Thursday, July 31, 2014

National News

National News

Jailed Kanbalu farmers transferred to distant prisons

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 09:07 PM PDT

Farmers who have been jailed for leading a campaign to plough confiscated land in Sagaing Region have been transferred to distant prisons, relatives say.

U San Sint's bail application rejected

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 09:06 PM PDT

Former Minister for Religious Affairs U San Sint has had an application for bail rejected by Dekkhinathiri District Court in Nay Pyi Taw.

Two pedestrians killed in wild hit-run crash

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 09:05 PM PDT

A man is facing charges of culpable homicide and rash driving after allegedly killing two pedestrians who were sitting on a traffic island on Sule Pagoda Road.

US to lead training program for 30 Tatmadaw officials in Nay Pyi Taw

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 03:09 PM PDT

The United States plans to further its nascent engagement with the Myanmar military next month through a workshop for about 30 mid-level security officials at the National Defence College in Nay Pyi Taw.

South Korean shoe factory officials facing charges

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 03:06 PM PDT

The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security has initiated legal action against officials from a South Korean shoe factory in Hlaing Tharyar township that closed abruptly at the end of June and has refused to compensate laid-off workers.

Drug-resistant malaria takes root in SEA

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:13 PM PDT

Drug-resistant malaria parasites are now firmly established in border regions in four Southeast Asian countries, imperilling global efforts to control the disease, experts warn.

Ministry of Defence promises housing for retired military staff

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:08 PM PDT

The government plans to spend tens of millions of dollars from the military's welfare fund to provide housing for retired servicemen, the deputy minister for defence has told MPs.

Jumping the gun, mobile shops begin selling Ooredoo SIMs

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 01:34 PM PDT

Mobile phone shops appear to have jumped ahead of the as-yet-unspecified Ooredoo launch date, with some in Yangon and Mandalay already selling the company's SIM cards.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Ooredoo SIM Cards Go on Limited Sale in Burma

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 05:06 AM PDT

A mobile phone user in Mandalay holds up a newly bought Ooredoo SIM card. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

A mobile phone user in Mandalay holds up a newly bought Ooredoo SIM card. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Some shops in Mandalay have already begun selling a limited number of Ooredoo SIM cards, as the Qatari company remains tight-lipped about when its mobile phone cards will go on general sale.

The sale of affordable SIM cards has been hotly awaited since Ooredoo and Norway's Telenor were named as the winners of a competitive tender last year to become the first private firms to offer mobile phone services in Burma. The two companies enter the market alongside state-owned company Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT), which has so far only distributed limited numbers of SIM cards through lotteries, fueling a black market for the sought-after cards.

Ooredoo Myanmar spokeswoman Thiri Kyar Nyo said she could not confirm when Ooredoo SIM cards were going on sale nationwide. All would be revealed at a press conference in Rangoon on Saturday, she said.

But a photographer for The Irrawaddy in Mandalay has seen mobile shops and vendors selling the SIMs since Tuesday, and numerous social media posts have shown people buying the cards. Local media reported that phone shops in Naypyidaw were also selling the SIM cards.

Phone shop workers in Mandalay, who declined to be named, told The Irrawaddy that SIM cards had been distributed to shops ready for an official launch on Saturday, but some shops in Burma's second city had already started selling them.

Mobile Mother phone shop in Mandalay is selling the SIMs, which have a recommended retail price of 1,500 kyat (about US$1.50), for 1,700 kyat each to people with national identity cards. A member of staff said the shop, which is an official Ooredoo distributor, sold out of its 1,000 SIM cards within a day.

The cards come with 900 free minutes and 900 free SMS text messages to other Ooredoo phones, 90 minutes of free calls and 90 free texts to MPT users, and 20 megabytes (MB) of Internet data to be used between Aug. 2 and 15, according to phone shop workers.

Calls cost 25 kyat per minute between Ooredoo users, or 35 kyat to other networks, and texts and 1 MB of data also cost 25 kyat each, they said. Although details of Ooredoo's data plans have not been announced, some on Burmese social media have already complained that 25 kyat per MB would add up to a high cost for frequent Internet users, who often use 1 gigabyte, or 1,000 MB, per week.

Some phone shops in Mandalay are only selling Ooredoo SIM cards to customers who also buy a phone handset, according to a salesperson from Any Call Mobile, a Telenor representative shop, who also said the unofficial launch had not impacted on phone sales at his shop.

In expectation of the new competition, MPT has been distributing more of its SIMs and has said it will soon put them on general sale. The company has tied up with Japanese firms KDDI and Sumitomo in an attempt to hold on to its dominant position in the Burmese phone market.

MPT also launched a "Friends and Family" promotion on Tuesday, with which users can pay 2,500 kyat and make calls at 25 kyat per minute to three designated users.

The post Ooredoo SIM Cards Go on Limited Sale in Burma appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Presidential Spokesman Ye Htut Nominated for Information Minister Post

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 05:00 AM PDT

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut talks to reporters on Saturday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut talks to reporters on Saturday. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A day after the removal of Information Minister Aung Kyi was announced, it emerged on Wednesday that President Thein Sein has nominated his spokesman and Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut as the new minister.

Deputy Health Minister Than Aung was nominated to succeed Health Minister Pe Thet Khin, whose removal was also announced on Tuesday.

In a letter to Parliament Wednesday afternoon, Thein Sein nominated Ye Htut for the minister's post. Parliament will have to assess whether he meets criteria set out in the Constitution.

Ye Htut has actively engaged with the local and international media since his appointment as spokesman in 2013, often through posts on his Facebook page. A former lieutenant colonel in the Burma Army, he was transferred to the Information Ministry in 2005, became deputy information minister in 2012 and presidential spokesman in 2013.

As a spokesman he aggressively defended Thein Sein's reformist administration, in particular its handling of the Arakan State crisis and a recent media clampdown, while he has also launched criticisms of his own at the media and government critics. Last month, he was forced to apologize for a photo-shopped image shared by his wife on Facebook, depicting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in an Islamic headscarf.

Ye Htut didn't respond to emailed questions by The Irrawaddy about his nomination, but briefly explained why Aung Kyi and Dr Pe Thet Khin had stepped down.

"The president recognizes their efforts during their terms. On the other hand, he still needs to boost reforms in his remaining term to have good results. That's why he made changes at union minister level," Ye Htut said, adding that Thein Sein had found some shortcomings in the ministers' performances.

Aung Kyi was a member of the former junta and appointed as Information Minister in August 2012, taking over from Kyaw Hsan, who was considered a hardliner. Draconian, junta-era media restrictions, such media censorship and a ban on daily newspapers, were lifted during Aung Kyi's term as part of the sweeping political reforms introduced by Thein Sein after his nominally civilian government replaced a military regime in 2011.

His resignation comes at a time of a growing government pressure on local media that has resulted in a sharp rise in the threats and arrests of journalists in recent months.

At least seven journalists at the now-defunct Bi Mon Te Nay journal were arrested in the past weeks, while four journalists and the CEO of the closed down Unity journal were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment with hard labor for a report on an alleged chemical weapons factory of the Burma Army.

Special Branch Police have also questioned more than a dozen newspaper editors in recent weeks for vaguely defined investigations in the finances of news publications.

Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst, said he believed that Aung Kyi was asked to resign as he had been a relatively inactive and that Thein Sein wanted to see a minister who exercises more hands-on control over Burma's fledgling but active media.

"In his term we didn't see anything special in [Aung Kyi's] performance regarding the media. Cancelation of press censorship, for example, he implemented because it was ordered from above," he said.

"The resignation probably signals that the government just wants to
change to a minister who can take more effective control of media. I think they want to appoint someone who could handle the media in a more systematic way," Ya Myo Thein said.

Sithu Aung Myint, a senior journalist, said it was too early say what sort impact Ye Htut would have on the media in his position as minister, adding, however, that recent remarks by Ye Htut could indicate a tough government approach.

"In a recent interview with Voice of America, he sounded like he wanted to blame the media for what is happening with the media in Burma now. Many journalists here don't like him," he said, referring to Ye Htut's remarks in defense of the 10 years' sentencing of the Unity Trial journalists and describing Burmese media as immature and unprofessional.

Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw.

The post Presidential Spokesman Ye Htut Nominated for Information Minister Post appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Burmese Army Officers Murdered in Violence-Wracked Namkham

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 03:46 AM PDT

A photo purportedly showing the body of a Burmese Army military officer shot and killed in Namkham Township, Shan State, on Tuesday. (Photo: Facebook / Lachid Kachin)

A photo purportedly showing the body of a Burmese Army military officer shot and killed in Namkham Township, Shan State, on Tuesday. (Photo: Facebook / Lachid Kachin)

RANGOON — Two Burmese Army officers were reportedly murdered on Tuesday near the Sino-Burmese border in Namkham Township, northern Shan State, where government troops have clashed in recent months with ethnic armed rebel groups.

The officers from Infantry Division 88, one a commanding officer named Win Thura Tun and another a warrant officer, were murdered outside of Noung Madar village by unknown armed men, according to border sources.

Saw Hla, a member of the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party in Namkham, told The Irrawaddy that the bodies of the two men were found at about 10 am on Tuesday. The commanding officer was shot three times and also showed signs of blunt force trauma to the head.

The two victims were reportedly returning to their base in the village on a motorbike, after a trip to the town market in Namkham.

"They [police] are still investigating," Saw Hla said. "They detained five people yesterday [Tuesday] from Noung Madar village, including the village head, and interrogated them. The people have not been released yet."

The bodies of the two victims were found by local villagers outside of Noung Madar beside an infrequently trafficked road dividing corn and sugar cane fields.

The police station in Namkham refused to comment when asked by The Irrawaddy about the deaths.

Sai Aom Mong, a resident in Namkham, said Infantry Division 88 had threatened to burn down the village if local residents did not help investigators to track down the killers.

"They beat those detainees and asked who were the killers," Sai Aom Mong said. "They released the detainees at midnight, but they called them back in again this morning. They have threatened to burn down the village if they aren't able to find out who the killers are."

"We do not know what the case with their murders is," Saw Hla said. "It could be a business case or there are many armed groups around here, such as Palaung [Ta'ang], Kachin and Shan, and even a militia group. No one knows yet who killed them."

Since April, the Burmese Army has clashed periodically with armed rebels in Namkham Townships and neighboring Kachin State, where the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) operate. Thousands of civilians have been displaced by the violence.

The post Burmese Army Officers Murdered in Violence-Wracked Namkham appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Uncertainty, Concern Surround Thai Govt Headcount of Refugees

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 03:10 AM PDT

Poe Suter Toe, an ethnic Karen refugee from Mandalay, stands between fences at the Mae La refugee camp near Mae Sot June 3, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Poe Suter Toe, an ethnic Karen refugee from Mandalay, stands between fences at the Mae La refugee camp near Mae Sot June 3, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Concerns and uncertainty over the future of tens of thousands of Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burma border continue to grow as Thai authorities proceed with headcount operations in all nine refugee camps.

Refugees, aid NGOs and the UN said Thai authorities are taking refugees off food distribution lists, tightening restrictions on their movement, and appear to be categorizing residents in order to facilitate their future removal from the camp.

A dearth of information surrounds the actions of the Thai military government, however, and much about the activities remains unclear as neither refugees, aid groups nor the UN have been informed about details of the plan.

The Thai junta, which seized power through a coup in May, announced in the Thai media in recent weeks that it wants to cooperate with Burma to repatriate the refugees by 2015, but it has not mentioned any details of the plan.

Recently, local Thai authorities began carrying out a headcount in the nine camps that have housed some 120,000 refugees for about two decades.

Last week, headcounts were carried out at Mae La, the biggest camp, in Tak Province, and at Ban Mai Nai Soi in Mae Hong Son Province, and smaller camps in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces. Preparations are under way to begin the process in Mae Ra Ma Luang and Mae La Oon camps in Mae Hong Son Province soon.

Saw Honest, chairman of the Mae La camp, which is home to some 40,000 refugees, said Thai soldiers had called residents to assemble at the camp grounds and read out the names of households registered with the camp administration and The Border Consortium (TBC).

If refugees were not present, he said, their names were removed from the household registration cards and they would no longer be eligible for food and other aid distribution from TBC, a coalition of aid organizations supporting the camps.

Saw Honest said he believed that the Thai government had the authority to remove people's UN refugee status if they were not present in the camp during the headcount, but it appeared that this had not happened so far.

"The [headcount] is the first step. But, we don’t know their intention in the next step," he said, adding that Thai authorities had told him that the headcount was meant to "update the refugee population registration and they will keep this record as the updated one. It is like they want to clarify who has refugee and who has migrant status."

He added that the headcount exercise was not affecting refugees who are applying for individual third country resettlement with UN help.

Naw Day Day Poe, deputy secretary of Mae La refugee camp, said, "We don’t know what exactly will happen after this [headcount] program, but things are getting serious."

Thai military officials told news agency Reuters last week they were conducting the headcount in order to get an updated refugee figure and to ascertain how many refugees were leaving the camp in order to work—which has been prohibited by Thai authorities—or whether economic migrants were among the camp residents.

Many of the refugees regularly leave the camps to find ways to support their livelihoods.

Thai authorities have announced that they delisted some 3,000 camp residents as eligible for refugee support at several camps in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Thai provincial authorities were carrying out the headcount without its involvement, adding that the agency had been kept in the dark about its purposes.

"You’ll have to ask the authorities as we are not involved in the headcount and don’t know what they plan to do with the results," said Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokesperson.

"From what we can observe, the headcount is being conducted in an inconsistent and ad hoc way across different camps," Tan said.

"In some camps, refugees are told that if they are not present for the headcounts, they will be taken off food distribution lists. In some other camps they have been told that they do not have to be physically present and that their families or leaders can account for them."

Duncan McArthur, Partnership Director of TBC, said, "There are precedents of Thai authorities de-registering [UN] refugees for violations of Thai law, but the current purpose of the headcounts is unclear."

Last week, Thai media reported that a senior junta member would attend a Thai-Burma Regional Border Committee on Aug 1-3 in Mergui, Tennaserim Division, to discuss refugee repatriation with the Burmese government.

The UNHCR has said that conditions in eastern Burma are not yet right for organized repatriation due to presence of unmarked mine fields and the lack of critical infrastructure, services and livelihood opportunities. It said both Burma and Thailand agreed with the UN that the return of refugees should be voluntary and safe.

The refugees, most of them Karen and Karenni minorities, fled ethnic conflict in eastern Burma in the past two decades or so. Thailand has allowed the refugees to stay on its soil and live in camps with support from UN and aid groups, but has long insisted their presence is "temporary" and has put restrictions on camp residents.

A particular concern during the Thai government's repatriation push is the status of some 58,000 refugees, more than half of all camp residents, who do not have official UNHCR refugee status.

Those who fled Burma after 2005 were prevented from obtaining such a status, as the Thai government withdrew support for the UN registration process, although it did allow refugees to live in camps and register with NGOs for aid. Prior to 2005, the Thai Interior Ministry and the UN had jointly provided official refugee registration cards.

"The vast majority of unregistered refugees appear to have fled from the effects of conflict just like registered refugees before them. It is not clear how unregistered refugees will be treated on this occasion, but they remain more vulnerable to forced repatriation," said McArthur of TBC.

Htee Wah, a refugee in Mae La Oon camp, said unconfirmed reports circulating among residents and NGO staff suggest that Thai authorities want to dismantle all but one of the refugee camps.

"We heard after the headcount process, refugees who are eligible for third country program will be asked to resettle in the West. Refugees who want to return home will be sent back," he said. "Those who want to remain in Thailand will be kept in Mae La Ma Luang camp. After that, Thai authorities will shut down the rest of the refugee camps."

Thai media have previously reported that the Thai government was planning to register refugees in the aforementioned three categories in order to facilitate their repatriation and dismantle or size down the camps.

Thai authorities are also tightening restrictions on movement of the refugees in order to limit opportunities to work outside the camp, said Tu Tu, an official from Karen Refugee Committee in Mae Sariang District, Mae Hong Son Province.

Thai authorities believe that some camp residents are migrants looking for job opportunities, while some refugees work outside of the camp illegally, according to Tu Tu, adding that authorities also allege that Burmese camp residents are involved in illicit cross-border activities such as timber and drug trade, and human trafficking.

Kyor Dah, a refugee in Mae La Onn camp, said, "It seems the Thai regime wants to clear up the refugee population in order to expel unregistered refugees and economic migrants who live in the camp and refugees who live outside the camps.

"If the refugee population decreases, it will be easier for them to shut down the camps," he said.

"We are very much worried about the inspections by Thai authorities, as they are ordered by the military. Now they [the military] have power, so they can do everything that they want to. They can repatriate us or shut down the camps if they want."

At Mae La Oon and Mae La Ma Luang camps Thai soldiers have begun patrols near the camps and regular inspections of camp residents' refugee status and their belongings, Kyor Dah said, adding that in some cases motorbikes and cars without proper documentation were seized from residents.

"They said that refugees should be living like poor refugees. People who own properties are not like refugees," he added. Many refugees rely on small remittances made by their relatives who resettled in third countries to buy such properties.

The post Uncertainty, Concern Surround Thai Govt Headcount of Refugees appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Japan’s ANA Cancels Investment in Burma’s Asian Wings

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:59 AM PDT

An Asian Wings prop plane is pictured on the tarmac. (Photo:

An Asian Wings prop plane is pictured on the tarmac. (Photo:

RANGOON — Japanese airline ANA has abandoned its plan to invest in Burmese carrier Asian Wings, citing "intensified" competition in the aviation sector here.

ANA Holdings, the parent company of All Nippon Airways, announced in August 2013 that it would pay US$25 million for a 49 percent stake in Asian Wings Airways (AWA). The deal reportedly would have involved the Japanese group leasing aircraft to the small Burmese airline and providing training for its pilots.

On Wednesday, ANA Holdings posted an announcement on its website declaring that its board of directors had agreed to cancel the investment.

"[C]ompetition between new and old airlines in Myanmar has intensified, bringing rapid changes in the external environment, and calling into question the assumptions made at the time of the original decision," the statement said in explanation of the cancelation.

"Ultimately, negotiations for the capital participation with AWA were unable to reach an agreement, and the investment plan was canceled as a result."

The original agreement came amid hype about Burma's aviation sector, as the government of President Thein Sein began a program of reforms, raising hopes that business visitors and tourists would flock to the country. Visitor numbers have indeed risen, but some airlines have cut down flights into the country after an initial rush led to overcapacity and empty seats on flights.

The ANA-Asian Wings deal raised questions at the time as Asian Wings—which flies mostly domestic routes and was only formed in 2010—had been linked to Htoo Group chairman Tay Za, who appears on the US Treasury Department's Specially Designated Nationals list.

When the investment was announced, however, Asian Wings officials denied any link to Tay Za, saying instead that Than Oo, a director at the modest local firm Sunfar Travels and Tours Company, was backing the airline. Tay Za has complained of business problems resulting from US sanctions against his airline Air Bagan—which also has a code-sharing arrangement with Asian Wings.

The post Japan's ANA Cancels Investment in Burma's Asian Wings appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Ethnic Ceasefire Team Concludes Laiza Summit

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:08 AM PDT

Mutu Say Poe, center, the Karen National Union (KNU) chairman, speaks at the NCCT summit in Laiza on July 26, 2014. (Photo: Thaw Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

Mutu Say Poe, center, the Karen National Union (KNU) chairman, speaks at the NCCT summit in Laiza on July 26, 2014. (Photo: Thaw Hein Htet / The Irrawaddy)

LAIZA, Kachin State — Members of ethnic rebel groups' Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) wrapped up a summit on Tuesday after four days of discussions in Laiza, Kachin State, saying they were ready to take the results of their talks to the Burmese government and other peace process stakeholders.

Leaders of the 16-member NCCT held the conference to discuss the second draft of a single-text nationwide ceasefire agreement, with talks focusing on outstanding points of contention between the government and ethnic groups.

In the nine months since the ethnic groups formed the NCCT in November 2013, the NCCT and government peace negotiators have held a series of meetings aimed at signing an elusive nationwide ceasefire agreement.

NCCT leaders on Tuesday agreed on 10 points related to the second draft of the ceasefire that are still under negotiation with the government, and discussed "to what extent they can negotiate on these," according Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong, an NCCT member and leader of the Chin National Front.

The ethnic participants' agreement included points concerning their stance on federal principles, ceasefire wording and the decision-making role of the NCCT, as well as matters related to the political dialogue expected to follow an eventual ceasefire signing and technical coordination with the government, ethnic leaders involved in the talks told The Irrawaddy.

Nai Hong Sar, the head of the NCCT, said during a press conference on Tuesday evening that the nationwide ceasefire process appeared to have stalled, with the government unwilling to accept the ethnic groups' demands for autonomy and federalism.

"We could move forward, if the government will accept [ethnic groups' demands]," said Nai Hong Sar, adding that one sticking point between rebel groups and the government was the form that political dialogue would take.

Ethnic leaders want a tripartite framework, while the government has proposed a so-called "eight sectors dialogue." Under the government's preferred arrangement, dialogue would take place among the ethnic groups and Burma's executive branch, military, Parliament, political parties, civil society organizations, academic experts and businesspeople.

The ethnic leaders are pushing for a more limited dialogue involving the government, ethnic armed groups and the country's pro-democracy political forces, including the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

NCCT leader Khun Myint Htun told The Irrawaddy that the word "revolution" would not be used in the nationwide ceasefire accord's title, but would be included within the text of document, under condition that the final agreement guarantees ethnic groups' equality and autonomy under a system of genuine federalism in Burma.

Whether to use the word in the title has long been disputed, with the government wary of the term being accorded such prominence, but less reluctant to see it used farther down in the text of the document.

Ethnic leaders said their latest talks did not delve into the six points that the Burmese military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has asked be incorporated into the single-text draft, including that ethnic groups respect the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

"Our leaders also have not decided yet whether to accept or not, because we have not [in the past] accepted the 2008 Constitution," Salai Lian Hmong Sakhong said. "We talked clearly about what we want. We did not focus on it [the Tatmadaw's six points]."

Convening on Friday, the ethnic summit was attended by the 16 NCCT member groups and was later joined by Vijay Nambiar, the UN special adviser to Burma, and Tand Ying, the Chinese envoy on Asian Affairs, who attended as observers on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the NCCT will meet with non-NCCT members including the Restoration Council of Shan State, All Burma Students' Democratic Front and an ethnic Naga rebel group to share the results of their discussion on the ceasefire's second draft.

The ethnic leaders will then meet with the government's peace negotiating team for further talks in Rangoon, but no date has yet been confirmed for that gathering.

Nyein Nyein reported from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The post Ethnic Ceasefire Team Concludes Laiza Summit appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Burma’s Information and Health Ministers Step Down

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 10:09 PM PDT

Information Minister Aung Kyi gestures during a press conference in Rangoon in August 2013. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Information Minister Aung Kyi gestures during a press conference in Rangoon in August 2013. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Burma's ministers for information and health have been allowed to retire, state television reported Tuesday, in the country's second cabinet reshuffle in two months.

The evening news read a statement signed by President Thein Sein announcing the resignations of Information Minister Aung Kyi and Health Minister Pe Thet Khin. An official explanation that a minister is permitted to retire is generally taken to mean a resignation under pressure.

No reason was given for the resignations. No replacements were announced.

Aung Kyi was part of the military group that continues to dominate the country's administration even after elections brought a nominally civilian government to power in 2011. He has a reputation as a moderate and has kept a low profile. Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut has been more in the spotlight because he is also the president's spokesman and is outspoken on public media.

Although Thein Sein's government lifted censorship of the media after almost 50 years of repressive military rule, it has recently come under criticism for allowing the persecution of journalists through defamation and other laws.

Pe Thet Khin was a civilian doctor and also cut a low profile.

The last reshuffle in June saw the departure of the religious affairs minister, who was later charged with corruption and sedition. The chief minister for Arakan State, which is plagued by conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims, lost his job at the same time.

Violent conflicts between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims since 2012 have taken more than 280 lives, left more than 140,000 people homeless, and drawn sharp criticism from the international community, which believes the government has failed to crack down on extremists.

The post Burma's Information and Health Ministers Step Down appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Standing Tall

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 05:30 PM PDT

Myanmar religion

A man walks past the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in downtown Yangon. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

YANGON — On 26th Street in downtown Yangon is a building almost hidden from sight and barely noticed by those who pass it every day. Built in the 19th century, it is part of the city's history, but one with an interesting history all its own.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was founded by a prosperous community of Jewish traders who began arriving in this country from India in the mid-19th century. At one time, around 3,000 Jews lived here, concentrated in an area around Mahabandoola Street, and also along Yaw Min Gyi and Bo Yar Nyunt streets.

Very little is left of this community today, however—just around 20 people for whom the synagogue is a living reminder of a once vibrant past.

If you decide to take a closer look, you might not find it particularly welcoming at first glance: The sign visible from the closed gate informs you that "outsiders are not allowed." But visitors can enter if they seek permission a day in advance, and this unique place of worship has recently become an unlikely tourist attraction for those wishing to explore Yangon's impressive cultural and religious diversity.

Once inside, one immediately feels transported to another time and place. The most prominent feature of the interior is the bema, a raised platform with a railing where the Torah (the Jewish holy book) is read during services.

Surrounding this platform are cane-backed chairs of an indeterminate age; they seem quite old, but they're in very good condition. A grandfather clock that stands near the entrance also has the look of an antique, but no longer tells the time. It's not easy to tell where or when it was made, but the word "Rangoon," in English, appears on its surface.

As I stood admiring this towering timepiece, Sammy Samuels, the son of the synagogue's patriarch, Moses Samuels, offered to shed some light on its provenance. "That clock was donated to the synagogue when it was first established," he said. "Like almost everything else here, it is the same age as the synagogue itself."

As a descendant of the founders of the synagogue, the younger Mr. Samuels is busy these days sharing local Jewish history with a growing number of visitors. The US-educated 32-year-old also operates a travel agency, Myanmar Shalom Travels, which offers, among other packages, a nine-day Jewish Heritage Tour.

The synagogue itself dates back to the mid-1890s, when it was built to replace a smaller wooden structure. The interior is quiet, spacious and well-lit, with a high ceiling and a second floor that is open in the center, offering a view of the area below where the congregation gathers for prayer.

From Heyday to Decline

Myanmar religion

A view of the inside of the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue in downtown Yangon. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

Although everything seems in excellent condition today, at one time the synagogue was in a state of disrepair; in May 2008, when Cyclone Nargis struck, it even lost its roof. In some ways, its fate mirrors that of Yangon's Jewish community, which has suffered a number of serious setbacks over the past century, but remains strong, if much diminished in size.

In their heyday during the years of British colonial rule, Yangon's Jews played a notable role in the city's commerce, owning many large shops and companies. The community also distinguished itself intellectually, producing many doctors and scholars.

But all that changed in 1942, when Japan's Imperial Army invaded Myanmar. Local Jews were suspected of spying for the British and some were detained and interrogated, so most of the community decided to
flee. However, even during these trying times, around 1,000 remained.

When the war ended, things began to look much better for the country's Jews.

Soon after Myanmar regained its independence in 1948, it established
friendly ties with Israel, and in 1955, then Prime Minister U Nu became the first foreign leader to visit the newly created Jewish state.

In December 1961, then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion paid homage to this relationship as he departed for a state visit to the country then still known officially as Burma.

"In all of Asia, there is no more friendly nation to Israel than Burma," he declared. "Israel and Burma are two old countries with old histories which renewed their independence in 1948. Both are democratic and both follow the same principle in foreign relations—promoting friendly relations and mutual aid with all peace-loving countries irrespective of their internal regimes and without injuring the interests of any other country."

But Myanmar would not be democratic for much longer: On March 2, 1962,
the military seized power in a bloody coup and imposed a rigid socialist system that was devastating for what was left of the local Jewish community.

Many lost their businesses to nationalization, and the deeply xenophobic brand of nationalism fostered by the new regime forced most to flee to the US or the UK via neighboring India.

A Prayer for Peace

Now, more than 50 years later, Yangon's few remaining Jews continue to play a role in fostering a spirit of unity that transcends religious and ethnic differences. Every year during Hanukkah—the eight-day Festival of Lights in December—the synagogue invites members of other faiths, as well as diplomats and government officials, to light the menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum that is the central symbol of this important Jewish holiday.

"It is a ceremony to pray for peace, and for freedom to believe. Leaders from other religions come to light the candles, including Muslim leaders," explained Mr. Samuels. "This [religious harmony] is what we need in Myanmar. Even though we are a religious minority here, we don't want to stay out of it when the country is facing religious conflict."

Despite the troubles they've experienced over the years, Myanmar's Jews know they are nothing compared to those of Israel, a country that has rarely known peace in its 66 years of existence.

"When we Jews meet each other, we like to say that the longer the egg
is boiled, the harder it becomes," said Mr. Samuels, explaining how the Jewish people have managed to endure the many challenges they have faced.

The key to their survival against such odds, he added, is unity. "As Jews, we believe that we are never alone. For example, even though there are only a few of us living in Myanmar today, we can still cast our vote at the World Jewish Congress every year," he said.

As he spoke, I noticed a sign on the wall that echoed his sentiments. It read: "A tree in the field stands alone. A man alone in the world would feel lonely. But a Jew need never feel alone during the holidays."

After more than a century in this country, Yangon's Jewish community has proven that it has staying power. And as long as it stands together, there is every reason to believe that it will continue to be an important part of Myanmar's rich cultural tapestry for years to come.

The post Standing Tall appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Gauging Ethnic Angst Over Proportional Representation in Burma

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 05:00 PM PDT


Aung San Suu Kyi discusses an electoral system based on proportional representation in Parliament's Lower House on July 29. (Photo: Luttaw Channel)

YANGON / NAYPYIDAW — The stage is set for what could become a highly argumentative and perhaps volatile issue in Myanmar's politics. The issue at hand is whether to change the current electoral system. The question is, why so much noise about electoral systems?

There could be several answers, but certainly it is worth noting that election outcomes help determine how people will live their lives in the next five years and beyond. Therefore, any change to an electoral system directly impacts the people, especially in a country as ethnically diverse as Myanmar. So when ethnic parties unite to oppose any move to change the current system, is it reasonable? They would certainly say so, and did, in recent conversations that I had with ethnic leaders in Naypyidaw and Yangon.

Let us not forget that people's lives are intertwined with politics, nowhere so more than in a country that, until 2011, had been under the rule of a military junta since 1962. So when ethnic parties feel threatened by a move to bring about changes to the current system of conducting elections, some apprehension is understandable. Not only is the Proportional Representation (PR) system alien to voters, it does not guarantee representation to the ethnic groups as does the current First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system.

Most ethnic political parties' representatives ask the same question: Why should we not be worried? Our population in many states is less than 1 percent of the total population of the country, meaning that under a PR system, we may not get the minimum votes (or reach the required "threshold") to get a seat.

Ethnic political leaders argue that the distribution of seats in the Upper House is already uneven, and with a new system, ethnic representation could be completely wiped out.

All the ethnic parties are convinced that the "vote share" formula applied to a PR system does not help ethnic parties, with bigger parties like the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) or the National League for Democracy (NLD) eating into the vote share of the smaller ethnic parties. "Representatives of these parties would not represent the true aspirations and needs of the ethnic community," one ethnic leader told me.

Generally, most of the criticisms of the PR system are based around its tendency to give rise to coalition governments and a fragmented party system. The arguments most often cited against PR are that it leads to destabilization of political parties and gives rise to factionalism.

In Myanmar, an added element that cannot be dismissed is the identity politics of ethnicity.

Ethnic people want to choose their own candidate to be their MP and they want to choose people they know. "Wa people want to focus on Wa issues and likewise all other ethnic groups," explains Sai Poung Nap, general secretary of the Wa Democratic Party. He is of the opinion that the PR system under consideration would prevent this from happening, especially if bigger parties try to play the coalition card during elections. Furthermore, he believes that the system is "very ambiguous" and would split votes, effectively "defeating the actual meaning of proportional representation."

Citing as example the areas in Myanmar inhabited by certain ethnic groups and categorized as "self-administrative zones," Sai Poung Nap quips, "No one knows what to do with these areas." On a more serious note, he explains that the votes of all the groups that make up these self-administered zones may not even amount to the minimum votes that a PR system usually prescribes.

What makes the whole thing more complex is that, as laid out under the current legal framework, each ethnic group is allowed to have its own representative in the regional parliaments if its population tallies to 0.1 percent or more in any given constituency. However, the competition then would be among members of the same ethnic groups but contesting from different political parties or as an independent candidate.

Given the complexities of the PR system, there is no reason to scoff at the reactions of the ethnic parties. It goes without saying that the current system is not perfect, but talking about a PR overhaul, ethnic groups say their fundamental goal is under threat: "We want to be ruled by our own people and that's what people wanted before and now," as Aung Tein Myint of the Karen State Democracy and Development Party (KSDDP) puts it.

In my talks with ethnic groups, serious concern about the push for PR persists. People in the ethnic belts are convinced that direct elections under the current system are much better suited to representing all ethnic groups.

Detractors of FPTP also lament its tendency to produce "personality-driven politics."

"This cannot be helped, at least for now, so we cannot just change over to a new system which will be unfair to everyone, especially the voters," is how Dr. Kyaw Shein, an Upper House MP of the All Mon Region Democracy Party (AMRDP), puts it. He is certain that ethnic parties are united on the issue and that after the current parliamentary session, "we will go back to our people and talk about it."

What will be the possible fallout? No one knows and perhaps only time will tell. What is clear is that no system can work if those that are in it are not sincere and don't make it work in a manner that will be acceptable to everyone.

B.D. Prakash is a scholar and expert on political and election related affairs in Asia. He prefers to use his penname and is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand.

The post Gauging Ethnic Angst Over Proportional Representation in Burma appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

China Reports Deadly Attacks by Militants in Northwest

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 11:01 PM PDT

Paramilitary policemen walk past Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, November 17, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Paramilitary policemen walk past Erdaoqiao Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, November 17, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

BEIJING — A mob armed with knives and axes rampaged through part of China’s volatile northwestern region of Xinjiang and police responded with gunfire, leaving dozens of people dead in the latest violence blamed on Islamic militants, state media reported Tuesday.

Many other people were injured in the violence Monday in Shache county near the city of Kashgar, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

However, that official account was disputed by a U.S.-based organization representing the Uighur ethnic group, many of whom live in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur American Association said Wednesday that according to "local sources," police killed protesters condemning "Chinese security forces’ heavy-handed Ramadan crackdown since the beginning of the Holy Month and extrajudicial use of lethal force in recent weeks."

Neither version could be independently confirmed.

The government account said a mob first attacked a police station and government offices in the township of Elixku before moving on to a neighboring township, attacking civilians and smashing and setting on fire vehicles along the way.

Xinhua said dozens of people were killed or injured in the attacks but gave no precise figures. It also said that police shot and killed dozens of the attackers.

"Initial investigation showed that it was a premeditated terror attack. Further investigation is underway," Xinhua said.

Calls to more than a half-dozen police stations and government offices in the area either rang unanswered Tuesday evening or were answered by people who confirmed the attack but said they were not permitted to release any information about it.

The Uighur association said police had already killed several in the region before Monday’s incident after a July 18 protest also denouncing police repression during Ramadan.

Obtaining details of violence in the remote region is usually impossible and authorities routinely prevent foreign journalists from working freely in the area.

There has been increasing violence in Xinjiang in recent months blamed on pro-independence militants from the region’s native Turkic Uighur Muslim ethnic group. While some of the attacks have shown an increased level of sophistication and planning, most have relied on crude weaponry such as swords, bombs and homemade explosives.

China’s government says the attackers have ties to overseas Islamic terror groups, although it has provided little evidence to back up its claim.

Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) activists say repressive Chinese cultural and religious policies are fueling resentment among Uighurs, along with a sense that the benefits of economic growth in the resource-rich region are flowing disproportionately to migrants from the country’s Han Chinese majority.

Also known as Yarkant, Shache is near the border with the unstable Central Asian states, about 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) west of Beijing.

The post China Reports Deadly Attacks by Militants in Northwest appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Philippines to Propose No Action to Raise Tension in Sea Disputes

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 09:58 PM PDT

A Philippine Navy crew member aboard a civilian supply ship raises a Philippine national flag after the ship evaded an attempted blockade by Chinese vessels at part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on March 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

A Philippine Navy crew member aboard a civilian supply ship raises a Philippine national flag after the ship evaded an attempted blockade by Chinese vessels at part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on March 29, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

MANILA — The Philippines will propose a freeze on all activity that raises tension in disputed waters in the South China Sea as part of a three-part plan at a regional security meeting next month, Manila's foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers will hold security talks with various counterparts including those from the United States, China and the European Union in Burma next month, with escalating sea disputes in Asia likely to be a main issue.

China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also lay claim to parts of the sea, where about US$5 trillion of ship-borne trade passes every year.

Relations between China and the Philippines have been tested recently by their dispute over part of the sea.

"We have this plan to submit a suggestion on a moratorium and that would be the immediate approach to the exacerbating problems in the South China Sea," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said after meeting Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief.

"It's constructive, it's positive and it's comprehensive. No one will quarrel with you on that right to get a moratorium on exacerbating situation there and ultimately to manage tension."

The United States, a close ally and former colonial power in the Philippines, has also called on all parties to halt all activity in the disputed sea to ease tension, and the Philippines supported that call.

But China responded by telling the United States to stay out of disputes and leave countries in the region to resolve problems themselves.

Del Rosario said the other two elements of his "triple-action plan" were the implementation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea and arbitration to settle disputes.

The Philippines has filed an arbitration complaint against China, seeking clarification on its right to exploit resources in its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.

Ashton, in Manila for a two-day visit to strengthen trade, aid and security relations, called on all parties to refrain from using force to resolve disputes. She also urged against unilateral attempts by any party to assert claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.

Del Rosario accused China of violating an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea when it placed an oil rig in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam in May. China removed the rig this month. He said China was also doing some reclamation work on at least three shoals in the Spratly Islands.

China says it has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratlys, where most of the competing claims overlap, and it has demanded the immediate withdrawal of personnel and equipment of countries "illegally occupying" China's islands.

The post Philippines to Propose No Action to Raise Tension in Sea Disputes appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal Readies Way for Genocide Case

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 09:51 PM PDT

Khmer Rouge

Nuon Chea, who was Pol Pot's No. 2, sits during the second trial of the top leaders of Khmer Rouge in the court hall of the UN-backed war crimes tribunal, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on June 28, 2011. (Photo: Mark Peters / Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia)

PHNOM PENH — A UN-backed tribunal on Wednesday began a hearing to prepare for the genocide trial of the two senior surviving leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, under whose rule an estimated 1.7 million people died in the late 1970s from starvation, exhaustion, disease and execution.

Khieu Samphan, the regime's head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the group's late leader, Pol Pot, are already set to face sentencing next week after being tried for crimes against humanity related mostly to the communist group's forced movement of millions to the countryside when it took power in 1975.

The tribunal's chief judge, Nil Non, opened the hearings by reading the charges and crime sites set to be heard in the newest trial segment.

Tribunal officials say their second trial, with witnesses and the presentation of evidence, is likely to begin in the last quarter of this year. It will cover additional crimes against humanity, and add charges of genocide for the killings of members of Cambodia's Vietnamese and Cham ethnic minorities.

The crimes of rape and forced marriages will also be considered for the first time by the tribunal.

"The purpose of today's hearing is to clarify issues ahead of the case," Non said.

Because he is unable to sit for long periods of time, Nuon Chea remained in his holding cell. Khieu Samphan appeared in good health, diligently taking notes as he sat in court.

This week's initial hearing will cover technical matters such as witness lists and procedural objections by the contending parties.

Because of the advanced age and poor health of the defendants, the case against them was divided into separate smaller trials. But some critics feel that convictions on lesser charges may be an affront to history.

"The goal [of breaking the case into two parts] was to have a shortened process to reach a verdict so that the victims would have an opportunity to see justice before the elderly accused passed away," said Anne Heindel, co-author of "Hybrid Justice: The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia."

"The problem that they're facing is trying to come up with an expedited verdict as opposed to having a comprehensive narrative."

The first trial, which began in November 2011 and lasted two years, focused solely on forced evacuations and a mass execution of soldiers who had fought against the Khmer Rouge during a bitter 1970-75 civil war.

That trial, a verdict for which is expected Aug. 7, was repeatedly hampered by delays, and by the end, it had lost half its original defendants.

Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in March 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, required occasional hospitalization, also slowing the proceedings.

"The court should speed up their work and finish their duty before the two defendants die," said Svay Sophoan, 55, who lost his father and several relatives during the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge reign of terror. "I need justice, a justice that comes from a fair trial because these Khmer Rouge leaders have killed millions of people, not taken just two or three lives."

So far, only one person has been convicted by the tribunal since it began in 2006. The head of the notorious S-21 torture center, Kaing Guek Eav—also known as Duch—received a sentence of life imprisonment in February 2012.

The post Khmer Rouge Tribunal Readies Way for Genocide Case appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

China: Ex-Security Czar Zhou Under Investigation

Posted: 29 Jul 2014 09:40 PM PDT

Former Chinese Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attends the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee)

Former Chinese Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang attends the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 14, 2012. (Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee)

BEIJING — China's ruling Communist Party announced an investigation into a feared ex-security chief, demonstrating President Xi Jinping's firm grip on power and breaking a longstanding taboo against publicly targeting the country's topmost leaders.

If he goes to trial, Zhou Yongkang would be the highest-level official to be prosecuted since the 1981 treason trial of Mao Zedong's wife and other members of the "Gang of Four," who mercilessly persecuted political opponents during the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Until his retirement in 2012, the square-jawed, granite-faced Zhou was one of nine leaders in the party's ruling inner circle—the Politburo Standing Committee—whose incumbent and retired members had been considered off-limits for prosecution in an unwritten rule aimed at preserving party unity.

However, Xi, who is party leader as well as president, has vowed to go after both low- and high-level officials in his campaign to purge the party of corruption and other wrongdoing that have undermined its legitimacy in the public eye.

The party's anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said on its website Tuesday that it is investigating Zhou, 71, for serious violations of party discipline. Although it gave no details, such an announcement typically paves the way for the official to be ousted from the party and face prosecution.

A commentary by official Chinese news agency Xinhua on Wednesday said the investigation "clearly terminated a myth among many people that senior leaders are regarded to be immune from the party discipline regulation and the country's law enforcement."

The announcement ended months of speculation over Zhou amid reports of his family amassing great wealth as authorities began investigating dozens of his associates including several high-ranking officials and businesspeople. One after another, the associates disappeared into the custody of party investigators, foreshadowing problems for Zhou.

On Tuesday, the Chinese news magazine Caijing reported that Zhou's son was arrested by prosecutors in the city of Yichang in Hubei province, accused of "illegal business operations."

Zhou himself was last seen in October and is believed to have been detained sometime thereafter, although there was no public announcement.

By targeting Zhou, in charge of China's massive domestic security apparatus before his retirement, Xi showed the considerable power he has amassed since he took the helm of the party in November 2012.

Tuesday's announcement was a "powerful demonstration" that Xi and his graft-fighting right-hand man, fellow Standing Committee member Wang Qishan, are "really in control," said Ding Xueliang, an expert on Chinese politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"This is a huge, huge success for them. It is really remarkable," Ding said. "For the broadly defined party state system, which has many millions of members, now they have to face the new reality. That is: You are not immune to punishment."

Li Datong, a political commentator who was removed from a state media senior editing job for broaching sensitive subjects, said Xi means to show that "if he's willing to go after a person like Zhou Yongkang, then there's no one he won't be willing to take on."

Although retired, Zhou still had threatened to interfere with Xi's political agenda to protect his personal interests, Li said. "Zhou was a rival who couldn't be entirely controlled."

By dismantling Zhou's spheres of influence, Xi also has freed up important positions in strategic areas of the government, security apparatus and state enterprises that he can fill with his own allies.

Zhou was once perceived as untouchable, with expansive patronage networks covering the sprawling southwestern province of Sichuan where he was once party boss and controlled the state oil sector, police and courts.

More significantly, as China's security chief, he oversaw the country's domestic spy agencies, a position that afforded him access to information on other high-ranking politicians who might pose a threat to him.

Zhou was born the son of an eel fisherman in a little-known eastern village, the eldest of three boys and the only one to attend university, from which he graduated as an engineer, according to financial news magazine Caixin.

Zhou spent the early part of his career in the oil sector, rising through the ranks over several decades to become the general manager of China National Petroleum Corp., one of the world's biggest energy companies, in 1996. He then served as party chief of Sichuan province between 1999 and 2002. He became a Politburo Standing Committee member and the national security chief in 2007.

To launch an investigation into Zhou, Xi would likely have had to overcome opposition from high-level party officials and retired leaders concerned about how it would hurt the party's image. The move now raises questions of whether more top leaders will be implicated.

"No doubt, there must have been huge resistance" within the party leadership, said Zhang Lifan, an independent expert in Beijing on elite Chinese politics. Referring to Xi's pledge to target senior officials, nicknamed "tigers," in the crackdown, Zhang said, "today, the side that is striking out at the tigers has won the momentum."

The Xinhua commentary Wednesday warned that "as long as the problem of officials' misconduct exists, the drive to hunt both high-ranking 'tigers' and low-ranking 'flies' will never end."

Zhang said now that the case has come to light, the party leadership cannot afford to appear weak or it would risk reprisals from those who opposed the move.

"One thing is for sure, that is the tiger must be beaten to death, otherwise those who attack tigers will lose their sense of security," Zhang said.

Xi has made his drive to clean up the party the hallmark of his leadership. The Xinhua report said that according to the central discipline commission, about 40 officials at provincial and ministerial levels or higher have been investigated for corruption or other serious disciplinary violations since November 2012.

On top of the more than 50 executives of state companies investigated since Xi took charge, it marks the biggest purge of its kind in decades.

Among them, those believed linked to Zhou's case include the former chairman of China National Petroleum Corp., a deputy general manager there, a provincial deputy party boss, a provincial deputy governor and a deputy public security minister.

No specific details were released on the allegations against Zhou. But reports by Caixin, Caijing and The Beijing News, have detailed how Zhou's son, Zhou Bin, built a business empire in oil and real estate through connections that were not explicitly stated but that clearly hinted at Zhou.

Zhou Bin also was business partners with Liu Han, a former multi-millionaire mining tycoon who was sentenced to death in May on charges of running a criminal gang.

Several people on the streets of Beijing welcomed the news, saying it showed the government was serious about rooting out official corruption.

"We feel that the new central leadership has the determination to fight against the corruption and we have seen big moves in this regard," said architect Yang Hao. "We are encouraged by that."

Still, moves against high-level officials are often seen as politically motivated swipes at rivals. Political experts have said Xi's leadership might be better served by moving away from such campaigns and improving institutional checks on power.

"They should move toward building a stronger legal, political, institutional base," Cheng Li, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the US think tank the Brookings Institution, said in a recent interview. "I think that Xi and Wang Qishan will continue this kind of anti-corruption campaign, but if it goes on and touches on too many other leaders, it could be very, very dangerous."

The post China: Ex-Security Czar Zhou Under Investigation appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Democratic Voice of Burma

Democratic Voice of Burma

Bullet Points: 30 July 2014

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 05:19 AM PDT

On today's edition of Bullet Points:

Burma's Minister of Health, Dr. Pe Thet Khin and Minister of Information, Aung Kyi have resigned from their posts in the latest of several cabinet changes.

UNICEF is aiming to electronically record every baby born in Burma.

Ooredoo SIM cards are now on sale in Naypyidaw and Mandalay.

Whirlwind sweeps through Rangoon.


Watch Bullet Points every weeknight on DVB TV after the 7 o'clock news.

Burma President ‘allowed’ ministers to step down

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 04:46 AM PDT

Burma's Information Minister Aung Kyi and Health Minister Dr Pe Thet Khin have been "allowed for resignation of their own volition", the president's office announced on Tuesday.

One day after the sudden joint resignation, Burmese President Thein Sein informed the nation's parliament of his official nominations for their replacements: Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut and Deputy Health Minister Dr Than Aung, respectively.

While the government has yet to offer an explanation for the swap-outs, some believe that permission to resign veils official pressure to leave a post; Aung Kyi, known as a relatively moderate voice for the press, is thought to have had deep disagreements with the president over media repression.

"Minister Aung Kyi, in meetings with the Interim Press Council, refused to blame the media for recent disputes with the government," said Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Journalists Network, referring to several controversial lawsuits recently brought against journalists. The most infamous was a case against five employees of the now-defunct Unity Weekly journal, who are currently serving a ten year prison sentence with hard labour for their investigative reporting.

"[Aung Kyi] did make a point about professional weaknesses of Burma's media, but he did not defend the government's jailing of reporters," Myint Kyaw added. "Instead he suggested that severe jail terms against journalists were caused by a lack of courage on behalf of local courts; they are reluctant to make their own verdict [against government charges]. This made his opinion stand out from other government officials."

Though the former minister sometimes contradicted the government line, he was far less outspoken than his successor, the president's spokesperson Ye Htut. Likewise, Dr Pe Thet Khin was known for keeping a low profile as health minister; he did not enter politics with a military background, and his tenure was brief as he was appointed by Thein Sein in 2011.

The shake-up follows another major cabinet reshuffle just last month, when the sacking of Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Hsint coincided with the resignation of Arakan State's Chief Minister Hla Maung Tin. The former has yet to be replaced, while the latter was controversially succeeded by a military official, Maj-Gen Maung Maung Ohn, who was, in turn, replaced by Maj-Gen Tin Aung Chit as minister of border affairs.


Pegu farmlands flooded by dam overflow

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:40 AM PDT

More than 40 square kilometres of farmland in Pegu Division's Thegon Township have been inundated by overflow from a nearby reservoir following heavy rain, according to locals.

Residents said that while some flooding is normal in the area, which lies near the Irrawaddy River about 200km north of Rangoon, abnormally high waters and long-lasting floods have been frequent since development projects built by the former military regime altered irrigation flows.

An irrigation dam and several industrial fishing ponds were built by the military on farmlands confiscated in 1999, according to locals, who have registered land claims with Burma's Land Investigation Commission, which was established in 2012.

"Before, it would take about ten days at most for the water level to go down, leaving little damage to the paddy," said Khin Htun, a local farmer. "But nowadays the flooding lasts for up to a month, killing the plants and leaving us empty-handed for the rest of the crop season."

Aye Cho, a resident from Aungon village, said that although farmers were able to work for some time after the dam was built, it caused inconvenient changes to water distribution. Those inconveniences led many farmers to turn to fisheries, as the fish-farming industry was already being developed by the government on destroyed farmlands.

"The situation was made worse after some locals decided to switch to the fishery business because the lands were no longer suitable for farming," said Aye Cho. "People started building ponds without proper land surveys, and now all of our farms are beyond repair."

Representatives of Pegu's divisional parliament recently visited villages affected by the flooding to assess damages and provide assistance. One representative, Ohmar Moe Moe Zaw, told DVB that, "local ponds and wells have been restored and chlorinated as a health measure."

The flooding was most severe in seven villages: Aungon, Minhla, Oakpho, Hnawgon, Kyargon, Myinni and Yaenanthar.

The area in central Burma has become a hotbed of land rights claims in recent years. Villagers from many parts of Pegu, who had long subsisted off of farming, have registered numerous complaints that the former military junta had unjustly confiscated lands for development projects in the late 1990's. Some of those projects never materialised, while others turned out to be environmentally devastating.

Upon the start of Burma's political turnaround and the subsequent amendment of both land policy and laws governing freedom of expression, many of those claims crept into public view. One of the villages most severely impacted by the recent floods, Aungon, has been the centre of a heated land dispute over which several protests have been brutally dispersed and at least five activists are facing charges.

150 homeless as whirlwind sweeps through Rangoon

Posted: 30 Jul 2014 02:02 AM PDT

One hundred and fifty people have been made homeless in Mingalardon Township, Rangoon, after a whirlwind swept through the neighbourhood on Monday morning.

The strong wind flattened 30 houses in Bawga ward and brought down several electricity poles. One person was injured in the freak storm.

"I saw a dark cloud coming down around 6:50 in the morning so I started yelling to my brother-in-law and my mother, 'The wind is coming!' Just as we were fleeing, we saw my brother-in-law's house ripped up. The whole incident only lasted about three minutes," recalled one Bawga resident.

Most of the houses in the area were made from bamboo and were too flimsy to resist the strong wind.

Once the storm passed, more than 100 soldiers from the nearby army battalion helped to clear the debris.

Weather expert and former head of the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, Tun Lwin, said the summer monsoon would bring more unpredictable weather.

"There have been unusual weather patterns lately due to an unpredictable monsoon, especially in the Andaman Sea and the east-central region of the Bay of Bengal, where heavy raincloud formation was seen," he said.

The storm passed through several other townships in Rangoon that morning, including Hlaing Tharyar and Shwepyithar.

In April, a whirlwind wiped out 150 homes and 130 acres of farmland in Shan State, near the popular tourist destination Inle Lake.