- Irrawaddy Division Residents Concerned After Officials Discuss Coal Plant
- Second Bomb Found in Thai-Burma Border Town
- Beach Town Residents Reject Mangrove Deforestation Plan
- Timber Elephant Camp Falls Quiet, Sets Hopes on Tourism
- 2 British Tourists Found Dead on Beach in Thailand
- Ghosts of Ethnic Conflicts Past Haunt Fiji Vote
- India Tightens Vietnam Defense, Oil Ties Ahead of China Xi’s Visit
- Building an Egalitarian Economy in Myanmar
Posted: 16 Sep 2014 07:29 AM PDT
NGA YOKE KAUNG TOWNSHIP —Irrawaddy Division officials and a Burmese construction company met with residents of villages in Nga Yoke Kaung Township last weekend to inform of them of a plan to build a 300-megawatt coal-firedpower plant in the coastal region.
They ensured the local population that they would not be negatively affected by the environmental impacts of the proposed plant, which they said would be funded by Japanese firms and overseas development bank loans.
"We guarantee 100 percent that the power plant that we are building together with a Japanese company doesn't cause any harm to people, animals andenvironment, as it utilizes advanced technologies,"said Yan Win,chairman of A1 Group of Companies, a Burmese conglomerate.
"We have studied coal-fired power plants in Japan and found that they
Irrawaddy Division's Electricity and Industry Minister Saw Mya Thein said local residents would benefit from the project as it would provide electricity for the roughly 35,000 people in Nga Yoke Kaung Sub-township, adding that it would also provide much-needed power to Maubin, Myaungmya and Pathein industrial zones, and millions of villagers in Irrawaddy Delta.
The announcements by the businessman and senior Irrawaddy Division officials were met with skepticism by local villagers and activists, however.
"Can they guarantee that it is not harmfulto people and environment? Because we won't be able ask them to closedown the power plant after it is built and we find that it is hazardous to our health," said Aung Than, a resident of Kywegyaing village who attended the meeting.
"The major problem is that we dare not trust them. That's why we do
Myint Aung, an activist of the environmental group BeautifulLand, said he believed that the coal plant would have a heavy environmental impact on the coastal region.
"No matter what technology is used,coal does produce arsenic and mercury when burned. Therefore, the placeis bound to suffer sooner or later," he said. "If there are 50 arsenic particles in one million particles of water,one in 100 people who drink that water can get cancer," Myint Aung claimed.
Large investment projects in Burma are regularly accompanied by heavy social and environmental impacts on local communities, such asforced land confiscation without fair compensation. Authorities often side with the well-connected companies in any disputes that arise from suchproject impacts.
A1 Company Chairman Yan Win said the coal plant would be part of a deep sea port located in Nga Yoke Kaung Bay, adding that the plant would be built by a joint venture involving the Ministry of Electrical Power, A1 Company and a consortium of Japanese firms.
Yan Win said his company had yet to choose a site for the plant, adding that this would be done after social and environmental impact assessment for the project were completed in consultation with local communities. He said farmers would receive fair compensation in case of any land confiscation.
It is unclear whether work has started on social and environmental impact assessments for the project.
Between 100 and 200 acres of land are reportedly required for the plant's construction and local residents said they feared that their farmlands would be forcibly confiscated.
Yan Win claimed that financing for the project would be provided by A1 Company and the Japanese firms, adding that the latter would take out loansfrom the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
The meeting on Saturday provided scant detail about the unnamedJapanese firms involved. A search on the websites of the international development banks found no reference to the coal plant project in Nga Yoke Kaung Township.
Last year, media reports said that Singaporean consultant Super Axis Development Pte Ltd had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government to conduct a feasibility study for the Nga Yoke Kaung deep sea port. The study would reportedly include assessments of the environmental, social and economic impacts of the project.
Burma's reformist government has been keen to attract foreign investment to set up large industrial zones, such as deep sea ports and special economic zones (SEZ), in order to boost the country's economic growth. Italso wants to build hydropower dams andcoal- and gas-fired power plants in order to meet Burma's fast-growing energy needs.
However, many of the high-profile mega-projects, such as the Thailand-backed Dawei SEZ in Tenasserim Division or Japan's Thilawa SEZ near Rangoon, have been dogged by complaints of land-grabbing or have suffered from a lack of foreign funding.
The post Irrawaddy Division Residents Concerned After Officials Discuss Coal Plant appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 16 Sep 2014 07:23 AM PDT
RANGOON — Two bombs in two days have been discovered in eastern Burma's Myawaddy Township, with the second explosive device uncovered on Tuesday morning in the busy trading hub on the Thai-Burma border.
Maung San, a police officer in Myawaddy, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that township authorities had bolstered security following the discovery of the two bombs.
"We have deployed more security forces. We also have plainclothes security forces deployed in the town," Maung San said. "They are on duty all day and night to find the perpetrators. We have opened a case at the court already, but we have not been able to arrest any perpetrators yet."
"All people were scare of it when they found the bomb," said a lawyer who works near the courthouse where the bomb was discovered. "They put the bomb in a small cart and it was in a public place. Obviously, they wanted to threaten the people by doing it."
A reporter from The Irrawaddy based in Myawaddy said that second bomb was found at about 7 a.m. on Tuesday.
"Many people were panicked when they found it. But the situation is now stable, and all border trade continues to cross as normal," he said by phone.
He said the first bomb was discovered on Monday near the main Friendship Bridge linking Thailand and Burma, and was defused by the Burmese Army.
The bomb scares come amid increasing border tension between an ethnic Karen armed group and Thai border authorities, according to sources on the border. However, no one from any of the armed groups based in the town has claimed responsibility for the explosive devices.
The Karen National Union (KNU), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and a splinter group of the KNU—the KNU/Karen National Liberation Army-Peace Council (KNU/KNLA-PC)—all have a presence in Myawaddy.
The KNU/KNLA-PC has accused Thai border authorities of mistreating and extorting Burmese migrant workers, citing the daily bribes that migrants crossing the border to work in Mae Sot are forced to pay as an example.
The group has asked Thailand to respect the rights of migrants, most of whom are ethnic Burman and Karen. Last week, the KNU/KNLA-PC temporarily blocked 30 trucks that were attempting to transport Thai goods across the border in a show of force meant to draw the attention of Thai authorities to the issue.
The group has called on both the Burmese and Thai governments to meet with them to address migrant workers' mistreatment, but so far those calls have been met with silence.
The Karen rebels have threatened to stage another blockade if they are not granted the requested tripartite meeting.
"They [Thai authorities] don't respect our country and our citizens and therefore we need not respect them. We are humans and so are they. Our citizens are much degraded in Thailand and our government officials are just standing by and watching them suffer," said Col. Tiger of the KNU/KNLA-PC.
Posted: 16 Sep 2014 07:16 AM PDT
RANGOON — Villagers from Chaung Tha in Irrawaddy Division have rejected a planned land reclamation project that would see mangrove forests cleared to make way for housing plots in the beachside village.
Locals say the mangroves have protected them from natural disasters, including when Cyclone Marlar hit the area in 2006. The targeted mangrove forest is located inland from Chaung Tha's main stretch of beach, which is the site of a designated hotel zone.
Despite the objections, a company called Sunlight appears to be moving forward with the project, and has already begun cutting down mangroves on two-and-a-half acres slated for reclamation. The land filling itself is due to start at the end of the month, with developers planning to eventually sell residential plots measuring 40-by-60 feet on the reclaimed land.
If the mangroves are cleared, local residents are afraid that erosion in the village will accelerate due to a twice-daily tidal ebb and flow.
Last year, Sunlight sought to build a housing project on about 15 acres of land in eastern Chaung Tha, at the base of Daw Na Mountain. Villagers also rejected that proposal and the project is currently on hold, according to Aye Hlaing, the National League for Democracy's community chairman from Chaung Tha.
Locals say they do not oppose the projects in principle, but fear their potentially negative long-term impacts.
"We don't want the environment to be damaged," Aye Hlaing told The Irrawaddy. "Chaung Tha experiences the sea tide, in and out. The water reaches to the current land-filling place. The waters stay about six hours per tide.
"The water will come into the village when the mangroves are gone," he added. "The village has lowland areas. The roads will be damaged."
Ownership of the mangrove forest is split between local villagers and Burma's Ministry of Forestry. Nipa palm trees are cultivated in the area, and some locals catch fish and crabs in the watery lowlands.
Hin Bi, the owner of Sunlight, told The Irrawaddy that the development plans would be a net positive for the community.
"The region's value will increase and will develop after the project as people will buy the land and build houses," he said.
Maung Maung Than, the Burma project coordinator from the Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC), said the integrity of Chaung Tha's coastline could be at stake if the plan proceeds.
"An acre or two of [mangrove forest] can have a lot of impact," said Maung Maung Than, whose RECOFTC is an international environmental NGO.
"The disappearance of mangrove forests can reduce protection from natural disasters like the Marlar storm for villagers—3,000 to 4,000 households," said Maung Pu, a Chaung Tha villager, acknowledging that Sunlight's plans would likely lead to a significant rise in property prices.
"The price of land, if it's worth about 25 lakh [US$2,580], will rise to up to 100 lakh after the land is filled," said Maung Pu, who is also an information and communications officer for the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.
The post Beach Town Residents Reject Mangrove Deforestation Plan appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 16 Sep 2014 07:03 AM PDT
TAIK GYI, Rangoon Division — Nestled at the foot of Pegu Yoma mountain range in the northwestern part of Rangoon Division, Myaing Hay Wun used to be a camp for timber elephants.
But after the government banned the export of logs in April, much of Burma's timber business has been forced to change its production methods, causing a sharp decline in timber trade and leaving elephants like those at Myaing Hay Wun without work.
The ban is part of a government effort to reduce deforestation and the outflow of unprocessed timber; now only sawn wood can be exported.
In an ironic twist, the elephants who once lived in the jungles, have become victims of efforts to save Burma's dwindling forests and put its timber industry on a more sustainable and profitable footing.
Across Burma, thousands of elephants—by some estimates as many as 5,000—have been employed in the timber industry since British colonial times to extract logged trees from the forest. State-controlled agency the Myanmar Timber Enterprise is believed to employ about half of all timber elephants.
In the logging camps, the handlers, called oozies, live together with their elephants in the forest, washing them in the river and relying on the surrounding jungles for food and medicine for the pachyderms.
At Myaing Hay Wun, a 10-acre camp of the Myanmar Timber Enterprise located some 120 km north of Rangoon, plans are now under way to turn it into a tourist attraction. It is one of 21 elephant logging camps that were recommended for such a transformation by the Ministry of Forestry last year.
So far, Burma has one government-run elephant camp that has been turned into a tourist site, at Pho Kya in Yedashway Township in Pegu division, while Green Hill Valley in Kalaw, Shan state, is a privately-owned camp that was successfully turned into a tourist attraction.
Aung Chient, a forester at Myaing Hay Wun camp, said the government issued an order earlier this year instructing him to prepare the camp for tourist visitors in order to create jobs for both people and animals.
"If the elephants are unemployed for some time, they tend to get wild," said Aung Chient. "Plus, we need jobs for people here too. If not, the camp will be reclaimed by the forest."
The post Timber Elephant Camp Falls Quiet, Sets Hopes on Tourism appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 15 Sep 2014 11:13 PM PDT
BANGKOK — Two British tourists were found battered to death Monday on a beach on a scenic island in southern Thailand that is one of the country's most popular diving destinations.
Police described the two as a 23-year-old woman from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, and a 24-year-old man from Jersey, Channel Islands. Their nearly naked bodies were discovered on Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand.
A bloodied hoe was found near the bodies and is believed to have been used as the murder weapon, police Col. Prachum Ruangthong said.
"The man was chopped in the back and on the side of his head, while the woman was chopped in her face," he said. "It's very gruesome."
An initial investigation found that the two had traveled separately to Koh Tao, where they met while staying at the same seaside hotel, police Maj. Gen. Kiattipong Khawsamang said.
"They went out to a bar and left together after 1 a.m., according to closed circuit TV camera footage," he said.
Police said they had no immediate suspects and were checking more camera footage in search of the attacker.
"We don't know who the suspect might be yet but we have talked to different witnesses who might lead us to some clues," Kiattipong said. He said the woman was traveling with three other friends.
Local media reported that outraged residents of the island, which is home to about 2,000 people and survives on tourism, had blockaded its piers to help police prevent the killer from escaping.
The attack came amid government efforts to revive Thailand's tourism industry after a military coup in May ended prolonged, sometimes violent political protests. Martial law remains in effect.
Koh Tao, an island in Surat Thani province, is a quieter destination than the neighboring islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, where "full moon" parties attract travelers from Thailand and abroad. It is 410 kilometers (250 miles) south of Bangkok.
The post 2 British Tourists Found Dead on Beach in Thailand appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 15 Sep 2014 10:30 PM PDT
SYDNEY/SUVA — When voters in Fiji head to the polls on Wednesday for the first time in eight years, they will be voting not only for a leader, but also testing the success of one of their military junta’s key justifications: ending a history of ethnic conflict.
Fiji, a chain of more than 300 tropical islands in the South Pacific, has suffered four coups since 1987, the latest in 2006 led by former army chief Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, whose Fiji First Party has a strong lead heading into the general election.
Bainimarama seized on a long-simmering rivalry between indigenous Fijian nationalists and the descendants of ethnic Indian laborers, brought by the British to work sugarcane fields, to justify his coup.
In 2000, ethnic Fijian nationalists held the country’s first Indo-Fijian prime minister hostage in Parliament for 56 days, which led to riots in the streets of the capital, Suva.
Bainimarama quickly abolished traditional, rival power bases such as the ethnic Fijian Great Council of Chiefs while steadily pushing for equal rights culminating in a 2013 constitution, helping him to consolidate his popularity amongst Indo-Fijians.
But while new laws mean equality has improved on the surface, in reality, the animosity festers under the surface, said Professor Brij Lal, an expert on Fiji at the Australian National University.
"Decreeing that political parties ought to have multi-racial membership is one thing, but the reality on the ground, as everyone will tell you, is that ethnic relations are much more fraught now than before," he told Reuters.
Of paramount importance was the instability inherent in dictating equality by fiat, whether or not one believed that Bainimarama embraced multi-ethnic policies out of genuine belief or political expediency, he said.
"The question that you have to ask is: how widely is that view shared by members of his own party? Does the military share that view, which is 99 percent ethnic Fijian?"
"So how genuine is this transformation, if there is one?"
Ethnic Indians make up about 40 percent of the population of about 900,000. Indigenous Fijians fear political domination by the minority ethnic Indians who dominate the sugar- and tourism-based economy.
The Exception Is the Rule
Fiji’s much-delayed vote is being closely watched by neighbors Australia and New Zealand, the region’s economic and diplomatic powerhouses, eager to welcome the country back to the fold of normal relations after eight years of isolation.
In Fiji, ensuring a return to democracy after years of military rule seems foremost on people’s minds.
"What’s in an anglicized name," asked Asaeli Tamanitoakula, referring to a decree that all citizens be addressed as Fijian regardless of ethnicity.
"The land is protected and so is everything else. What is not protected is a return to democracy, and that’s why we need the elections. Otherwise we have not progressed as a nation."
Sunil Ram, an Indo-Fijian, told Reuters that although ethnicity was not a major factor in his vote, he was looking forward to the freedom that came with the abolition of ethnic voter lists used in the past.
"Before I felt like an outsider to my own country by voting in your own racial groups," he said. "This time we will all be voting in one line, all as Fijians."
Ultimately, the best gauge of Bainimarama’s success may be that the military – Fiji’s most powerful institution – remains almost 100 percent ethnic Fijian, said Jenny Hayward-Jones, a regional expert at Sydney think-tank the Lowy Institute.
And since the 2013 constitution granted the military broad powers to interfere in politics, that leaves the fate of the country in the hands of a powerful, ethnic-Fijian institution.
"I think that exception to the rule is actually the greatest demonstration that he hasn’t done as much as he could have, because that was something that was within his reach," she told Reuters.
Posted: 15 Sep 2014 10:24 PM PDT
NEW DELHI — India extended a US$100 million export credit to Vietnam for defense deals and tightened energy ties on Monday, signaling a more confident foreign policy ahead of a visit this week by China's President Xi Jinping.
India's new accords with one of China's rivals for influence in the South China Sea came as Xi visited the nearby islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, a reminder of the geostrategic jostling that is becoming an increasing feature in Asia.
During a visit to Vietnam by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, the two countries said in a joint statement that the credit line would open new opportunities for defense cooperation and that details of what Vietnam would buy were being finalized
"The leaders agreed that defense and security cooperation was an important pillar of the strategic partnership between the two countries," the statement said.
They also agreed to "consolidate" energy cooperation following a 2013 agreement under which PetroVietnam offered India's ONGC oil and gas blocks for exploration and production.
India and Vietnam have deepened military cooperation over the past decade and under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is pushing ahead with a new strategy to establish itself as an arms exporter using export credits to leverage foreign sales.
The money may help slow-moving talks to sell Brahmos cruise missiles to Hanoi.
Vietnam is building a naval deterrent to China with Kilo class submarines from Russia and it would like to add India's missile technology to its defenses.
India and Vietnam have both traditionally depended heavily on their mutual Cold War partner Russia for military knowhow. The Brahmos itself was developed with Russian help.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's military at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra, said he believed Vietnam was seeking India's ship attack variants of the missile.
Indian tests showed the supersonic cruise missile could be successfully fired from ships, which matched Hanoi's goal of creating a meaningful deterrent against China.
"This is leading-edge technology that would further complicate the ability of the Chinese navy to operate off the Vietnamese coast with impunity, particularly in the south of the South China Sea," Thayer said.
"The Vietnamese do not want to be in a situation where they wake up one morning and discover the Chinese navy has surrounded one of its bases in the Spratlys," he said, referring to a disputed island chain.
Business is growing fast between India and China, but the rising powers' ties are also defined by competition for energy and regional clout, as well as a border dispute that led to war 50 years ago.
Long insecure about China's strength, India elected Modi in May partly because of his promises to build an economically strong nation that could hold its own on the world stage.
The timing of Mukherjee's visit to Vietnam may not have been planned to coincide with Xi's South Asia tour, but it underlined India's new twin track diplomacy, foreign policy analyst C Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express newspaper on Monday.
"Much like China, which does not limit its strategic relationship with Pakistan because of Indian concerns, the Modi government apparently believes it can build a partnership with Vietnam on its own merits without worrying too much about what Beijing might think," Mohan said in his column.
Also on Mukherjee's trip, India's Jet Airways and Vietnam Airlines agreed to start flying between Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City from Nov. 5, via Bangkok.
Xi will be in India from Sept. 17-19.
Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Hanoi and Greg Torode in Hong Kong.
The post India Tightens Vietnam Defense, Oil Ties Ahead of China Xi's Visit appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.
Posted: 15 Sep 2014 05:00 PM PDT
As Myanmar embraces democratic governance, people are aspiring to equal opportunities in all aspects of the country's political economy, which at the moment remains dominated by a small group of elites. Myanmar's long-term stability depends on how effectively the government is able to translate its reform program into far-reaching economic benefits. Well into the fourth year of the country's reforms, a major question looms over the next four years and beyond: Can Myanmar develop its economy on an egalitarian basis and fend off predatory international pressure and practices wherein the privatization of national assets has become the norm?
Income inequality is already severe in Myanmar and could get worse if national economic policies are dictated solely by a private sector whose interests are largely based on exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor. Myanmar is often referred to as a latecomer to the development arena. While the country's long isolation certainly has brought many negative effects, being a latecomer also provides a good opportunity to learn from countries that have already traveled the turbulent path to democracy. There are also lessons to be learned from failed economies in middle- and high-income countries. An inclusive national economic policy that benefits all citizens is key to resolving Myanmar's political problems, and the country's notable progress toward national reconciliation will be complemented by sound economic management.
Myanmar geographically links South Asia, Southeast Asia and China, giving it geopolitical sway in the realms of trade, tourism and regional economic cooperation. Because the country is at the crossroads of a market of 3 billion consumers, a well-planned economic policy with a long-term perspective could yield unprecedented benefits for Myanmar, but could also increase its vulnerability. There are many policy advisors representing diverse interest groups who see Myanmar through a purely geopolitical lens, with no consideration for the development aspirations of its people. Myanmar's leaders must weigh all offers of assistance against the risks that they bring.
Myanmar is under pressure to deregulate, cut red tape and open up for businesses. It is indeed necessary to simplify its labyrinthine bureaucracy but at the same time steps must be taken to strengthen public institutions to protect Myanmar's citizens, the majority of whom will not benefit from an unshackled private sector, at least in the immediate future. The government must ensure that the right investments are being made and that the returns from such investments are beneficial to the people and the country, not just to the few who are partnering with foreign and local investors.
Free trade is en vogue among a majority of today's economists because it provides choices. But for countries and people who are just getting out of poverty, guaranteeing basic necessities should be prioritized ahead of having a choice.
Moreover, free trade does not work between a strong partner and a weak partner. Free trade encourages choice, promotes wastage and further widens social divisions. Modern day free trade encourages developing countries to sell their resources to affluent nations and expects them to then import fancy products from these countries to improve living standards. It is not a free trade—it is a way of creating dependency.
This is why strong regulatory mechanisms are still necessary to protect developing countries' economies. Even in fully developed economies, the private sector often employs strong lobbies to help shape the regulatory environment, resulting in a variety of abuses that was perhaps most spectacularly manifested in the 2008 collapse of the US financial system.
As Myanmar develops economic policies it must realize that trade should be free but mindful of the predatory actions of multinational investors pushing consumption to no end.
The world continues to witness but not fully accept the fact that growth by any means is based on greed of the few and is responsible for economic inequality everywhere. There are many examples of newly democratized countries where free market-driven economic policies have gone very wrong, with markets controlling societies and not societies controlling the market.
Myanmar's economic policies and regional interactions must be based on a shared political vision and mutual benefit. It should not be lured by promises of bilateral aid tied to hidden agendas. It would be a catastrophic mistake to be driven by the immediate benefits of a myopic focus on extractive industries. Many an environment has been ravaged by a rush for quick profit.
Opponents of an egalitarian economic approach might argue that it is at odds with notions of democracy and freedom, but in fact it is about creating an equality of opportunity for all. There is ample space for a discussion about how best to go about this, and an exchange of ideas and criticism is a healthy democratic process, as long as the government makes decisions based on transparency and takes accountability for its actions. Though there is a strong desire for results now, people must be made to understand that it takes generations to develop a stable egalitarian economy that will benefit all.
Ramesh Shrestha is a former Unicef country representative to Myanmar.
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