- Burma Govt Sends Emergency Medics to Arakan After MSF Suspension
- Burma Designated 2014 ‘World Best Tourist Destination’ by EU Body
- Burma’s Suu Kyi Holds Talks With President Thein Sein
- UK to Spend $25 Million on Burma’s Peace Process
- Govt, Ethnic Rebels Form New Committee to Push Peace Talks Forward
- Burma Still Lacking ‘Absolute Press Freedom,’ Says Suu Kyi
- Hopes Were High for Burma But Is the Honeymoon Over?
- Ozil Takes Wing Again to Put Arsenal in FA Cup Semi-Finals
- With Legal Reforms, China Wants Less Interfering in Cases, Fewer Death Penalty Crimes
- The Children of Fukushima Battle an Invisible Enemy
- Vietnam Says Cannot Find Object From Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet
- New Hurdles for an Already Hobbled Press
- A Walk in the Park
- Finding a Federal Model that Fits
- Malaysia’s Anwar Convicted of Sodomy, Political Future in Doubt
- The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (March 8, 2014)
- Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court to Draft ‘Protection of Religion’ Law
- Over 10,000 Companies Called Out for Evading Tax Collectors
- Burmese Translation Due for ‘The King in Exile’
- Photo of the week (March 07, 2014)
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 07:33 AM PDT
RANGOON — Burma's health ministry has deployed an emergency response team to Arakan State following the suspension of Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) operations there, but concerns are growing over a sudden gap in medical care for hundreds of thousands of people who previously depended on the humanitarian organization's services.
MSF Holland, which began operating in the restive western state 20 years ago, claims to be the single biggest provider of health care there. Last year it conducted over 400,000 consultations, including in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) and in hard-to-reach areas of the state, which has seen communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims since June 2012.
Other NGOs and UN agencies also offer health services in Arakan, but on a smaller scale. Burma has depended largely on outside medical assistance in the aftermath of the violence, due to limited funding and resources at the Ministry of Health.
Ye Htut, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, said the government was moving to fill the gap in care after deciding late last month not to renew MSF's agreement to operate in the state. However, the medical response appeared limited for the time being.
"The Ministry of Health already sent an emergency response team with eight ambulances to Rakhine [Arakan] to fill MSF's operation," he told The Irrawaddy in an email last Thursday, without elaborating, when asked whether the ministry planned to open additional clinics or to send more doctors and nurses to the state.
He did not respond to further requests for comment when asked whether the government's response would be sufficient to handle the needs of patients who previously sought treatment with MSF, including over 10,000 malaria patients and almost 850 people with HIV. He also declined to comment on whether the government was considering allowing other international medical aid organizations to boost their presence in the state.
Before their operations were suspended, MSF employed more than 500 staff in Arakan, mainly medical staff, who provided primary health care, reproductive services, referral services and treatment for malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. They worked at over 30 sites in eight townships in the state, with a total program worth over US$9 million.
"Humanitarian organizations are very concerned about the potential humanitarian impact in Rakhine [Arakan] State following the government's request to MSF Holland to temporarily stop its activities," Pierre Peron, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Burma, told The Irrawaddy. "Replacing the MSF operation would be very difficult due to the scale and complexity of the operations that MSF has built up over many years, particularly in the northern part of Rakhine."
Allegations of Bias
MSF Holland announced on Feb. 28 that it had been ordered by the government to halt all its operations in Burma—not only in Arakan, but also in Kachin and Shan States, as well as Rangoon Division. The government justified its decision partly by accusing the aid body of providing preferential treatment to favor the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has borne the brunt of violence in Arakan State and is largely denied citizenship in the country.
Rights groups and foreign governments responded critically, and within days the government said MSF could reopen its clinics everywhere except Arakan State. In addition to allegations of preferential treatment, the government accused MSF of violating certain conditions in its memorandum of understanding (MoU), including by employing more foreign staff in the state than agreed, and by running a medical care clinic for newborns without approval.
In the days before the suspension, Arakanese Buddhists had protested in the state capital Sittwe against MSF operations, accusing the aid group of bias and urging Thein Sein to cancel its MoU. The protests appeared to have been sparked by MSF's claim that it treated 22 patients for injuries in the aftermath of an alleged massacre of Rohingyas in Maungdaw Township. While the UN said it received "credible evidence" to indicate that Arakanese villagers and state security forces were involved in the alleged violence, the government repeatedly denied the killings had occurred and accused MSF as well as international media of misreporting events.
Aye Maung, a lawmaker and chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), said he supported the suspension of MSF operations in Arakan State. "It was what the people of Arakan wanted. My party respects the people," he told The Irrawaddy. "A very small amount of medical care was for the Rakhine [Arakanese] people. They should have worked for both the Rakhine community and the Muslim community, but they discriminated, so most of the Arakanese suffered."
MSF has denied to comment publicly as it continues negotiations with government officials in Naypyidaw, but the aid group has long rejected allegations of bias, saying it operates on the basis of medical need.
Since 2012, Rohingyas have lacked access to health care and other basic services in Arakan State because they have been subject to government-imposed movement restrictions that make it difficult if not impossible for them to travel to medical centers. Certain public hospitals in the state have also been accused of denying them admission for treatment.
MSF offered services in IDP camps and operated mobile clinics that went to Rohingya communities in remote areas, especially in the northern townships, but it also treated local Buddhists and says the majority of its malaria patients in 2013 were Arakanese.
Identifying the Treatment Gap
It is possible that more medical aid groups will face trouble in Arakan State in the coming months. The state legislature is now considering a proposal to block unregistered NGOs from operating in the region, to prevent them from "causing bigger problems" between Buddhists and Muslims, according to a report by Radio Free Asia.
The proposal was submitted by another RNDP lawmaker, Aung Win, on Friday. "There are some INGOs and NGOs that have caused bigger problems between the two communities and some are creating a bad image of the country. Also, we have seen some organizations act disrespectfully to the local people," he told RFA.
The news agency reported that only 19 international and local NGOs had been approved to operate in the state since 2012, although 70 groups had applied. It said local authorities in the past allowed NGOs to work without formal registration, in an effort to help the more than 140,000 people living in IDP camps and others affected by the communal violence.
For medical aid, various UN agencies fund a wide range of health care services, often collaborating with the government as well as local and international NGOs.
Beyond these programs, about 15 international and local NGOs were offering health services in the state as of late last year, according to the Myanmar Information Management Unit, which assists the UN country team in Burma. Including MSF, only a handful of these offered basic health services, and their programs were much smaller. Other organizations focused on mental health, reproductive health, women's and children's health, malaria prevention, HIV treatment and health education.
Few groups offered health services in the northern townships, according to Malteser International, a relief agency of Malta which assists tuberculosis patients and supports local health staff in the area.
"Overall, our intervention is of course much smaller than that of MSF. In northern [Arakan], I think they were the biggest player, partly because they have a lot of funding," said Johannes Kaltenbach, a spokesman for Malteser in Burma. He said his organization employed about 200 staff in the state, compared to more than 500 staff at MSF.
He said the suspension of MSF operations was unfortunate, particularly for the beneficiaries in the northern townships.
"Still, in magnitude, when it comes to the actual impact it might have, I think we will only feel it in the coming weeks or months. In Sittwe, it might be different," he added, referring to the state capital, around which many IDP camps are located.
He said he had not heard of government plans to boost care in the state, nor had Malteser been approached to scale up its activities. "We hope MSF will see some return to normalcy. For us, we will wait, the same as other organizations, and see," he said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which also supports health services in Arakan, said the removal of any substantial humanitarian provider would have a major impact, but agreed that it was not yet clear how big the treatment gap would be. Michael O'Brien, a spokesman for the ICRC in Burma, said his organization was not planning to expand its reach in the state in the short term.
"At the moment we're structured to perform the functions that we perform as efficiently as we can. Like most organizations, we wouldn't have an enormous amount of spare capacity—that doesn't mean we couldn't try to provide assistance, but if we're talking about major health sector assistance, with the structure that we have at the moment, that would be pretty well beyond us in the short term," he told The Irrawaddy.
"We haven't been asked to do that either, and I'm not sure at this point that the gap has actually been fully identified. It's still quite a fluid situation, and so until somebody can be specific about what they would need and then a request comes to us, it's quite a hypothetical situation."
Burma's national health system has been chronically underfunded for decades, as the former military regime prioritized defense spending over social services.
Like in other rural areas across Burma, midwives provide the bulk of health services in Arakan, one of the poorest states in the country. A single midwife is responsible for thousands of patients, and since the outbreak of violence, some midwives have stopped traveling to certain rural villages due to security concerns.
Foreign governments have voiced concerns over the suspension of MSF operations in the state.
"We understand that the Union Government and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are in discussions and want to encourage and fully support their efforts to find a solution that will ensure continued life-saving health services for those in Burma that need it most," a US Embassy spokesman told The Irrawaddy last week.
"We reiterate the vital importance of allowing the provision of unhindered and regular access to urgently needed health care services and other humanitarian support to communities in need of such assistance, regardless of ethnicity."
The post Burma Govt Sends Emergency Medics to Arakan After MSF Suspension appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 07:27 AM PDT
RANGOON — The European Council on Tourism and Trade will hand Burma the "World Best Tourist Destination Award" for 2014, one of the highest accolades in the global travel and tourism industry, according to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
"This award will draw more tourists to our country," Aung Zaw Win, director general of the ministry, told The Irrawaddy on Monday, adding that tourism was one of the country's most promising industries at present.
The European Council on Tourism and Trade, which draws its members from 27 nations of the European Union, has been awarding the honor annually since 2007. Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (twice winner), South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, and Laos are all past recipients of the World Best Tourist Destination Award, according to the ECTT website.
The award goes to "countries that are embracing tourism as a resource for cultural and social development, who respect ethics of human relations and preserve cultural and natural heritage. As the receivers, cities and countries must prove their commitment towards sustainable development, fair tourism and historical preservation," the ECTT website states.
"All types of tourism are available in Myanmar," Aung Zaw Win said. "We can offer marine tourism, cultural tourism, ecotourism, community tourism, trekking, other things and also snow-capped mountains."
The director general said that having drawn 2.04 million tourists to Burma last year, the government is planning for 3 million foreign arrivals this year.
"The tourist numbers visiting Burma in 2013 increased by 93 percent over 2012. There is no comparably sharp rise anywhere in the world tourism industry," he said, adding that the past two months had seen 487,000 tourist arrivals to Burma.
"The title should act as a booster for tourism" to the winner of the award, which must be a non-European country, the ECTT website says.
A letter sent by the European Union Council to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism said Burma would also be declared its 2014 "Favorite Cultural Destination," according to Burma's state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
"I hope that more tourists will visit our country with the presentation of the World Best Tourist Destination for 2014," said Theingi, director of Exotic Myanmar Travels & Tours Company.
She added that more experienced guides, restaurants, hotels and airline linkages would be needed to accommodate what an expected boom in tourism over the coming years.
Aung Zaw Win of the Hotels and Tourism Ministry said that currently, there are more than 1,300 licensed tour companies in Burma, and more than 20 domestic and foreign airlines fly routes into Burma. Accommodation is increasing by about 6,000 hotel rooms each year, he added.
The country's tourism industry is widely considered to be underdeveloped, and travel to Burma has been a politically sensitive issue for more than two decades. Long-time democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi for many years discouraged foreigners from visiting the country, saying their money would only go toward enriching the ruling military junta and its crony business allies who largely monopolized the industry.
With the country's transition to nominally civilian rule in 2011, Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party has since signaled it "would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma."
The post Burma Designated 2014 'World Best Tourist Destination' by EU Body appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 07:18 AM PDT
RANGOON — Burma's main opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with President Thein Sein at his home on Sunday, according to a National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesman.
"They met at the president's farm cottage in Naypyidaw from 5 to 5:50 yesterday evening," said Zeyar Thaw, an information officer for the NLD's office in the capital and member of Parliament for the party led by Suu Kyi.
Zeyar Thaw refused to give details of what was discussed during the nearly one-hour meeting because, he said, "the party has no plan to release information about the meeting."
However, Monywa Aung Shin, the information officer in charge of the NLD's central committee, told The Irrawaddy that the meeting was initiated by the president.
"As far as I know, there were not any other people attended the meeting, only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Thien Sein were there," he said.
The meeting on Sunday was the first between Thein Sein and Suu Kyi this year. The two have met altogether four times since their historic first meeting in 2011. The last time they met was in August.
During Sunday's meeting, the two leaders may have discussed a four-party meeting that Suu Kyi had proposed to the president in November. The opposition leader has called for talks to be held involving herself, Thein Sein, the powerful Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann and the Burmese military's Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing to discuss amendments to Burma's Constitution.
The president turned down her request at the time, saying he would consider the meeting after Parliament's Constitutional Review Joint Committee released the proposal to change the 2008 charter.
The Committee submitted the proposals to the Union Parliament in late January this year and a new committee was formed to decide upon amendments. Suu Kyi has continued to rally support for amending the military-drafted charter that guarantees the armed forces' role in politics and bars the NLD chairperson from the presidency.
Sunday's meeting between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein took place just two days after Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann said he is ready to hold the four-party meeting.
Political commentator Yan Myo Thien said the four-party talks were likely the subject of the discussion on Sunday.
"Given to the current political landscape, it's possible that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would focus on the four-party meeting as well as the constitutional amendments," he said.
"I think the most important thing is to have the four-party meeting. If they get a general agreement out of it, they could expand it into an all-inclusive political dialogue. When it happens, constitutional amendments can be taken for granted," he added.
Despite meeting with both Thein Sein and Shwe Mann several times, Suu Kyi still hasn’t met with Min Aung Hlaing.
Earlier this year, she told reporters in Naypyidaw that she had tried to meet Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, but her attempts had proven unsuccessful.
"My relations with him have not progressed at all because I have not even been able to meet him yet," the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson said. "But I have never given up on something after failing only one time."
Yan Myo Thein said he thinks the meeting with Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief is "strategically important."
"Political change in this country is impossible without any meeting with the military," he said.
The post Burma's Suu Kyi Holds Talks With President Thein Sein appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 06:49 AM PDT
RANGOON — The United Kingdom will maintain its annual aid package to Burma, at about US$100 million, over the next two years.
A quarter of that aid in the 2014-15 fiscal year will be spent on the peace process, including assistance for internally displaced people in conflict areas, according to Gavin McFillivray, head of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) office in Burma. He said the other funds would be targeted for health, education and microcredit loans.
"We want to work for a Myanmar [Burma] in which every child can go to school and have a good education, in which all people have good health care, and in which everybody can get a good job," he told reporters on Friday, during a visit to an early childhood care and development center supported by the DFID in Irrawaddy Division.
He was accompanied by British Ambassador to Burma Andrew Patrick, who said the United Kingdom had already provided $5 million to the Myanmar Education Consortium, a multi-million dollar program—unveiled last year with the Australian government aid body—that aims to support education for Burma's poorest children
Through the consortium, the United Kingdom helps support early childhood development centers (ECCD) in five states and divisions around the country.
"So far we have established 86 ECCD centers, trained 2,800 caregivers and provided early childhood care and development for 3,000 children," Patrick told reporters. "Over the coming year, we intend to expand so that 1,300 children have access to ECCD."
The early childhood development centers offer care for children between the ages of 3 and 5 who have not yet entered the formal school system. In some cases, parents say the centers have allowed them to improve their livelihoods.
"I can do my job now," says Nu War Hlaing, whose 4-year-old son attends a center in Hle Kyaw Gone village. "In the past I had to take care of my son myself, and I couldn't earn money."
The ambassador also visited a microfinance project in Irrawaddy Division last week. The United Kingdom has supported local microfinance operator Pact to offer basic training on financial management, as well as access to credit and loans, to 78,000 people. Women have received 95 percent of this support.
Khin Htwe Yee, a resident in Kyoe Kyar Chaung village, took a loan of 80,000 kyats ($80) last April so she could earn money by cultivating betel nut and developing a pig farm. "The interest rate is 480 kyats, paid twice a month," she told The Irrawaddy.
The DFIF doubled its aid package to Burma in the 2013-14 fiscal year, to $100 million, compared to about $50 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 06:34 AM PDT
The Burmese government, the military and leaders of armed ethnic groups have agreed to form a joint committee that will work on drafting the text for a nationwide ceasefire accord.
In a statement released on Monday, the ethnic groups' Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) and the government's Union Peace Working Committee announced that a joint committee would be formed, with an equal number of members provided by the government and ethnic groups.
The agreement followed two days of meetings in Rangoon between the NCCT delegation led by Nai Hong Sar and the government's peace team led by Minister Aung Min.
The 18 committee members are yet to be selected, but will include nine ethnic leaders, while on the government side members will include three military commanders, three parliamentarians and three cabinet officials, said Hla Maung Shwe of the Myanmar Peace Center, an influential group of government advisors.
"We will have three representatives from Parliament, from the Tatmadaw leaders and from the government," he said.
Hla Maung Shwe said before the ethnic groups and the government team had come up with their own draft texts for a nationwide ceasefire accord, adding that the new joint committee would now attempt to write a single draft text.
NCCT chairman Nai Hong Sar said the new joint committee planned to "implement both sides' views while drafting a single principle for a nationwide ceasefire agreement."
Nine ethnic representatives for the new committee will be selected during a NCCT meeting in March 19-20 in Thailand, he added. The NCCT represents 16 ethnic armed groups.
The new committee will meet again in late March to begin negotiations on the text of a nationwide ceasefire, said Hla Maung Shwe. Once such a preliminary agreement is reached, the long-planned, high-level nationwide ceasefire talks in the Karen State capital Hpa-an can go ahead, he added.
The last such high-level talks took place in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in November. The government has since repeatedly announced that a nationwide ceasefire accord could be signed in Hpa-an within weeks, but the sides have been forced to reschedule these talks twice due to a lack of agreement.
NCCT chairman Nai Hong Sar said, however, said it was unclear how long it would take for the new committee to produce a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement.
He said that several other ethic armed groups not represented in the NCCT, such as the Shan State Army South and the United Wa State Army, would be invited to attend the new committee's meetings.
"We would meet with them before the final meeting … so that their concerns could also be raised," added Nai Hong Sar.
The post Govt, Ethnic Rebels Form New Committee to Push Peace Talks Forward appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 04:22 AM PDT
RANGOON — While many have praised Burma for a broadening of media freedoms over the last couple of years, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has cautioned that "absolute press freedom" in the country remains elusive.
The chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma's main opposition party, made the remarks while addressing about 300 local and international journalists at the launch of her new charity organization, the Suu Foundation, in Rangoon on Sunday.
The Suu Foundation was founded with the help of international health and education advocates, and Burmese intellectuals. It will serve as a humanitarian organization dedicated to advancing health care and education initiatives for young people in Burma.
Suu Kyi, who is also a member of Parliament, on Sunday criticized the Burmese government led by President Thein Sein, a former general of the ex-military regime, for failing to fully unshackle the country's long-suppressed media. At the same time, Suu Kyi warned the country's young reporters that their lack of experience left them susceptible to practicing journalism that did not meet professional and ethical standards.
"Many people talk about the amazing change in Myanmar. I would like to say this frankly: Greater freedom demands greater responsibility. Without press freedom, we cannot build a healthy democracy. If people ask me whether we have absolute press freedom, I will say no," Suu Kyi said one day before an international media conference in Rangoon organized by the US-based East-West Center.
Under the country's former military regime, Burmese media was stifled. Heavy censorship was enforced on publications, private daily newspapers were outlawed and reporters were often jailed for their work. Given the climate of fear instilled by the generals in power, self-censorship among journalists was as much a constraint to press freedom as any overt government oppression, and critical reporting of the government almost never made it to print.
While there is widespread agreement that Burma has come a long way since the darkest days of media suppression, recent government actions—including the arrest of a handful of reporters this year and a curbing of journalism visa issuances last month—has brought condemnation from press freedom and human rights advocates.
On Monday at the opening of the East-West Center media conference, presidential spokesman Ye Htut pushed back against speculation that the visa restrictions were implemented due to reports by some news outlets about an alleged massacre of dozens of Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State in mid-January. The government has denied any killings took place.
"Reporters who belong to news bureaus here can still enjoy three-month, multi-entry visas," Ye Htut said, claiming that the issuance of shorter-term visas for foreign journalists not based in country resulted from a reassessment following the World Economic Forum and the Southeast Asian Games, both of which were hosted by Burma last year. More than 100 foreign reporters who entered Burma for the two events overstayed their visas, prompting the new policy, Ye Htut said.
The presidential spokesman, who also acts as deputy information minister, said one foreign journalist's visa request to attend the East-West Center conference this week was rejected outright. That denial was issued to Hannah Beech, a reporter for US-based Time magazine and the author of an article printed in the publication last year that was banned by Burma's government.
"Some people are very angry about her," Ye Htut said of the journalist, who penned an article about the controversial Burmese monk U Wirathu headlined "The Face of Buddhist Terror" for the magazine's July 1, 2013 issue. "That will affect not only her but also this international media conference. We sent a letter to her that now is not an appropriate time [for her to visit]."
Meanwhile, the Suu Foundation's immediate goal will be the restoration of Rangoon University and Rangoon General Hospital, which the organization hopes will one day serve as symbols of Burma's progress in advancing its education and health care sectors—two areas neglected for decades under the former military junta.
Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, chairwoman of the Suu Foundation, said at the conference that the foundation believed a healthy and educated population was key to fostering self-reliance and improving the livelihoods of the people of Burma.
"We believe that all of us can contribute to making a difference in the lives of the Myanmar people by improving their health and education. Our dream is that every Myanmar child may have access to proper health care and qualified education," said the Honolulu-based Burmese academic.
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh also spoke at the Suu Foundation launch, pointing out that the Burmese higher education system was highly regarded 50 years ago, with many students from Southeast Asia and beyond seeking to study at Rangoon University.
However, mismanagement under successive military governments from 1962 to 2010 saw a major decline in the Burmese education system, which continued nonetheless to graduate students with degrees of depreciating value into an economy with fewer and fewer opportunities to earn a living.
"To be a part of rebuilding the nation, it is always in my heart," said Yeoh, who was cast to play Suu Kyi in "The Lady," a 2011 biopic of the democracy leader directed by Luc Besson.
During the Suu Foundation's official launch event, video greetings from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush were also screened, with the two women expressing their support for the effort.
The Irrawaddy reporter Yen Snaing contributed reporting.
The post Burma Still Lacking 'Absolute Press Freedom,' Says Suu Kyi appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 10 Mar 2014 12:17 AM PDT
BANGKOK — Three years ago, a quasi-civilian government took office in Burma, shedding the country's pariah image and introducing democratic reforms that have won widespread praise. Yet events last week have raised doubts about the government's reformist credentials and its commitment to a genuine democratic transition.
The government's expulsion of Nobel-prize winning charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from the needy and conflict-torn Arakan State in western Burma on Feb. 28 was met with shock and condemnation from the aid community and human rights defenders.
Local media reported that government officials had been angry with MSF for saying it had treated victims near the scene of an alleged massacre of stateless Rohingya Muslims in the north of Arakan. Burma's government denies any killing took place.
MSF, one of the biggest providers of healthcare in the state, said it was originally ordered to suspend all activities in Burma. The government later allowed the group to resume its work in other parts except Arakan.
A day earlier, Burma media reported that Shwe Mann, the speaker of Parliament, asked ministries to draft controversial laws on population control, religious conversion, monogamy and restricting marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men after President Thein Sein sent a letter to the Parliament essentially endorsing calls by Buddhist nationalists to pass these laws.
The developments came after Bangkok-based Fortify Rights published a report detailing discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya, drawing on leaked government documents. Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, responded by calling the authors "a Bengali lobby group."
Like many in Burma, Ye Htut used the term "Bengali" to refer to the Rohingya, to assert they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya say they have been in majority Buddhist Burma for generations.
"Looking at recent worrying signs in Burma, I can say that 'reform' in Burma is at a very early stage … Since late last year I detect the signs of regression on every front," Aung Zaw, founding editor-in-chief of the Burmese online news journal The Irrawaddy, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The honeymoon is over—what is worrying is the rise of radical elements and anti-reform sentiment," he added.
Since June 2012, religious conflict across Burma has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000—most of them Rohingya in Arakan. Even before MSF was banned, aid agencies working in the state had been threatened and harassed by Buddhist nationalists who accused them of bias toward the Muslim Rohingya.
Since Thein Sein's government took power, ending five decades of iron-fisted military rule, it has abolished media censorship laws, allowed protests and started negotiating for peace with the country's many ethnic armed groups. Western governments have lifted or suspended sanctions in response.
So far, supporters of the Burma government have blamed any shortcomings in reform on a lack of experience and technical capacity in long-isolated state institutions. But some analysts say recent moves, especially the contentious legislation being planned, show that anti-reform elements are embedded within government.
"There clearly are capacity issues but some of the current concerns relate not to capacity but to policy directions that are being suggested or promoted by the government or the legislature," said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in Burma.
"I don't think it is a sign of transition stumbling but it is reflective of just how powerfully these issues resonate with the Bamar majority and some members of the administration," he added.
Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for Human Rights Watch, said too many Burma watchers based overseas believed that with the right amount of money and technical assistance, "everything would naturally progress towards a bright shining future."
"The problems and conflicts were always more intractable than that … These recent events constitute a reality check," he said.
"What is particularly worrying is that the Myanmar government is playing with fire with its willingness to look the other way on ethnic and religious extremism," he added, describing the draft inter-faith marriage law as an "impending disaster".
Where Is Burma Heading?
Especially worrying for observers is that in contrast to the response to previous bouts of violence in which the president called for tolerance and unity, the government has issued blanket denials of the alleged January massacre in Arakan and used MSF's public comments as one of the reasons for the group's expulsion.
The government has also resisted calls by the United Nations and rights organizations for an independent investigation.
Tomas Ojea Quintana, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said the situation in Arakan, which has seen nearly two years of conflict between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, must not be separated from the broader issues of ethnic minorities and national reconciliation.
"Depending on how this will be assumed, Myanmar can then be regarded as a country committed to basic human rights for all. So far, the prospects are not encouraging and both the local and central authorities are responsible," he said.
"My opinion is that keeping MSF apart from Rakhine State is part of a strategy toward consolidating not only the segregation of Rohingyas, but also the oppression against them, including complete limitation to access to health," he added.
Another issue which has raised concern is the government's plan to carry out the first census in 30 years in March and April. The Netherlands-based Transnational Institute (TNI) released a report on March 3 suggesting the survey could inflame ethnic tensions, further marginalize ethnic groups and be used as a tool for repression.
According to Horsey, events of the past week highlights that Burma's transition is not a "simple, easy, linear change from all that is bad to all that is good."
While Burma would not go back to what it was before reforms, there are many future trajectories it can take, some better than others, he said.
"If other countries start to see Myanmar and the Myanmar government as one which is promoting discriminatory policies, then I think that could have a significant impact on relations," Horsey said. "It would inject a much greater note of caution in relations between the West and Myanmar."
The post Hopes Were High for Burma But Is the Honeymoon Over? appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 09 Mar 2014 11:54 PM PDT
LONDON — A rejuvenated Mesut Ozil put Arsenal on the path to an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley though Arsene Wenger and Everton manager Roberto Martinez agreed after the home side's 4-1 win on Saturday the match had hinged on a miss by Ross Barkley.
Barkley, the most impressive player in a pulsating Cup tie, had set up Everton's equalizer with a 60-yard run and pass before being presented with a clear shooting chance early in the second half with the score at 1-1. The young midfielder blazed narrowly over from 18 yards.
Mikel Arteta scored a twice-taken penalty to give Arsenal, third in the Premier League, the lead before two late goals by substitute Olivier Giroud took the home side into the last four.
"I have no complaints," said Martinez, who won the FA Cup with Wigan last season. "Arsenal played really well today, they took their chances and they were very clinical.
"I just felt the key moment of the game would be the second goal and we started the second half really well and we made it a very uncomfortable game for Arsenal.
"We had a really good chance and Ross Barkley in those situations—nine out of 10 times he hits the target. You have to be clinical, and Ross is one of the best players in this league to take advantage of those moments."
Ozil ended a troubled week, and a period of lackluster form for Arsenal, by opening the scoring after seven minutes.
One-touch football opened up Everton and after a defender slipped, Santi Cazorla was left free to set up the German forward, bought from Real Madrid in August, on the left of the area and he eased the ball past Joel Robles.
Ozil, who was booed off by Germany fans on Wednesday after setting up the winner over Chile in a friendly, looked like a world-class player again, playing with his head up and dragging defenders every which way.
"Of course the goal was important for him and how he took his chance—I hope that will encourage him. What I like about him was that he looked regenerated, he had more power in his runs and he did a lot of dirty work, like tracking back," Wenger said.
Everton were on the ropes after Ozil's goal and Yaya Sanogo and Thomas Vermaelen had shots pushed away by the visiting goalkeeper.
But Barkley's ability to turn desperate defense into flowing attack was evident from early on as loose passing by Arsenal when fully committed around the Everton area set up a clutch of dangerous counter-attacks by the men in blue.
Robles turned a cross by Bacary Sagna on to the bar halfway through the first half, before Barkley's lung-bursting run out of his own half was followed by an excellent diagonal pass into the area. Kevin Mirallas seemed certain to score but he sliced the ball, before Romelu Lukaku stabbed home from a couple of yards out.
Lukaku's strength and quick feet constantly troubled the Arsenal defense and a glorious pass by the Belgian set up his compatriot Mirallas, but he shot tamely at Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski.
The excitement and attacking football was maintained during the second half but Arsenal had learned their lesson and did not commit as fully when on the offensive.
Vermaelen, the club captain but second choice to Laurent Koscielny in the center of defense this season, put the home side in trouble when he slipped on the touchline when deciding how to clear the ball. Lukaku took the ball to the edge of the area before setting up Barkley for his decisive miss.
The introduction of France striker Giroud for Sanogo gave Arsenal a second wind and, after Cazorla's shot was saved at full stretch by Robles, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke towards the right goalline.
The England forward shimmied around Gareth Barry but the Everton player left his leg in to bring the England midfielder down and concede a penalty.
Arteta hit the back of the net from the spot but the kick had to be retaken, amid huge protests from Arsenal, because Giroud had encroached in the area. But the Spaniard again made no mistake the second time to put Arsenal ahead.
A fine Arsenal move settled the game. Mathieu Flamini worked the ball out of defense, substitute Tomas Rosicky sent right back Sagna to the line and his cutback gave Giroud a simple tap-in.
With Everton committed to attack, Cazorla put Rosicky away down the right and he slid a pass to Ozil in the middle. The German flicked the ball sideways for Giroud to slide home his second.
"It was a quality performance from the first minute to the last, we were unlucky to be 1-1 at halftime," said Wenger. "In the second half Everton started well, they had a strong moment in the game where they had a chance with Barkley, and then we scored the second goal."
The post Ozil Takes Wing Again to Put Arsenal in FA Cup Semi-Finals appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 09 Mar 2014 11:41 PM PDT
BEIJING — China has curtailed the power of the ruling Communist Party’s Political and Legal Committee, a secretive body overseeing the security services, to interfere in most legal cases, scholars with knowledge of the situation said – a significant reform at a time of public discontent over miscarriages of justice.
The move, which has not been made public by the party but has been announced in internal meetings, would clip the wings of the party’s highest authority on judicial and security matters.
Interference from the committee has led to many wrongful convictions, many of which have been widely reported in the press and even highlighted by President Xi Jinping as an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.
Part of a package of legal reforms, the move signals a willingness by Xi’s government to reform its court system as long as it doesn’t threaten the party’s overall control.
China’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, will deliver its work report to parliament on Monday, which could detail some of these reforms.
But the party would still have final say over politically sensitive cases such as those involving ethnic issues and senior politicians – like the disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was last year found guilty of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, and jailed for life – and would use the courts to convict citizens who challenge its authority.
Chen Guangzhong, who took part in discussions with officials on reforming the criminal law system after the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, said he has seen an internal document saying "there can be no coordination allowed on cases".
Judges typically convene with police, prosecutors and officials from the Political and Legal Committee to coordinate on verdicts for cases that will have a "political influence" or relate to social stability. These offences range from murder to rape to corruption.
"This is a problem unique to China," Chen, a law professor from the China University of Political Science and Law, told Reuters. "If ruling parties in the West interfere with the judiciary, if they intervene, they’ll have to step down. But the recognition of this problem has not been consistent."
Chen, who helped draft the latest amendment to China’s Criminal Procedure Code in 2012, said the party has started to curtail the power of the Political and Legal Committee, but added there are few details to this guideline.
Meng Jianzhu, head of the Political and Legal Committee, had said at an internal meeting that officials "are not allowed to intervene in specific cases", said Jiang Ming’an, a law professor at Peking University, citing people at that meeting.
Jiang, who was at a meeting with the prosecutor’s office, said the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s graft watchdog, will also not be allowed to intervene in corruption cases once they are transferred to state prosecutors.
The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Party Above Constitution
Much of the previous abuses to the rule of law can be attributed to former security chief Zhou Yongkang, whose term "caused a big setback to the judicial system", said Jiang Ping, a deputy director of the National People’s Congress Law Committee from 1988-1993.
Zhou had expanded his role into one of the most powerful and controversial fiefdoms in the one-party government. During his term, Zhou said the courts should put the party’s interests above the people and the constitution, according to Jiang Ping.
"That caused tremendous chaos to the judiciary because putting the party’s interests above everything else meant that everything had to be in obedience to the Political and Legal Committee," Jiang Ping said.
Scholars say the downgrading of the position previously occupied by Zhou, who was a former member of the party’s ruling inner core Politburo Standing Committee, in late 2012 is another sign of the weaker powers of the Political and Legal Committee. His successor, Meng, is only a member of the Politburo, the 25-member body which reports to the Standing Committee.
Sources have told Reuters that Zhou is under effective house arrest while the party investigates corruption allegations against him.
Fewer Death Penalty Crimes
In a sign of the government’s interest in legal reform, the Supreme People’s Court said in November it would eliminate the use of torture to extract confessions, stop local officials from interfering in legal decisions and allow judges to make their own decisions.
China is now debating trimming the number of crimes subject to the death penalty, according to officials and scholars.
Rights groups say China uses capital punishment more than any other country, raising public concern of irreversible miscarriages of justice.
Various government departments are "actively studying" reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty, Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong told reporters during the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue last month. Chen from the China University of Political Science and Law said the government is holding discussions with legal scholars as part of this review.
But Chen said several officials in the courts, prosecutors and the police are resisting the changes to the death penalty. He said an announcement on dropping the death penalty for up to half a dozen "non-violent" crimes could be due this year.
Capital punishment applies to 55 offences in China, including fraud and illegal money-lending.
China won’t, however, scrap the death penalty for those found guilty of corruption, which the government is waging a renewed campaign against, Chen said. "China now has some major corruption cases, and (if the government) were to scrap the death penalty, the ordinary people will not agree."
China guards the number of people executed every year as state secrets. The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks the release of political prisoners in China, estimates that 3,000 people were executed in 2012. For comparison, 43 people were executed that year in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The changes to the death penalty crimes are not expected to significantly reduce the number of executions in China, said Fu Hualing, a professor of China’s criminal justice system at the University of Hong Kong.
New Court Chief
The legal reforms reflect a desire by Zhou Qiang, who took over as head of the Supreme People’s Court a year ago, to handle cases in a more professional way, and tackle wrongful convictions, scholars said. But whether his reform efforts can move China forward to a country that is ruled by law is still an open question.
"Zhou Qiang seems a serious political character, he’s not only well connected, he’s legally sophisticated," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. "But he’s not all-powerful, and whatever he says doesn’t necessarily take place at the local level. This is a continuing struggle."
Eva Pils, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said "the biggest concern about the judiciary remains that it is a weak institution compared to the Party-State security apparatus," as well as the public security ministry.
Judges are still appointed by the party and the government has been silent on establishing an independent judiciary.
"There’s now no mention of judicial independence, we haven’t reached that stage yet," said Jiang Ming’an, the Peking University law professor who has participated in consultations with Zhou Qiang on judicial reform.
Changes to the judicial system will be constrained by the lack of political reform such as greater room for freedom of expression, said Jiang Ping, the former deputy director of the National People’s Congress Law Committee.
"Because the judicial system is tied to the political system, if there is no real political reform, the reforms to the judicial system cannot be fully realized," he said.
The post With Legal Reforms, China Wants Less Interfering in Cases, Fewer Death Penalty Crimes appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 09 Mar 2014 11:16 PM PDT
KORIYAMA, Japan — Some of the smallest children in Koriyama, a short drive from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, barely know what it's like to play outside—fear of radiation has kept them in doors for much of their short lives.
Though the strict safety limits for outdoor activity set after multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in 2011 have now been eased, parental worries and ingrained habit mean many children still stay inside.
And the impact is now starting to show, with children experiencing falling strength, lack of coordination, some cannot even ride a bicycle, and emotional issues like shorter tempers, officials and educators say.
"There are children who are very fearful. They ask before they eat anything, 'does this have radiation in it?' and we have to tell them it's okay to eat," said Mitsuhiro Hiraguri, director of the Emporium Kindergarten in Koriyama, some 55 km (35 miles) west of the Fukushima nuclear plant.
"But some really, really want to play outside. They say they want to play in the sandbox and make mud pies. We have to tell them no, I'm sorry. Play in the sandbox inside instead."
Following the 2011 quake and tsunami, a series of explosions and meltdowns caused the world's worst nuclear accident for 25 years, spewing radiation over a swathe of Fukushima, an agricultural area long known for its rice, beef and peaches.
A 30 km radius around the plant was declared a no-go zone, forcing some 160,000 people from homes where some had lived for generations. Other areas, where the radiation was not so critically high, took steps such as replacing the earth in parks and school playgrounds, decontaminating public spaces like sidewalks, and limiting children's outdoor play time.
"Avoid Touching the Outside Air"
In Koriyama, the city recommended shortly after the disaster that children up to two years old not spend more than 15 minutes outside each day. Those aged 3 to 5 should limit their outdoor time to 30 minutes or less.
These limits were lifted last October, but many kindergartens and nursery schools continue to adhere to the limits, in line with the wishes of worried parents.
One mother at an indoor Koriyama playground was overheard telling her child: "Try to avoid touching the outside air."
Even three-year-olds know the word "radiation."
Though thyroid cancer in children was linked to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, the United Nations said last May that cancer rates were not expected to rise after Fukushima.
Radiation levels around the Emporium Kindergarten in Koriyama were now down around 0.12-0.14 microsieverts per hour, from 3.1 to 3.7 right after the quake, said Hiraguri.
This works out to be lower than Japan's safety level of 1,000 microsieverts a year, but levels can vary widely and at random, keeping many parents nervous about any outdoor play.
"I try to keep from going out and from opening the window," said 34-year-old Ayumi Kaneta, who has three sons. "I buy food from areas away from Fukushima. This is our normal life now."
Child Stress on Rise
But this lack of outdoor play is having a detrimental effect on Koriyama's children, both physical and mentally.
"Compared to before the disaster, you can certainly see a fall in the results of physical strength and ability tests—things like grip strength, running and throwing balls," said Toshiaki Yabe, an official with the Koriyama city government.
An annual survey by the Fukushima prefecture Board of Education found that children in Fukushima weighed more than the national average in virtually every age group.
Five year olds were roughly 500 gms (1 lb) heavier, while the weight difference grew to 1 kg for six-year-old boys. Boys of 11 were nearly 3 kg heavier.
Hiraguri said that stress was showing up in an increase of scuffles, arguments and even sudden nosebleeds among the children, as well as more subtle effects.
"There's a lot more children who aren't all that alert in their response to things. They aren't motivated to do anything," he said.
Koriyama has removed decontaminated earth in public places, sometimes more than once, and work to replace all playground equipment in public parks should finish soon.
Yabe, at Koriyama city hall, said parental attitudes towards the risk of radiation may be slowly shifting.
"These days, instead of hearing from parents that they're worried about radiation, we're hearing that they're more worried because their kids don't get outside," he said.
But Hiraguri said things are still hard.
"I do sometimes wonder if it's really all right to keep children in Fukushima. But there are those who can't leave, and I feel strongly that I must do all I can for them."
The post The Children of Fukushima Battle an Invisible Enemy appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 09 Mar 2014 10:55 PM PDT
KUALA LUMPUR — Vietnamese searchers on ships worked throughout the night but could not find a rectangle object spotted Sunday afternoon that was thought to be one of the doors of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that went missing more than two days ago.
Doan Huu Gia, the chief of Vietnam's search and rescue coordination center, said Monday that four planes and seven ships from Vietnam were searching for the object but nothing had been found.
The Boeing 777 went missing early Saturday morning on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
The plane lost contact with ground controllers somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam, and searchers in a low-flying plane spotted an object that appeared to be one of the plane's doors, the state-run Thanh Nien newspaper said, citing the deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's army, Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan.
The jetliner apparently fell from the sky at cruising altitude in fine weather, and the pilots were either unable or had no time to send a distress signal, adding to the mystery over the final minutes of the flight.
There are also questions over how two passengers managed to board the ill-fated aircraft using stolen passports.
Interpol confirmed it knew about the stolen passports but said no authorities checked its vast databases on stolen documents before the Boeing jetliner departed Saturday.
Warning "only a handful of countries" routinely make such checks, Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble chided authorities for "waiting for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates."
On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
"I can confirm that we have the visuals of these two people on CCTV," Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference late Sunday, adding that the footage was being examined. "We have intelligence agencies, both local and international, on board."
The thefts of the two passports—one belonging to Austrian Christian Kozel and the other to Luigi Maraldi of Italy—were entered into Interpol's database after they were stolen in Thailand in 2012 and last year, the police body said.
Electronic booking records show that one-way tickets with those names were issued Thursday from a travel agency in the beach resort of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. A person who answered the phone at the agency said she could not comment.
But no authorities in Malaysia or elsewhere checked the passports against the database of 40 million stolen or lost travel documents before the Malaysian Airlines plane took off.
Possible causes of the crash included some sort of explosion, a catastrophic failure of the plane's engines, extreme turbulence, or pilot error or even suicide. Establishing what happened with any certainty will need data from flight recorders and a detailed examination of any debris, something that will take months if not years.
Malaysia's air force chief, Rodzali Daud, said radar indicated that before it disappeared, the plane may have turned back, but there were no further details on which direction it went or how far it veered off course.
"We are trying to make sense of this," Daud said at a news conference. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back, and in some parts this was corroborated by civilian radar."
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots are supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane does a U-turn. "From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per se, so we are equally puzzled," he said.
A total of 34 aircraft and 40 ships from Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States were deployed to the area where ground controllers lost contact with the plane on the maritime border between Malaysia and Vietnam.
Of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board, two-thirds were Chinese, while the rest were from elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America, including three Americans.
Family members of Philip Wood, a 50-year-old IBM executive who was on board the plane, said they saw him a week ago when he visited them in Texas after relocating to Kuala Lumpur from Beijing, where he had worked for two years.
The other two Americans were identified on the passenger manifest as 4-year-old Nicole Meng and 2-year-old Yan Zhang. It was not known with whom they were traveling.
After more than 30 hours without contact with the aircraft, Malaysia Airlines told family members they should "prepare themselves for the worst," Hugh Dunleavy, the commercial director for the airline, told reporters.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over a large area. If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.
A team of American experts was en route to Asia to be ready to assist in the investigation into the crash. The team includes accident investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the safety board said in a statement.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all Chinese teenagers.
Details also emerged Sunday about the itineraries of the two passengers traveling on the stolen passports.
A telephone operator on a China-based KLM hotline confirmed Sunday that passengers named Maraldi and Kozel had been booked on one-way tickets on the same KLM flight, flying from Beijing to Amsterdam on Saturday. Maraldi was to fly on to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Kozel to Frankfurt, Germany.
She said the pair booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines, but she had no information on where they bought them.
As holders of EU passports with onward flights to Europe, the passengers would not have needed visas for China.
Interpol said it and national investigators were working to determine the true identities of those who used the stolen passports to board the flight. White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the United States was looking into the stolen passports, but that investigators had reached no conclusions.
Interpol has long sounded the alarm that growing international travel has underpinned a new market for identity theft: Bogus passports are mostly used by illegal immigrants, but also pretty much anyone looking to travel unnoticed such as drug runners or terrorists. More than 1 billion times last year, travelers boarded planes without their passports being checked against Interpol's database of 40 million stolen or lost travel documents, the police agency said.
Brummitt reported from Hanoi, Vietnam. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Didi Tang, Gillian Wong and Louise Watt in Beijing; Joan Lowy in Washington; and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed this report.
The post Vietnam Says Cannot Find Object From Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 08 Mar 2014 10:42 PM PST
Last month, press freedom in Burma suffered a setback when the government detained reporters and editors from the Unity Journal, a local publication that ran a story about an alleged secret chemical weapons plant in central Burma.
Instead of disproving the claims by allowing an inspection of the site, the government moved swiftly to arrest those who produced the report and charge them under the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act. In this, it behaved very much the way the former military junta would have done, in the days before Burma's transition to quasi-civilian rule.
This move is just one of many signs that Burma's vaunted media reforms are not as promising as they may seem. Even with a loosening of restrictions, there is still an air of uncertainty about how much freedom the government is willing to tolerate.
There are also concerns about the fact that the new Burmese media landscape is far from being a level playing field. Although there are a growing number of publications in circulation in the country, many are owned by cronies of the former regime or relatives of the ex-generals who now hold power. TV and radio stations are state-run or operated under close state control by well-connected business interests.
Earlier this week, Burma's Parliament formally approved two new laws that are supposed to extend media freedom. At the same time, however, these laws leave media licensing in the hands of the Ministry of Information (MOI), which in recent weeks has shown that it is not afraid to use its powers to keep the media in check.
Since last month, the MOI has started denying three- to six-month journalist visas for foreign passport holders, including Burmese journalists with travel documents from foreign countries. At The Irrawaddy, several of our editors and reporters have been forced to leave the country to apply for shorter-term visas, with no guarantees that they would be allowed to return.
At no point did the MOI ever announce a policy change; its new rules seem to serve no other purpose than to remind media organizations of who's in charge.
In the case of The Irrawaddy, the MOI's interference has been even more blatant. Since the launch of our Burmese-language weekly at the start of the year, ministry officials have repeatedly contacted our editors in Rangoon to inform them that our name is too "colonial" for their tastes. Instead, they say, we should call ourselves "The Ayeyarwady," in keeping with official spellings of Burmese place names imposed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the then ruling junta, in 1989.
This insistence that our name is ''inappropriate''—the same name that we have used for more than 20 years and the name under which we are registered and trademarked— is absurd. If anybody in Burma has a colonial mindset, it is the country's self-appointed rulers, who have forcibly Burmanized ethnic place names, in many cases making them unrecognizable to the ethnic inhabitants of towns and villages around the country. Thus Yawnghwe (meaning "valley with abundant paddy" in the Shan language) becomes Nyaung Shwe ("golden banyan") in Burmese. (Other examples are far less poetic: "Mong, the Shan word for town, for instance, is rendered as "Mine," meaning bomb in Burmese.)
When we asked the MOI to explain its objections in writing, it offered only the confused excuse that we couldn't use "Irrawaddy" because it is the name of Burma's largest river (as if we weren't already aware of that fact). It also said that when we originally registered under "The Irrawaddy," the MOI mistakenly approved our application because it had acted in haste.
It may sound like the main problem at the MOI is incompetence, but make no mistake— some officials there know what they're doing. Even if low-level ministry apparatchiks appear to be at a complete loss to come up with convincing rationalizations for their bosses' decisions, it is perfectly clear what some higher-ups want: to send a message that they're still the ones calling the shots.
Since the launch of our weekly, we have also been contacted by the ministry about an illustration in our second issue that featured President Thein Sein—again, because it was deemed "inappropriate." After that, The Mirror, a state-run daily in which we advertise our journal's contents, said that it didn't have space to run an ad for our third issue. Interestingly, officials at the newspaper suggested that we might have better luck next time if we "toned down" some of our more politically sensitive headlines, since all advertisements must have MOI approval before they can be published.
All of this serves as a timely reminder that Burma's transition to democracy is far from complete, and may even be heading in reverse. As David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Irrawaddy: "Recent harassment of Burmese and international reporters over journalist visas marks a sinister backsliding in the much-touted media reform sector."
He added that international donors and diplomats should be paying close attention to these developments, because "freedoms of the media are a key barometer of the sincerity of Thein Sein's reforms, and the climate is decidedly cooler now. The Ministry of Information has to pull back from this spiteful harassment of journalists doing their jobs."
Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, also said that the new visa restrictions sent a troubling signal that foreign news organizations were not entirely welcome in the country and would be subject to arbitrary penalties for critical news coverage.
"It appears authorities are reverting to the previous junta's divide-and-rule tactic of rewarding news outlets that give generally favorable coverage to the government and punishing those that are more critical. We are particularly concerned that former exile-run media groups that have recently established bureaus in Burma and downsized their foreign operations are being targeted," he said recently.
Since coming to power, President Thein Sein has made a point of talking about the importance of the media as the fourth pillar of society. In practice, however, his administration has shown a reluctance to 'walk the talk,' even if it hasn't yet resorted to the same draconian measures as the previous regime to keep journalists in line. Instead, it seems to be applying more subtle forms of the psychological warfare that were the stock and trade of Burma's defunct junta.
As Burma moves closer to crucial elections next year, we expect the pressure to grow. Already, we've been warned by a source within the MOI that some senior ministry officials are unhappy with our critical reporting.
No doubt we and other media will give them even more reasons to be upset with us in the coming months. That's unfortunate, but with so much at stake, Burma's journalists have to know that at this stage, we simply can't afford to give in to officials who just want to show that when it comes to leaning on the media, they still haven't lost their touch.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 10:19 PM PST
YANGON —From early morning until dusk, people from all walks of life are heading to relax and unwind at the reinvigorated Maha Bandoola Garden park.
A peaceful green lung, the garden with its clean, freshly trimmed grass and fountain is a welcome respite from bustling street life and chaotic traffic.
The recent transformation of the garden and the re-creation of a healthy and safe public space are being celebrated daily by people who appreciate having a spot to meet, chat, rest and play. Some come to exercise, others to picnic. The air here is refreshing, thanks partly to the fountain and sprinklers.
More symbolically, it signifies the revival and reclaiming of social space.
Originally a swamp known as Tank Square, the area was cleared and laid out as a public recreation ground by the British in 1867. It was named Fytche Square after the Chief Commissioner of the British Crown Colony of Burma at the time. In 1896, a statue of Queen Victoria was erected. During WWII, the Japanese put another marker on the site.
Today, Independence Monument, a handsome white-and-gold obelisk surrounded by 10 lion statues, commemorates Myanmar's independence in 1948 from British colonial rule and takes pride of place. The garden was renamed after General Maha Bandoola, commander-in-chief of Myanmar's royal armed forces during 1821-1825 in the First Anglo-Myanmar War. Until recently, the garden was rundown and mostly off limits.
At opening time, in the cool darkness before daybreak, dramatic pink-green-blue spotlighting creates an eerie atmosphere, as if a party is just over. Eager exercisers shuffle through the gates and set about their routines to shake awake the day. It's all freestyle here. Walkers do laps in both directions. Fan dancers flap and snap their way towards the light. T'ai chi practitioners grasp invisible balls of energy; yogis perform salutes to the sun. Qigong groups and step-up brigades find corners to set up screechy sound systems; an almighty dawn chorus jam session proceeds.
Florence, a dressmaker who lives on 39th St, says she comes most days between 6-7 am, for health. "Before this, I had to walk the streets to do my exercise. Around April 2013 they stopped charging. If they don't charge, everyone can come. Now some people come every day.''
U Sein Maung Oo, a retired sergeant major who is now a business lawyer, on his shortcut walk through the park explained, "The government announced to the world they are changing and having democracy. This park is for the people but in the past nobody came because they used to have to pay 20 kyat. Now the government doesn't tax, everybody can come. These people, they are taking exercise happily."
Since Maha Bandoola Garden's entrance fee was dropped last year, more people have been able to experience these simple pleasures. Other parks like Kandawgyi Karaweik Garden still charge entry fees up to 300 kyat.
Park refurbishment has included repairing benches and moving vendors outside. Large palm trees were unfortunately replaced with decorative pom-pom poodle trees, offering little shade. Beds of yellow daisies are framed with hedged paths. There's not a weed nor a piece of litter in sight, possibly due to the keen rubbish collector striding around clicking his tongs. But his bag is quite empty. People seem to realize and respect that this shared place comes with a responsibility to take care of it, not to trash it. Park regulations forbid betel, spitting, pets and picking flowers.
The view from this precious half acre beside Sule Pagoda which sits at the core of the street grid laid out by colonial city planners, is framed by striking architecture reflecting the city's cosmopolitan multi-faith character. Next to Sule Pagoda is Sunni Jamah Bengali Mosque, with Emmanuel Baptist Church nearby. The High Court and City Hall give an air of municipal and judicial authority to the landscape. The former Rowe & Co Department store currently under renovation adds a consumerist dimension to the rich architectural tale. It's so photogenic that everyone is taking pictures of each other and of course "selfies", against the striking background.
Come 4 pm, toddlers rule at the playground. Every swing, slide and bit of the new colorful climbing apparatus, complete with "fall-safe" ground cover, is in good use. Office workers arrive, as do courting couples. A guitar plays. There's hardly a better place to be as golden Sule catches the last of the day's rays.
It's a pleasing thought that the rest of Yangon might take a lead from this well-nurtured piece of ground and the way it has been prepared and maintained. It's a glimpse of what can be, offering insight into potential that could be realized in other areas of the city.
This story first appeared in the March 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 10:11 PM PST
There is a reason why peace talks between the government and Myanmar's ethnic resistance armies are not going anywhere: The two sides are fundamentally at odds over what they hope to achieve.
What the government wants is a "nationwide ceasefire" first, after which it will be up to the individual groups to convert their respective organizations into political parties, contest elections and then, if elected, discuss political issues in Parliament.
The non-Bamar ethnic groups, for their part, want a political dialogue to begin before they sign any nationwide ceasefire agreement. Even more importantly, they see the peace process as the first step towards re-establishing the federal structure Myanmar had before the military seized power in 1962 and abolished the 1947 Constitution.
However, the military—which stands behind the government—sees federalism as a first step toward disintegration of the country, and, therefore, unacceptable. Certain political issues can be discussed in Parliament, but "non-disintegration" of the country is one of six basic principles enshrined in the 2008 Constitution.
On the other hand, the ethnic resistance groups have not articulated their demand for federalism either. What kind of federal union would they want Myanmar to be? How should power be divided between the states and the central government? And what exactly is the "federal army" some of the groups have begun talking about? Unless those issues have been made clear, there is little or no hope of the military changing its mind about federalism.
Many models have been mentioned: the United States, Canada, Germany, and even multi-ethnic Malaysia. The United States has a federal system, but it is not based on ethnicity, which is what Myanmar's ethnic groups are demanding. There is no Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Polish, Mexican, Chinese or Italian state in the US. The states there are purely geographical entities where a multitude of different peoples live.
Canada has a province with a French-speaking majority, Quebec, and the country has two official languages, English and French. In 1999, the predominantly Inuit-speaking parts of the Northwest Territories became a new territory, Nunavut, and there are other autonomous areas in Canada. But, by and large, Canada, like the US, is a country made up of various groups of immigrants and it is not a federal state based on ethnicity.
Malaysia is multi-ethnic, but there is no Malay, Chinese or Indian state in that federation. Malaysia's federalism is based on the traditional Malay sultanates and some former British colonies and protectorates. But there are different ethnic groups living in all 13 Malaysian states. This is similar to the Federal Republic of Germany, which is made up of old kingdoms and principalities that were united in the late 19th century, except that the resulting nation-state was, and still is, overwhelmingly German in its ethnic composition.
There are, in fact, very few federations that are—or rather were—based along ethnic or linguistic lines. One was the former Soviet Union, which was dissolved in 1991. Another was Yugoslavia, which fell apart in the 1990s following bitter wars between the country's different ethnic groups. A third would be Belgium, which has only two major ethnic groups—the Dutch-speaking Flemish people and the French-speaking people of Wallonia—and a smaller German-speaking community in the east. But even with such few ethnic groups, Belgium has had immense problems maintaining its unity, let alone forming functioning central governments.
So are there any successful models Myanmar could follow? There seems to be only one: India. India has 28 states and seven union territories, and although the Indian constitution does not mention "federation" or "federalism," the basic structure of the country is federal. India's constitution has three lists that empower the union and the states to legislate on various matters. For instance, each state has an elected legislative assembly, its own official language and its own police force. But defense is the responsibility of the central government. India has ethnic units in its armed forces, but it is not a "federal army"; it is all under central command. Any other model would be unworkable. The third list contains issues where both the union and the various states can legislate. It is a fine balance, but despite all India's internal ethnic conflicts, it is working. Unlike the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, India has not fallen apart, nor is at as dysfunctional as Belgium.
But if Myanmar is going to follow the Indian model, be prepared for all the problems that would entail. There is not a single state or region in Myanmar that has only one ethnic group. There are frictions between Shans and Kachins in Kachin as well as Shan State; the Pa-O rebellion in Myanmar broke out in the 1950s, not against the central government but the dominance of the Shan sawbwas. The United Wa State Army, which is active in northeastern and eastern Shan State, wants a separate state for its people. And while there is a Mon State, the Mon people are perhaps the most assimilated of Myanmar's many ethnic groups.
Myanmar's 1947 Constitution, its first, could serve as a basis for discussion, but little more. Its most controversial clause is in Chapter X: The Right of Secession, which said that "every State shall have the right to secede from the Union" after 10 years of independence from British colonial rule. But other clauses stipulate that this right does not apply to Kayin or Kachin states, so it was only Shan State and Kayah State that could, at least in theory, secede from the Union. In any case, the clause was not meant to be exercised, but was put there to make the then proposed Union of Myanmar more palatable for the non-Bamar peoples to join. The Mon, Chin and Rakhine states were not established until 1974, and therefore not covered by the 1947 Constitution.
Nor did the new constitution that was adopted in 1974 have any provisions for federalism or regional autonomy—all that had disappeared after the 1962 military takeover. The 2008 Constitution is not federal in nature either. There is no difference between the states and the regions, and regional and state hluttaws do not have nearly as much power as, for instance, India's state legislatures or those of non-ethnic federations such as the United States or Canada.
So what could a federal Myanmar look like? When the government embarked on its peace plan in 2009, the ethnic resistance armies were invited to become "border guard forces"—but that was a very ill-conceived idea. Border security in nearly all countries is the responsibility of the central government. In India's northeastern states, adjacent to Myanmar, border security is in the hands of the paramilitary Assam Rifles, which is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. There are also other centrally controlled border guard forces, and sometimes local police may assist but not be responsible for border security.
On the other hand, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and other Indian states have their own armed police forces that are under the command of their respective state governments. If that system was adopted, the Kachin Independence Army or the Shan State Army could be absorbed into a Kachin State or Shan State Armed Police Force, but not into locally commanded "border guard forces," which could easily degenerate into bands of border bandits and smugglers.
The Myanmar government and the country's armed resistance groups need to find a model that works, and the most viable solution would be to study the Indian model. It is also important to remember that when the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins signed the Panglong Agreement with U Aung San on Feb. 12, 1947, it was clearly stated that "full autonomy in internal administration is accepted in principle." That was the principle upon which an independent Myanmar was founded, and it is still the only solution that would satisfy the aspirations of the country's non-Bamar ethnic groups.
Bertil Lintner is a journalist and author of numerous books on Myanmar and Asia.
This story first appeared in the March 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 10:00 PM PST
PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia — A Malaysian court convicted opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of sodomy and sentenced him to five years in prison on Friday, shattering his plan to take control of the country’s richest state and stoking political tension in the Southeast Asian nation following a divisive national election last year.
Three judges at the Court of Appeal unanimously voted to overturn Anwar’s acquittal two years ago in a rapid ruling that his supporters and international human rights groups say was politically influenced and aimed at ending his career.
The former deputy prime minister, who was previously jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges, will not be jailed immediately as his lawyers won a stay of the sentence pending an appeal.
But the ruling bars Anwar from running for a seat in the state assembly of Selangor this month, a move that would likely have paved the way for him to become chief minister of Malaysia’s most populous state – a potent platform from which to attack the government ahead of the next national election.
If Anwar, 66, loses his federal court appeal, he would face jail and would be barred from contesting the next national election that must be held by 2018.
"It’s (happening) all over again after 15 years," Anwar, who was sacked as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998 and convicted a year later, told reporters.
"This is a travesty of justice. This has been choreographed," he added, saying the government had underestimated "the wrath of the people".
A government spokesman said that Malaysia had an "independent judiciary".
"This is a case between two individuals and is a matter for the courts, not the government," the spokesman said.
Before his fall from grace, Anwar was Malaysia’s political star, heir-apparent to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as leader of the long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
His sacking, following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, came after he campaigned against corruption and nepotism in politics and led a nationwide "reformasi" (reform) movement.
His sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004 and he returned to politics as the head of a revitalized opposition whose strong showing in 2008′s elections deprived the ruling National Front of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament.
The charismatic Anwar remains a potent threat to the coalition led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose majority was cut further in an election last May that deepened racial divisions in the multi-ethnic country and which the opposition claimed was tainted by cheating. The opposition won the popular vote for the first time on its promises of greater transparency and change after 56 years of UMNO-dominated rule.
'A Dark Day' for Judiciary
The result has empowered ethnic Malay nationalists within UMNO, forcing Najib to row back on his liberal reform agenda and stoking racial and religious tensions.
Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said ruling party leaders had likely been shaken by the prospect of Anwar at the helm of Selangor.
As chief minister of the state, Anwar "would be able to play a real Malay leader and not just a politician who just promises things and is a wonderful demagogue", Ooi said.
But he said the government could face a backlash from voters over the ruling, as opposition supporters are galvanized by what they see as blatant political maneuvering by the government.
Human Rights Watch had called the case "politically motivated persecution" and said the government wanted to remove Anwar from the political scene "by hook or by crook".
"It’s truly a dark day for the Malaysia judiciary which has shown itself incapable of standing up straight when national political issues are in play in cases before them," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia head of Human Rights Watch, said after the verdict.
About 40 Anwar supporters shouted "Reform" and "Free Anwar" outside the court in the administrative capital Putrajaya where riot police were stationed in full gear. Malaysia’s chief of police warned of stern action against anyone planning to protest against the verdict.
Anwar’s defense has been dealt a series of setbacks in recent weeks. It failed in three attempts to disqualify the lead prosecutor, Shafee Abdullah, arguing that the lawyer’s strong links to UMNO would hurt the chances of a fair trial.
Much of the case arguments over the two-day trial revolved around the integrity of DNA samples that the prosecution said proved Anwar had sodomised his aide at an apartment in the capital Kuala Lumpur. The defense had argued that the court could not find Anwar guilty due to substantial evidence that the semen samples had been degraded or tampered with.
One of the judges said that the judge in the case two years ago had "misdirected" himself on the integrity of the samples.
"Such failure merits an intervention," said justice Balia Yusof Wahi.
The post Malaysia’s Anwar Convicted of Sodomy, Political Future in Doubt appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 09:47 PM PST
Onshore Shale Oil, Gas Exploration 'Next on Govt License Agenda'
Plans by Burma's Ministry of Energy to offer more oil and gas licenses this year might include so-called unconventional resources—hydrocarbons locked in rock.
"[Burma] plans to launch an international onshore licensing round this year that for the first time could include acreage being offered for unconventional exploration," said the industry newspaper Upstream.
It is thought that 10 or more new blocks will be put up for auction this year, probably after the award of licenses on the 30 offshore blocks for which bids by mostly foreign firms have already been made.
Unconventional exploration includes the process known as fracking, injecting water and chemicals under high pressure into shale rock to release natural gas locked inside.
However, the process requires specialized equipment and skills which only a small number of companies have.
It is unclear how much unconventional hydrocarbon reserves Burma has. Earlier industry reports have identified an area of Karen State around Mapale as being part of the Mae Sot shale oil basin which extends across the border into Thailand.
World Bank Agency to Buy Stake in Rangoon's Electricity Supply Board
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) is buying a stake in Rangoon's Electricity Supply Board as part of a plan to help make it a more efficient business.
The board is owned by the Naypyidaw government but is "inefficiently run with system losses that run as high as 27 percent," said the Wall Street Journal quoting IFC vice president for Asia-Pacific Karin Finkelston.
Aging generating and distribution equipment is blamed for the high wastage of electricity in a city desperate for more energy as it expands, said Finkelston.
The IFC, part of the World Bank Group, will help turn the Rangoon board into a corporate entity and to take an equity stake, the Journal said, although it has not been disclosed how much money will be invested.
"A big part of our goal is to bring in private sector partners," Finkelston was quoted by the Journal saying.
Last January the IFC said it was working with the Burmese government "to establish a strategy that will promote investment in the power industry."
"Blackouts remain common and the lack of infrastructure is commonly cited as a major impediment to business," the Journal said.
Working Conditions in Burma Much Improved but 'Still an Investor Risk'
Labor laws and protection in Burma have improved significantly since 2011 but the country still presents serious workforce problems for foreign investors, a new assessment said.
"Notwithstanding the historical significance of the political and legal reforms, [Burma] continues to pose some of the highest labor risks in the world," said a labor standards report by Maplecroft, the British business risk assessors.
"As a result of incredibly poor working conditions, severe deficiencies in workplace inspections, and high rates of forced and child labor, risks abound for investors," the report said.
Allied to this warning, a separate study by Maplecroft on risks in general in Burma notes: "Businesses will need to monitor operations, work conditions and sub-contractors closely in order to effectively mitigate reputational and operational risks originating with the practices of military-owned entities."
But, more encouragingly, it adds: "Meanwhile, [Burma's] sizeable workforce and relatively cheap labor rates are likely to be tapped by manufacturing and consumer goods companies in the coming years."
Naypyidaw's Best Energy Bet Is Hydro Dams, Says Swedish Study
Plans are on the table to build 45 new hydroelectric dams on Burma's rivers, but much of the electricity generated would be cabled out of the country into either China or Thailand, a study by the Institute for Security and Development Policy found.
The Swedish institute said hydropower offered Burma the best opportunity for overcoming its chronic electricity shortage which it said is undermining economic expansion in many areas.
It suggests that hydropower plant development is likely to have the "fastest annual growth rate of all energy sectors" in Burma over the next 20 years, but it will be important to retain as much electricity as possible for domestic use and to reach mutually satisfactory agreements with minority ethnic groups in construction areas.
"The development of hydropower dams should focus on scientific and environmental assessments and community and regional engagement during the planning stages," the institute study said. "The harnessing of [Burma's] hydropower potential can and should be looked at as an opportunity for Naypyidaw and traditionally opposed ethnic groups to work together for mutual benefit."
Poor Electricity Supply 'Will Limit Growth in Health Industry'
Government plans to expand Burma's healthcare system by attracting foreign investment will be limited by electricity supply, a study said.
"It will be challenging for the country to push forward with its plans if there are no significant improvements in other areas, such as infrastructure and utilities," Business Monitor International (BMI) said in an analysis of Burma's health sector prospects for investors.
"The country has the second-lowest electrification rate in Asia after Cambodia, and is suffering from a deficit in power generation and grid capacity, threatening hospital operations."
Uncertainties over regulations are also holding back investment in health, it said. "According to Chatree Duangnet, chief operating officer of Thailand-based Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, [Burma] is perceived as the firm’s ‘first priority for foreign investment’, but the firm is waiting for clearer investment laws from the government.
"With the general election due in 2015, we highlight that such uncertainties may persist until after the election," said London-based BMI.
Two Singapore-based companies, AsiaMedic and Parkway Hospital, signed provisional agreements during 2013 to invest in Burma.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 05:19 AM PST
RANGOON — Burma President Thein Sein has ordered a new commission and the country's highest court to draft a proposed so-called "protection of race and religion" law, which could include a controversial measure to restrict interfaith marriage, according to lawmakers.
A petition signed by about 1.3 million people has called for the president to pass into law a version of a bill drafted by lawyers on behalf of leading monks in the nationalist 969 movement.
If enacted without amendment, the bill—which is thought to be targeted at Muslims in Burma—would require Buddhist women to get permission from their parents and local government officials before marrying a man from another faith. It also includes restrictions on converting to another religion, a limit to the number of children people can have, and measures to stop polygamy—which is already strictly illegal in Burma.
Late last month Thein Sein, without formally expressing support for the bill, forwarded it to Parliament for discussion, but Speaker Shwe Mann immediately sent it back, insisting that it was the executive branch's responsibility to draft laws, then pass them to Parliament to debate.
On Friday, Shwe Mann announced in Parliament that he had received a new letter regarding the bill, according to Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.
"He [Thein Sein] informed Parliament that his government will form a commission to draft a [protection of race and religion] law," he said.
However, in a move that baffled lawmakers, Thein Sein has reported decided that sections of the law covering certain issues would be drafted by the Union Supreme Court.
"His commission will take two issues: that one man is only able to have one wife and converting to another religion. The other two issues— interfaith marriage and restricting population—he will let the Union [Supreme] Court draft," Pe Than said.
He said the move to have a branch of the judiciary draft a law was unprecedented, and that he did not understand why the president has chosen to do so.
Pe Than said that the law would address the fear among many Burmese Buddhists that the country's dominant religion is under threat from Muslims. Tension between Buddhists and Muslims has run high since inter-communal violence broke out in Rakhine State in mid-2012, and later spread around the country.
"For me, I will not block this law as we all need to protect our race," he said. "But one thing about protection of race is that while we need to protect our fence, we should not disturb other people's fence."
Mi Myint Than, lawmaker from the Mon Regional Democracy Party, confirmed the president's decision.
"Usually, most draft laws come from the government administration. But on this issue, the president just sent it to the Parliament [originally]," she said, adding that it was more appropriate for a government ministry to draft the law.
"It's a little strange. I can't understand why," she added.
Presidential spokesman Ye Htut last week commented on the earlier forwarding of the proposal to Parliament. On the sidelines of a meeting in Naypyidaw on March 1, Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy that the president's wish in doing so was for Parliament to consider the issue, since so many people had expressed support for it, and not to make any political gain.
"According to our Constitution, no one from any political party can take political advantage from a religious issue," he said.
The post Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court to Draft 'Protection of Religion' Law appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 05:06 AM PST
RANGOON — Over 10,000 local companies have been called out for failing to pay taxes to the Burma government during the 2012-13 fiscal year.
The Internal Revenue Department (IRD) on Thursday released a notice on its website listing 10,670 companies that are required to contact the department by March 20 because they did not pay taxes in the last fiscal year, which ended in March 2013, and have not been in touch since then.
It remains unclear whether these companies are still operational, according to Tin Htun Oo, director of IRD, who said many of them had not paid taxes in several years.
"Most companies have had no connection with our department for four or five years, so we want to know clearly which companies have stopped their businesses, and also which companies are newly founded and have not started operating yet. Companies that do not contact the department by March 20 will be considered abolished," he told The Irrawaddy on Friday, adding that any company found to be operational would be forced to pay its overdue taxes.
Tax evasion is a major problem in Burma. Even more than 10,670 companies did not pay their dues for the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the IRD director, but the others contacted the department over the past year, after receiving reminder letters to pay immediately.
"If taxpayers evade their dues, the government can't operate its necessary public works," he said, adding that a majority of operational companies did pay their taxes.
The IRD formed in 1972 and falls under the Ministry of Finance. It currently collects four types of taxes and duties: income taxes, commercial taxes, stamp duties and state lottery taxes.
A separate list of 100 companies that paid the most in commercial and income taxes for the 2012-13 fiscal year showed that tobacco and alcohol companies, along with a mix of other businesses in a range of industries from mining to tourism and banking, were among the biggest taxpayers. Relatively small companies were the most heavily taxed, while huge conglomerations bore a lesser tax burden.
The current fiscal year for 2013-14 ends at the end of this month.
The post Over 10,000 Companies Called Out for Evading Tax Collectors appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 04:54 AM PST
RANGOON — With the planned Burmese-language translation of a comprehensive portrayal of the personal life of Burma's last royal family, the Burmese will soon have a chance to learn more about King Thibaw and other royals after their exile to India.
Published in 2012 and originally written in English by Sudha Shah, The King in Exile is a non-fiction account of the lives of King Thibaw, the last monarch of Mandalay, and his family, which will now be translated into Burmese, according to the book's Burmese publisher Our Publishing House.
San Mon Aung of Our Publishing House told The Irrawaddy that he received permission from the author last month to publish a translation.
He said the new translation would benefit the majority of the Burmese readership who are not able to read in English, and help them learn more about King Thibaw and his family, especially their lives in exile.
"Sudha Shah embarked on an extensive research for the book. So, the translation could provide our readers a window into the struggle of the Burmese royal family," he said.
Known as the last royal family of Burma, King Thibaw, his wife Queen Supayalat and their family were brought to Ratnagiri in India in the wake of the Third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, which resulted in the British completing their occupation of Burma.
The King in Exile tells the story of how an all-powerful and very wealthy family coped with forced isolation and separation from all that it had once known and cherished; and how the exile continued to echo in the life of the family in a myriad ways well after it ended.
Sudha Shah said her publisher already signed agreements for translations of his book into Marathi and Thai languages, both of which are expected to be published in the first half of this year, adding that she looked forward to the release of the Burmese translation.
The author told the Irrawaddy, "I very much hope that [Burmese readers] will find the book interesting and that they are as moved as I was by the story of the Burmese royal family."
"I would like for my book to be translated into Burmese so that the people who can’t read English, but are interested in the true story of their last king and his family, can read about it," she added.
Shah spent seven years conducting historical research for the book. She made several trips to relevant cities—Ratnagiri and Kolkata in India, as well as Rangoon, Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) and Mandalay in Burma—where the royal family and their descendants spent various parts of their lives.
She also conducted interviews with the royal family's descendants, as well as carrying out research at the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, National Archives of India in New Delhi, National Archives in Rangoon and the British and School of Oriental and African Studies libraries in London.
The translator of the King in Exile, Win Nyein, said he has so far translated three chapters, and hopes he could finish the work this year.
"I myself really like the book, and you could find some facts in the book that most of the Burmese rarely know about how the royal family coped with their lives in exile," said Win Nyein, who is also the editor-in-chief of Shwe Amyutay magazine and The Ray of Light weekly.
Devi Thant Cin, one of the great granddaughters of King Thibaw, said Sudha Shah's book is different from some other books about Burmese royal family.
"Most of the books focus on the end of Konbaung dynasty and King Thibaw but the King in Exile discloses the real lives of the family after their fall from grace that came from several years of research and interviews with family members," said she.
"What the royal family had undergone during those years is history. [With the Burmese translation] the Burmese readers would have a glimpse of reality they faced."
Posted: 07 Mar 2014 04:25 AM PST
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