Friday, April 24, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

‘Crony’ Win Aung Removed From US Blacklist: Who’s Next?

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 05:42 AM PDT

Prominent businessman Win Aung was removed from the US sanctions list on Thursday. (Photo: MiTA Services)

Prominent businessman Win Aung was removed from the US sanctions list on Thursday. (Photo: MiTA Services)

RANGOON —Burma's business community roundly welcomed the US Treasury Department's announcement on Thursday that sanctions had been lifted against business mogul Win Aung, predicting that the delisting could signal a tide of redemption for a long list of so-called cronies ostracized by the Western superpower.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement on Thursday that Win Aung and two of his businesses had been removed from the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, a roster of individuals and entities that cannot conduct business with the United States.

The statement offered little in the way of explanation for his removal, but affirmed that the United States' "sanctions architecture for Burma remains in place." Blacklisted individuals can petition for removal from the list, which is maintained by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), though the delisting criteria arefar from transparent.

The State Department said that "positive steps and changed behavior" could warrant removal, but the US Embassy and OFAC declined to elaborate on what specific progress motivated the decision to absolve Win Aung, who was described as "a regime crony" in a 2007 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.

The leaked cable shows that the US Embassy recommended Win Aung be added to the SDN list because he "not only financially supports the Than Shwe regime, but also uses his contacts with the senior generals to amass and maintain his fortune." The cable further said that Win Aung had been awarded permission from the generals to log in protected forests, and that he was believed to have illegally exported US$5 million of teak annually.

Win Aung is the cofounder and CEO of Dagon International Ltd., one of Burma's biggest conglomerates with interests in timber, rubber, energy and construction. He is also the chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), the nation's largest business association, representing more than 10,000 domestic companies.

Controversially, he also serves as chairman of the Myanmar Thilawa SEZ Holdings Public Company (MTSH), a nine-member consortium invested in a major development near Rangoon associated with opaque business deals and unresolved land disputes. Credible researchers monitoring the development, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Irrawaddy that Win Aung's SDN status risked compromising his position as chairman of MTSH because of pressure from Japanese implementing partners. The researchers said they believed Win Aung's interest in Thilawa, which may include ambitions beyond his current chairmanship, to be a main driver of his petition for delisting. They added that he may have been "removed from the SDN list without adequate investigation from the US Department of Treasury."

Local businessmen have been less critical. Maung Aung, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Commerce, said the business community urged Treasury officials to remove Win Aung from the list because of his high standing in the UMFCCI, claiming that his blacklisted status was causing a bottleneck in bilateral commerce.

"Win Aung plays a major role here, but due to his US sanctions he wasn't able to do as much as he could," said Maung Aung, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday. "That's why, when US delegates came here, we told them about the impact of sanctions against him."

Like several of his colleagues, Maung Aung predicted that "more Burmese businessmen will be removed from the US sanctions list" in the near future. Some suggested that ZawZaw, chairman of the Max Myanmar Group of Companies, could be next in line. Htoo Group's TayZa and Asia World's TunMyintNaing were also contenders, according to several prominent businessmen. Neither the State Department nor the Treasury could confirm the speculations, thoughTreasury officials are known to have met with TayZa and several other blacklisted individuals in June 2014, when they were briefed on procedures for seeking removal.

While several members of the business community were pleased with Thursday's delisting—UMFCCI central committee member Myat Thin Aung welcomed the "good news" as "a benefit to us all"—one lawmaker argued that while longstanding Western sanctions ultimately hurt the Burmese public, rewarding "cronies" simply makes the rich richer.

"Burmese people suffered many impacts of Western economic sanctions," said Khine Maung Yi, an Upper House parliamentarian from the National Democratic Force (NDF) party."Though the US targeted cronies, the real impact was felt by the people. … By lifting sanctions against Win Aung, I believe that only he will benefit."

Burma's economy stagnated under the former military regime, which ruled the country until ceding power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. Since that time, the relationship between the United States and Burma has undergone rapid transformation. Diplomatic relations have been fully restored after more than two decades of reproach, and US legislation has been amended to allow for limited military and humanitarian cooperation.

US economic sanctions were eased beginning in 2012, though some restrictions remain. An arms embargo and a ban on US imports of jade and other minerals from Burma remain in place, and the SDN list still limits American partnerships with certain Burmese businessmen and companies. Some individuals, such as Win Aung, have been removed from the list, while others have since been added.

Last November, shortly before US President Barack Obama made his second visit to Burma in as many years, Lower House lawmaker Aung Thaung was added to the SDN list for undermining reforms and "perpetuating violence."

The post 'Crony' Win Aung Removed From US Blacklist: Who's Next? appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Govt Targets Economic Growth of 9.3% This Year

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 05:21 AM PDT

Petter Furburg, Burma Chief Executive Officer-Designate for Telenor (R), speaks during the launch Telenor's services at the company's Rangoon headquarters in September. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Petter Furburg, Burma Chief Executive Officer-Designate for Telenor (R), speaks during the launch Telenor's services at the company's Rangoon headquarters in September. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Burma is targeting economic growth of 9.3 percent in the fiscal year that started this month, driven by an unprecedented amount of foreign investment and rapid expansion in its nascent telecoms sector.

The target was outlined in the country’s National Planning Act, approved by President Thein Sein on April 9 and seen by Reuters. It surpasses estimates by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has forecast 8.3 percent growth and the World Bank, which sees about 8 percent expansion this fiscal year.

The Southeast Asian country is growing fast, albeit from a low base, endowed with rich energy, mining and agriculture resources, but rife with poverty. The ADB estimates the economy grew 7.8 percent in fiscal 2013-14 and 8.5 percent in 2014-15.

Burma was for five decades beset by wayward policymaking and scant foreign investment under a military dictatorship that stifled progress in what was among the region’s most developed countries under British colonial rule.

Its economy has undergone a major facelift since 2012 led by Thein Sein, a former general who sought help from technocrats and financial institutions and is now luring foreign direct investment (FDI) on a scale Burma has never seen.

The $8.1 billion FDI recorded for 2014-2015 is a staggering 25 times the $329.6 million received in 2009/2010, the year before the military ceded power. An official at the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development told Reuters its FDI target for this fiscal year is $6 billion.

Of 14 prominent economic areas in Burma, the government sees 46.9 percent growth this fiscal year in telecoms, which has exploded since Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo launched cellphone services in the country of more than 50 million people.

Economist Khin Maung Nyo said the GDP growth target was reachable, provided an election this year went smoothly. "I wouldn’t say their target is unrealistic with some positive developments like soaring FDI and progress in political and economic reforms," he said.

The post Govt Targets Economic Growth of 9.3% This Year appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Photo of the Week (English Version)

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 04:47 AM PDT

Dramatic Drop in Water Levels Affects Inle Lake

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 04:14 AM PDT

Click to view slideshow.

INLE LAKE, Shan State — Southern Shan State's Inle Lake is facing drought conditions this dry season that have seen many of the area's waterways dry up.

The picturesque lake, one of Burma's most famous tourist attractions, has for years been suffering from a range of environmental problems such as drought, deforestation and pollution. The rapidly rising number of tourist visitors has led to an expansion of tourist infrastructure that adds to the pressures on the lake and its environs.

Currently, though boating through the lake's central reservoir remains possible, water levels are significantly lower at the villages of Ywa Ma and Nant Huu, located on the southwest end of the lake near the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, and at the waterway south to Nang Pan village.

Water levels in the channel linking the lake to the tourist town of Nyaung Shwe and the entrance to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, the lake's most famous shrine, are down considerably but motorized boats are still able to pass through.

The post Dramatic Drop in Water Levels Affects Inle Lake appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Winners of Annulled 1990 Election Plan Silver Jubilee

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 03:27 AM PDT

A group of Burmese political activists in exile and their children, protest outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok in 1998 to demand the former military regime recognizes the results of the 1990 elections. (Photo: Reuters)

A group of Burmese political activists in exile and their children, protest outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok in 1998 to demand the former military regime recognizes the results of the 1990 elections. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Elected representatives who won seats in Burma's historic 1990 election, the results of which were ignored by the former military regime, will mark the 25th anniversary of the poll next month.

David Hla Myint, secretary of the 1990 Elected Pyithu Hluttaw Representatives Group and a member of the anniversary's organizing committee, told The Irrawaddy that the silver jubilee would be commemorated at an event at Rangoon University's Yudathan Hall on May 27.

"We would like to express the reality of the 1990 elections, the elected representatives and their sufferings through this anniversary," he said.

In the 1990 general election, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of the 485 contested seats. The junta refused to recognize the victory, and officially annulled the victory in 2010 ahead of that year's election, which was widely regarded as fraudulent.

David Hla Myint, who won the constituency he contested for the NLD in 1990, said that the anniversary would be marked with the release of a report detailing the histories of those elected in the poll, many of whom were arrested and tortured by the military regime in the election's aftermath.

The 1990 Elected Pyithu Hluttaw Representatives Group was formed last year and is chaired by Khun Htun Oo, the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. Its membership is drawn from a number of politicians currently serving in Burma's myriad ethnic political parties.

The group is also pushing for constitutional reform on many fronts, arguing amongst other points that the current charter's allocation of one quarter of parliamentary seats to military appointees would undermine the next poll's credibility.

"The 1990 election was free and fair, despite the fact that the results were not recognized," said David Hla Myint. "But the 2015 election is not likely to be free and fair because it will be conducted under the 2008 Constitution."

The post Winners of Annulled 1990 Election Plan Silver Jubilee appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Kaman IDPs in Arakan State Ask Govt to Rebuild Homes

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 03:22 AM PDT

A man walks amid the ruins of houses burned during violence in Sittwe, Arakan State, on June 16, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

A man walks amid the ruins of houses burned during violence in Sittwe, Arakan State, on June 16, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — More than 4,000 ethnic Kaman Muslims in Arakan State remain in need of new houses after their homes were destroyed during intercommunal violence in 2012, according to the Kaman National Development Party, which is working to get government support for a rebuilding effort.

About 500 Kaman houses were burned down in Sittwe, Yanbye and Kyaukphyu townships during the violence, which pitted Buddhists against Muslims and left more than 100 dead in the western state.

Some of the displaced now live in nearby camps set up by the government, while others went to live with relatives in Rangoon or elsewhere, according to Tin Hlaing Win, secretary of the Kaman National Development Party.

The situation in the camps has deteriorated since the violence, said Tin Hlaing Win, who told The Irrawaddy that "the Kaman do not deserve to live in camps."

"When the president went to visit Thandwe, he was shown almost 100 rebuilt homes out of more than 100 [destroyed]," he said, referring to a subsequent spate of violence in Thandwe in September 2013. "But in Yanbye, Kyaukphyu and Sittwe, the area is still just burned out fields."

More than 100 buildings in Yanbye, including four religious structures, were destroyed in 2012. Another 100 in Kyaukphyu and almost 200 in Sittwe were also razed in the rioting.

The Kaman National Development Party has asked the Arakan State government, its Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann to resettle the affected Kaman internally displaced persons (IDPs).

"We requested that they rebuild our lost property just as [they did for] ethnic Rakhine [Arakanese], because the state is stable now," Tin Hlaing Win said.

The state's chief minister has scheduled to meet with representatives from the Kaman party on April 28 to discuss possible resettlement plans.

"They do not have homes to go back to. If the houses that were burned down and destroyed are rebuilt, everybody will resettle. Because we are ethnic, we would like to get our rights according to the law," he said, referring to the fact that Kaman Muslims, unlike the state's persecuted Rohingya, are recognized as an official ethnic group under the country's 1982 Citizenship Law.

There are about 20,000 Kaman currently living in Arakan State, Tin Hlaing Win said.

The 2012 violence displaced about 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims but also ethnic Kaman and Rakhine Buddhists. The vast majority of the affected Rohingya Muslims remain in squalid camps on the outskirts of Sittwe and other townships in northern Arakan State, where humanitarian conditions were described last year as "deplorable" by the UN human rights rapporteur for Burma.

The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as one of Burma's 135 official ethnic groups, denying them the rights of citizenship and referring to them as "Bengalis," implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many having lived in Arakan State for generations.

A draft Rakhine Action Plan revealed in September 2014 does instruct that the government "allocate land and build accommodations for displaced Bengali communities" in the affected townships, but the plan has drawn condemnation from human rights groups because a separate component would consign any Rohingya who refuse to identify as Bengali to temporary detention camps.

Additional reporting by Andrew D. Kaspar.

The post Kaman IDPs in Arakan State Ask Govt to Rebuild Homes appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma Ponies Up $840,000 for a Rebranding

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 01:29 AM PDT

Kokang Rebels Claim Dozens of Govt Soldiers Killed, Arms Seized

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:46 AM PDT

Soldiers of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army inspect arms and ammunition in the Kokang region on Mar. 10. (Photo: Reuters)

Soldiers of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army inspect arms and ammunition in the Kokang region on Mar. 10. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Kokang rebels claimed they have killed dozens of government soldiers and seized numerous small arms while fending off a Burma Army attack on one of their bases in the mountains of northern Shan State's Laukkai Township on Thursday.

Htun Myat Lin, a spokesperson of the Kokang's Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said four battalions belonging to Light Infantry Division No. 33 were involved in an assault on a mountaintop rebel base in an area called Nan Htein Mang Shai, and fierce clashes broke out at three sites around the base.

He said the attack began with an artillery bombardment at 3 am, followed by a ground troop assault starting on 9 am that continued throughout Thursday, adding that the fighting occurred about 6 km northeast of Laukkai.

"We had fighting the whole day and even at night. They stopped attacking us at midnight. Many of them were killed: 90 of them were killed from our estimates at three places and over 100 of them were wounded," Htun Myat Lin told The Irrawaddy on Friday.

He said the MNDAA seized weapons of the dead and wounded soldiers, adding, "We got 3 pistols and one 120 mm mortar, we even got 50 machine guns normally carried by the army."

The Irrawaddy was unable to independently verify the claims by the MNDAA, which has been fighting the Burma Army in remote, rugged terrain on the Burma-China border that is difficult to access.

Several Facebook users shared photos of the supposed arms' seizures, showing dozens of machine guns with the emblem of the 33rd Light Infantry Division.

Htun Myat Lin said some MNDAA fighters posted the photos on social media. He added, "I told them not to post photos of dead bodies because I am worried this fighting will become a racist problem… Burmese people will think the Kokang are very brutal if they see such photos."

State media on Friday made no mention of the clashes.

Fighting occurred during Thingyan Festival, according to state media, which reported last week that 16 soldiers were killed and 110 injured during attacks on strategic MNDAA outposts on April10-16.

A total of 126 government troops were killed and 359 others injured since fighting in the region erupted on Feb. 9, the report said, while the army recovered the bodies of 74 rebels resulting from 253 hostile engagements.

Fighting broke out in Laukkai Township after the MNDAA, with support of ethnic Palaung and Arakanese rebels, launched attacks on army and police bases. Tens of thousands of civilians have since been displaced. Most belong to the ethnic Chinese Kokang minority and have fled across the border into neighboring China.

The government and an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups reached an in-principle agreement over the content of a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement on March 30. The ethnic groups are due to convene to discuss endorsing the draft ceasefire.

The government, however, refuses to acknowledge the MNDAA and the Arakan Army as potential signatories to the agreement.

The post Kokang Rebels Claim Dozens of Govt Soldiers Killed, Arms Seized appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Strong Winds Disrupt Flights to and From Rangoon

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:42 AM PDT

A worker signals a pilot near airplanes at Rangoon airport. (Photo: Reuters)

A worker signals a pilot near airplanes at Rangoon airport. (Photo: Reuters)

RANGOON — Strong winds in Burma's former capital led to a suspension of all flights to and from Rangoon International Airport on Thursday, according to reports in local media.

Winds between 35 and 38 miles per hour were recorded by Burma's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, lasting for about one hour starting at 5:55 pm.

Burmese-language 7-Day Daily, citing an official from the Department of Civil Aviation, reported that the winds caused one Thai Airways flight to be rerouted to Bangkok, while five other flights also had to about-face and return to their departing airports.

The sudden gale and subsequent downpour uprooted trees in several parts of the city and widespread power blackouts shortly followed, but no injuries have been reported.

The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology has issued a warning that whirlwinds originating in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea may cause strong wind and thunderstorms all over the country, continuing through the month of April as the monsoon season nears.

Similar gusts and early rainstorms were reported this week in central Burma's Sagaing and Monywa, leaving some houses damaged.

State media reported that two people died during a 30-minute storm in Tamu, Sagaing Division, on Wednesday.

The post Strong Winds Disrupt Flights to and From Rangoon appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

On the Road With Student Protestors, a Photographic Journey

Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:40 AM PDT

Click to view slideshow.

RANGOON — Photographs documenting an education reform movement, led by students whose historic protest march of more than 300 miles was brutally crushed by police last month, will be on display from Saturday to Monday at the Think Art Gallery in Rangoon.

The exhibit, "Documenting Burma's Long March," charts the students' 49-day journey from Mandalay to Rangoon, with the four featured photographers having followed nearly the entirety of the march.

The photos capture the highs and lows of a protest that at turns featured jubilant chanting and tense confrontations with local authorities, right up through the brutal crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division, that effectively sent the movement underground.

About 40 pictures will be on display in total, shot by The Irrawaddy's photojournalists JPaing, Sai Zaw, Hein Htet and Teza Hlaing, and one photojournalist from The People's Age weekly journal, La Min Tun.

The onset of the protest march was documented by Mandalay-based Teza Hlaing. JPaing then followed the marchers until their arrival in Letpadan, about 80 miles northwest of Rangoon. Sai Zaw was on hand for the police crackdown on March 10, and Hein Htet and La Min Tun covered student solidarity protests in Rangoon on March 5 and March 10.

"To leave a record of that moment, the students' protest, our photojournalists shot their activities," JPaing said.

Student activists on Jan. 20 began their march from Mandalay to Rangoon, but the protest came up against a police blockade in Letpadan in early March, with authorities refusing to allow them to proceed to the commercial capital. The standoff ended violently on March 10, when baton-wielding police dispersed the students and detained more than 120 people.

Seventy students remain in police custody facing trial, and 11 of their supporters are also facing charges but have been released on bail.

The post On the Road With Student Protestors, a Photographic Journey appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Volvo Prepares to Send ‘Made in China’ Cars to US

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 11:20 PM PDT

Models pose inside a Volvo XC 90 at the 16th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in Shanghai on Apr. 20. (Photo: Aly Song / Reuters)

Models pose inside a Volvo XC 90 at the 16th Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition in Shanghai on Apr. 20. (Photo: Aly Song / Reuters)

CHENGDU, China — On the verge of exporting the first “Made in China” cars to the United States, Volvo is determined to show they are as good as vehicles it produces in Europe.

In contrast to its European factories that check a few completed cars from each batch, every vehicle that rolls off Volvo’s 3-year-old assembly line in this city in China’s southwest goes through a five-hour battery of tests on a driving track. Once a month, or three times as often as in Europe, Volvo tears apart a finished car in Chengdu to examine the quality of welds and other work.

The effort to persuade Americans to buy a premium car from China is a new step up in Volvo Car Corp.’s campaign to establish itself as a global luxury brand following its 2010 acquisition by Chinese automaker Geely.

“I have heard no customer ask me where his car is built. It is built by Volvo and is Volvo quality, and of course Chengdu will be exactly the same,” said CEO Hakan Samuelsson. “I am quite confident that we will demonstrate that.”

The sedan due to be exported from Chengdu is the S60 Inscription, based on Volvo’s S60L, a version of the S60 sedan designed for China with an extra eight centimeters (three inches) of rear seat legroom for buyers who have a driver and ride in back. Volvo follows automakers including Cadillac and Mercedes Benz that sell extended sedans for the distinctively Chinese market of “rear seat customers.”

In June, the first U.S.-bound S60 Inscriptions are to be shipped down the Yangtze River to Shanghai, then across the Pacific to the United States. Volvo expects to send about 5,000 per year to the United States, according to Samuelsson. He said Volvo has no plans to “massively export” but, since that model will be produced only in China, will send a few to add to its U.S. lineup.

The decision follows a string of product quality scandals in the U.S. over faulty or tainted Chinese goods ranging from tires to toothpaste.

Still, Americans are comfortable enough buying Chinese-made products that the location of Volvo’s factory is unlikely to matter so long as the company maintains its quality standards, said industry analyst Yale Zhang of Auto Foresight, a Shanghai research firm.

“Many things are selling in America that are made in China,” said Zhang. “Now it’s just another one, a foreign brand that is a car.”

Exports of Chinese-produced cars to the United States, even under a European brand, are a milestone for the ruling Communist Party, which wants to see its auto industry expand into global markets.

A handful of China’s young but ambitious auto brands have announced plans to export to the United States or Western Europe only to find they could not meet emissions and safety standards.

For its part, Volvo has been exporting to the United States since the 1960s from its European factories in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Ghent, Belgium.

The company wants its Chinese auto factories in Chengdu and in Daqing in the northeast and its engine plant in Zhangjiakou near Beijing to be seen as an equal part of that network with the same technology, components suppliers and quality standards. The company says the Chengdu factory’s air emissions will be cleaner than the average auto plant in Europe.

Volvo is planning a U.S. assembly plant and says the location will be announced in the next few weeks.

“We have to explore the global market,” the founder and chairman of Geely, Li Shufu, told reporters during the Shanghai auto show this month.

Other foreign brands including GM export some Chinese-made vehicles to other developing markets but most say they need all their production capacity to supply China, the biggest auto market by the number of vehicles sold.

Instead of being absorbed into Geely, which also sells cars under its own name, executives say the 2010 acquisition liberated Volvo, which had been a unit of Ford Motor Co. and shared vehicle platforms and components with Ford brands. Following the acquisition, Volvo launched an $11 billion campaign to create its own technology and models and to expand its factory and sales networks.

“Everyone tells me that we are now more independent than we have ever been,” said Samuelsson.

2014 was Volvo’s best year to date, with sales up 9 percent to 465,866 vehicles. Profits were 2.2 billion kronor ($252 million) on revenue of 130 billion kronor. China was its biggest market, accounting for 17 percent of sales, followed by Sweden at 13 percent and the United States at 12 percent. This year, the company says it aims to exceed sales of 500,000 vehicles for the first time.

Volvo is working with Geely on developing shared vehicle platforms. Li, the Geely chairman, said the Chinese brand wants to draw on its Swedish sibling’s know-how in safety and in cleaning the air inside the vehicle — an important feature in China’s smog-choked cities. Geely has just launched its first vehicle made with Volvo technology, the Borui sedan.

With that partnership, “Geely’s products can develop much faster than other competitors,” said Zhang, the analyst.

Li says he has avoided telling Volvo’s Swedish managers what to do, because he wants to protect the special qualities of a brand he admires. When asked whether Volvo might cut prices in response to a slowdown in the Chinese auto market, Li said a reporter would have to ask the Swedes.

“Li Shufu is a very smart guy,” said Zhang. “He understands the gap between the two brands and he purposely tried not to interfere.”

One area where Li played an active role with Volvo was in developing the extended sedan, according to Samuelsson. He said Volvo needed a Chinese-style vehicle but, with its roots in Scandinavia, where most buyers drive themselves, lacked the right experience.

“His opinions have influenced this as a very experienced ‘rear seat customer’,” said Samuelsson.

Volvo also has gained from its Chinese ownership, a status that exempts it from regulatory handicaps faced by foreign-owned automakers in China.

“We can move much, much faster,” said Lars Danielsson, a Volvo senior vice president in charge of China.

The post Volvo Prepares to Send 'Made in China' Cars to US appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

China to Crack Down on Strippers at Rural Funerals

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 11:03 PM PDT

A screengrab from a Chinese news portal shows video taken at a funeral in rural China that featured suggestive dancing. (Photo:

A screengrab from a Chinese news portal shows video taken at a funeral in rural China that featured suggestive dancing. (Photo:

BEIJING — Chinese officials are launching a campaign to crack down on stripteases and other lewd shows that have become popular at funerals in some rural areas, the Ministry of Culture said Thursday.

The ministry said in a statement that it will tighten control over rural culture, where vulgar performances have been thriving because of a general lack of cultural events.

Such erotic performances at funerals are a relatively new phenomenon. Many rural people believe that a large attendance at funerals is a sign of honor for the deceased, and the shows are used to attract more people and display the family's prosperity.

The funerals also are a rare occasion for crowds to gather as villagers working as migrant workers in industrial centers return home to bury the deceased.

Performances of traditional opera were once popular at funerals, followed later by movie screenings.

In the last several months, people who have returned to their rural homes for funerals have complained on social media about lewd shows, remarking that troupes hired to play dirges suddenly changed their tune and began to peel off their clothes.

The ministry cited a performance by six strippers at a funeral in the northern province of Hebei and a lewd show by three performers at a funeral in the eastern province of Jiangsu. Those responsible for vulgar acts will be punished, it said.

"Such illegal operations have disrupted local entertainment markets and corrupted social mores," the ministry said.

Photos and videos of such performances circulating online show children in attendance at shows featuring scantily clad women.

The post China to Crack Down on Strippers at Rural Funerals appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Rehabilitating Burma’s Cronies

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 10:53 PM PDT

Myanmar tycoon Tay Za holds a child at a school supported by his Htoo Foundation in Myitkyina in 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Myanmar tycoon Tay Za holds a child at a school supported by his Htoo Foundation in Myitkyina in 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

The United States Treasury announced on Thursday that prominent business leader Win Aung had been removed from its sanctions list, allowing him and some of his companies under the Dagon Group umbrella to conduct business in the US. In this article from January 2013, The Irrawaddy's founding editor Aung Zaw examines the efforts of other local tycoons to rehabilitate their public profiles after a history of close collaborations with the former military junta.

Burma's richest tycoons are back in the news again—not for their shady ties to Burma's former ruling generals, but because of their recent efforts to cozy up to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Tay Za, Zaw Zaw and several other notorious figures who came to prominence during the bad old days of military rule have been making headlines recently for donating generously to NLD causes. This, in turn, has led to criticism of the NLD, which has been accused of defending cronies whose names are virtually synonymous with corruption.

On Dec. 27-28, the NLD held a fundraiser in Rangoon to mark the second anniversary of the party's Education Network. The event netted around 500 million kyat (US $580,000), including a sizable portion from some of Burma's richest men.

During the event, Skynet, a television operator and a subsidiary of Shwe Than Lwin Company owned by Kyaw Win, donated 135 million kyat ($155,000), while the Htoo Company, owned by Tay Za, donated 70 million kyat ($81,000).

Kyaw Win is known to be close to the office of President Thein Sein, while Tay Za has been accused by the United States of being an "arms dealer and financial henchman" of the former junta—a claim he denies.

Aides to Tay Za have told me that it was the NLD that approached him first; leaders of the party tell that that is not the case.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

Tay Za is known to be close to Burma's senior military leaders, including ex-dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe. When I met him at his residence in Rangoon last year, however, he told me that he never met the reclusive former strongman until after his helicopter crashed on a snow-capped mountain in the far north of Kachin State in February 2011.

Than Shwe—who three years earlier refused for a full month to allow foreign aid workers into the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 140,000 lives and left millions homeless—immediately ordered hundreds of troops to conduct a search-and-rescue mission for Tay Za and his crew, all of whom survived.

Tay Za told me he later went to the residence of the recently retired junta supremo to express his heartfelt gratitude.

Tay Za also quietly met Suu Kyi soon after her release in November 2010. He had reportedly offered to assist the NLD. Party sources told me Suu Kyi did not reject his offer.

Suu Kyi has also recently been seen visiting a children's hospital that Burmese tycoon Zaw Zaw of the Max Myanmar Group helped to renovate. Like Tay Za, Zaw Zaw wasted no time finding an opportunity to meet with the Noble Peace Prize laureate. Soon after she was freed from house arrest, Zaw Zaw, who is the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation, invited her to watch a match together with him. This reportedly earned him a scolding from some senior generals, but that hasn't stopped him from meeting her again.

When I met him in Rangoon earlier this month, Zaw Zaw—who is still in his mid-forties—said that people should support Suu Kyi. He admitted that sanctions were a big hindrance in making business as the country is opening up to the outside world. He said he cares about his image and his company, but added that if he can't shed the label of crony, he wants to at least try to be a "a good crony."

Zaw Zaw is media savvy and friendly. He will proudly tell visitors and the media that he once washed dishes in Japan before coming back to Burma to run his own business selling used cars and later getting involved in the jade mining business in Kachin State.

"I have nothing to hide," he told me. He was a university student during the 1988 uprising in Rangoon and he witnessed the crackdown and his fellow students being gunned down.

True or not, he doesn't hide his admiration for Suu Kyi. Indeed, many businessmen who are on the US sanctions list know that Suu Kyi holds the key to their future.

She is the one who can recommend the US government to remove some tycoons from the list. It's no wonder why some tycoons have been seen making public donations to the NLD and Suu Kyi.

Since his early days, Zaw Zaw's business empire has expanded considerably. In addition to his mining interests, he now has his own bank (Ayeyarwady Bank, one of the largest in Burma), a cement factory, gas stations and a major construction company. The latter company was awarded numerous lucrative contracts in Naypyidaw, the new capital, including a stadium for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games.

Zaw Zaw may be rich, but he also know that he needs to contribute to society.

In 2010, he set up the Ayeyarwady Foundation, a charitable organization. Since then, he has been building schools across Mon and Karen states and Irrawaddy and Mandalay divisions. Recently, the chairman of the Max Myanmar also attended the wedding of a former student leader and member of the 88 Generation Students group.

But many Burma watchers say that providing cash to the NLD and local community and civil society groups isn't enough to redeem Zaw Zaw's reputation. One Rangoon–based observer said that Zaw Zaw and other cronies need to show not only that they support current political reforms, but also that they are willing to make a long-term commitment to the development of civil society. They should also return land that they acquired under the former regime, he said.

"The cronies must show that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem," the observer added.

From the point of view of the US, which was long the staunchest critic of Burma's former military rulers, the cronies must make fundamental changes in the way they operate if they want to be removed from the sanctions list.

There has been wild speculation in Rangoon recently that the US is looking into potential waivers of entities, particularly banks, to allow foreign businesses to do business in Burma. This would open up some opportunities for some cronies, but it is unlikely that those involved in drugs or who helped purchase arms for the regime will be removed from the list anytime soon.

Providing cash and building schools and hospitals here and there isn't enough, one Rangoon-based diplomat said firmly. Some cronies now realize that strong recommendations from Suu Kyi and prominent activists such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi and other actors in the civil society movement are important, as the US is closely monitoring them.

Suu Kyi surprised many by saying that those who became wealthy during military rule should be given another chance to reform themselves. They should be considered innocent until proven guilty, she said, before adding that cronies of the former ruling generals should be investigated for any alleged wrongdoing.

"People may have become rich in different ways. But whether they were involved in any illegal action to make themselves rich must be investigated," said the opposition leader.

Now, many in Burma are asking whether the tycoons are trying buy off Suu Kyi.

In early January, senior NLD leaders held a press conference to explain the activities of the party's education network. The press conference was held at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel—owned by none other than Tay Za.

At the reception, Soe Win, a senior leader of the NLD, told me that he welcomed tycoons' contribution to education and health. When I asked if the tycoons approached Suu Kyi, he smiled and nodded.

But the question now is: can Suu Kyi rehabilitate some of Burma's most notorious cronies?

Suu Kyi, who is now the chairwoman of the rule of law and tranquility committee, said that even if they have committed crimes, they should be given a chance to reform themselves.

The right of criminals to rehabilitate themselves should be regarded as part of the rule of law, she said, adding that punishment that is solely intended to inflict suffering is barbaric. "What civilized people should have is a vision that punishment is for reform," she said.

"Those who are considered cronies have supported the social activities of the NLD and others. What is wrong with that? Instead of spending their money on things that have no purpose, they have supported things that they should support. It's a good thing," said Suu Kyi.

Indeed, there are many questions that need to be asked. Can cronies become builders of industry and national economic power? How can they contribute back to society by building philanthropic foundations and provide life-long assistance to society? Many showy tycoons and cronies in Burma are not interested in helping society.

In fact, critics have charged that contributions from cronies are tiny compared to the money they spend on their posh Italian sports cars.

Cronies who have quietly supported Suu Kyi and the opposition movement and donated to the Burmese community in the past were upset to see some cronies who just popped up and threw some cash at the NLD. "They are just opportunists, because they want to be removed from the [US sanctions] list, a young tycoon told me.

"In fact, we have been helping opposition groups for many years," he said.

He also warned the US not to overlook the fact that several big-time businessmen who were arms smugglers and involved in the opium trade and other shady business are still not on the US sanction list. Moreover, there are several tycoons who have provided profit shares to the generals' family members.

Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma's economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, thinks the cronies are destructive and resistant to reform. "I think the majority are cronies of the destructive sort—but some might turn out for the better."

"They are rent-seekers pure and simple rather than builders of genuine enterprise," he added.

"[They are] living off government regulatory largesse, the recipients of monopoly and quasi-monopoly profits and so on. As such, they are political animals as much as economic ones. But certainly there are some too who may emerge as something else. On this front, I guess we have to hope so, since they are amongst the few with sufficient capital to do transformative things, if this is what their desire is."

A question now is how can cronies be rehabilitated in Burma?

The post Rehabilitating Burma's Cronies appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Google Lavishes Chairman with $109 Million Pay Package

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 10:46 PM PDT

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during a speech in Berlin last year. (Photo: Hannibal / Reuters)

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt during a speech in Berlin last year. (Photo: Hannibal / Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — Google paid its billionaire Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt nearly $109 million last year while the company’s stock slumped.

Most of the compensation consisted of stock valued at $100 million. It was the largest stock package that Schmidt has received since 2011 when Google Inc. awarded him a bundle valued at $94 million at the time he relinquished the CEO’s job to company co-founder Larry Page.

Documents filed with regulators Thursday also disclosed that Page and the company’s other founder, Sergey Brin, limited their 2014 pay to $1 each, as has been their practice for years.

Schmidt also pocketed a $1.25 million salary, a $6 million bonus and perks valued at nearly $1 million. His total pay last year soared by more than five-fold from 2013 when his Google compensation was valued at $19.3 million.

The hefty raise came in a year that saw Google’s stock drop by 5 percent amid investor concerns about the company’s big spending on far-flung projects. Analysts have also questioned whether Google will be able to maintain its dominance in Internet search as more people rely on smartphones instead of personal computers to access digital content.

The downturn in Google’s stock contrasted with an 11 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index last year.

Schmidt, 59, already is among the world’s richest people with an estimated fortune of $9 billion, according to Forbes. Most of his wealth has been built on the Google stock that he began accumulating when he became the Mountain View, California, company’s CEO in 2001.

The Associated Press calculates executive compensation by including salary, bonuses, perks, above-market interest that the company pays on deferred compensation, and the estimated value of stock and stock options awarded during the year. It does not include changes in the present value of pension benefits, so the AP total can differ slightly from the total reported by companies to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The post Google Lavishes Chairman with $109 Million Pay Package appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Thai Government Holds Talks With Politicians, Activists

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 09:48 PM PDT

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha prepares to deliver the speech to mark six months since a military-appointed legislature chose him as prime minister, at Government House in Bangkok on April 17, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha prepares to deliver the speech to mark six months since a military-appointed legislature chose him as prime minister, at Government House in Bangkok on April 17, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

BANGKOK — Thailand's military government on Thursday held reconciliation talks with the leaders of the Puea Thai party it toppled from power nearly a year ago, along with other politicians, academics and student activists.

The talks, held at the site of the May 2014 coup staged by the army, come as Thailand debates a draft constitution that the junta says will help heal the country's deep divisions, but which parties from both sides of the political spectrum have criticized as undemocratic.

Members of the conservative Democrat Party also attended the meeting. Some of the participants called for the draft charter to be put to a referendum.

Thailand needs to reach a constitution acceptable to all, said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the opposition "red shirt" movement and a former lawmaker of Puea Thai.

"If the public does not agree, we have to amend the constitution," Jatuporn, who attended the meeting, told Reuters. "Even if it means wasting another year or two, it is better than moving forward to where problems will be waiting."

Thailand's military rulers have said a general election will be held in 2016 but warned a return to democracy could be pushed back if the country held a referendum.

Critics say a provision in the charter for proportional representation would lead to weak coalition governments.

They say the charter is an attempt to ensure limited powers for any future government allied to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The constitution also includes a curb on populist-style policies, such as those favored by Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who was the leader of Puea Thai. Yingluck's administration was toppled in the 2014 coup, while Thaksin was the victim of another coup in 2006.

Thailand has suffered nearly a decade of political turmoil as Thaksin and his allies have vied for power with the traditional Bangkok elite threatened by his meteoric rise.

Thaksin lives abroad to avoid a jail sentence handed down for graft in 2008.

Since taking power, the junta has stifled dissent by detaining politicians and activists for "attitude adjustments," targeting mostly supporters of the government it ousted.

The junta has been criticized for lifting martial law and replacing it with a security provision in the interim constitution, known as Section 44, that gives sweeping powers to the military.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who, as army chief, led the May coup, told reporters he would not use the security clause to force reconciliation.

"Reconciliation must come from each individual's heart," he said.

The post Thai Government Holds Talks With Politicians, Activists appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

US Lifts Sanctions on Prominent Burmese Businessman

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:25 PM PDT

US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One as he leaves Rangoon Airport Nov. 14, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One as he leaves Rangoon Airport Nov. 14, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The Treasury on Thursday removed a prominent Burmese businessman from a blacklist that had barred him from doing business in the United States.

The beneficiary, Win Aung, is president of Burma's main business association. Treasury also removed two companies of the Dagon Group that he heads off the sanctions list. The Dagon Group has interests in timber, rubber, energy and construction.

The Obama administration rolled back trade and investment sanctions against Burma in 2012 to reward its shift from direct military rule, but the United States still forbids business dealings with military corporations and certain other individuals and companies, mostly officials and cronies of the former regime.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday that the United States has made clear that those sanctioned can seek delisting by demonstrating "they have taken positive steps and changed behavior."

Burma wants Washington to lift sanctions entirely, but the quasi-civilian government has been criticized for stalling on reforms and detaining peaceful protesters as the Southeast Asian heads toward elections in November.

"We have made clear to the Burmese government that additional changes in US sanctions policy are dependent on the government's continuing its democratic and economic reforms and resolving disputes with members of ethnic groups," Harf said in a statement.

The US administration has looked to promote American investment in Burma's untapped market, and Win Aung's blacklisting had caused some awkwardness.

Although he was alleged to have used his close ties to Burma's military rulers to build one of the country's biggest business conglomerates, he's supported the country's opening.

Right activists criticized the United States when in 2013, Jose Fernandez, then-assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, shook hands with Win Aung, head of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, at an event in Burma to promote business ties with the United States.

The post US Lifts Sanctions on Prominent Burmese Businessman appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

National News

National News

Pioneering bus line forced to lay off staff as losses mount

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 09:04 PM PDT

A joint attempt by the government and private sector to solve many of the problems of Yangon's traffic congestion is close to collapse.

Familiar faces nominated to run for USDP

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 09:02 PM PDT

Most Union Solidarity and Development Party MPs and government ministers have been nominated by the party to stand again in this year's election, a senior official said yesterday, although it appears likely some older members will step aside.

SNLD complains of being left out of loop on talks

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 09:01 PM PDT

A major ethnic group has complained of being left out of the six-way talks on revising the constitution. On April 22, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) issued a statement criticising the representative of ethnic groups taking part in the talks.

Myanmar under pressure over human trafficking in Rakhine

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:59 PM PDT

A human rights group lobbied the United States on April 22 to rank Myanmar among the worst human trafficking offenders in the world for "driving" ethnic minorities into the slave trade.

In Yangon, flight of sporting fancy

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:55 PM PDT

Yangon's Kyaikkasan sports ground – a former racecourse – is until April 26 playing host to a combat sport where cutthroat-sharp glass wire is a key ingredient to success and the winner is the last kite standing.

Government, KIO teams to meet after fighting erupts

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:53 PM PDT

An urgent meeting has been convened to stop fighting in Kachin State that has been raging for nearly a week. Representatives of the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation will meet in Myitkyina, Kachin State, within days.

Delayed regional rollout of EITI expected in May: activist

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:49 PM PDT

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) process is to be expanded to the state and region level by May, starting with Mandalay Region, it was announced yesterday.

Independence guarantees for new medical council in doubt

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:45 PM PDT

While nominally independent under new law, medical council will comprise mostly government officials.

Malaysia seeks to shift blame on workers

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:44 PM PDT

Get your own house in order: That was Malaysia's response to criticisms of its treatment of migrant workers aired at the ASEAN People's Forum yesterday.

Operators seek India visa delay fix

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:43 PM PDT

Pilgimage market is being stifled by slow approval of India visas, with waiting periods of up to a month.

Shan Herald Agency for News

Shan Herald Agency for News

Loilem authorities reject complaint against Burma Army soldier for attempted rape

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:04 AM PDT

Parents seeking to prosecute a Burma Army soldier justice for the attempted rape of their teenage daughter, had their complaint rejected by the Loi Lem district administration office yesterday, a local source said.

A source close to the district office said that local officials were fearful of accepting the complaint because it was linked to the military.

The incident happened on April 17, but the girl's family had been too scared to file a complaint until April 22.

A local news source said that the incident occurred at about 6:00 pm on April 17 in Kong Kon village, Dong Nao tract, 13 kilometers south of Loi Lem district.

The 14-year-old girl, daughter of Khun Nai and Nang Kham (not their real names), was staying at her house when Lance Corporal Myint Thien attacked her, he said.

LCpl. Myint Thein is a soldier from Loi Lem-based LIB 513 led by Maj. Aung Myint Thu and Capt. Kyaw Myint Niang.

He tore her shirt and tried to rape her, according to the local news source, but fled when the girl's parents heard their daughter's screams and confronted him. Her parents were able to arrest him with the help of their neighbors.

After the incident, Maj. Aung Myint Thu said the soldier would be punished for the incident, but villagers were dissatisfied that justice would be served.

After failing to get any response from the military, the parents and other villagers went to the district administration office on April 22 to file a complaint, but it was not accepted.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Going Clean: A Mon Prison Seeks to Rehabilitate Drug Users

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 06:38 AM PDT

Click to view slideshow.

KWAI WIAT, Karen State — Outside a remote prison deep in the jungles of eastern Burma, young men sweat through their withdrawal in the dense heat of early summer. The inmates at this modest facility, about 60 of them in all, were arrested by ethnic Mon rebels for drug sales or possession, and have been sentenced to a sober stint of road-building in the underdeveloped region.

Kwai Wiat village is the site of a rebel military base run by the Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA), an approximately 1,000-strong ethnic armed group currently participating in union-level peace negotiations with the government. But unlike many of the small army's strongholds, this one is located in neighboring Karen State, where two other non-state forces—the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA)—reign supreme.

After an uneasy drive of about one-and-a-half hours southeast from Mudon in Mon State, we arrived at the base where this small and experimental prison was established to curb the growing plague of drug use among the Mon communities peppered throughout the mostly Karen area. Mon soldiers claim that drugs are often trafficked and traded by DKBA soldiers trying to earn more income, much to the detriment of those Mon youths who lack education and employment.

Many of the inmates are young, aged between 15 and 45 years old. All but three are ethnic Mon, and are serving sentences ranging from three months to three years, depending on the severity of their offense, mostly related to the use or distribution of amphetamines. The unarmed guards watched over them as they chipped away at the rudimentary beginnings of a new road.

"They are not bad boys," one guard told the Irrawaddy as the group paused for a lunch break, "but they have money and they don't know how badly drugs can damage their lives." Prisoners and guards alike spoke openly to our team, explaining how the facility came to be and why its operations are so seemingly relaxed.

The prisoners aren't violent criminals, the guard said, which is clear after watching the group joke around and talk over a playful recess. Most of the inmates are allowed to move relatively freely in and out of the prison grounds, while 20 who have been charged with serious crimes are kept under heightened security.

Most of the prisoners said their treatment was fair, and that beyond being treated for drug addiction when necessary, they also had educational opportunities while doing time. Inmates attended nightly lessons in Mon language, as well as Buddhist teachings. Work starts at 9 am and ends at 5 pm, during which they either build roads or fences for the MNLA. When their sentences are over, some choose to join the rebel army, but recruitment is optional.

Waste of Human Resources

Min Soe Nwe, who leads the rehabilitation program in the prison, said that government inaction on the growing drug problem among minorities has left it to rebel leaders to find a solution. In their view, he said, minority groups suffer from a severe lack of human resources when they lose able-bodied youths to narcotics.

"The working age for our people is between 16 and 45," he said, "but if they use drugs, they are wasting human resources for the Mon people. They can't create literature, they can't run businesses."

Sadly, he pointed out, many minority youths do not have adequate access to education and become addicted to drugs before they are even aware of the risks. While the New Mon State Party (NMSP, the political wing of the MNLA) has taken a hard line on drug eradication, the government could do more to help, he said.

Easier said than done, argued Aung Naing Oo, a member of the Mon State legislature who is also ethnically Mon. He said that the issue is often tabled in Parliament, but that a lack of resources, such as rehab facilities and a skilled police force, inhibit political will and progress.

"Police have become more active about arresting drug users and dealers, but there aren't enough facilities or even enough police," Aung Naing Oo said.

Further complicating matters, several Mon authorities said, is that ethnic Karen rebel authorities in the area don't feel the same incentive to solve the problem, and the MNLA cannot enforce drug restrictions in areas outside of its control. Min Soe Nwe said that while policies enforced by the MNLA have made it much more difficult for users to purchase dugs—in part by driving up prices within its own territories by increasing penalties—in some cases the efforts simply push addicts in the direction of Karen rebels who are willing to sell cheaper drugs in areas beyond their reach.

"We know of about 10 houses in DKBA territory where they sell drugs in two different villages," he said, remarking that the houses are "like a market" for narcotics and that "anyone can buy it" for about 4,000 kyats (US$4) per amphetamine tablet.

Cultural Costs

Mon people are as known as devout Buddhists, a deep cultural tie that local religious leaders claim is also feeling the fallout of a rise in drug dependence. Nai Htwe, a senior Buddhist monk in Mon State, told The Irrawaddy that the plague of addiction has slowly crept into the monastery, corroding what was once a sacred place of respite. While the consumption of alcohol is not strictly forbidden in all Mon Buddhist homes, provided that it was donated during food collection ceremonies, he lamented that "the culture has changed."

Nowadays, he said, he sees more and more users entering the monkhood, but not necessarily for help or spiritual rehabilitation. Nai Htwe said that some users go so far as to ask patrons for drugs instead of food at donation ceremonies before entering the monastery. Some even show up high at ordination, so intoxicated that they can barely recite the scriptures, which must be repeated three times to become a monk.

Seemingly at a loss for words, Nai Htwe remarked only that, "it is sad for our culture."

The post Going Clean: A Mon Prison Seeks to Rehabilitate Drug Users appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Suu Kyi Pans Podesta Deal as Govt Wages PR Battle Against US Sanctions

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 05:35 AM PDT

US President Barack Obama walks with former White House counselor John Podesta in Washington last year. (Photo: Larry Downing / Reuters)

US President Barack Obama walks with former White House counselor John Podesta in Washington last year. (Photo: Larry Downing / Reuters)

RANGOON — Aung San Suu Kyi has joined a chorus of local critics to pan the government's decision to retain Podesta Group in an effort to overhaul its image, as a senior member of President Thein Sein's retinue admitted that the lobbying firm has been charged with ending United States sanctions against Burma.

The Washington-based firm has been hired on a yearlong contract for $840,000, plus business-class travel and luxury accommodation expenses, according to tax disclosures lodged for an agreement signed by Podesta Group CEO Kimberly Fritts and Kyaw Myo Htut, the Burmese ambassador to the United States.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia earlier this week, the National League for Democracy chairwoman said that the government living up to the country's expectations would not need a public relations team.

"I'm interested to know the motive behind it. [The government] said they hired the group to lobby for them," she said. "To lobby for what? The responsibility of the government is to serve the interests of its citizens. If it can fulfill this duty, why bother to hire such a group?"

Presidential advisor Ko Ko Hlaing said that he hoped that hiring Podesta would help the government, citizens and media of the US gain more of an understanding of Burma and the activities of its government, which was important while the US maintained sanctions against local individuals and business concerns.

"The reason is simple," he told The Irrawaddy. "The US is the world's biggest power. Although it has reduced sanctions against our country, they have not been totally lifted. So, there remains obstacles to our reform process even though the process is doing better than in the past."

"If the reforms take shape quickly and the US also has a better understanding of us, it would bring greater benefits to our people," he added. "Compared to the US, the European Union practices a less strict policy towards Burma. It lifted sanctions earlier than the US. The US is the key country. That is why we target the US."

Ko Ko Hlaing said that the amount the government will pay to the Podesta Group is comparatively small, and the practice of hiring lobbyists to improve bilateral relations is not unusual among countries.

Indeed, the Podesta Group has provided public relations services to a number of foreign governments in need of an image makeover and a voice in Washington circles. Its client roster includes the governments of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in the months before popular protests culminated in his ouster last year, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who tasked the firm with facilitating the sale of arms, and former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, for which the firm was accused of planting stories to smear Berisha's political opponents.

Earlier Burmese governments also hired public relations firms in an effort to improve their image. The Military Intelligence department of the former military regime hired several PR firms, including Bain and Associates, Jefferson Waterman International and DCI Associates, after the Clinton administration introduced economic sanctions against Burma in 1996, in the wake of a global outcry against human rights violations in the country. Cronies close to the junta reportedly paid for the services at the time.

Established in 1987 by brothers John and Tony Podesta, and closely associated with the US Democratic Party, the Podesta Group has represented some of the world's largest corporations. Five of the world's six biggest defense contractors by revenue, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE Systems amongst others, have recently used the Podesta Group's lobbying services. The firm also represented British Petroleum in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

John Podesta, a former White House counselor to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, has recently been appointed chair of the 2016 presidential campaign for Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton.

Additional reporting by Sean Gleeson.

The post Suu Kyi Pans Podesta Deal as Govt Wages PR Battle Against US Sanctions appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Court Transfers Students’ Case, 4 Face Extra Charges in Rangoon

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 05:18 AM PDT

Student activist Phyo Phyo Aung appears outside the court in Letpadan on Thursday. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

Student activist Phyo Phyo Aung appears outside the court in Letpadan on Thursday. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Letpadan Township Court on Thursday transferred the legal case against 70 detained students to a court near Tharawaddy Prison, while police said that four students were facing additional criminal charges brought by two Rangoon police stations.

The students, who have been detained since a brutal police crackdown on an education reform demonstration on March 10, were brought to Pegu Division's Letpadan Court to be informed of the transfer of their case to Tharawaddy Township Court, located near the prison where they are being held.

"They say the court case is being moved for security [reasons]," said Robert San Aung, who leads the Myanmar Lawyers' Network team that is providing counsel to the students.

He said he believed the court would not begin hearing the charges against the students until police have detained three more student activists—Kyaw Ko Ko, Myat Thu Aung and Ye Yint Kyaw—who remain at large

The next hearing at Tharawaddy Court is tentatively scheduled for April 30. Last month, the court released 11 defendants on bail as they were Letpadan residents who had sought to coordinate logistics around the student protest.

The defendants face various charges including unlawful assembly, rioting, incitement and causing harm to a public servant. Some of the charges carry penalties of up to three years under articles 143, 145, 147, 332 and 505 (b) of Burma's Penal Code.

Amnesty International in a statement on Thursday called for the immediate and unconditional release of the students, some of who could face prison terms of up to nine years and six months because of the combined charges being brought against them.

"A raft of politically motivated charges filed against student protesters over the past month—in addition to surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders and lawyers suspected of supporting the students—is a blatant attempt to intimidate and punish those connected with the student protests," the group said, adding that "a wider crackdown on freedom expression" is taking place in Burma.

Police officers at Rangoon's Pabedan and Bothathaung townships told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that their respective stations were bringing additional charges against four students for their involvement in unauthorized education reform protests in the city in February.

Three of the students, Phyo Dana, Phyo Phyo Aung, Nanda Sitt Aung, are being detained in Tharawaddy Prison. The fourth, Lin Htet Naing, who is the husband of Phyo Phyo Aung, is at large and is already being sought by Rangoon's Kamayut Township police for an unauthorized protest.

Botahtaung Police Station's Maj. Sein Wai said police there wanted to charge Phyo Phyo Aung, Nanda Sitt Aung and Lin Htet Naing at Bothathaung Court with violating the Peaceful Assembly Law's Article 18, which sets out a maximum punishment of six months in prison.

Phyo Dhana told reporters while he being led into the Letpadan Court building that he was facing charges under Article 18 in Pabedan Township. "I was told I will face a new charge for protesting," he said, adding that the charges being brought against him and other students are "non-sense."

"The charges are pressed in whatever way the plaintiff wants—that should not happen if we are truly on our way to being a democracy," he said.

Dozens of family members and friends of the detained showed up at the court house in order to briefly speak with their loved ones outside the building. Some said they were concerned over the well-being of the defendants because of a lack of sanitation and hygiene, and poor medical treatment in prison, while prisoners cannot use mosquito nets.

Khin Moe Moe, a lawyer of some of defendants, said, "The youths are healthy but have mosquito bites, there are lots of insects… Also the water is not clean; it's got too much calcium and gives them skin rash."

The post Court Transfers Students' Case, 4 Face Extra Charges in Rangoon appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Amnesty Calls for Rio Tinto Probe for Role in Monywa Mine Sale

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 04:54 AM PDT

A copper mine excavation about 24 km (15 miles) from Monywa in Sagaing Division. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

A copper mine excavation about 24 km (15 miles) from Monywa in Sagaing Division. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

London-based rights group Amnesty International has called on British authorities to investigate British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto for "a possible breach of EU economic sanctions on Burma" over the role it played in a controversial sale of the Burmese assets of a Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines, a sale that according to a leaked US State Department cable may have involved internationally blacklisted billionaire Tay Za as a middle man.

Vancouver-based Ivanhoe Mines was involved in the Monywa copper mining project by way of its 50 percent stake in a joint venture called Myanmar Ivanhoe Company Limited (MICCL), a partnership with a Burmese state-owned company, which began operating the mine in the late 1990s. When Ivanhoe announced in August 2011 that its Burmese assets had been sold off, Rio Tinto owned a 46.5 percent stake in the Canadian mining firm—founded by mining mogul Robert Friedland—and had appointed half of its directors. Rio Tinto has subsequently increased its stake in Ivanhoe, and since 2012 has owned a majority stake in the firm—now called Turquoise Hill Resources and primarily focused in Mongolia.

The handling of Ivanhoe's Burmese assets was mired in controversy long before Wikileaks published diplomatic cables implicating Tay Za in the eventual sale. In February 2007, Ivanhoe established what it claimed at the time was an independent third party trust called the Monywa Trust to take control of its 50percent stake in MICCL in preparation for a sale. The Trust was established as part of an agreement between Ivanhoe and Rio Tinto that was reached prior to Rio Tinto buying a substantial stake in the Vancouver-based firm, which already had the rights to a giant copper deposit in Mongolia that underpinned their partnership.

Ivanhoe's founder and long time chairman, Robert Friedland, has described Rio Tinto's role in creating the trust as, "a matter of public record, that the creation of the Monywa Trust structure was dictated entirely by Rio Tinto as a condition of its significant equity investment in the Company [Ivanhoe Mines]."

Following the creation of the Trust, Ivanhoe claimed that it no longer had anything to do with the mine's operations, a claim Amnesty challenged in a lengthy report released in February citing leaked diplomatic cables quoting the mine's acting general manager as saying that "Ivanhoe Headquarters" was still giving him instructions on how to operate the mine nearly two years after the ostensibly independent trust was created. In a detailed press release issued on April 16, timed to coincide with Rio Tinto's annual shareholders meeting, Amnesty highlighted Rio Tinto's connection to the controversial disposal of Ivanhoe's Burmese assets and the possible violation of sanctions.

"Rio Tinto's role in the creation of this trust raises serious questions about whether the company was involved in activities which may have had the effect of circumventing EU economic sanctions, a criminal offence under UK law", Amnesty International UK's Economic Relations Program Director Peter Frankental said in the press release.

"Information obtained by Amnesty International suggests that the Trust's subsequent sale of Ivanhoe's stake could have involved a breach of economic sanctions on Myanmar [Burma], by making assets available to the military-owned conglomerate the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding (UMEHL) and Tay Za, a 'broker' for the Myanmar government," read Amnesty's press release, a reference to a number of leaked cables which quote MICCL's acting general manager Glenn Ford detailing Tay Za's involvement in the negotiations for the sale.

Amnesty's extensive research found that Ivanhoe established the trust in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), an overseas British territory. Because it was based in BVI the Trust's activities were subject to British and EU sanctions, which were in effect at the time of the sale, targeting Tay Za, the apparent broker of the sale and the military holding company UMEHL which took over the project. Following Ivanhoe's departure, UMEHL and a subsidiary of Chinese weapons manufacturer Norinco—called Wanbao Mining—have moved to significantly expand the mine and develop the Letpadaung deposit against the wishes of local farmers whose protests have been harshly dealt with by government authorities. Responding to the Irrawaddy’s questions a spokesperson from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth office indicated that Amnesty's concerns were being looked into.

"The UK is a leading advocate of strengthening financial and sanctions compliance worldwide. We have alerted authorities in the British Virgin Islands to this alleged breach, and requested that appropriate steps are taken to investigate," read an emailed statement from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Despite this assurance, it remains far from certain whether the British Virgin Islands, an autonomous jurisdiction known as the home of a financial system with extremely lax regulatory enforcement, will actually follow up on the matter,

Rio Tinto, which did not did not respond to The Irrawaddy's request for comment, has repeatedly sought to distance itself from the controversy over the sale of Ivanhoe's assets. In a letter to Amnesty earlier this year, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh took issue with allegations raised in Amnesty's report on the Monywa mine. "We do not agree with a number of your assertions, or the conclusions you seek to draw from them," read the letter, which was re-published in Amnesty's report.

"It was, and remains, our understanding that the measures required by Rio Tinto and put in place by Ivanhoe on the disposal of the Myanmar asset were fully compliant with all applicable laws giving effect to sanctions. Rio Tinto was not aware of any facts or circumstances that would suggest any non-compliance with those laws at the time of, or prior to, the apparent divestment of the interest in mid-2011," Walsh concluded.

Although Walsh claimed in his letter to Amnesty that the "conditions which Rio Tinto placed on Ivanhoe's disposal of the Myanmar assets also illustrated our recognition of the importance of meeting the high social, environmental and human rights standards to which we are committed," his firm has long been the focus of heavy criticism from rights groups over allegations relating to rights abuses and environmental destruction at various Rio Tinto project sites around the world.

In 2008, the Norwegian Government Pension Fund—Global divested itself of its $850 million stake in Rio Tinto, citing environmental concerns over the firm's 40 percent stake in a massive mine in Indonesian-controlled West Paupa, operated by the firm's partner Freeport McMoRan. According to the fund, the decision to dump the Rio Tinto shares was made because of the "unacceptable risk that the Fund, through continued ownership in the company, would contribute to ongoing and future severe environmental damage."

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Activist Gets 6 Months for Protest Against Journalist’s Killing

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 02:44 AM PDT

Protestors in Mandalay in late October call for an investigation into a journalist's killing. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Protestors in Mandalay in late October call for an investigation into a journalist's killing. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

MANDALAY — A Mandalay court on Thursday sentenced an imprisoned activist to a further six months of detention for staging an unauthorized protest against the Burma Army's killing of a journalist last year.

Mandalay's Aung Myay Thar Zan Township Court found Thein Aung Myint guilty of violating Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and handed down the maximum punishment of six months' imprisonment.

In October, Thein Aung Myint organized a protest without approval from local authorities that called for justice in the case of the killing of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing (also known as Par Gyi) by soldiers in Mon State, who were fighting a Karen rebel group.

In late March, Thein Aung Myint was already sentenced to six months in prison, together with his wife Khet Khet Tin, for organizing an unauthorized "candle light" protest against frequent power outages in Mandalay.

The activist couple is being detained at Oh-Bo Prison in Burma's second biggest city.

While he was led out of the court, Thein Aung Myint told reporters that Burma's judicial system was broken as it had sentenced him to prison for a peaceful protest, while no one has been arrested for the killing of the journalist.

"Until now, in the case of Ko Par Gyi no justice has been found. But I, who demand for justice for him, was sentenced with the highest penalties," he said. "This shows the judicial system of our country lacks justice."

An inquiry by the Myanmar Human Rights Commission into the death of the journalist referred the case to a civilian court, but so far no court has taken up the case.

Thein Aung Myint's lawyer, Ywat Nu Aung, said he would not appeal against the sentence as, "My client does not believe in this judicial system, so he has no willingness to try for an appeal."

The lawyer said the sentence had been too harsh and that Thein Aung Myint's demonstration should have been allowed as it falls under freedom of expression.

Lwan Moe Aung, a court information officer, said the court handed down the maximum punishment because Thein Aung Myint supposedly had also insulted government and army leaders during his unauthorized demonstration.

"During his protest, he stated the name of president and army commander-in-chief as just Thein Sein and Min Aung Hlaing [without titles], which is impolite. And he also said: 'Get out you power-hungry lunatics,'" according to Lwan Moe Aung.

"That's why the court found him guilty; his unauthorized protest was not only demanding justice for Ko Par Gyi, but also insulting the country's leaders."

The post Activist Gets 6 Months for Protest Against Journalist's Killing appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Robert San Aung Nominated for Human Rights Award

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 01:52 AM PDT

Robert San Aung, left, in 2012. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Robert San Aung, left, in 2012. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Prominent Burmese legal activist Robert San Aung has been announced as one of three nominees for this year's Martin Ennals Award, in recognition of his work as one of the country's leading human rights defenders.

Devised in 1993 to give visibility to prominent activists across the world, the award's jury of 10 international human rights organizations said that the lawyer had distinguished himself for having "courageously fought against human rights abuses".

"I feel humble and extremely honored to be nominated for this prestigious award," Robert San Aung said in an Amnesty International press statement. "This nomination conveys the message to activists, human rights defenders and promoters who fight for equality, justice and democracy in Myanmar that their efforts are not forgotten by the world."

Arriving at university in 1974, Robert San Aung joined that year's demonstrations in support of a state funeral for former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, during which many students were killed or imprisoned after a crackdown by the Ne Win government.

After participating in numerous demonstrations, facing threats of expulsion and a spell in jail, he was admitted to practice law in 1980. He was imprisoned a total of six times between 1974 and 2010, with his law license revoked in 1993 for almost 20 years.

Since returning to the courtroom in 2012, Robert San Aung has been an advocate for a number of land rights demonstrators facing charges under the country's draconian Peaceful Assembly Law. Along with his defense of villagers facing prosecution for their opposition to the Letpadang copper mining project in central Burma, he is currently representing students detained in Thayawady prison for demonstrating against the National Education Law.

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is named for the British human rights activist who served as secretary-general of Amnesty International between 1968 and 1980. During Ennals' time at the helm of the organization, Amnesty was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its advocacy of the rights of political prisoners.

The other nominees for the 2015 award are Ahmed Mansoor, a freedom of expression campaigner in the United Arab Emirates, and Asmaou Diallo, the founder of a sexual assault support service in Guinea.

The award will be presented in Geneva on Oct. 6.

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Laukkai’s Displaced Continue to Trickle Back Home

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 12:40 AM PDT

War victims who arrived in Lashio, Shan State, from the Kokang Special Region in February. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

War victims who arrived in Lashio, Shan State, from the Kokang Special Region in February. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Residents of Laukkai who fled clashes between the Burma Army and Kokang rebels in northern Shan State continued what has been a gradual return to the conflict-wracked region this week, even as uncertainty lingers over the stability of the broader Kokang Special Region.

Mee Mee, who has been helping those displaced by the fighting, told The Irrawaddy that the war victims were secure, with activists and volunteers helping them to piece their lives back together.

"There are only 200 victims who have returned from Lashio. There were over 40,000 victims hiding along the border and most of them have returned to Laukkai now. They are being accommodated at schools and with makeshift tents," Mee Mee told The Irrawaddy from Laukkai.

Tens of thousands fled the town following clashes that first broke out on Feb. 9 between government troops and Kokang rebels of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by Peng Jiasheng.

"We have sent back 243 victims from Lashio," said Kyaw Ni Naing, a Lower House lawmaker from Laukkai, referring to northern Shan State's largest city, located about 80 miles southwest of Laukkai.

"Those who were taking shelter at border checkpoint 125 have also come back. The town is alive again. [Recent] clashes have occurred at places far from the town, west of Laukkai. Harvesting has already begun at sugarcane plantations," he told The Irrawaddy.

Kyaw Ni Naing said repairs had begun on buildings damaged by the fighting, and that food supplies would be provided to the returnees once a week. He added that President Thein Sein has been asked to establish a relief fund for the rehabilitation of Laukkai.

MNDAA spokesman Htun Myat Lin, however, offered a different version of the situation in northeast Burma.

"I hear victims were forced to go back. They were asked to go back amid clashes and were ordered to leave by a specific date," he told The Irrawaddy.

From April 18-20, government troops again clashed with Kokang rebels, with Htun Myat Lin telling The Irrawaddy that about 20 Burma Army soldiers were killed and another 65-70 wounded. He claimed only two MNDAA soldiers were killed in the fighting.

The Burma Army said earlier this week that 126 of its soldiers had been killed since fighting first began, and that it had recovered the bodies of 74 Kokang rebels. Civilian casualties in the conflict remain unknown.

The post Laukkai's Displaced Continue to Trickle Back Home appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

In Pathein, Old Parasol Craft Struggles With Rising Demand

Posted: 23 Apr 2015 12:39 AM PDT

Pathein parasols are put on display outside a workshop in the Irrawaddy Delta town. (Photo: Salai Thant Zin / The Irrawaddy)

Pathein parasols are put on display outside a workshop in the Irrawaddy Delta town. (Photo: Salai Thant Zin / The Irrawaddy)

PATHEIN, Irrawaddy Delta — Aung Naing's family has been making Pathein parasols for generations and in recent years he has reverted back to the original crafting techniques used since the time of Burma's last monarch, King Thibaw.

"We're re-using the techniques of craftsmen from over 100 years ago, from the time of my grandfather. Parasols are handmade and 100 percent made of natural raw materials," said Aung Naing, who runs Shwe Sar Pathein Parasol Workshop.

An icon of Burmese culture named after the Irrawaddy Delta town where it is made, the parasol, called Pathein htee in Burmese, has become increasingly popular with both domestic consumers and Burma's rising number of tourist visitors after producers began reintroducing old techniques.

Its rising popularity is, however, presenting the Pathein producers with a problem as demand is outstripping production capacity, while traditional natural raw materials are in increasingly short supply.

In the time of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Konbaung Dynasty who was ousted by the British some 150 years ago, ordinary citizens were only allowed to use parasols made of oil paper. The use of superior cotton or silk-canopy parasols was an exclusive right for the king and royal family.

After his fall, royal parasols producers left Mandalay and some resettled in Lower Burma in Pathein, where the craft lived on and the parasols were produced as gifts for Buddhist monks and nuns. These days, the parasol is a popular decorative item.

Producers make parasols following a Bagan period design, a Mandalay design (called ein taw yar) and a modern design. They are priced at between 2,000 kyats (US$2) to 100,000 kyats, depending on quality, design and size.

Old Craft Brings Popularity, Pressures

Until old techniques were reintroduced, the parasols were made of paper, but now the canopy is made of either cotton, silk or satin and glued to the frame with glue made from grinded tapioca powder dissolved in water. Juices from wild fruits, called sitsee, are used to water-proof the parasols for a period of up to two years, Aung Naing said.

The parasol's main shaft, he explained, is made of a wood known in Burmese as ma u shwe war, while the ribs and stretchers are made from a type of bamboo called taragu, which grows around Pathein. The production process is labor-intensive and the old methods of preparing raw materials take time: taragu bamboo needs to be kept under mud for nearly three years so that it will not be eaten by worms.

"For parasols to be made in 2017, we have to buy bamboo and prepare now. We just can't cut down the bamboo and use it immediately for parasols. Otherwise, they will be of poor quality," said Aung Naing.

Pressures on the environment around Pathein are also a problem.

"Taragu bamboo has become rare because of deforestation. Even if you have money, it is now not easy to stockpile it. We now have to buy it anywhere it is available. We should afforest bamboo systematically," said Ni Ni Htay, who owns Nay Nat Thar Parasol Workshop.

Aung Naing said rising domestic and overseas demand was overwhelming Pathein's three main workshops and the dozens of smaller family businesses that produce the parasols.

"Once we received an order for a container [of parasols] from abroad. They gave us three months. Even if all Pathein parasol workshops in the entire Irrawaddy Division produce together, we would not fulfill the order," he said, adding that producers could only meet about 20 percent of demand.

"In recent years, we mainly distribute parasols domestically because local demand is unusually high," added Ni Ni Htay.

Parasol producers said they are eager to scale up production, but, in addition to a lack of raw materials, they also face a lack of capital—a situation they said that should be remedied by the government.

"We lack capital to produce quickly and in large numbers… all of us run [workshops] on a manageable scale as a family business. So, we are not in a position to fulfill the demand," said Aung Naing.

Producers said they have approached the government for small and medium enterprises (SME) loans and requested allotment of land to cultivate taragu bamboo, but they have received no response so far.

"If the government provided low-interest, long-term loans Pathein parasols could well become an export item that can generate foreign currency," said Aung Naing.

He said government could follow the example of Thailand, where hundreds of Pathein-style parasol producers in Chiang Mai have received a tax exemption and various forms of government support in order to boost their industry. Organized in a "parasol village," the craft workshops have become a tourist attraction.

The Pathein-style parasols reached Chiang Mai some 100 years ago when a Burmese layman donated a parasol to a Thai Buddhist monk, who then asked his disciples to copy the production technique.

"A Thai government official who visited my workshop told me that the [Thai] government established a village for parasol craftsmen in Chiang Mai… I quite envy them," said Aung Naing.

"The craftsmen here will try as much as they can to make sure their ancestral Pathein parasol industry does not disappear. If they give up their business because of financial restraints, Myanmar's valuable arts and crafts will gradually become extinct."

The post In Pathein, Old Parasol Craft Struggles With Rising Demand appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Burma Population Control Law Threatens Minorities: Rights Group

Posted: 22 Apr 2015 10:42 PM PDT

Rohingya refugee Rehana Begum holds her child as she hides in a house in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on June 17, 2012.  (PHOTO: Reuters)

Rohingya refugee Rehana Begum holds her child as she hides in a house in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on June 17, 2012. (PHOTO: Reuters)

LONDON — Burma's religious and ethnic minorities may be targeted, abused and suppressed by a proposed population control law which could be a serious setback for the country's maternal health advances, according to a US-based human rights group.

The bill introduces the practice of birth spacing, requiring women to wait three years between pregnancies, which can curb maternal and child deaths, the Physicians for Human Rights said.

While Burma has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Southeast Asia, World Bank figures show, the government has taken action, including access to education and contraception to improve maternal and child health, the rights group said.

Yet the group said it was concerned that the bill, passed by Burma's parliament earlier this month and awaiting President Thein Sein's approval to become law, could strip women of the freedom and right to choose how they have children.

"We want to encourage lower fertility rates but it can't be done coercively or by suppressing the growth of marginalized groups," Widney Brown, Physicians for Human Rights' director of programs, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"If this bill is signed and applied selectively in areas where religious or ethnic minorities are already subjected to persistent and pervasive discrimination, we face a heightened risk of grave human rights violations."

Women could be forced into abortions and both men and women could be sterilized if the bill comes into force, Brown said.

"Without a clear non-coercion and non-discrimination clause, the bill should never have moved forward."

The Muslim Rohingya population in Burma's western Arakan State are at particular risk of abuse, having been subjected to restrictions on marriage, registration of births, and many other human rights violations, Physicians for Human Rights said.

The bill could be an attempt to keep the Rohingya from having any children at all, Brown added.

Almost 140,000 of Burma's 1.1 million Rohingya, most of whom are stateless, remain displaced after deadly clashes with Buddhists in Arakan State in 2012.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, said in a report published last month she had witnessed "abysmal" conditions at a camp where displaced Muslims were being held "for their own security."

Lee said the population control bill and proposed laws on religious conversion, inter-faith marriage and monogamy could worsen ethnic tensions following a government plan in February to revoke temporary identification "white cards" for minorities.

Burma's parliament voted earlier that month to grant white card holders, mostly Rohingya, the vote in a possible constitutional referendum, paving the way for their participation in a general election later this year.

But Buddhists protested against the plan in Rangoon, the biggest city in Burma, arguing many of the white-card holders were illegal aliens. Shortly after the protest, the government announced it would revoke the white cards.

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Sri Lankan Police Arrest Former President’s Brother

Posted: 22 Apr 2015 10:36 PM PDT

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa greets supporters after casting his vote for the presidential election in January. (Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters)

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa greets supporters after casting his vote for the presidential election in January. (Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters)

COLOMBO — Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother was arrested Wednesday and a judge ordered him detained for two weeks over alleged misappropriation of state funds, an official said.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said the brother, former Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa, is accused of financial irregularities in a poverty alleviation program run by his former ministry. Two other senior ministry officials were also arrested.

Basil Rajapaksa had vast powers over the country’s economy during his brother’s presidency. He left for the United States, where he also has citizenship, after his brother’s defeat in a January election.

He returned to Sri Lanka on Tuesday in response to a police summons. The police financial crimes unit questioned him for several hours Wednesday before arresting him.

Since the new government took office, the Bribery Commission and police have initiated investigations into alleged corruption during the previous administration.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also has been summoned by the Bribery Commission to explain why he gave a ministerial position last year to an opposition leader who defected to support Rajapaksa’s presidential re-election campaign. Rajapaksa’s rivals say the ministerial position was a bribe.

Another brother, former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has been asked to appear before the commission on Thursday.

Rajapaksa loyalists have protested the summoning of the brothers, saying it is an affront to leaders who ended the country’s 26-year civil war.

The brothers are credited with leading the military campaign that defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and ended the civil war in 2009. The rebels were fighting for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

According to a conservative U.N. estimate, about 100,000 people were killed in the conflict. The actual toll is believed to be much higher.

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Asian, African Nations Challenge ‘Obsolete’ World Order

Posted: 22 Apr 2015 10:32 PM PDT

Leaders from Asia and Africa pose for a group photo before the start of the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta on April 22, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Leaders from Asia and Africa pose for a group photo before the start of the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta on April 22, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

JAKARTA — Leaders of Asian and African nations called on Wednesday for a new global order that is open to emerging economic powers and leaves the "obsolete ideas" of Bretton Woods institutions in the past.

Their calls came at the opening of a meeting of Asian and African nations in Jakarta to mark the 60th anniversary of a conference that made a developing-world stand against colonialism and led to the Cold War era's non-aligned movement.

Among the leaders listening were Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who were expected to meet on the sidelines of the conference, the latest sign of a thaw in relations between the Asian rivals.

Sino-Japanese ties have chilled in recent years due to feuds over the two neighbors' wartime past, as well as territorial rows and regional rivalry. Bilateral talks in Jakarta on Wednesday had the potential to promote a cautious rapprochement that began when Abe and Xi met at a summit in Beijing late last year.

Abe, in an apparent reference to China's growing military assertiveness, told the conference that the use of force by the "mightier" should never go unchecked.

The Japanese prime minister also said Japan had pledged, "with feelings of deep remorse over the past war," to adhere to principles such as refraining from acts of aggression and settling international disputes by peaceful means.

It was not immediately clear if the remarks would satisfy China's desire for Japan to acknowledge its wartime past, but a Japanese official told Reuters Abe and Xi would meet.

Xi had earlier told the conference that "a new type of international relations" was needed to encourage cooperation between Asian and African nations, and said the developed world had an obligation to support the rest with no political strings attached, the Xinhua news agency said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the conference host, said those who still insisted that global economic problems could only be solved through the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank were clinging to "obsolete ideas."

"There needs to be change," he said. "It's imperative that we build a new international economic order that is open to new emerging economic powers."

The IMF and World Bank were at the center of the post-World War II monetary order created by the United States and Europe at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in 1944.

Widodo made no mention of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that is seen as a competitor to the Western-dominated World Bank and Asian Development Bank, but Indonesia is one of nearly 60 countries that have offered to be founding members of the AIIB.

The United States and Japan have not thrown their support behind the bank, which is viewed as a threat to US efforts to extend its influence in the Asia-Pacific region and balance China's growing financial clout.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe told the conference that Asian and African countries "should no longer be consigned to the role of exporters of primary goods and importers of finished goods."

He called it a "role that has historically been assigned to us by the colonial powers and starting from the days of colonialism."

Indonesia invited heads of state and government from 109 Asian and African countries, but according to a conference official, 21 leaders turned up, which commentators have said shows the group is no longer relevant.

The world order has changed dramatically since nearly 30 heads of state gathered in 1955 in the Indonesian town of Bandung to discuss security and economic development away from global powers embroiled in the Cold War.

Together they accounted for less than a quarter of global economic output at that time, but today they contribute to more than half of the world economy. Many of the Bandung countries, such as China and India, are now themselves at top tables like the Group of 20 and wield significant economic power.

Widodo said the group may be meeting in a changed world but still needed to stand together against the domination of "a certain group of countries" to avoid unfairness and global imbalances.

The post Asian, African Nations Challenge 'Obsolete' World Order appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Impoverished Indian Farmer Commits Suicide at Rally

Posted: 22 Apr 2015 10:27 PM PDT

Protesters gather around a farmer who hung himself from a tree during a rally in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

Protesters gather around a farmer who hung himself from a tree during a rally in New Delhi on Wednesday. (Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters)

NEW DELHI — An impoverished Indian farmer died Wednesday after hanging himself in front of hundreds of other farmers who had gathered for a protest in the capital.

It was the latest in a wave of suicides that has left at least 40 farmers dead in recent weeks—and some 300,000 dead since 1995.

Rally organizers, who apparently initially thought the man was trying to disrupt the protest, quickly cut him down from the tree where he had hanged himself and rushed him to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead, said S. Saxena, an official at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.

According to a note he left behind and which police recovered, Gajendra Singh said he killed himself after his father, left with nothing after rainstorms destroyed their crops, forced him from the family home.

"I have three children. I don’t have the money to feed my children. Hence, I want to commit suicide," said the handwritten note.

Police said the dead man was from outside the town of Dausa in western Rajasthan state. Rajasthan officials say heavy rains there have destroyed 30 percent of crops, though farmers say the amount is much higher.

The man’s uncle, Gopal Singh, said the family owned 3.6 hectares (9 acres) of land where they grew wheat, but that the rains had almost completely destroyed the crops.

"No one in the village has received any compensation from the government," said Singh, who was driving into New Delhi to retrieve his nephew’s body.

State officials across north India have promised financial help to farmers who lost their crops—and who are often indebted to local loan sharks who advanced them money for seeds and fertilizers—but those payments have been slowed by bureaucracy and corruption, activists say.

Wednesday’s rally was organized by the Aam Admi Party, the ruling party in the local New Delhi legislature, to protest proposed changes to land acquisition laws that critics say would harm farmers by making it easier for businesses and the government to buy their land.

Almost three quarters of Indians still live in villages, and farm income is crucial to the country’s economy. Most farmers, though, survive season to season on tiny plots. One poor harvest can destroy a family financially.

Rising prices for seeds and fertilizers, and banking reforms that ended up forcing farmers to turn to loan sharks, have magnified the trouble.

The post Impoverished Indian Farmer Commits Suicide at Rally appeared first on The Irrawaddy.

Bangladesh Garment Workers Still Face Abuse, Danger Despite Reforms: Rights Group

Posted: 22 Apr 2015 10:22 PM PDT

People watch as rescue workers continue their operations at the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 kilometers outside Dhaka, on April 25, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

People watch as rescue workers continue their operations at the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 kilometers outside Dhaka, on April 25, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

DHAKA — Two years after the deadly collapse of the Rana Plaza complex, employees in Bangladesh's garment sector still face exploitative and dangerous working conditions despite government labor reforms, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

While the government and global brands have made progress in improving safety conditions for Bangladesh's millions of garment workers, many still contend with abuse at work, delayed wages, and threats when they try to form a union, an HRW report said.

"Clearly, it is not enough to focus on safety alone," Phil Robertson, the rights group's Asia deputy director, said in a statement.

"Recent tragedies at Bangladeshi factories demonstrate that dangerous working conditions are linked to the failure to respect workers' rights, including their right to form unions which can help them to collectively bargain for improved safety."

The Bangladeshi government denies that factory workers are facing difficulties in trying to unionize.

"If we receive any complaints from the trade union leaders that they are facing harassment or obstruction for forming trade unions, we immediately take stern action," Labor and Employment Ministry secretary Mikail Shipar, told Reuters.

The government has filed more than 100 cases against factory owners or managers since the law was amended, he said.

The collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24, 2013, killed more than 1,100 garment workers, shone an unprecedented light on unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh's thousands of garment factories and created urgent demands for global retailers to do more to ensure their workers' safety.

The US$24 billion industry is now in the throes of a massive safety overhaul, and more than 2,000 of the country's 3,500 exporting garment factories have been inspected by the government or as a result of retailer-led initiatives.

But gains for workers' rights in those factories have been slower to materialize.

On the morning that Rana Plaza collapsed, surviving workers reported that managers had ignored their concerns that the building was not safe—a scenario that observers said could have been avoided if workers had better union representation.

Since then, the labor law has been amended to make it easier to form unions, among other measures, and more than 300 new labor unions have been registered, the government says.

However, workers interviewed by HRW said they were still being beaten and threatened at their factories for trying to organize, or stand up for co-workers' rights.

The garment industry accounts for more than 80 percent of the South Asian nation's export earnings and employs some four million workers, providing a crucial source of income to women in particular.

A multi-donor fund set up to compensate workers injured in the Rana Plaza collapse and victims' relatives is still short by about $6 million, the International Labour Organization says.

Rights groups say that shows the enduring lack of commitment by retailers to those who make their clothes.

"Instead of putting the slightest fraction of their profits towards the very people that suffered the most making their clothes, these brands choose to make ever more flimsy excuses," Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator of the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement.

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