Saturday, April 19, 2014

Democratic Voice of Burma

Democratic Voice of Burma

Aid shortage hits Kachin refugees

Posted: 18 Apr 2014 07:43 PM PDT

Hundreds of displaced villagers who fled their homes in Mansi amidst escalating violence in Kachin State late last week are now facing an extreme shortage of provisions and adequate accommodation, according to local relief workers.

Ja Nu of the Metta Development Foundation said some 900 internally displaced persons (IDP) from Mansi are housed in cramped conditions at a school in Namhkam, northern Shan State. The refugees have been provided temporary shelter, but remain uncertain as to their next move.

"The [IDP] are only allowed to stay at the school for just a few days – previously we tried to negotiate with local authorities to provide them shelter at a disused airfield in the town, but that hasn't been successful," Ja Nu said.

"We have now suggested that the IDP move to a vacant lot planned for a new boarding school, but we have not yet had a response."

The IDP have received aid from several organisations including the Chinese government, Karuna Myanmar Foundation, Metta Development Foundation as well as the Kachin Baptist Church and local sympathisers. All, however, are still short of blankets, medicine and clean drinking water.

Fighting flared on Thursday, 10 April between troops of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government in the Mansi area, after Burmese troops bolstered their presence in Kachin and northern Shan States, including KIA-controlled territory.

Mary Tawm, coordinator of Kachin aid group Wunpawng Ninghtoi, said that over 2,000 residents from 24 villages in Man Waing Gyi and Panhkam villages were forced to flee the fighting in last week – some towards Namhkam and others towards the China border.

According to Ja Nu, 200 IDP fled across the China border to the town of Ruili as the fighting escalated. Many, she says, are yet to return home, despite facing considerable pressure from Chinese authorities to do so. According to several IDP, the fear that Burmese army troops may still be holding positions surrounding their villages is strong enough to prevent them from returning home.

Hseng Wan, chairman of the Shan Nationalities Development Party in Namhkam, said that over 100 Shan IDP previously sheltering at a monastery in the town had been able to return to their villages on 13 and 14 of April after a break in the fighting. However, two of them, Hseng Wan says, have been forced to remain in a Chinese hospital, suffering from injuries sustained as the Burmese army allegedly shelled Panhkam and Nawngjun villages.

Reacting to the violence, The United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), a coalition of ethnic armed groups engaged in ceasefire talks with the government, has said the renewed offensive by the Burmese army against KIA rebels in northern Burma threatens efforts towards a nationwide ceasefire.

Nai Hongsa, New Mon State Party vice-chair and spokesperson for the UNFC said the army's attack on the Kachin has significantly reduced trust between the government and armed groups.

"The offensive, carried out despite the ongoing effort for a nationwide ceasefire, has had a negative impact, but we will try as much as we can to salvage the dialogue," Nai Hongsa said.

Pado Kwe Htoo Win, general-secretary of the Karen National Union agrees that efforts need to be redoubled, saying that the fighting is all the more reason to press ahead with ceasefire talks.

"We believe that reaching an agreement with the government is crucial to prevent fighting like this in the future," he said.

Representatives of ethnic armed groups and the government held talks in Rangoon from 5 to 8 April, where they successfully penned the first draft of a single-text nationwide ceasefire agreement. They are scheduled meet again in May for further drafting.

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Lotus of SoHo Comes Home

Posted: 18 Apr 2014 09:04 PM PDT

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, Yangon, Mo Hom, women's empowerment, fashion, style, culture, SoHo, Manhattan, Lotus Hom, Mon Précieux

Nan Mo Hom at her workshop in Yangon. (Photo: Lotus Hom)

YANGON — It was a spectacular autumn day in New York City when Lotus Hom, a boutique in the city's famed SoHo shopping district, closed its doors for the last time. It was a sad occasion, but mixed with the melancholy there was also an air of celebration, like the brilliant fall colors that marked the end of one season and the start of another.

"I was so sad that I had to leave my colleagues and partners who stood with me from the beginning, but at the same time, I was so excited and happy to think that I would soon be returning to my motherland," recalls Mo Hom, the owner of Lotus Hom, of the day she closed her designer boutique in November 2012.

"My dream of bringing New York's fashions to my country had come true, but I felt such a mixture of excitement, happiness and sadness at the time that I can hardly express it."

An ethnic Shan who graduated from Mandalay University, Mo Hom had already had a successful career in Myanmar's hotel industry, working in her early twenties as a marketing executive for the Sedona Hotel and Hotel Nikko, when she decided to pursue what she considered to be her true calling: fashion design.

At first, her family tried to discourage her from following her ambition. Her mother, a skilled seamstress, urged her to do something more "professional." Both parents wanted her to continue her studies, telling her that she should learn both English and Chinese as a way of getting ahead in the world. They said that when she was 25, she could make her own choices, but until then, she had to listen to them.

That day finally came in 2003, when she was living and working in Yangon.

"On my 25th birthday, I phoned my parents and told them I had decided to go to New York to study design. They were very surprised, and at first they tried to convince me to go to Australia, because they thought the US wasn't safe after the 9/11 terror attacks. But in the end, I won, and joined the Katherine Gibbs School to study fashion design and merchandising."

Mo Hom stayed at the school just long enough—one semester—to learn the basics of design and marketing, then switched to the New York School of Design to earn a diploma in textile design.

After gaining experience at a couple of New York's leading fashion-design companies, Mo Hom took another great leap, opening her own boutique on Mott Street in Lower Manhattan's SoHo district.

Her company, Lotus Hom LLC, is a partial translation of her name, which means "fragrant lotus" in her native Shan language. Taking traditional Myanmar culture as her inspiration, she designs high-quality fashion that is simple, chic and sexy—but not too revealing.

"You don't need to show everything to be sexy and attractive. I think most people share my fashion philosophy, because my customers say they are really satisfied with Lotus Hom products," says Mo Hom.

With a wardrobe full of high-end fashion made from the finest silk, brocade, cotton, linen, knit and lambskin leather from Italy, China and Korea, Lotus Hom quickly established itself as a well-known brand among Manhattan residents.

"My customers used to comment that our products were simple and unique, never out of date. Everything was produced in New York and labeled 'Made in New York,' so that may be another reason we were so popular."

But even as her business was thriving, Mo Hom felt that something was missing from the glamorous life she was leading.

"I was like, what am I doing here at all these parties and fashion shows? I realized that I wasn't happy because I missed my home. I thought it would be good if I could work from my country."

When the political climate started to change in Myanmar after 2011 and the country opened up to foreign investors, Mo Hom saw her chance to realize another dream: creating a proudly "Made in Myanmar" brand that she could market worldwide.

That was when she decided it was time to close her New York boutique, turn her business into an online store, and bring her vision back to Myanmar.

Creating opportunities for people in her homeland was a big part of what drew her back, she says.

"It's sad that we have to buy almost everything from foreign countries. Our country and our people have so much potential. Why can't we ship Made in Myanmar products worldwide?" she asks from her new design studio in Yangon, a world away from Lower Manhattan.

Located in a quiet five-story building in a busy part of Myanmar's commercial capital, the small but tidy studio opened in early 2013. Surrounded by colorful fabrics and raw materials from Korea, Thailand, China and Myanmar, Nan Mo Hom spends much of her time these days sketching, guiding and training her young employees.

A year after setting up shop in Yangon, she now has a new fashion line, Mon Précieux, aimed at the Myanmar market. Reasonably priced at between US$10 and $30, her designs have attracted the attention of retailers from around the country, including Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi, Pyin Oo Lwin and Monywa. Buyers visit her showroom to see samples and place orders, which are then sent to garment factories in North Okkalapa Township to be filled. The finished products are sold either with the Mon Précieux label or under the brand names of her customers' boutiques.

It has taken 13 months of hard work to get this far, but Mo Hom says that her efforts—driven by her desire to empower young women in her beloved country and to better understand the demands of the market—have been amply rewarded with a thriving business.

Mo Hom's label has already distinguished itself in a market dominated by inexpensive but low-quality fashion from China. "At first, people thought Mon Précieux was no different from the stuff from China, but later they fell in love with the perfect fitting, simple yet elegant, unique and attractive style of Mon Précieux," says Nan Moon Noon, the owner of a boutique in Taunggyi.

For an ambitious person like Mo Hom, succeeding in business or any other field has nothing to do with luck. The key, she says, is to enrich your life through creativity and by sharing what you've learned with others.

"I would like to teach young people here the things I learned in New York," she says. "Our country is rich with various kinds of raw materials and our people are talented. We need to upgrade our skills and we need better technology. If we work together with persistent effort, our country will surely be able to rise from poverty to prosperity."

As a mentee of the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that seeks to foster leadership skills in women, Mo Hom can appreciate the value of others' experience. And as a female entrepreneur who has succeeded in a very competitive industry, she also believes in the strength of women.

"People think that women are weak, but really, they are smart, intelligent, caring and sharing people. If you teach a woman something, you are teaching her entire family. And by developing families, you are developing whole communities," she says.

But as much as she appreciates women's "soft power," she also knows that sometimes you have to be tough just to survive. This was a lesson she learned from her father, who taught her Shan martial arts—a skill that later led to training in kickboxing during her days in New York.

"A woman living alone in New York has to know how to protect herself, and I loved kickboxing. Women don't have to be soft all the time," says Mo Hom, who is cooperating with Akhaya, one of Myanmar's leading women's organizations, to teach martial arts to young women.

As much as she has to offer her countrywomen, however, Mo Hom believes that the key to success is already within their reach.

"We just have to follow our hearts. You have to choose the work that makes you happy, that interests you most. But you also need to think of those around you—how you can best serve your community. If you do this, and do your best, your work will be your greatest happiness."

This article first appeared in the April 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

The post The Lotus of SoHo Comes Home appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Forgotten, but Not Gone

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 11:51 PM PDT

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, Mu River valley, Sagaing Region, Portuguese, ancestry, Bayingyi

U Ba Htay, 89, is from the village of Monhla, home to around 170 Bayingyi households. (Photo: Yan Pai / The Irrawaddy)

THE MU RIVER VALLEY, Sagaing Region — Myanmar has a long and complicated history, full of footnotes that could take up whole chapters. One episode that still stands out, even though precious little remains to remind us of it today, came in the early 17th century, when Portuguese adventurers held the fate of kingdoms in their hands.

The Portuguese first started arriving on Myanmar's shores some 500 years ago, but it was not until 1599, when the mercenary Filipe de Brito e Nicote wrested control of Thanlyin (Syriam) away from the powerful Taungoo dynasty, that they gained a foothold in the country.

De Brito (known in Myanmar as Nga Zinga) was subsequently named governor of this strategically important port on the Bago River opposite Yangon (then called Dagon) by the Rakhine king Min Razagyi, in whose service he had captured it. But his true loyalties soon revealed themselves when, in 1603, he claimed Thanlyin for Portugal.

Once in power, de Brito quickly earned a permanent place in Myanmar's annals of infamy by plundering Buddhist temples for their bells, which he had recast as cannons. His reign was short-lived, however: In 1613, King Anaukpetlun reclaimed Thanlyin for the Taungoo dynasty, and had de Brito impaled for desecrating Buddhist holy sites.

For most in Myanmar, that is where the story ends. What few realize, however, is that in a remote corner of Sagaing Region some 93 miles (150 km) northwest of Mandalay, the legacy of de Brito's brief foray onto the stage of Myanmar history lives on to this day.

After de Brito was executed, most of the 5,000 Portuguese soldiers who had served under him were transported to Innwa (Ava), then the Taungoo capital, as prisoners of war. Some were recruited to serve as military advisers, but the bulk, it was decided, were best resettled somewhere else, at a safe distance from the seat of power.

That is how the Bayingyi, as these former Portuguese mercenaries and their descendants are known, came to inhabit a handful of villages in the dry, inhospitable region between the Mu and Chindwin rivers.

Today, in villages like Monhla and Chanthar in the valley of the Mu River, the surviving Bayingyi eke out a modest living as farmers or traders, and are almost indistinguishable from their Buddhist neighbors apart from certain features, such as their long, straight noses and light-colored eyes.

"My parents told me that we were descended from the Portuguese, but really, we are all mixed up," says U Ba Htay, 89, from the village of Monhla, located about 14 miles (22.5 km) west of the town of Khin-U.

Despite his piercing gray eyes and tall stature, U Ba Htay is in most respects a typical man of Anyar, as this region is known: He has the distinctive sense of humor of the local people of this region, and speaks with a strong Anyar accent as he puffs away on a cheroot rolled up in a corn husk.

Monhla has around 170 Bayingyi households, and despite its modest size, is graced with an impressive Catholic church, St. Michael's, built in the Gothic style to accommodate the tombs of Barnabite priests from Italy who came to minister to the Portuguese banished to this area. Among those interred here is Father Giovanni Maria Percoto, who played a major role in bringing Western learning to pre-colonial Myanmar in the late 18th century.

These days, most of the priests serving local congregations are natives of the area. Despite this, however, many still profess loyalties to a distant land that few have ever visited.

"Many generations have passed since our ancestors came here, but I still feel that because of my heredity, I should support the Portuguese team when they're playing football," says Father Paul Thet Khing from Chanthar, a village in Ye-U Township that is home to more than 1,100 Bayingyi.

Despite their ties to a foreign land, in the centuries that followed their forced resettlement here, the Bayingyi fought bravely alongside Myanmar troops to defend the country from outsiders, helping to defeat the Chinese during the war of 1765-1769, and suffering great losses in the First Anglo-Myanmar War of 1824-1826.

Sadly, however, their unique identity has long since been erased. Apart from their religious affiliation, nothing survives of the culture of their forebears, and since the socialist era (1962-1988), they have been required to identify themselves as ethnic Bamar rather than as Bayingyi.

"After 400 years of intermarriage, there is nothing left of our Portuguese culture for us to preserve," concedes another priest, Father Alphonse U Ko Lay. "All that remains now is our faith, and the only thing we can do to keep that alive is practice our freedom of worship."

The post Forgotten, but Not Gone appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

A Developer’s Dream: Housing for All

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 09:39 PM PDT

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, low-cost housing, Yangon, Rangoon

'If the government asked me to build 20,000 units right now, I could do it,' says Taw Win Family Construction chairman U Ko Ko Htwe. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Yangon is a city abuzz with economic activity, as the world rediscovers one of the region's most promising frontier markets after decades of isolation. With this, however, comes a growing housing crisis, as the city seeks to accommodate its rapidly expanding labor force.

Government plans to build 30,000 new low-cost public housing units next year may bring some relief, but the real answer, argues Taw Win Family Construction Chairman U Ko Ko Htwe, is private-sector investment. In this interview with The Irrawaddy's Kyaw Hsu Mon, one of the country's top property developers outlines the challenges facing his industry, and discusses how the government could make it easier to turn Yangon into a city of homeowners.

Question: What are the most pressing problems for the construction sector in Yangon right now?

Answer: The biggest one is that we lack the latest technology, although that is improving. Still, we can't compare with what foreign investors have at their disposal. Besides this, we face a shortage of human resources. In the past, a lot of technicians left the country because they could make more money overseas, and even now that the country is opening up, they're in no hurry to come back. Because the demand for skilled workers outstrips the supply, the cost of labor is more than we can afford.

The price of land is also a huge problem. Prices here are almost the same as Singapore, but very few people can afford to pay them. Building materials are also expensive here, so we can't use the best quality.

Finally, I would say that there is a great deal of inefficiency here, due to the way the economy is run. We end up wasting time, wasting money and wasting materials because of this. Interest rates are also too high—I believe Myanmar's rates are the highest among the Asean countries.

Q: Why do you think interest rates are so high?

A: The problem is with the thinking of key people at the Central Bank. Even though the president has made the bank independent of the Ministry of Finance, it still has the same governor. Because he doesn't really understand the nature of business or the financial system, nothing has really changed.

Q: Local businesses have recently called on the Central Bank to reduce interest rates from their current level [13 percent] within a year. How did the bank respond?

A: We—local businessmen—made that proposal at a meeting with the president on Feb. 22. It's not just the construction sector that wants this to happen, it's almost everyone. Foreign banks are starting to come to Myanmar, and they can offer loans at much lower rates, and charge smaller transaction fees. But it's up to the Central Bank to control the country's financial situation. Unless it does, the economy will suffer.

It's important to get the country's capital in circulation. Unless the financial system is working properly, that won't happen. The Central Bank also has to manage the floating exchange rate. If the bank isn't able to do these things, and can't make flexible interest rates for us, we don't dare make a move, even though the country is opening up.

Q: Yangon's population is growing fast. How many new residential units need to be built to keep up with this growth?

A: We won't really know the population until the census is completed, and in terms of demand, these days we are seeing some people who are buying two or more properties. That makes it difficult to calculate how many new units we can build. Generally, the supply of condominiums and the demand are balanced. The problem is that while there are some people out there who can buy, there are lots of others who can't. People on lower incomes are struggling just to pay rent. That's why developers need to build more low-cost housing, as a kind of poverty reduction. I'm sure that if we built 100,000 low-cost units, we could easily sell them all.

Q: How can you be sure that they would be bought by their intended market, and not by speculators?

A: Well, last year, we sold out more than 3,000 low-cost units for 16.5 million kyats [US$16,500] each, and now they're selling for 70 million kyats [$70,000]. The trouble is we can't control the prices once we've sold the properties. Sometimes it's the consumers themselves who are playing the market. If we could build a lot more of these units, that wouldn't happen. But that would take a lot of developers building affordable housing, not just me. If the government gave us access to some of the available land—there's lots of it—we could build enough housing for 10 million people.

Q: Which areas do you have in mind?

A: You don't even have to go as far as North or South Dagon or Hlaing Tharyar to find suitable land. Within Mingaladon, Insein, Mayangone, South and North Okkalapa, Thaketa, Bahan, Hlaing and Kamaryut townships, there's lots of space left in Yangon.

Q: So you're saying that there is still a lot of space for developers to work in, within the area administered by the Yangon City Development Committee?

A: Yes, even if we work within this area, we could build enough housing for 10 million people. All we need is better city planning.

Q: Why haven't other developers shown much interest in low-cost housing? Is it because it doesn't make much of a profit?

A: With better management, the right technical resources and goodwill, it would work. If the government asked me to build 20,000 units right now, I could do it, because I already have a system for building low-cost housing. With five more people like me, we could create a lively market.

Q: So what would the government have to do to make it happen?

A: Well, the government controls a lot of vacant land, including land owned by the regional government and the army. If it freed up that land, it would benefit everyone. Even if the profit was just 300,000 kyats [$300] per unit, with 20,000 units, that would come to 6 billion kyats [$6 million]. Of that amount, about 1.5 billion kyats [$1.5 million] would go back to the government in taxes.

Q: How many units have you already built in Yangon?

A: We built 1,600 units at the first Mudita housing project in Thamine and 1,700 in Insein Township, so a total of 3,300 units. We're not sure about starting a third project, because we need a big space to build a low-cost housing project, about 30 or 40 acres. That would include a hospital, school and other facilities, too.

If the government made the land available, we could pay the normal price. We wouldn't expect to get it for nothing. I would build nine-story buildings with elevators. Each unit would be 600 square feet, with two rooms.

Q: What about the issue of squatters in Yangon? How do you think this problem can be solved?

A: As I said before, if the government gave developers access to land, we could create very low-cost housing for them. They could buy new homes on installment plans, which they could pay off in five to 10 years. We could sell them for 4.4 million kyats [$4,400] per unit. If the government offered subsidies, it could be theirs in five years if they pay just 50,000 kyats [$50] a month. If not, they can have their own home in Yangon after just 10 years.

The post A Developer's Dream: Housing for All appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Democratic Voice of Burma

Democratic Voice of Burma

Interfaith couple targeted by mob in Pegu

Posted: 18 Apr 2014 05:55 AM PDT

Four houses were burnt in an attack against an interfaith couple in Nattalin Township, Pegu Division on 16 April, according to local authorities. No one was injured and authorities said that calm has been restored.

Khin Aye, the National League for Democracy chairperson for Nattalin Township and member of a local security committee, told DVB that a mob gathered on 15 April, surrounding the house of a young Buddhist woman. The crowd demanded that her family "turn over" her Muslim partner, who was visiting the house at the time.

Khin Aye said the woman called the police, who arrived promptly and escorted the man to safety, but some villagers returned the next day and burnt down four houses, including the home of the woman's parents.

"On the evening of 15 April, the girl called the police requesting help, reporting that a mob had surrounded her house and was demanding the man be turned over. When her family refused, they threatened to burn down the house. Police arrived at the scene in time and escorted the man to safety as the mob smashed the windshields of police vehicles.

"The incident led to an argument between local monks and the girl's family. On 16 April, the mob came back and burnt down four houses, including the homes of the girl's parents and other relatives."

Local authorities said that they are taking steps to prevent further violence, however an official on duty at Nattalin police station told DVB by phone on Friday that no legal action has been taken against any of the attackers.

Similar incidents targeting Muslims broke out in Pegu's Zigon, Nattalin, Jobingauk, Minhla, Tharawaddy and Monyo townships following  the Buddhist New Year in 2013.

A controversial draft interfaith marriage law is currently being debated in parliament, which, if passed, would require non-Buddhist men to convert in order to marry a Buddhist woman. Interfaith couples would also be made to obtain written consent from the bride's parents.

Amid peace talks, health cooperation in Karen State sends positive signals

Posted: 18 Apr 2014 01:43 AM PDT

Over six decades of civil war in Eastern Burma, civilians fled en masse over the border to Thailand in search of basic necessities – physical security, food, medicine.

But now, glimmers of hope are shining through back home. A nationwide ceasefire process is underway, and the government has signed ceasefires with the vast majority of the country's ethnic armed groups. To be sure, the durability of these accords is far from assured. Conditions in some parts of the country remain violent and tense, but Karen State — where the majority of the refugees in Thailand originate — is experiencing what is perhaps the calmest period in its modern history.

Although high-level negotiations are still underway, health services for tens of thousands of people living in territories controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) are steadily improving, a corollary of the peace process that is already palpable.

"We can conduct our activities safely, and we have more access to our communities," says Gyi Gyi, an official with the KNU's medical relief arm, the Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW), who conducts cross-border relief work from his regional headquarters in Mae Sariang, Thailand. "When we met with the SPDC soldiers [in the past], they would shoot our medics. But now, according to the ceasefire process, our medics can [travel] freely."

The KDHW provides the only front-line health care available to residents of KNU-controlled areas of Karen State, and other Karen-majority territories further afield. The Burmese military classified these areas "free fire" zones when hostilities were active, rendering impossible any hope of offering permanent health services across vast swathes of the state.

Although a finalised peace accord is still elusive, the KDHW has taken steps to increase its presence in areas where fighting historically limited its ability to operate. In the past, the KDHW operated most of its brick-and-mortar clinics at a distance from populated areas likely to come under attack; the core of its operations were based around ten-man "mobile clinics" that moved from village to village, able to pack up and leave on short notice.

As perceived security has increased, the KDHW has transformed these mobile clinics into 35 "village-tract health centres," physical bases of operation from where medics can travel to more remote locations. "Some clinics that we built in remote areas, we have now moved to villages, which acts as a centre for other villages," Gyi Gyi said.

The village-tract health centres offer basic front-line health services, including immunizations, malaria treatment, nutrition programmes and trauma care, and serve populations of between 3,500 and 5,000 each. But despite the advantages inherent to not having to move around, facilities are rudimentary and health outcomes are still poor.

Poor healthcare is not unique to Karen State, but rather a nationwide phenomenon. In 2011, Naypyidaw allocated just US$2.90 per person for healthcare, less than almost any other government on earth.

But despite the government's own limited provision of health services, cooperation is on the agenda. The KDHW opened a dialogue with their counterparts in the Karen State health department one year ago, a development that would have been implausible just months before. "Now, the KDHW is still talking with the government," Gyi Gyi said. "We have talked with the state health department seven times."

The KDHW seeks official recognition as the main healthcare provider for areas outside the reach of the government in Karen State, and wants to cooperate with the government on a range of initiatives, including maternal health, malaria eradication, and infrastructure projects, such as improving access to water and sanitation. To facilitate communication, it recently opened a branch office in Hpa-An, the capital of Karen State. It is also seeking official accreditation for the KDHW's medics, who undergo much more rigorous training than do government employees.

State-level negotiations have been extremely positive, Gyi Gyi claims, but true decision-making power is out of the local government's hands. "They need to send all information to the union health level, and then if the union health level says we can proceed, we will," he said.

While the KDHW still receives the bulk of its funds from border-based organisations, it is now able to receive funds from Rangoon-based donors through the Myanmar Peace Centre, the government's one-stop clearinghouse for peace negotiations and the allocation of funds associated with it.

For the KDHW, it's a welcome change, but not one that it's entirely accustomed to yet. "When you build peace, you need to adjust many things," Gyi Gyi said. "At least, we now have channels: Even if we cannot go directly to the government, we can go through the peace centre, which coordinates between us and the government." Eventually, he believes, the KDHW will receive funds directly from the government, but "it'll be better to negotiate that after a [peace] agreement is signed."

 For all the tangible progress made on health in Karen State, the gains witnessed over the past two years could be eradicated if the peace process were to turn sour. A long-postponed third round of peace talks is set to be held in Hpa-An in May, but there can be no assurances it will go smoothly. "While we see there's no fighting, both sides, especially from the military, should sign onto a code of conduct, but that [agreement] hasn't been reached yet," Gyi Gyi said.

Yet the positive ties forged between the KDHW and the government may serve as a bellwether for the future of the peace process writ large. "We are looking forward to the next KNU meeting with the government. It's very important for us, to be able to work for our people in the future," Gyi Gyi said. "This process has progressed very far in one year, but we will see how things will be in 2015 about Burma."

US calls on Burma to intervene in Rohingya crisis

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 11:46 PM PDT

Addressing the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Thursday, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called on the Burmese government to address communal tensions that have stoked nationwide violence that left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.

The stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, predominantly of Burma's western Arakan State, has been subject to the worst of internecine violence and makes up the vast majority of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Sittwe and surrounds. As Arakan State’s population begins to feel effects of a critical aid shortage, the US has called on the Burmese government to ensure the delivery of aid.

Speaking after a presentation by Vijay Nambiar, the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor on Burma, Power reportedly said that the US "continues to support Burma’s reforms, but are greatly concerned that without effective government intervention violence in Rakhine [Arakan] could worsen, lives will be lost, and the critically needed humanitarian presence will not be sustainable.”

Late last month, rioting in Sittwe forced the evacuation of hundreds of aid workers, when mobs of Arakanese Buddhists ransacked more than 30 homes and offices occupied by NGO staff. Many Arakanese believe that international aid workers are biased towards the Muslim community.

Power called on the Burmese government to intervene in the situation, which the US believes could result in more violence. The Burmese Union and Arakanese State governments have made some effort to bridge the gap left by expelled aid workers. However, according to Human Rights Watch,"the [Union] government claims it is committed to ending ethnic strife and abuse, but recent events in Arakan State demonstrate that state-sponsored persecution and discrimination persist."




Thursday, April 17, 2014

Democratic Voice of Burma

Democratic Voice of Burma

Burmese journalists pray for Zaw Pe’s release

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 05:04 AM PDT

DVB reporters and staff in Rangoon gathered for Burmese New Year's Day to pray for the release of their colleague, Magwe correspondent Zaw Pe [Zaw Phay] who was recently sentenced to a one- year jail term for charges related to his journalistic work.

Zaw Pe and his friend Win Myint Hlaing were each sentenced to one year in prison by Magwe Township Court on 7 April after being found guilty of charges of "trespassing" and "disturbing a civil servant on duty", pressed by a government official. The Magwe Divisional Education Department official pressed charges in August 2012 after Zaw Pe had inquired about a scholarship programme.

On 17 April, fellow DVB staff in Rangoon, wearing matching black t-shirts carrying placards calling for the release of Zaw Pe and for greater press freedom, gathered at the east gate of Shwedagon Pagoda in a prayer session. They also released fish and birds as acts of merit-making, a traditional Burmese custom at this time of year.

Hla Hla Win, a DVB reporter who also had been arrested and jailed by authorities while covering news in 2009, said: "Zaw Pe went to the government office to cover news which was in the public interest and his jailing indicates that no reporter in the country is safe to cover news at government offices without risking arrest.

"We are journalists collecting information for the public and not some thieves or criminals – we don't deserve to spend even one day in the prison," she said.

DVB staff members in Mandalay also released fish and birds on Thursday as symbolic calls for justice for Zaw Pe.

Meanwhile, Mandalay-based journalists from several media outlets gathered at the historic Maha Myat Muni Pagoda and prayed for the release of all reporters arrested and jailed in the line of work.

Zaw Thet Htwe, a former political prisoner and leading member of the Interim Myanmar Press Council who took part in the activity, said the jailing of reporters for chasing news is completely unacceptable.

"Basically this indicates that every reporter can be sued for charges such as trespassing for visiting a venue to cover news. This basically makes it impossible for them to work anywhere in the country and therefore we cannot accept this," he said.

"We would like the government in Burma, the parliament and the public, as well as the international community, to know that the jailing of Zaw Pe was completely unfair and this is why we have joined this event today."

DVB has vowed to work with other media organisations and rights groups to continue campaigning for Zaw Pe's release.

Rights group calls for international investigation into sexual violence by Burma military

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 04:43 AM PDT

In a report reopening allegations of the Burmese army's persistent and systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) has reignited calls for an international commission into violence against women in Burma.

"The widespread nature and scale of rape and sexual violence incidents meets the legal definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity," the BCUK report reads, citing the UN's repeated use of the terminology which define those legal terms in statements made on sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army.

In a 2008 report, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, alluded to instances of sexual violence, which "are not simply isolated acts of individual misconduct by middle- or low-ranking officers, but rather the result of a system."

Despite this, the UN has at no level initiated any investigation into sexual violence described by BCUK "as an organised means of dominating and subjugating ethnic populations".

Nor has the seemingly reformist current Burmese government.

Thein Sein, despite appearing to have positioned himself as a counterweight to hardline military conservatism, has failed to acknowledge the possibility of rape and other grievous crimes against women by the army. "Our military is very disciplined. There is no reason for the military to commit acts of rape or murder," Thein Sein guaranteed in 2012.

Nor does domestic pressure exist which might force the government to make such an admission. The 2008 constitution provides legal foundation to a culture of impunity surrounding grievous human rights violations by the Burmese military. Article 455 states "no proceeding shall be instituted against … any member of the Government, in respect to any act done in the execution of their respective duties."

As the ruling government remains inextricably linked to the military there is a vested interest on the part of nominally civilian parliamentary representatives to suppress their own past indiscretions. BCUK's report notes that 45 incidences of military rape were chronicled between 1996 and 1998 in the immediate area surrounding Kentung, eastern Shan State. There, at that time, Thein Sein himself commanded troops during Burmese army offensives that resulted in the displacement of 300,000 villagers.

Tin Tin Nyo of the Women's League of Burma said she believes that since coming to power, Thein Sein has done nothing to improve the situation of women's rights in Burma.

Whilst constitutional Article 455 belies the need for a national-level inquest into sexual violence and other human rights abuses by the Burmese military, the British government has acknowledged the need for international acknowledgement of the issue of the systematic use of sexual violence by the Burmese armed forces.

Through the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, the UK government has provided funds in the region of US$500,000 for legal training for women and counseling to victims. Further to this, Hugo Swire of the UK Foreign Office met President Thein Sein and armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing in January in Naypyidaw, where he lobbied for Burma's signature on the 2013 UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

However this alone will not solve the problem, according to BCUK director Mark Farmaner. "We need to see a commission on sexual violence in Burma along the lines of the UN commission of Inquiry on North Korea." Farmaner told DVB. "It must be able to take evidence and make an assessment as to whether violations of international law are taking place."

Seng Shadan, of the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand, agrees that the international community must probe violence against women in Burma's peripheral ethnic areas. "Rape has been used as a weapon by the Burmese military for over 60 years," she told DVB on Thursday. "To change this would require a shift in the attitude of the government, which I don't think will happen without international pressure."

Journalists charged with defaming Thai Navy

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 04:08 AM PDT

Two Thailand-based journalists were charged on Thursday with defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act for citing a Reuters article that contained allegations against members of the Royal Thai Navy.

Australian editor Alan Morison and Thai reporter Chutima Sidasathian of Phuketwan online news could face up to seven years in prison and fines amounting to US$3,000.

Following arraignment and five hours in holding cells, 100,000 baht (US$3,000) bail for each of the two defendants was posted on their behalf by supporters at the Andaman Foundation.

The pair are currently out of custody and due to return to court on 26 May for trial.

"This experience has only made us more determined to fight the charges," Morison told DVB on Thursday shortly after his discharge. "We've done nothing wrong."

Morison and Chutima were first informed of the impending charges in mid-December, five months after publishing an article that summarised an investigative report by Reuters news agency. Phuketwan cited a paragraph suggesting that some Thai officials profited directly from the smuggling of Rohingya Muslims from Burma.

Charges have not been brought against the authors of the contentious paragraph, Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings. A Reuters spokesperson told DVB on Thursday that, "To our understanding, the complaint is under review by the authorities, but we have not been charged."

Szep and another Reuters reporter, Andrew RC Marshall, were awarded a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for their reports on Burma's Rohingya Muslims, whom the United Nations has termed one of the world's most persecuted peoples.

The stateless minority bore the brunt of two years of renewed communal violence in western Burma, where decades-long tension between Buddhists and Muslims exploded in a rash of riots that has left around 200 dead and more than 140,000 displaced.

Many have fled the country as a result of the conflict, often on boats that pass through Thai waters en route to Muslim-majority Malaysia. The award-winning Reuters coverage examined a network of human smuggling checkpoints, at which many Rohingya are thought to be intercepted, tortured, extorted and indefinitely detained.

The reports allege that some Thai naval officials abetted and profited from the scheme.

Phuketwan, an online news site founded by Morison in 2008, has been reporting on Thailand's treatment of Rohingyas for several years. Reuters retained the assistance of Chutima to secure local contacts throughout their investigation, though an agency spokesperson said that her role was "very limited".

Morison has criticised Reuters' remove from the case, calling on the agency to speak up for media freedom. He has further insinuated that the charges are a clear case of targeting a "small, local organisation with little resources", a suspicion that has been echoed by numerous rights groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"Instead of being brave enough to stand up and defend themselves publicly, the Thai Navy plays 'shoot the messenger' with a small Phuket-based website with limited means to defend itself," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of HRW Asia. It seems clear, said Robertson, that the Thai military is picking on locals instead of taking on an international agency with lots of money and lawyers, even though they produced the disputed content.

Robertson also emphasised that the Thai Navy has yet to address the allegations against them, which are fundamental to the controversy.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has similarly denounced the charges, and forecasted that the case could set a precedent of trepidation among journalists in Thailand. Upon passage of the Computer Crimes Act in 2007, some rights groups anticipated that the law could be used to censor the media, but this is the first case in which it has actually been levied against journalists.

“The formal defamation and Computer Crime Act charges brought today against two Phuketwan journalists aims ultimately to curb reporting on the Thai military’s apparent involvement in gross human rights abuses,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “Regardless of the case’s eventual verdict, the state-backed charges will cause self-censorship among all journalists covering the Thailand angle of Burma’s growing Rohingya refugee crisis.”

While the suspects have received substantial support from media rights advocates — "ludicrous" and "absurd" are among the many terms used to describe the case — Reuters has been relatively silent, but did tell DVB on Thursday that they "oppose the use of criminal laws to sanction the press — large or small, local or international — for publication on matters of serious public interest, like the Rohingya stories here."

Thai officials have thus far been unavailable for comment.


Literacy campaign aims to coach 46,000 people

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 03:00 AM PDT

University lecturers and students are volunteering their time during this summer holiday as part of the 2014 Literacy Campaign in Burma, which aims to provide free classes to 46,479 people, including children and elderly persons who never learned to read.

The campaign, which takes place from 1 April to 15 May, aims to provide literacy classes in more than 1,000 wards and villages in 29 townships across the country, and will benefit from the time given by some 4,200 students and university faculty members who will volunteer to teach reading and writing skills.

Khin Maung Htwe, assistant director of the Myanmar Education Research Bureau (MERB) overseeing the campaign, said: "Literacy is the key to educational development in this country; therefore our aim is to help everyone in the country become literate."

Speaking at 6 April ceremony to launch the 2014 Literacy Campaign in the village of Sanpya in Mandalay Region, Burma's President Thein Sein said, "As development of the nation totally depends on [our] literacy rate and education development, strenuous efforts are being made for undertaking reforms in [the] education sector so as to improve education standards," according to a report in state-run The New Light of Myanmar.

According to government statistics, Burma's literacy rate in 2000 was over 91 percent. MERB is projecting the figure will go up to 95 percent after 2015 following successive literacy campaigns.

UN data from 2007-11 puts the adult literacy rate in Burma at 92 percent, which compares favourably with several neighbouring countries; while Thailand and China boast adult literacy rates of 94 percent, Cambodia is 74 percent, India is 63 percent and Bangladesh just 57 percent, according to the UN.


Humanitarian crisis looms as Kachin conflict intensifies

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 12:43 AM PDT

Burmese Army's 223rd Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) troops have launched another offensive on Wednesday at 5am against KIA's 1st Battalion post located near Chyari- Dagaw in Momauk Township. Burmese Army troops fired several rounds of artillery shells, followed by ground offensive on KIA positions at around 10:30 am, said a KIA frontline source.

KIA's 1st Battalion troops had withdrawn on Wednesday from its Dagaw Mada Post located about a half mile away from Chyari- Dagaw where the current fighting is taking place. The KIA source says a combined force of Burmese Army's 223rd LIB and 601st LIR launched a joint attack against KIA to occupy Dagaw Mada Post.

KIA's 9th Battalion troops engaged in a battle against an unknown Burmese Army unit at Hka Hkip village in Kutkai Township in northern Shan State on 15 April. No casualties on either side have been reported so far.

A local source says Burmese Army troops stationed at Lawdan, located between Bhamo and Lwe Je, have randomly fired several rounds of artillery shells into surrounding area to expand territory under their control.

Local villagers from Awng Nan, Awng Ra, Hkyet Wa Hkan and other smaller villages have to flee their homes due to ongoing bombardments by government troops and fighting between KIA and Burmese Army troops.

Mary Tawm, coordinator of local Kachin aid group Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) said, "I am very worried about the villagers and it seems that there will be more IDPs in Mansi Township and Momauk Township."

"There has been fighting every day in different parts of Mansi and Momauk townships and the conflict area is not very far from the over 10,000 IDPs living in six different camps," she said. "If the situation continues like this, more people will be forcefully displaced."

The Joint Strategy Team (JST) for Humanitarian Response in Kachin & Northern Shan States, a group which is comprised of major local NGOs and faith-based organizations like BRIDGE, Kachin Baptist Convention, Kachin Relief and Development Committee, Kachin Women's Association, Kachin Development Group, Karuna Myanmar Social Services, Metta Development Foundation, Shalom Foundation and WPN, on Monday issued a statement on current massive displacement of over 3,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees.

The JST urges warring parties to immediately cease fire, and to implement and fully abide by the agreements previously made between the two sides. The JST said it requests both Burmese Army and KIA to ensure full compliance of international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles. The group also said the safety and protecting the security of the IDPs, especially children and more vulnerable ones, is the first priority for both parties involved in the current conflict.

The group asks Chinese government to keep with the principle of non-refoulement for refugees and international donor organizations to help IDPs with their basic needs for food and shelter.

Aid workers say local Chinese authorities asked refugees living at a temporary makeshift camp at Lung Krawk on the China side of the border not to stay in the camp and told them to stay at friends' and relatives' houses.

Lung Krawk was a temporary camp for Kachin refugees fleeing the war until Chinese authorities sent them back in August 2012.

This article was originally published in Kachinland News on 17 April 2014.

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Yangon Switches On

Posted: 16 Apr 2014 10:21 PM PDT

Myanmar, Burma, Yangon, Rangoon, power, electricity, gas, drought, power cut, generator, hydropower

Power to the people: Providing affordable electricity for ordinary people and businesses is a fundamental step in Myanmar's drive to catch up with other countries. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

YANGON — On the industrial outskirts of Yangon, a rusted chimney exhales wisps of white smoke as a three-decade-old gas-fired power station chunters on.

Just meters away on the same compound in Thaketa Township, a low mumble, but nothing in the way of visible emissions, is coming from a row of 16 boxed-up gas-fueled engines—Austrian-produced Jenbacher machines from US firm General Electric.

With new technology like this, there are signs Myanmar is gaining ground in its struggle against the chronic energy crisis that held back its people, and its economy, for years. Less than a quarter of the estimated 60 million population has access to electricity, and those businesses brave enough to set up here despite an unreliable power supply are forced to buy and run their own generators.

The new 50-megawatt power plant is run by Maxpower Thaketa—a local subsidiary of Indonesia-based Navigat.

"You can see that the engine color is green, so you can see we are environmentally friendly," jokes U Henry Zaw Tun, Maxpower Thaketa's business development manager, on a visit to the plant in March.

The machines are state of the art. Their vital signs are watched over on a single computer monitor. To catch problems in their workings before they occur, engineers in blue jumpsuits peer at the screen of a small digital camera, which projects an image from an endoscope inside one of the engines' bowels.

To produce about the same amount of power as the new plant, the old Thaketa plant, a gas-powered turbine generator run by the state-owned Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise, burns twice as much gas, U Henry Zaw Tun says. "And we only use 10,000 gallons of water per year for cooling. They use 300,000 to 400,000 gallons per day!" he says.

With an investment of US$35 million, work was completed in August 2013. In February, Maxpower was rewarded with a power-purchasing agreement under which the Myanmar government provides the gas and buys back the power produced.

The build-operate-transfer agreement, the specific details of which have not been disclosed, will see the site handed over to the government in 30 years. Earlier reports said the contract was drawn up with the help of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), but it was in fact drawn up bilaterally with the government, although it meets World Bank standards, according to Maxpower.

In a statement to The Irrawaddy, the company said the contract terms had been approved by President U Thein Sein's cabinet and that the government planned to use it as a "template for future power projects" as a new generation of power plants arrives.

Yangon currently sucks up about half of the country's total supply of about 1,850 MW of energy, and demand in the former capital is met by a mixture of hydropower and existing gas generation. In the hot and dry months from March to July, however, demand is driven up by air-conditioners, and supply is shorter as lower water levels mean hydropower can contribute less energy to the grid.

While the government in the long run is looking to exploit the country's huge river network for more hydropower to fuel development, those projects are politically sensitive and take a long time to get online. Two years ago, when the hot season caused widespread blackouts in the country's commercial capital—sparking candle-lit demonstrations—the government put out an open invitation for companies to come forward with fast-track solutions to meet fast-rising energy demand.

Cooking with Gas

Alongside the new Thaketa plant, a new 240-MW gas plant is about to begin producing power at Ywama, with turbines donated by the Thai government.

According to Yangon's state-run provider, the Yangon Electricity Supply Board (YESB), gas generators—one at Ywama in Insein Township, one run by Toyo-Thai Corporation Plc in Ahlone, and another at Hlawga in Mingaladon—are at present producing about 230 MW of power combined. Nationwide, gas accounts for about 550 MW, compared to 930 MW from hydropower, according to the YESB.

But gas is set to contribute more to Myanmar's energy mix, especially as the amount of gas coming onshore increases.

Although existing projects controversially send the majority of the gas extracted from Myanmar's seabed abroad, a proportion stays in Myanmar. The government has promised to keep more of the gas from future developments for domestic use.

The Yangon gas generators are being fueled by Total's Yadana project in the Andaman Sea. The Shwe field in the Bay of Bengal is also now sending gas ashore, and the Zawtika field, developed by Thailand's PTTEP, was expected to start producing this hot season.

The World Bank is funding the upgrade of an aging gas power plant in Thaton, Mon State, which is expected to reach 106 MW. Also in Mon State, Singaporean company Asiatech Energy has announced it has secured funding for a 230-MW gas-fired plant in the state capital, Mawlamyine, to be completed in late 2015.

Also on the horizon is a short-term power-supply project that will see Florida-based company APR Energy install a 100-MW gas-powered plant in Kyaukse, Mandalay Region, to burn gas from the Shwe project. The company lauded its deal to bring a "turn-key" power plant—beginning sometime between April and June and running to late 2015—as a "bridging solution for the medium term while the country develops its long-term power generation infrastructure."

Both APR and Maxpower told The Irrawaddy they were looking to take on more power supply projects in Myanmar.

"We would like to invest further in Myanmar," said Clive Turton, APR Energy's head of business development for the Asia-Pacific region, declining to give details of "several" other projects the company was looking at.

Demand for power is rising nationwide by 12 percent per year, said Mr. Turton, who said he believes natural gas will be an important tool as the country's energy demand grows.

"I absolutely think [natural gas] should be a major part of the solution," said Mr. Turton.

Alongside natural gas developments, the government has numerous hydropower and coal plans, but it is a challenging task to meet rising demand, which could reach 5,000 MW by 2020, according to a 2012 energy sector assessment conducted by the ADB.

The Summer Shortage

U Maung Maung Latt, the vice chairman of YESB, said that despite an expected annual increase in demand of 15 percent, the city would not this year see the rolling power cuts residents are used to. As of early March, infrequent power cuts had begun in downtown Yangon, but not on the scale seen in previous years.

"This summer, both the production rate and the consumption rate will be up in Yangon. Normally consumption is about 800 MW, but in this dry season it could rise to 1,000 MW in Yangon alone," he said. "But the recent situation is that production and consumption are balancing."

Unsurprisingly, given the protests of the past, YESB makes sure residential power demand is met before sending power out to industrial zones. U Maung Maung Latt was hopeful, however, that the city's factory districts would see some benefit from the city's newly bolstered power supply.

"For certain, it won't go back to zero hours of power for industrial zones, like last year," he said. "I can say this year there will be more electricity not only in residential areas, but also in industrial zones. We are receiving more power from gas turbines and dams are saving water through new technology. Also, we're upgrading the national grid and other related power lines."

He said industrial zones would get at least 18 hours of power a day—with power cuts timed during the peak evening hours. That is good news for manufacturers, whose alternative is to run diesel generators.

Industrial Growth Stifled

U Myat Thin Aung, the chairman of Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, which houses almost 600 factories in western Yangon, said using generators was more than four times as expensive as the state-subsidized power from the grid—costing just 75 kyat ($0.08) per kilowatt hour.

When cheap power is not available, some factories simply close their doors, he said. "If production costs increase, sales profits go down. Eventually, factories have to shut."

Hlaing Tharyar is one of 20 mostly small industrial zones in Yangon that altogether demand about 165 MW of power.

Myanmar's planned large special economic zone projects in Thilawa, Dawei and Kyaukphyu will have their own off-grid power sources. U Myat Thin Aung said some factories were keen to run their own gas-fired power generation, but the government had not come forward with a reliable source of cheap gas for this.

The country's low-cost labor partly offsets the high cost of powering a factory and other infrastructure bottlenecks. Investment in simple, labor-intensive garment factories is reportedly rising, with investment coming from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But investment in heavy industry is yet to take off.

"The electricity shortage in Myanmar is one of the biggest challenges for foreign heavy industry to invest here," said U Myat Thin Aung. "[Heavy industry investment] will stay away as long as the government can't supply enough electricity for local industrial zones."

A Little Help

Since Western countries began embracing Myanmar and its reformist government, the country's power shortage—in the face of abundant resources—has become a favorite cause for foreign donors.

In January, the visiting World Bank President Jim Yong Kim pledged $1 billion in aid and investment over a number of years to help expand electricity provision. Japan's international aid agency, JICA, is developing a nationwide master plan for power in Myanmar.

"All the development agencies spent the large part of 2013 talking to the government about areas of support. They have divided up all the areas that the government asked for help with," said Grant Hauber, the ADB's principal public-private partnership specialist for the Asia-Pacific region.

Donors were setting up as many as 25 projects on power in Myanmar as part of a "divide and conquer" approach to tackling the numerous problems in the power sector, he said.

"A lot of the projects are going to be implemented simultaneously so there will be a fairly significant uptick in grid capacity," he added.

There is also work underway by the ADB and others on improving the national grid to reduce power losses, and to upgrade the national grid's "backbone" to a 500-kilovolt line that can transfer power without losses between Myanmar's north—where the larger hydropower projects will be—and the south—where thermal generation is planned.

This work "will reduce power losses by tens of megawatts," said Mr. Hauber. "It's like getting a new power plant."

This article first appeared in the April 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.

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In Thai Peace Talks, a Challenge to Military Dominance

Posted: 16 Apr 2014 10:07 PM PDT

Thailand, Muslim, south, insurgency, Malay,  Thaksin, Yingluck, Shinawatra

A Thai soldier in the southern province of Narathiwat holds his weapon as people cross into Malaysia on March 8. (Photo: Reuters)

PATTANI, Thailand — At a recent event to mark the first anniversary of a landmark peace dialogue in Thailand's troubled south, the mood was more uncertain than celebratory. The conflicting views of the main parties at the talks—the National Security Council (NSC), heading the Thai government's delegation, and exiled members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), speaking on behalf of the strongest Malay-Muslim insurgent movement in Thailand's southernmost provinces—were one obvious source of this unease. But beyond this, there were also worries rooted in the attitude of Thailand's powerful military toward such a dialogue.

The words of Maj.-Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, a ranking member of the Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC), an influential branch of the military, went some way toward allaying these concerns. "The security community supports the peace process and for the dialogue to find a solution," he told a panel discussion held in a packed lecture room at Pattani's Prince of Songkhla University.

Such words from a general known to be a hawk were not lost on analysts of the insurgency that has bloodied the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, home to predominantly Buddhist Thailand's largest minority, the Malay-Muslims. "It is a good sign, at least verbally," remarked one Pattani-based analyst. "The military seems to have accepted that this process will go ahead and it wants to have a role."

Yet, even such analysts prefer to be guarded, given the military's dominant role in combating the BRN-C-led insurgency and the sway it enjoyed during four previous efforts at peace talks since this latest cycle of violence erupted in January 2004. The latest talks have exposed the manner in which the military has wrested control from other arms of the Thai state to determine the political agenda in this region along the Thai-Malaysian border, making the question of whether it is on board with the current peace process the focus of much fraught speculation.

The turf war over who sets the agenda in the south has come increasingly out into the open since the signing of the "General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process" on Feb. 28, 2013, between Lt.-Gen. Paradorn Pattanatabut, head of the NSC, and Hassan Taib, an exiled political representative of the BRN-C. According to Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, the author of reports about the insurgency for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group from 2008-2012, "The military sent a message to the government not to sign the Feb. 28 'General Consensus' with the BRN-C. Gen. Nakrob often said that the army was being kept at a distance by Paradorn and [other allies] of the government."

The extent of this tussle was exposed by a security establishment insider nearly two months after the pact for talks was signed. His timing lent weight to his words, coming as they did just before Paradorn and Taib met for the second round in Kuala Lumpur in April of last year.

In an interview with a local newspaper, Thawil Pliensri, Paradorn's predecessor, decried the lack of a consensus among Thai state actors that matter—the NSC, the Foreign Ministry, the National Intelligence Agency, ISOC, the Justice Ministry and the armed forces.

"All state organizations must be united and adopt the same stance before negotiations," he said. "We have seen that [the] insurgents have made demands about prosecutions and arrest warrants but Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has dismissed them. This reflects disunity on our side. Such an issue rattles the confidence of negotiators."

That questions over the military's willingness to sustain Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's peace gambit still continue is hardly surprising. It was marginalized by Yingluck's elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who, despite living in self-imposed exile after his elected government was overthrown in a September 2006 military coup, continues to advise his sibling from abroad. For peace in the south, the elder Shinawatra turned to his allies within the civilian arm of the security establishment and the police to launch the peace dialogue with the BRN-C. This move challenged the military's preeminent political role in solving the ethno-nationalist conflict in the south.

Two significant benchmarks emerged after Paradorn met the goatee-sporting Hassan in Malaysia, chosen to fill the role of an international facilitator. The first was that the BRN-C was elevated to the status of equality with Bangkok. That dealt a blow to a goal long held by the hawks in the military: to deny the BRN-C or other Malay-Muslim insurgent groups the status of equality with the Thai government. The latter strategy had resulted in the military dealing with the militants in "informal dialogues," often with the aim of reducing violence being a key driver.

Equally significant was the Thai government's public affirmation in the February 2013 pact as to who its armed forces was locked in a battle with, and who Bangkok should negotiate with: the BRN-C, a well-armed insurgent movement that had a political agenda. This broke the wall of silence that the military had maintained to determine the nature of the conflict that, currently, has accounted for 6,000 deaths and 10,700 people injured.

"The past year has offered clear evidence of the existence of a Malay-Muslim rebel movement," a Bangkok-based diplomat told The Irrawaddy. "The narrative of the conflict that the army controlled—about attacks by ninjas, drug networks, criminal groups and unknown militants—has been blown apart."

Such a turn of events marks a rare institutional setback for the most powerful pillar of the Thai state. The military's influence here is not limited to protecting this Kingdom's international boundaries and being on hand when national security is threatened. It also wields power in shaping Thailand's foreign policy towards neighboring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

"Thailand lacks civilian control over its armed forces. During the Cold War, the military became the strongest political institution in Thai politics," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The friction between the military and elected governments is entrenched. Because democratic institutions are weak, the military in recent years has assertively retaken policy reins in key areas, particularly border conflicts and the Malay-Muslim insurgency."

The post In Thai Peace Talks, a Challenge to Military Dominance appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.