM PDT

 Arms and other items seized from the vehicle with Aung Kyaw Moe at the wheel on June 26. (Photo: Ministry of Information)

Arms and other items seized from the vehicle with Aung Kyaw Moe at the wheel on June 26. (Photo: Ministry of Information)

RANGOON — Five men found carrying drugs and unlicensed arms late last month may face charges of high treason, according to the Mandalay Division Police Force.

Brothers Aung Kyaw Moe and Aung Zaw Moe, along with Soe Thu Aung, Thet Oo Maung and Min Min, were apprehended along the Singu-Shwebo highway on June 26 with possession of several hunting rifles, walkie-talkies and illicit pills.

Further investigation led to the seizure of more than 40 guns at the brothers' home the following day, police said.

Aung Zaw Moe's wife was said to have voluntarily handed over an additional 19 firearms a few days later, including rifles, pistols and revolvers.

Police said the brothers claimed the rifles were used for hunting and belonged to their deceased father, a former police officer.

A Mandalay police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the men are currently accused of unlawfully carrying arms and walkie-talkies, but they could face more severe charges.

"If they can't give strong evidence for [why they possessed] those guns, we will charge them for high treason. We are still investigating their motives, and whether they had the guns for religious reasons, or for arms deals," the officer said.

The quantity of firearms was cause for suspicion, he added, as hunters typically have only a few guns and they should be licensed.

The Mandalay Division Police Force, township police, Special Branch, the Criminal Investigation Department and a military security force are working collaboratively on an investigation into the case, which the officer said would be made public upon its closure.

The case has aroused significant interest from local residents and officials, prompting a wave of speculation on social media about the illicit arms. Many commentators, as well as some in the police force, showed concern that the arms could be linked to conflict in the Kokang Region, on the border with China.

Fighting between government troops and ethnic Kokang rebels in the remote region was reignited in February of this year, and has been among the fiercest of Burma's ethnic conflicts in decades.

"Since there are military activities by Kokang and others at the border, we are concerned that [rebels] will enter Mandalay through Mogok. The military and police are jointly conducting checks—both regular checks and in response to tip-offs—in places like Singu and Tanse," The Mandalay officer said.

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Asia Highway Closed as Burma Army, DKBA Exchange Fire

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 12:08 AM PDT

The DKBA soldiers on guard as their leaders attend an ethnic armed group summit in  Law Khee Lar, Karen State, in June, 2015. (Photo: Kyaw Kha / The Irrawaddy)

The DKBA soldiers on guard as their leaders attend an ethnic armed group summit in Law Khee Lar, Karen State, in June, 2015. (Photo: Kyaw Kha / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Renewed fighting between government troops and ethnic Karen rebels in eastern Burma led to a temporary shutdown of the new Asia Highway on Thursday morning.

Clashes erupted around 5:30am between the Burma Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), a splinter group born of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the southeastern ethnic state's dominant rebel force.

A DKBA spokesman, Maj. Saw Lont Lon, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that he was aware of the clashes but could not confirm whether any casualties occurred. The conflict is ongoing at time of writing near Kawkareik, Karen State.

Saw Lont Lon said the conflict may have been triggered by increased deployment of Burma Army soldiers near the rebel-held territory, through which the new highway linking central Burma with Bangkok was built.

"I heard that the dispute arose from the deployment of troops, but I do not know the details yet," he said.

Locals in Kawkareik said the gunfire began early on Thursday morning and could still be heard just before noon. The highway has been closed, local sources told The Irrawaddy.

A commuter bus operator in nearby Myawaddy, on the border with Thailand further down the highway, confirmed that "the highway has been closed since this morning, but the old route on the Dawna mountain range is still open."

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Students Arrested in Mandalay for Graffiti Protest

Posted: 01 Jul 2015 11:22 PM PDT

Graffiti at Mandalay's Yadanabon University seen as critical of the government has led to the arrest of several students. (Photo: Zarni Mann / The Irrawaddy)

Graffiti at Mandalay's Yadanabon University seen as critical of the government has led to the arrest of several students. (Photo: Zarni Mann / The Irrawaddy)

Four students from Mandalay's Yadanabon University were arrested on Monday after they spray-painted messages critical of the government on the university's grounds.

Plainclothes police officers in Amarapura Township arrested Aung San Oo, Nyan Lin Htet and Jit Tu on Monday, according to their friends and family.

Naing Ye Wai, the president of Yadanabon University's Student Union, was asked to present at the police station in Amarapura where he was also arrested and immediately sent to Mandalay's Oh Bo prison.

"I was with Naing Ye Wai at the police station and the police suddenly said they must arrest him right away. A few minutes later, my son called me to say that he was arrested too," said Aung San Win, the father of Aung San Oo.

"The police said they were responsible for a graffiti campaign last week and they sent them to prison via Amarapura police station," he said.

On June 26, a group of students from Yadanabon University spray-painted messages on the university grounds calling on the quasi-civilian government to step down and demanding the release of jailed student activists involved in the education reform movement.

The students also spray-painted the words, "Amend the constitution's article 436."

Article 436 requires that 75 percent of lawmakers approve proposed amendments to much of the 2008 Constitution, giving the military—which controls 25 per cent of parliamentary seats—an effective veto.

A recent amendment bill which in part recommended reducing this requirement to 70 percent was shot down in Burma's Union Parliament last week.

According to police records, the detained students will face charges under articles 114, 143, 147 and 505(b) of Burma's penal code.

These articles stipulate punishment for persons present when an offence is committed, being a member of an unlawful assembly, rioting, and causing fear or public alarm that may induce offences against the State.

The police records also stated that other students who participated in the graffiti protest are being sought.

The four detained students participated in the protest march from Mandalay to Rangoon against the controversial National Education Law, which ended abruptly in March after a brutal police crackdown at Letpadan in Pegu Division.

The four students were arrested during the Letpadan crackdown but later released. They have since participated in sporadic protests demanding the release of some 80 students and their supporters who remain in jail awaiting the verdict of an ongoing trial.

Naing Ye Wai is already facing a lawsuit at a court in Amarapura for unlawful assembly.

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After Wifi at the Taj, Modi Revives Campaign for ‘Digital’ India

Posted: 01 Jul 2015 10:35 PM PDT

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, addresses a gathering during the Summit in New Delhi October 9, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, addresses a gathering during the Summit in New Delhi October 9, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI, India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged more companies to make electronic and digital goods on Wednesday, reviving his campaign promise to bridge India's digital divide backed by more than US$70 billion in investment pledges.

Launching a "Digital India Week" aimed at popularizing the government's push to connect 250,000 villages by 2019, Modi spoke of the need to boost local manufacturing of electronics—the country's largest import after oil.

"Why can't we make quality electronic goods that are globally competitive?" Modi said in a speech to a packed 14,000-seater indoor stadium, highlighting his goal of ending net technology and electronics imports by 2020.

India's first cyber premier, Modi has used social media and particularly Twitter, where he has 13 million followers, to style himself as a leader in touch with technology.

The government's tech push, which plans to provide mobile governance and universal phone connectivity to all Indians, aims to empower rural India and ramp up investments in manufacturing—critical for a government which badly needs to create more jobs at a faster rate.

But apart from a handful of headline-grabbing initiatives—free wifi at the Taj Mahal, for example—the push to connect India and drive a national fiber optic network, first approved by the last government in 2011, has made slow progress.

Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani and Bharti Enterprises head Sunil Bharti Mittal led a roll call of industrialists sharing the dais with Modi, promising investments of over 4.5 trillion rupees ($71 billion) to back the government's initiative.

Whether all of those investments will actually happen remains to be seen—India's dynamic tech startup community was not represented on a stage packed with business process outsourcing veterans and old-school tycoons.

'All Will Be Connected'

Metals and resources billionaire Anil Agarwal said Sterlite Technologies Ltd will invest in manufacturing LCD panels in India, while Japan's Nidec Corp, a maker of energy-saving motors, said it would build 5 factories.

With a growing economy and falling handset prices, India is one of the fastest growing smartphone markets in the world, and Modi is looking to harness India's potential for development in fields like education and health.

"All will be connected—this will be the way to eradicate poverty, create a lot of jobs, create a lot of industry," Agarwal told Reuters on the sidelines of the event. "This is the one thing that can be done really quickly."

But despite Modi's promotional film showing Indians wielding smartphones and grouped around laptops, the challenge is great.

India's average Internet speed was ranked 115th globally in the first quarter of the year, among countries studied by services provider Akamai Technologies.

India had just a little over 100 million broadband subscribers at the end of April, out of a population of close to 1.3 billion, according to the sector regulator, which considers Internet connections with minimum download speeds of 512 kbps.

A telecom ministry panel, by comparison, said in March it wants the digital push to establish affordable broadband connectivity of 2 Mbps to 20 Mbps "for all households" by 2017.

"For the initiative to succeed, you need an entire ecosystem to develop," said Vishal Tripathi, a Gartner analyst in Mumbai.

"There has to be last-mile connectivity from devices to software, to languages to people and there has to be education."

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Turnout Slim as Thousands in Hong Kong Rally for Democracy

Posted: 01 Jul 2015 08:49 PM PDT

A protester carries a sign reading 'I need real universal suffrage' during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China, on July 1, 2015, marking the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese sovereignty. (Photo: Reuters)

A protester carries a sign reading 'I need real universal suffrage' during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China, on July 1, 2015, marking the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese sovereignty. (Photo: Reuters)

HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets Wednesday to renew their call for full democracy but the turnout was noticeably lower than in recent years, reflecting an impasse after a year of bitter battles over political reform.

Thinner crowds at the protest highlight the uncertain direction for the democracy movement after accomplishing its immediate goal last month of blocking the government's Beijing-backed restricted election plan.

Police lined the route of the protest, held on a public holiday marking Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule.

Public appetite for more street protests is also diminished after tens of thousands of student-led protesters blocked streets in key districts for 79 days last year to demand free elections for the southern Chinese city's top leader. The movement caught the world's attention but did not result in any meaningful change.

"Maybe some of them feel tired and stressed from all these fights and arguments so maybe they want to take a rest," said Drake Leung, a 27-year-old information technology worker attending the rally.

"The package is already vetoed so there's no real clear reason to come out."

Protesters gathered at Victoria Park to march through sweltering skyscraper-lined streets to city government headquarters. Many carried yellow umbrellas, a nod to last year's "Umbrella Movement" protesters and their favored method of defending against police pepper spray.

Many chanted for the city's unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. Some carried banners calling for genuine universal suffrage or for the downfall of China's Communist Party, while others waved Hong Kong's colonial-era flag featuring a Union Jack or placards demanding the city's independence.

Some 48,000 people turned out, according to Daisy Chan of protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front, while police said there were 19,650 at the peak. That's the lowest since 2008 and a fraction of the 510,000 that organizers estimated for last year's event, which also saw more than 500 people arrested after an overnight standoff.

The Beijing-backed plan that was defeated by Hong Kong lawmakers last month required all candidates be vetted by China's leadership, which activists criticized as "sham democracy" and a betrayal of Communist leaders' promise to eventually grant the city universal suffrage.

Beijing and Hong Kong officials say future leaders will continue to be picked by a panel of mostly pro-Beijing elites and they will now focus on economic issues rather than restarting the political reform process.

"Hong Kong people now have experienced the Umbrella Movement last year and are trying to think of other more progressive ways to express their views," said Eddie Chan, vice convener of Civil Human Rights Front.

Ahead of the rally, a small group protested by burning a picture of Leung outside a morning flag raising ceremony attended by Hong Kong and Beijing officials. In a speech, Leung said judging from the experience of some European countries, "democratic systems and procedures are no panacea for economic and livelihood issues."

On China's mainland, a nationalist newspaper run by the Communist Party called the protesters "losers."

"It must be thrilling to shout those slogans, but they are no different than making some wailing sounds on the square or demanding that every Hong Kong dollar be exchanged for 100 US dollars," the Global Times said in an editorial. "They are simply some rotten slogans that have been shouted in vain."

Beijing took control of the former British colony on July 1, 1997, but allowed it to keep its own financial and legal system and civil liberties unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech and protest. The holiday has become a traditional day to protest government policies and to call for democracy.

On July 1, 2003, half a million people took to the streets to protest proposed anti-subversion legislation. The size of the rally startled Beijing and led to the eventual resignation of then-leader Tung Chee-hwa.

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Frustrated Indonesian Leader Launches Charm Offensive With Investors

Posted: 01 Jul 2015 08:33 PM PDT

 Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, also known as 'Jokowi,' at an economic summit in March. (Photo: Reuters)

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, also known as 'Jokowi,' at an economic summit in March. (Photo: Reuters)

JAKARTA — Exasperated by the performance of his economics team, Indonesia's president has personally taken on the job of promoting Southeast Asia's largest economy to skeptical investors, said palace officials and economists.

Joko Widodo's unusual intervention in a closed-door meeting with fund managers and economists has so far failed to turn the tide of disappointment in his policies, less than a year after his election was hailed as a new era for a country plagued by corruption, red tape and rickety infrastructure.

Palace officials and economists said that over the past two weeks, a "who's who" of fund managers and economists have met with Widodo and his closest advisers as part of a new campaign by the palace to turn around souring sentiment.

The president is considering holding such meetings on a monthly basis, according to economists.

"We need to be better at informing the market on the progress we're making," a palace official who attended one of the meetings told Reuters.

"The ministries are not doing that and the truth is we are making some progress. But nobody's able to see that, so that's why we are holding meetings like these."

Widodo came to power with strong business-friendly credentials and a promise to beef up the country's creaking infrastructure, but has been hamstrung by rifts inside his own political party and squabbles between government agencies.

On Monday, the president met privately with 11 economists to highlight the government's achievements so far, including the ground breaking of the Trans-Sumatra highway.

Economists said Widodo, speaking calmly and softly, told them that the government's economic performance would improve in the second half of this year as it resolves bottlenecks in stalled infrastructure projects.

The president also promised to conduct more on-the-ground inspections to ensure top projects, such as Jakarta's light rail train, were on track.

Presidential chief of staff Luhut Panjaitan held a similar meeting with nearly 20 fund managers, including local representatives from Deutsche Bank, Schroders, and investment firm CLSA.
But some attendees were not immediately swayed by the administration's pledges.

"The meeting doesn't really change much," said Anton Gunawan, a Bank Mandiri economist who was at the Jokowi meeting. "The problem cannot be solved quickly."

Participants said the president needed someone with "star power" on his economic team who had the respect of the market and could convince investors to keep their funds in Indonesia.

Some recommended the president appoint World Bank managing director and former Indonesian finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati to his team.

The president's current economics team, led by chief economic minister Sofyan Djalil and finance minister Bambang Brodjonegoro, are under fire for not showcasing the government's achievements better.

Investors have tended to focus on the negative: the weakest economic growth since 2009, sluggish consumer demand, long-stalled infrastructure projects and rising unemployment and inflation.

"The president is of the view that our economic fundamentals are good and that it is the perception that is bad," said presidential spokesman Teten Masduki.

The president has come under increasing pressure, notably from his own party and the vice president, to reshuffle his cabinet due to poor performance.

At the closed-door meeting with economists, Widodo "admitted that there are problems in his cabinet, but he didn't mention anyone," said Destry Damayanti, another Bank Mandiri economist who was among the attendees.

The post Frustrated Indonesian Leader Launches Charm Offensive With Investors appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

National News

National News

Labour unions, employers to fight minimum wage proposal

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:04 PM PDT

In a strictly temporary marriage of convenience, both labour and some employer representatives are criticising the government's announcement last week that the minimum wage should be K3600 (about US$3.20) for an eight-hour day.

Military MPs oppose changes to judicial provisions in constitution

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:02 PM PDT

Proposed changes to the constitution that some have warned could weaken judicial independence appear likely to be vetoed by the military, whose representatives yesterday spoke out against the amendments.

Charges loom for directors of futures trading firm

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 09:00 PM PDT

According to one report, the brokerage company may have defrauded clients of US$1.48 million.

DKBA, Tatmadaw fight over illegal highway tolls

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:56 PM PDT

A dispute over taxation on the highway to the Thai border prompted the Tatmadaw and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) to exchange fire in recent days, according to sources.

Tensions rise in jade-rich Hpakant

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:55 PM PDT

The Tatmadaw is reported to have increased its presence in jade-rich Hpakant to beef up security for mostly China-Myanmar joint venture companies following a series of clashes in the isolated area of Kachin State.

Monk decries corruption and abuse of power in Sangha

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:51 PM PDT

An outspoken monk has launched a fierce attack on corruption and abuse of authority in the clergy.

Classifications for disabilities proposed

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:47 PM PDT

Schools and workplaces should make special arrangements to accommodate people with physical and mental disabilities, a workshop heard this week.

Consultations wrap up on drafting land-use policy

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:38 PM PDT

Discussions focused on the participation of ethnic community groups and rights groups in decision-making.

ASEAN launches trafficking victim fund

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:36 PM PDT

Southeast Asian countries yesterday launched a fund to share the cost of hosting human trafficking victims, after a regional migrant crisis saw victims ping-ponged between countries reluctant to accept them.

Donors promise $105m in loans for infrastructure

Posted: 02 Jul 2015 08:32 PM PDT

Loans of US$45 million from French development agency AFD and $60 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are expected to receive parliamentary approval in the coming weeks to improve Mandalay's water supply, garbage disposal systems and transportation systems.