Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Democratic Voice of Burma

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Democratic Voice of Burma

Cautious optimism ahead of “sexpartite” talks

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 09:42 AM PST

A sense of cautious optimism is emerging with respect to the upcoming "sexpartite" talks on constitutional reform, which will be held on Friday in Naypyidaw—nearly a month after the last round of multi-party talks failed to resolve Burma's political deadlock due to the presence of too many participants and the absence of genuine dialogue.

Although last month's talks were hailed as the first ever "quadripartite" talks between the Burmese government, parliament, military and political parties, the relatively large number of government representatives at last month’s “quadripartite” talks means that Friday’s “sexpartite” meeting will actually have fewer participants.

Commentators interviewed by DVB said this structure will make the talks more balanced than last time—and one politician even indicated that the sexpartite framework will provide a greater opportunity for lower-house speaker Shwe Mann and the ethnic MP to support Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to convince the government and military representatives that the Constitution must be amended before the 2015 elections.

"There are different views: Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann on one side, and the government and army on the other. We need to wait and see how successful they will be," said Khin Maung Swe, the leader of an alliance of ethnic and opposition political parties called the Federal Democratic Alliance (FDA).

During the last round of talks on constitutional reform Shwe Mann was part of a larger team of powerful figures representing the government side—including President Thein Sein, Union Election Commission Chairman Tin Aye and Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing—making it more difficult for him to break ranks with the government team during negotiations with the other parties represented at the talks.

The individuals participating in this Friday's talks will include President Thein Sein; Aung San Suu Kyi; Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing; House Speakers Khin Aung Myint and Shwe Mann; and one representative from an ethnic political party.

The six-party talks were hastily arranged after Burma's bicameral parliament approved MP Myint Tun's proposal on 25 November calling for an emergency debate on constitutional reform. Myint Tun is a member of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) representing Bago Region in the upper house.

In February, DVB reported that Shwe Mann sent a letter to the parliamentary Committee for Implementing Constitutional Amendments which said that any constitutional changes must be made at least six months before the 2015 general election. In the letter, Shwe Mann gave the committee the following instructions:

"Firstly, study, review and make suggestions on amending clauses in Chapter 12 of the Constitution; amend the Constitution to lighten the burden on the public; and promote the role of the Union Parliament in finding solutions and assist the committee's work in amending the Constitution."

Among the provisions in Chapter 12 is Article 436—a controversial rule which many have condemned as a direct attempt to preserve the non-democratic nature of the 2008 Constitution. Article 436(a) essentially gives the military veto power over any proposals to amend the Constitution by requiring such proposals to be approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Coupled with the Constitutional provision which sets aside 25 percent of all parliamentary seats for the military, 436(a) present a formidable barrier to constitutional change.

In its February article, DVB quoted a lawyer for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party named Ko Ni, who said that when Shwe Mann referred to “lightened the public’s burden” he was alluding to the complicated logistical process of organising a nationwide referendum as required by 436(a) if an amendment is actually approved by at least 75 percent of MPs. Under 436(a), if an amendment proposal manages to pass through parliament it must be then be approved in a nationwide referendum by "more than half of those who are eligible to vote."

Although the letter Shwe Mann wrote earlier this year indicated that he favoured modifying the military's veto power and streamlining the procedures required to amend the Constitution, it seems the lower house speaker has recently had a change of heart.

On 18 November, Shwe Mann told a press conference in Naypyidaw that any proposals to amend the Constitution will only be entertained by parliament after next year's elections. He also said that a nationwide referendum will be held in May 2015 to gauge public opinion on modifying the Constitution (while stressing that even if a majority of voters favour amending the Constitution any such amendments may only be approved by the new legislature after the 2015 elections).

It is unclear whether Shwe Mann was compelled by influential conservative figures to make this sudden announcement on 18 November or whether he actually supports such a conservative position and was only seeking to curry favour with the public—whose support Shwe Mann needs if he decides to run for president—by writing a letter to the parliamentary committee earlier this year which said that any amendments must be made at least six months before the election.

However, even if Shwe Mann supports Suu Kyi's efforts to simplify the amendment process or reduce the military's veto power, Pe Myint from the Myanmar Press Council (interim) believes this Friday's sexpartite talks will still be dominated by what he calls the "ruling group."

In an interview with DVB, Pe Myint said this week’s talks will include representatives from "the ruling group, the opposition group and the ethnic group. It might therefore appear as if the number of participants will be balanced. Nevertheless, we can say that in terms of representation the ruling group will have more people than the other groups."

Yet Pe Myint also thinks the smaller sexpartite framework stands a better chance of yielding a political agreement among Burma's political heavyweights.

"International political experts have said that in order for Burma to have a smooth democratic transition, it's necessary for the respective top leaders to reach some kind of agreement. I see the current [sexpartite] program as a possible means of achieving this goal," he said.

The views of ethnic leaders regarding Friday's six-party talks are somewhat mixed. For instance, Aye Thar Aung of the United Nationalities Alliance (UNA)—an influential umbrella group of ethnic political parties that won seats in the 1990 elections—believes the talks might help build consensus among some of Burma's key political players.

Speaking with DVB, Thar Aung said: "I think this meeting offers important leaders [a chance] to present their views on resolving Burma’s political deadlock."

However, Khun Okkar from the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)—an alliance of armed ethnic groups that has been engaged in peace talks with the government—criticised the sexpartite structure for failing to include armed ethnic groups.

"If the talks are supposed to include the whole country, the UNFC should participate in the meeting,” he said.

A similar message was conveyed by Saw Than Myint, the spokesperson for the Nationalities Brotherhood Federation (NBF), an alliance of ethnic political parties that successfully contested the 2010 elections.

Saw Than Myint said, "We are happy about the sexpartite or ‘big six’ meeting between the president, two parliamentary speakers, the commander-in-chief, Daw Suu and one ethnic representative. But we don’t like the requirement that the ethnic representative must be a parliamentarian."

From the perspective of these two ethnic leaders (and many other individuals), the exclusion of ethnic groups that are not represented in parliament could render the "sexpartite" meeting nothing more than an ineffective talk shop—especially given that the long-standing armed conflict between ethnic groups and the Burmese army is the primary obstacle to realising lasting peace in Burma.

The absence of armed ethnic groups might be a formidable barrier to the meeting’s success; on the other hand, if the sexpartite's smaller size is more conducive to genuine dialogue, then the framework might also represent progress for at least one participant—Aung San Suu Kyi, who expressed disappointment with the quadripartite talks on 31 October due to the meeting’s lack of meaningful dialogue.

After the emergency sexpartite proposal was approved this week, Suu Kyi spoke with reporters outside parliament in a measured yet hopeful tone.

"I can't refuse this [opportunity]. The previous meeting with 14 people was unclear. This time, the parliamentary proposal is very detailed and there is no reason not to attend. Anyway, it is good that parliament passed it," she said.













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DVB Bulletin: 26 November 2014

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:54 AM PST

On tonight's bulletin:

  • Wirathu leads Mandalay ‘peace march’
  • Bail rejected for Koh Tao accused
  • 6 Migrant workers recovering after deadly Malaysian mine explosion

You can watch DVB Bulletin every weeknight on DVB TV after the 7 o'clock news.

The post DVB Bulletin: 26 November 2014 appeared first on DVB Multimedia Group.

Wirathu leads Mandalay ‘peace march’

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:49 AM PST

Nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu led a protest through the streets of Mandalay on Wednesday.

Dubbed as a peace ‘march’, nine political parties joined the now-infamous monk in calling for the signing of a nationwide ceasefire.

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Koh Tao murders: bail denied for Burmese suspects

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 03:24 AM PST

A court on the Thai island of Koh Samui has denied bail to two Burmese migrants suspected of murdering two British tourists on the nearby island of Koh Tao on 15 September.

The judge's decision on Wednesday comes despite the efforts of a high-level delegation representing the Burmese government which offered bail on behalf of suspects Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, from Arakan State.

The 12-member team, led by upper house speaker Khin Aung Myint, had collected over US$60,000 in donations from parliamentarians in Naypyidaw to be laid down as bail money.

But the court judge ruled that the pair were a flight risk, citing the serious nature of the crimes, said Andy Hall, a British activist who champions migrant workers' cases in Thailand.

Aung Myo Thant, a lawyer who has interviewed the suspects several times on behalf of the Burmese embassy in Bangkok, said, "The judge rejected the embassy's application for bail. When an embassy posts bail for its citizens, it is speaking as a representative of the country.

"But we will try again, offering both a financial guarantee and the embassy's official guarantee."

The Burmese team went to the prison to speak with Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun after the court's decision, he said.

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Burmese migrants recovering from coal mine blast

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 01:16 AM PST

Five Burmese migrants injured in a coal mine blast in Malaysia's Sarawak State on 22 November are recovering, and three of them have been carried by helicopter to other hospitals in Malaysia, said Win Win Min, a diplomat in charge of labour issues at Burma's embassy in Malaysia.

The explosion killed one Burmese migrant and injured six others. One individual has already been discharged from the hospital and the condition of the remaining five injured migrants is improving, Min Min Win said.

"One of our workers died in the coal mine blast and six were injured. The incident happened on Saturday morning. Among the six injured persons, one was discharged from the hospital because his condition improved. Since the Sarawak hospital is full we sent two Burmese citizens by helicopter yesterday to Kota Kinabalu [the capital of Sabah State]. Another injured worker was sent to a hospital in Kuala Lumpur by a Malaysian Air Force plane. At the moment, none of the five hospitalized workers are in serious condition.”

Min Min Win added that the injured workers would get compensation because they have proper visa status, and that they are also planning to ask for additional compensation from the employment agency which dispatched them to Malaysia.

Aside from the six individuals from Burma, some workers from North Korea, Indonesia and Bangladesh were also injured in the blast. In addition, Burmese migrants in Malaysia told DVB that three workers from North Korean were killed in the explosion.

According to Burmese diplomat Min Min Win, a total of 32 Burmese citizens were working in the coal mine when the explosion occurred.

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Sexual violence by Burmese army still widespread, says NGO

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 12:04 AM PST

Burmese government soldiers continue to perpetrate sexual violence against women on a widespread scale with impunity, according to a Women's League of Burma (WLB) report issued on 25 November, which the UN recently designated as "The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women."

The report—entitled "If they had hope, they would speak: The ongoing use of state-sponsored sexual violence in Burma's ethnic communities"—contains excerpts from interviews that WLB conducted with various civic organisations, including the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma (ND-Burma). One interviewee from ND-Burma quoted in the report described how intimidation faced by sexual violence victims and NGOs hinders their ability to obtain justice.

"Making information public is still a big problem – a lot of people are still very scared to speak out about their problems. When survivors live near to a military base, perpetrators surround their village. We get a lot of information that we can't publicise because people are too afraid. Our field staff regularly face intimidation as well – it puts us in a very difficult position because we often have to forgo justice to keep our staff safe," said the ND-Burma interviewee.

The WLB report also described how the growing number of large-scale development projects in ethnic areas has led to an expansion of the government's military presence in these regions, resulting in "burgeoning human rights abuses and undermining the safety of women."

In the course of implementing development projects in resource-rich ethnic states, the WLB said that across the country, “the military has been violating the terms of ceasefire agreements signed with Ethnic Armed Organisations, and directing harassment and persecution against ethnic communities and human rights defenders."

Another NGO interviewed by WLB, the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), indicated that it is difficult—if not impossible—to file a legal complaint for sexual violence in ethnic areas, especially in places where armed conflict is still ongoing.

In the report, a KWAT member was cited as saying, "The government says survivors can lodge a complaint with the Myanmar National Committee for Women's Affairs [MNCWA], and then follow legal procedures from there. But where are the MNCWA in conflict zones? The government is doing nothing to raise awareness about how women can obtain justice. That's why people stay silent— they want justice but they don't know how to get it."

In a press release accompanying the report, WLB said that in order to "achieve sustainable peace and help safeguard the rights of ethnic women" the Burmese government "must immediately stop its military offensives in the ethnic areas, pull back its troops, and begin political dialogue with the ethnic armed groups towards genuine federalism."

Emphasising the direct connection between sexual assault and Burma's overall peace process, the press release quoted WLB General Secretary Tin Tin Nyo as saying: "The Burma Army must be brought under civilian control, and there must be a negotiated settlement to the civil war that will grant ethnic peoples equality under a genuine federal system of government … If these actions are not taken, state-sponsored sexual violence against women of ethnic communities will not stop."

The press release also noted that although the Burmese government has made official commitments to advance the status of women—such as creating a "National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women”—little has been done to improve the lives of women in ethnic communities.

"The absence of concrete and time-bound plans of action has meant that amidst Burma's 'transition', the country's women continue to be denied their basic human rights," said the statement.

Another factor which has contributed towards the marginalisation of women's issues in Burma is the absence of women's voices in Burma's political and public life, according to the WLB.

The group’s press release said, "The dearth of women in formal decision-making positions, and the persecution of civil society organisations—in which women play a more active role—further undermines women's ability to address the challenges and abuses they face."

Following the release of the WLB report, Burma Campaign UK released a press statement which said that more than 2,000 postcards were delivered to the British Foreign Office calling on the UK's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to support the establishment of an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese army.

The Burma Campaign UK's statement noted that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously called on Naypyidaw to investigate crimes of sexual violence. It also noted that Burma's government made an international commitment to end violence against by signing the Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Although the declaration contains practical and political commitments to end impunity, promote accountability and provide justice and safety for victims of sexual violence in conflicts, Burma Campaign UK's statement says that Burma "appears to have taken no steps to implement the declaration," an egregious omission which the NGO says "further strengthens the case for an international investigation."

The London-based group added: "Given the fact that the Burmese government is ignoring the call for action by the UN Secretary-General, and has failed to comply with the International Declaration to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, it is time for the international community to conduct its own investigation into sexual violence by the Burmese Army."

The London-based NGO's Campaigns Manager, Zoya Phan, thinks that Britain should take the lead in such an investigation.

The group's press statement quoted her as saying, “As a country with a strong commitment to ending sexual violence in conflict, Britain should take the lead in building global support for an international investigation into rape and sexual violence committed by the Burmese military.”

Although the WLB report documents 118 incidences of sexual violence against women since 2010, it also says that WLB believes this figure only represents "a fraction of the actual number of cases that have taken place," and that such abuses are so widespread and systematic in Burma that they "must be investigated, and may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international criminal law."

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Musician Moon Aung’s visa application falls on deaf ears

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 11:02 PM PST

Burmese fans of singer-songwriter Moon Aung will have to wait to hear the rebel musician in concert after his application for a visa was rejected by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok.

"I won't be able to play in front of a Burmese audience yet," he told DVB on Tuesday. "I hoped in my heart that I could go back home, but not yet. Maybe one day. Everything is changing. Nothing is eternal. The change will come."

Moon Aung, who holds a Norwegian passport, became famous in his home country after he joined the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) at the Thai border following the 1988 uprising.

Renowned for his revolutionary songs, “Battle for Peace”, “Way to Freedom” and "Tempest of Blood", Moon Aung's melodies were popular among freedom fighters, activists and students, even though they were illegal in Burma.

Moon Aung has recently released a new album, “Peace Raindrops”, which he said he wants to distribute legally in his homeland.

He said he also nurtures a plan to play a charity concert for the benefit of Kachin refugees.

Ko Ye Lwin, a guitarist from “Flower of the Road”, a band which is on tour around the county collecting donations for refugees, said even if his visa were granted, he doubted that Moon Aung would be permitted by Burmese authorities to play live.

"He joined the armed struggle in the jungle," said Ko Ye Lwin. "However, he was never keen on holding a gun. Instead he fought back with his music."

Though President Thein Sein has said that exiled Burmese with no criminal record can return home, several Burmese have seen requests for visas rejected.

Moon Aung said that the embassy staff in Bangkok told him his application was denied because of (a) documentation; and (b) instructions from a senior official.


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Rice price volatility in Burma must be addressed, says World Bank

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 09:20 PM PST

The price of rice in Burma has increased by 41 percent between 2009 and 2013, a rate much higher than neighbouring competitors Thailand and Cambodia. This has led to a decrease in Burmese rice exports and food security at home, according to a recent report by the World Bank.

"Price fluctuations are common in agricultural markets. However, rice price volatility in Myanmar [Burma] is more profound than in neighboring rice net-exporter countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand," the report, titled Rice Price Volatility and Poverty Reduction in Myanmar, said. "The economic liberalisation in 2004 removed local trade barriers and this reduced risks and price volatility in the domestic rice market. Even if Myanmar's price fluctuations decreased in recent years (compared to the mid-2000s), it remains high."

Noting that a majority of rural people in the country live close to the poverty line, the World Bank pointed out that many are at high risk whenever rice prices fluctuate.

Rice farming and its associated industries account for over 50 percent of the Burmese population's livelihoods, the report said, while purchasing rice takes between 25 and 50 percent of the average household's expenditure.

A high concentration of harvesting in November and December, leading to sharp drops in price in January with spikes in May, as well as poor infrastructure for transportation, add to the irregular trade in rice.

Myanmar Rice Association joint secretary Dr. Soe Tun said they are trying hard to stabilise prices.

"Our Rice Federation is buying rice to hold in reserve," he told DVB on Tuesday. "We have 3.5 billion kyat [US$3.5 million]. We borrowed 10 billion kyat from the government, and another one billion kyat from the Co-operative Bank. We buy when the rice price drops. We sell in August when the prices are higher. This is our current policy."

But, according to the World Bank, Burma's woes in the rice market must be resolved with investment in agriculture and infrastructure.

"There is a significant trade-off between lowering price volatility with short-term measures and maintaining price competitiveness. Long-term structural issues can be solved only through investments in agriculture and infrastructure, improved business environment, and social safety nets," said World Bank country director for Myanmar Abdoulaye Seck. "Open trade policy should be the one and foremost policy goal for Myanmar."


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The Irrawaddy Magazine

The Irrawaddy Magazine

Former Political Prisoner Allowed to Run For Rangoon Office

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:46 AM PST

Win Cho, former political prisoner and renowned activist, will run for a seat in Rangoon's city administration. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

Win Cho, former political prisoner and renowned activist, will run for a seat in Rangoon's city administration. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Win Cho, a former political prisoner and renowned rights activist, has been approved as an eligible candidate for upcoming municipal elections in Rangoon after appealing an initial rejection by the city's election commission.

The 57-year-old activist was at first denied the right to contest on the grounds that he "provided incorrect biographical information" on his candidacy application by omitting time he spent in prison on political charges. The decision was overturned by the commission on Monday.

The city's election law prohibits "criminals" from seeking office, hence the rejection was worrisome for many of Burma's politically ambitious former dissidents because many of them served as prisoners of conscience under the previous military regime.

"I didn't provide an untruthful biography. I didn't mention my prison sentences because I didn't think it was necessary," said Win Cho, explaining that because he is not currently incarcerated or facing any further charges, he should not be required to disclose himself as a criminal.

Win Cho said that he appealed the decision on the grounds that it was a "misunderstanding," and that the commission granted him a fair review and ultimately, the right to run for one of 115 vacant seats in the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC).

The YCDC, which is the administrative body for Burma's largest city and former capital, will hold elections on Dec. 27 for the first time since its establishment more than 50 years ago. The council's elections commission received 305 candidacy applications, though only 291 qualified.

Win Cho was one of seven deemed ineligible, while seven others withdrew their applications. Maung Maung Tun, who was also initially turned down for falsifying his biography, made the only other appeal and was likewise granted eligibility on Monday.

Candidates have already begun campaigning for seats at the divisional, district and township levels, which have been occupied by military-appointed officials since 1962.

Win Cho hoped to assume one of four highly coveted positions on the Divisional Municipal Committee. Twelve district- and 99 township-level seats are also up for grabs.

Though his competitors got a head start on their campaigns earlier this month, Win Cho said that the delay "will not be a problem," perhaps because he is already a prominent public figure.

Win Cho was recently released from Insein prison after serving a total of nine months for charges related to unlawful assembly. He has faced dozens of additional charges just this year, and is most well-known for leading demonstrations over power shortages, land rights and human rights violations.

The post Former Political Prisoner Allowed to Run For Rangoon Office appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Slain Cadets Remembered During Rangoon, Sittwe Services

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:43 AM PST

A donation ceremony held on Wednesday for eight Arakanese youth killed by artillery fire last week. (Photo: Soe Thant Aung / Facebook)

A donation ceremony held on Wednesday for eight Arakanese youth killed by artillery fire last week. (Photo: Soe Thant Aung / Facebook)

RANGOON — Seven days after an attack on ethnic army cadets in Kachin State, activists and social groups held donation drives and ceremonies on Wednesday to commemorate the 23 soldiers who died in the incident.

A donation ceremony led by Arakan Youths was held at Danyawadi Monastery at the front gate of Shwedagon Pagoda this morning and attended by a cross-section of representatives from various ethnic nationality parties, activist Khon Ja told The Irrawaddy.

Another large ceremony to mark the death of eight Arakanese cadets in the incident was held in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, attended by 5000 mourners wearing black.

Proceeds raised from both events will be given to the families of the cadets, who were slain while training with the Kachin Independence Army near Laiza after the Burma Army shelled their camp with artillery fire.

On Wednesday evening in Rangoon, between 200-300 people attended a service to honor the cadets and to express hope for peace in the country at the Kachin Baptist Church in Sanchaung Township.

The Kachin Peace Network in Rangoon, with collaboration from other civil society groups, plans to provide cash assistance to the families of the dead cadets and hold peacecampaigns in their home townships.

Meanwhile, the Chin National Convention General Agreement Implementation Coordinating Committee released a statement on Monday condemning the deaths, stating that the Burma Army's actions will complicate efforts to reach ceasefire agreements and national reconciliation. Two soldiers from the Chin National Front were among the casualties.

The Burma Army maintains the deaths were accidental.

Additional reporting by Hnin Yadana Zaw.

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Students to Protest Education Law in Mandalay

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 04:26 AM PST

A student holds a sign in protest against the National Education Law near Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon on Nov. 16. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

A student holds a sign in protest against the National Education Law near Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon on Nov. 16. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Student activists plan to again take to the streets to protest the National Education Law on Thursday in Mandalay, where they will reiterate a request that the government convene a quadripartite meeting to discuss the controversial legislation.

The proposed four-party talks would involve a 15-member committee formed by the students, the government, parliamentarians and the National Network for Education Reform (NNER), a coalition of education stakeholders.

One of the student organizers told The Irrawaddy that the protest will start at 10am and will last all day.

"We will protest in Mandalay but we are still negotiation the manner in which to protest," said Min Thwe Thit.

He added that the event would allow protestors to raise awareness about a demand made by students on Nov. 17, when they announced that they would give the Burmese government 60 days to respond to their criticisms of the law.

The planned protest is just the latest in a series of recent demonstrations against the National Education Law, which was passed by Parliament in September.

Opponents of the law say Parliament did not take input from education stakeholders in drafting it, and complain that it does not allow sufficient autonomy for the nation's universities.

More than 300 representatives from students' organizations across Burma staged a four-day protest against the legislation starting Nov. 14 in Rangoon. They halted the protest after announcing the 60-day ultimatum, with the student activists threatening to take the protest nationwide if they did not hear from education officials in that time.

"We have given the government 60 days to respond to the students and this protest is one form of pressure on the government," Than Htike, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.

Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann last week said lawmakers would consider the students' concerns if they submit them to the legislature.

"They still haven't reported to the Parliament, but if they report to the Parliament, we will focus on analyzing their report," he said at a press conference on Nov. 18, in response to a question from The Irrawaddy.

"Currently we have no plan to do that, at the moment we are asking for the quadripartite meeting," said the student leader Min Thwe Thit.

The students' 15-member Democracy Education Initiative Committee will hold a seminar in mid-December on the National Education Law and will invite education professionals not affiliated with the government or protesting students.

The students also plan two other protests in different towns in Burma over the coming week, after holding three demonstrations in the past week.

The NNER, which has also voiced criticism of the education law, is a network that includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, members of teachers' unions, Buddhists monks and ethnic education groups. The network formed in 2012 and despite it having held seminars across the country to discuss education reform, many of its key recommendations were not included in the National Education Law.

Additional reporting by Kyaw Myo Tun.

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Irrawaddy Founder Receives CPJ Award in New York Ceremony

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 03:55 AM PST

Aung Zaw, founding editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine, receives the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York on Tuesday night. (Photo: Kyaw Phyo Tha / The Irrawaddy)

Aung Zaw, founding editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine, receives the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York on Tuesday night. (Photo: Kyaw Phyo Tha / The Irrawaddy)

NEW YORK — Aung Zaw, the founding editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine, received the International Press Freedom Award, which was presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York on Tuesday night.

He is one of four international journalists who are honored this year for promoting press freedom in their countries; the other CPJ awardees come from news organizations in Russia, South Africa and Iran.

The award is an annual recognition of courageous reporting and acknowledges the work of journalists who have faced imprisonment, violence and censorship while carrying out their work.

This year, Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Hai, who was imprisoned when he won the CPJ award in 2013, was also there to attend the gala held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and receive his award.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a CPJ board member who presented Aung Zaw with the award, said his work was being honored because of the strength of two decades of The Irrawaddy's reporting on Burma in the face of risks to him and his team.

MacKinnon noted that Aung Zaw was branded an "enemy of the state" by the former military regime, while his publication remains under pressure from Burma's current, nominally-civilian government.

In his video message broadcast at the event, CPJ Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin said: "Aung Zaw is perhaps one of the most eloquent, powerful voices of press freedom in Burma. He founded what originally was a newsletter that evolved into a full-fledged news organization that is perhaps the most independent, critical view of Burma."

In his acceptance speech, Aung Zaw touched on the current situation in Burma and warned that recently there has been "serious back sliding" during the democratic transition. He questioned the very nature of the reform process and whether it is a real break from the past, or just a repackaging of the old political structures.

"In the media sector, reporters are facing increased scrutiny, arrests, intimidation, detention and even death. In October, an activist reporter was killed in military custody," he said, referring to the extrajudicial killing of Aung Kyaw Naing by government soldiers in southeastern Burma.

He also expressed his views on Western countries' optimism about Burma's reform and referred to US President Obama's remarks in his recent visit to Burma, when the president said, ''the reforms are real."

"I have to respectfully say that many Burmese people are not at all convinced of that. Sometimes, we worry that our international friends tend to airbrush some of the realities we live with.

"I must tell you that this award means a lot to my dedicated team and Burmese journalists who defend press freedom in my country. It is a sign that we are not alone and that the world is still watching what is happening in Burma," he said.

In March of this year, Aung Zaw was also honored with the 2013 Shorenstein Journalism Award from Stanford University's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. In 2010, he received the Netherlands-based Prince Claus Award for Journalism.

In 1988, Aung Zaw was a student activist who joined the democratic uprising in Rangoon. He was arrested on the Rangoon University campus during one of the student rallies and detained for a week. Shortly afterward, he fled to Thailand where he launched The Irrawaddy Magazine in 1993 to cover developments in his native country as it was sinking into international isolation and political repression.

Today, The Irrawaddy reports from an office in Rangoon, Burma's commercial capital, and has an English- and Burmese-language daily news website and two print publications: a monthly magazine in English and a Burmese-language weekly journal.

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Rangoon Power Board to Seek Private Sector Involvement from 2015

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 03:31 AM PST

The body responsible for maintaining Rangoon's antiquated electricity network is seeking private investment to help modernize its infrastructure. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

The body responsible for maintaining Rangoon's antiquated electricity network is seeking private investment to help modernize its infrastructure. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — The Yangon Electricity Supply Board (YESB) will begin to facilitate private investment from early next year, with a view to the possibility of an eventual complete privatization of the city's electricity transmission.

The YESB is currently deciding upon a model for private sector collaboration in discussion with experts and the Rangoon Region government.

"We will form a corporate entity soon, but we're still finalizing how to structure it," Mg Mg Latt, the YESB vice-chairman, told The Irrawaddy this week.

"It might be a model where 51 percent is owned by the government and 49 percent by the private sector, so we need more discussion before this project is implemented."

The YESB currently operates under the Ministry of Electric Power to supply electricity, maintain transmission lines and install new digital meters across the city. The board has been a perennial target for criticism because of prolonged power outages over the summer months and during repairs of the antiquated turbines in Rangoon's generation facilities.

The distribution network is based on a patchwork assortment of overhead transmission wires and street level transformers, some of which dates back to the colonial era. The outdated infrastructure poses a constant threat of electrical fire and injury.

Mg Mg Latt told The Irrawaddy that private investment would allow a dramatic upgrade of the network, a high priority for the board.

"We're going to submit this project to the Ministry of Electric Power and the Yangon Region government, and once we get approval we will implement it as soon as possible," he said.

Myat Thin Aung, the chairman of Rangoon's Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, said that he is skeptical of whether collaboration between the YESB and the private sector can yield positive results for consumers.

"It's good to work with the private sector, but I'm curious to see how the relationship works," he said. "They should have detailed discussions. If [generation] is fully run by the private sector, there will be difficulties in distribution if the transmission wires are still owned by the government. How the private sector deals with policymakers is also a concern."

In October last year, the YESB announced a rise in the unit cost of electricity for Rangoon consumers, triggering protests and an eventual back down by the board.

Mg Mg Latt said that electricity prices would remain stable into the future despite the courtship of private investment.

Burma's total national electricity production did not exceed approximately 2,000 megawatts per day in November, with Rangoon's daily consumption averaging 900 megawatts. The YESB expects consumption in the city to increase to 1,000 megawatts daily in March. Nationwide electricity consumption has increased about 15 percent annually in recent years.

The Burmese government announced last year that it intended to rapidly increase power supply and reach universal countrywide access to electricity by 2030.

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General Electric to Upgrade Rangoon Power Plants

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 03:00 AM PST

About 73 percent of Burma's population still lacks access to electricity, and domestic energy consumption is the world's lowest. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

About 73 percent of Burma's population still lacks access to electricity, and domestic energy consumption is the world's lowest. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — American multinational General Electric will soon begin upgrading Rangoon's industrial gas turbines, a spokesperson said on Wednesday, after finalizing an agreement with the government.

GE Chief Country Representative Zaw Win told The Irrawaddy that the company has signed a memorandum of understanding with state-owned Myanmar Electric Power Enterprise (MEPE) and will work out additional details before the end of the year.

"As soon as the final agreement is completed next month, we will begin the research necessary for upgrading the turbines," said Zaw Win.

Zaw Win said that the conglomerate energy division GE Power & Water will help to develop a "master electricity plan" for Burma.

"The plan will identify what types of power solutions will be most effective and where facilities should be located to maximize efficiency and system stability," he said.

Details of the agreement are still pending, but MEPE Managing Director Htain Lwin said that GE has made an initial commitment to observing existing turbines in Rangoon Division.

The company expects to eventually upgrade several 30-megawatt turbines in Hlawka and Ahlone townships and 16-megawatt turbines in the Ywarma power plant, Htain Lwin said. He added that the project was expected to be complete by mid-2015.

Industrial gas turbines are a highly efficient source of power if they are geared with heat recovery steam generators, which recycle waste heat released during production.

About 73 percent of Burma's population still lacks access to electricity, and domestic energy consumption is the world's lowest at 20 times less than the global average, according to the World Bank.

GE opened its first country office in Burma in May 2013. Company figures tallied total investments in the country at US$2 million to date, primarily in the fields of infrastructure, healthcare, energy and transportation.

Currently ranked as the 26th largest company in the United States by gross revenue, GE has also been listed as the 4th most profitable company in the world by Forbes Global 2000, an annual ranking of the world's top public companies.

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Mandalay Protestors Call for End to Ethnic Conflict

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 02:10 AM PST

Protestors called for an end to conflict in Burma at a demonstration in Mandalay on Wednesday. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

Protestors called for an end to conflict in Burma at a demonstration in Mandalay on Wednesday. (Photo: Teza Hlaing / The Irrawaddy)

MANDALAY — Political parties in Mandalay called on the government on Wednesday to end its armed conflicts in Burma's ethnic regions and put more of an effort into the country's peace process.

At a demonstration led by nine political parties including the National Democratic Force (NDF), National Unity Party (NUP) and local civil society groups, protestors spoke out against a recent Burma Army attack in Kachin State that killed 23 ethnic rebel cadets and injured 20 others, saying the incident indicated a lack of resolve in the government's purported desire to reach a sustainable peace with Burma's numerous ethnic rebel groups.

"In this time of transition, peace is vital for the country," said Myint Oo, secretary of the NDF's Mandalay Division branch. "Since there's no peace yet in the ethnic regions, we would like to urge the government and everyone involved in armed conflicts to emphasize peace and the negotiation process as soon as possible."

Protestors also urged the government and ethnic armed groups' leaders to end their fighting for the sake of stability and development in the country's ethnic hinterlands.

"Talking about peace only at roundtable meetings is not the way to sustainable peace in the country," read a message from the Federal Union Party, which also participated in Wednesday's protest. "If we really want peace, we need to stop fighting and build back the trust that has broken down over the last 60 years. If we keep fighting each other, there will be no trust and no peace."

Neither the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (UNDP) nor Burma's largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), participated in Wednesday's protest.

The nationalist monk U Wirathu spoke at the demonstration, which drew more than 400 people.

Wirathu said ending ethnic conflict depended on both the government and rebel armed groups.

"Both parties need to stop fighting," he said. "Battles require both parties to be involved. If there's armed conflict, the most affected people are the local civilians. Since there have been battles in the ethnic regions, the regions have been left behind and are underdeveloped. I would like to ask both parties to stop their gun battles and push for peace for the sake of the people and development."

The demonstrators also called on the government and rebel leaders to return to the negotiating table for peace talks that have bogged down in recent months.

"There were several meetings for peace and a [nationwide] ceasefire but the process has stalled—the answer to peace is still in our dreams. Since it is important for national reconciliation, peace and stability of the country, we would like to urge the government and its troops to put more emphasis on trust-building, which is vital for the peace process," said Nan Shwe Kyar, general secretary of the Wuntharnu National League for Democracy party, who added that the recent shelling in Laiza, Kachin State, had affected trust between the government and Kachin rebels.

"Because of that incident, the trust that had been built back during peace talks in recent years is broken. The government needs to build it back for the safety and development of women, children and elders, who are most affected by the civil wars in conflict-wracked areas," she said.

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Thai Court Rejects Bail of Suspects in Koh Tao Murder Case

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 01:30 AM PST

The Burma Embassy's special team, which is working on the Koh Tao case. are seen outside of the Koh Samui Court on Wednesday. (Photo: Min Oo / Facebook) 

The Burma Embassy's special team, which is working on the Koh Tao case. are seen outside of the Koh Samui Court on Wednesday. (Photo: Min Oo / Facebook)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A court on the Thai island of Koh Samui on Wednesday rejected a bail request by two Burmese migrant workers who are accused murdering a pair of British tourists, a NGO member working on the case said.

"The court denied bail because they are accused in a serious crime case and because they are not Thai nationals," said Htoo Chit, the director of Thailand-based NGO Foundation for Education Development, who is part of a Burma Embassy team dealing with the high-profile murder case.

It was the first time that the accused, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21-year-old Burmese migrant workers, have requested bail since their arrest on Oct. 2. The court had set bail for each of the accused at 500,000 baht (about US$15,500).

Htoo Chit said the embassy team would now help the men to request bail with Surat Thani Provincial Court, adding, "We will try to get the bail, and we have full support from the embassy and Myanmar's Upper House Speaker."

Upper House Speaker Khin Aung Myint visited Thailand from Sunday to Tuesday and met with Thailand's military regime leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The speaker shared his concerns about the detention of the two Burmese held in the murder case with Prayuth, who reportedly said the pair would receive a fair trial, according Htoo Chit.

Last week, the Thai police asked the court to extend the remand for the two for a fifth time, as police try to collect enough evidence to start a trial on charges of murder, rape, aiding a criminal act and illegal entry.

The pair were arrested by Thai police two weeks after the badly beaten bodies of British tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were found on the beach in Koh Tao in the early hours of Sept. 15.

The Thai police's handling of the case and allegations of forced confessions and torture have sparked criticism worldwide, raising suspicions that the Burmese migrants were being used as scapegoats. Thai police have denied the torture claims.

The families of the accused and rights activists have called on Thai authorities to ensure a fair trial.

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Ethnic Bloc Condemns Attacks on Kachin, Insists Talks Continue

Posted: 26 Nov 2014 01:24 AM PST

Representatives of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team and the Myanmar Peace Center during talks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Nov. 24. (Photo: Nyo Ohn Myint / Facebook)

Representatives of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team and the Myanmar Peace Center during talks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Nov. 24. (Photo: Nyo Ohn Myint / Facebook)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Representatives of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) have told officials from the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) that they want the peace process to move forward despite last week's deadly attack by the Burma Army on a Kachin rebel base.

During a two-day meeting in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand this week, the NCCT, a working group representing 16 ethnic armed groups in ceasefire talks with the government, told MPC members that the shelling of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base in Laiza had hampered ongoing peace negotiations.

Twenty-three cadets from other ethnic armed groups allied with the KIA who were training at the base were killed in the attack.

Since the shelling, described by Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing as "warning shots" in response to an alleged earlier attack, tensions have continued to escalate. Over the weekend, the army fired more than a dozen mortar rounds close to KIA positions and camps for internally displaced persons.

"We told them [MPC members] that the attack [on Laiza] was not appropriate. It could slow down the peace process. But we don’t want the peacemaking program to come to a total breakdown," said Nai Hong Sar, the chairman of the NCCT, who attended the Nov. 24-25 meeting.

The two sides also discussed the draft text of a nationwide ceasefire agreement as well as military and security affairs.

"We talked about obstacles on the path of the peace process, especially military and security issues such as troop positions, the issue of a federal army and political dialogue," Nai Hong Sar said.

The NCCT chairman said that issues concerning disarmament, demobilization and reintegration that that have been pushed by the Burma Army were also included in the discussion. The NCCT has broadly rejected the Army's demands that ethnic armed groups disarm.

No firm agreements were reached as the discussion was informal and the MPC members didn't officially represent the government's peace negotiation team, the Union Peace-making Work Committee (UPWC), according to Nai Hong Sar.

Other NCCT leaders including Kwe Htoo Win, who is general secretary of the Karen National Union, and KIA representatives were present at the meeting. Gen. Gun Maw, the KIA's vice chief of staff, who is also a NCCT leader, did not attend the meeting as he was busy with internal deliberations concerning the Burma Army's recent attacks. Min Zaw Oo and Nyo Ohn Myint attended the meeting on behalf of the MPC.

Since the NCCT's last meeting with UPWC and Army officials in Rangoon in September, some observers have voiced concerns that national ceasefire talks have stalled. A statement released by a group of civil society representatives on Monday following a meeting with the NCCT noted that the military's "uncompromising" position in negotiations had led to a "deadlock" over the language used in the most recent draft of a ceasefire agreement.

Disagreements have reportedly centered on the use of the words "federalism" and "revolution" in the draft agreement. During previous meetings, the UPWC had reached an agreement with the NCCT about the terminology, but it was roundly rejected by the military.

More than a dozen ethnic armed groups have signed bilateral ceasefires with the government since President Thein Sein took office in 2011. The KIA and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army have yet to do so and have frequently clashed with government troops in recent months.

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Hong Kong Student Leaders Arrested as Police Move on Protest Site

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 09:01 PM PST

Policemen detain a pro-democracy protester during a confrontation at Mong Kok shopping district in Hong Kong early on Nov. 26, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Policemen detain a pro-democracy protester during a confrontation at Mong Kok shopping district in Hong Kong early on Nov. 26, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, two of the student leaders at the heart of pro-democracy protests that have shaken the Asian financial hub since August, and began swiftly clearing a major demonstration site.

Riot police scuffled with protesters trying to resist attempts to force them off the streets of the gritty Mong Kok district following clashes overnight, Reuters witnesses said.

Hundreds of protesters remained on Nathan Road, at the heart of the protest site in Mong Kok, brandishing yellow banners and chanting for "full democracy" in the former British colony, but were pushed back by the large number of police. After about two hours most of the protesters' tents had been removed.

"You can't defeat the protesters' hearts!" screamed Liu Yuk-lin, a 52-year-old protester in a hard hat holding a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the protest movement, as she stood before lines of police in helmets and goggles.

Mong Kok has been a flashpoint for clashes between students and mobs intent on breaking up the protests, which have posed one of the biggest challenges to China's Communist Party leaders since the crushing of a pro-democracy movement in Beijing in 1989.

Earlier, court-appointed bailiffs had warned protesters to leave and around 80 workers in red caps and "I love Hong Kong" T-shirts began clearing metal and wooden barricades laid across Nathan Road, where hundreds of tents had been erected in a two-month civil disobedience campaign.

"If you resist you face possible imprisonment. We warn you to immediately stop resisting," said a policeman into a loud hailer before jeering activists.

Scuffles and swearing broke out as police moved in, and several protesters who resisted were hauled away, witnesses said.

A Reuters witness saw police take away Shum, and the Facebook page of the student group Scholarism announced that Wong had also been arrested. Although the protests have had no formal leadership structure, Wong and Shum were part of a group of college and high school students who many looked to as the movement's de facto leaders.

Overnight, police had arrested 80 pro-democracy protesters in running clashes following the clearance of part of a nearby street the previous day.

"They would really swing their batons around … I am scared, but I still have to come out and keep Nathan Road," said Szeto Sai-kit, a 21-year-old activist on the frontline.

Several thousand police were deployed after a court ordered the reopening of a blocked street in Mong Kok that has been the scene of some of the most violent confrontations in the two-month long "Occupy Central" civil disobedience campaign.

The pro-democracy movement is showing signs of splintering, with radical voices calling for escalated action after nearly two months of stalemate in their campaign for full democracy.

In August, Beijing offered the people of Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, the chance to vote for their own leader in 2017, but said only two to three candidates could run after getting majority backing from a 1,200-person "nominating committee" stacked with Beijing loyalists.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets at the peak of the protests, but numbers have dropped to a few hundred scattered in tents over three main sites.

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Indian Sterilization Targets Remain in All But Name, Critics Say

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 08:57 PM PST

Kekti Bai (C), who underwent surgery at a government mass sterilization camp, watches while other women sit inside a hospital at Bilaspur district in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh on Nov. 15, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Kekti Bai (C), who underwent surgery at a government mass sterilization camp, watches while other women sit inside a hospital at Bilaspur district in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh on Nov. 15, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

BARUAN, India — India officially abandoned targets for its mass sterilization program in the 1990s, accepting they had put undue pressure on people to undergo surgery and failed to curb population growth sufficiently.

Twenty years on and targets remain in all but name, say doctors, healthcare workers and family planning experts, meaning that, although below peak numbers, more than four million people underwent surgery in 2013-14.

In recent years, the vast majority have been women.

The risks the campaign poses were highlighted this month when more than a dozen women died after having a tubectomy at two sterilization "camps" in the state of Chhattisgarh.

Ongoing investigations point to contaminated drugs given to the women as a possible cause of death, but a dirty operating room and operations performed in a matter of minutes raised new questions about the program's efficacy and safety.

"Targets may have been removed, but the target mindset remains," said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India NGO.

Wary of a ballooning population, India launched a family planning program to slow population growth in the 1950s.

As the campaign went into overdrive, some seven million men had vasectomies between April 1976 and January 1977, according to the Center for Health and Social Justice in New Delhi.

Today, tubectomies on women are by far the most common form of birth control in India, and India's fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, has fallen from 3.6 in 1991 to 2.4 in 2012.

But it has failed to reach the desired "replacement" level of 2.1, and India, with a population of around 1.2 billion, is set to overtake China as the world's largest nation by around 2028, according to the United Nations.

At a sterilization "camp" in the eastern state of Odisha, recent operations went on apace, seemingly impervious to negative publicity after the deaths next door in Chhattisgarh.

A doctor and five assistants from a nearby hospital worked flat out, performing 13 tubectomies in about an hour at the facility in Baruan village.

After her surgery, 35-year-old patient Renubala Ojha was guided outside by a health worker who settled her onto a dirty rug to recover. Nearby, empty water bottles, used tobacco pouches and piles of cow dung littered the ground.

Targets or 'Unmet Needs'?

Sabitri Sethi, the health worker, said her supervisor had instructed her to bring at least two women to the camp.

Some 80 percent of Odisha's family planning budget under the National Health Mission was set aside for sterilization activity this year, including holding camps and paying compensation, a state health official familiar with the plan said.

He added that Odisha, which accounts for some 3.4 percent of India's population, is prepared to carry out sterilizations on as many as 20,000 men and 160,000 women this year.

The Health Ministry is adamant such numbers are not targets, and that state budget figures for the national program are expressions of "unmet need" for such services.

Critics say the distinction is misleading, because any objective puts pressure on healthcare workers and lands too many women in "camps" where dozens are operated on in a few hours.

"I have done 90 surgeries in a day," one doctor at the Chhattisgarh Institute of Medical Sciences admitted. "If I had said no, the government would have sacked me."

Officials in New Delhi add that, in addition to ditching targets, the government has promoted alternative options, including condoms and intrauterine contraceptives, to reduce the number of people having surgery.

Sterilizations dropped from well over five million in 2010-11 to over four million in 2013-14.

Critics counter that a payments-driven system continues to push more people to choose sterilization over other options.

At the Odisha clinic, Ojha received 600 rupees (US$9.70) after her surgery, a significant sum in a country where hundreds of millions of people live on less than $2 a day.

Sethi, the healthcare worker, said she would also receive money for each woman she brought, but she did not say how much.

The Odisha state government pays 75 rupees ($1.20) to doctors for each surgery, 25 rupees to the anesthetist, 15 to the staff nurse and attendant, and 10 to other staff.

Poor Punished?

Advocates of a shift away from sterilization say the system penalizes the poor.

"The poor are being seen as irresponsible breeders… who need to be permanently dealt with," said Abhijit Das, director of the Center for Health and Social Justice.

Without better education for health workers and a more readily available selection of contraceptive choices, women will keep going to potentially dangerous camps, Das added.

And entrenched social attitudes will likely remain.

Many men think vasectomies threaten their virility, placing the burden on women. Of couples in India who use modern contraception, two percent of men were sterilized compared to 74 percent of women, UN data show.

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On UN Women’s Day, Burma’s Shortcomings Exposed

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 08:49 PM PST

Women's rights advocates say Burma's Penal Code safeguards attitudes of male superiority. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Women's rights advocates say Burma's Penal Code safeguards attitudes of male superiority. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — A little more than two years ago, Thida Htwe, a young Arakanese Buddhist, was robbed, raped and murdered in Ramree, Arakan State. Shortly after her death, paper fliers and audio CDs began to circulate demanding "justice for Thida Htwe," according to local sources. That was the ostensible origin of two years of targeted violence that left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and more than 100 dead.

For an offense that inspires such fury among Burma's population, violence against women doesn't seem to move the country's courts. While the three Muslim men accused of the crime were each handed death sentences (which are believed to have been commuted to life in prison, though one man committed suicide in his cell), the ruling was an anomalous outcome.

Two alleged rape cases associated with riots in Mandalay in July were dismissed, and the women who claimed to have been raped were reportedly both hit with various undisclosed charges. Burma's Ministry of Home Affairs concluded that both of the incidents were fabricated, according to local media, and the women disappeared from both public view and public discourse. While the reasons that these cases played out the way they did were many, some said that soft laws about rape and other forms of abuse are too easily lent to selective enforcement.

Tuesday marked the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, leading to a flood of newly available information published by various women's rights groups on issues ranging from systematic sexual violence against ethnic women to economic and psychological control. The array of wrongdoings against women in Burma is so diverse that it is nearly impossible to sum up, let alone analyze.

"There are still many people who think that only beatings constitute violence against women," said May Sabae Phyu, director of the Gender Equality Network (GEN), speaking at a press conference in Rangoon on Monday. The group just published preliminary research on the breadth of abuses suffered by women in their daily lives, which included physical, emotional, partner and non-partner cruelty. The research found that "men's sexual entitlement was a key theme" in the accounts of women who have experienced abuse.

Burma's Penal Code safeguards attitudes of male superiority. A husband "has the right to rape" his wife if she is above the age of 12, according to Htar Htar, founder and director of Akhaya, a Rangoon-based NGO focused on women's empowerment. Marital rape, while it is believed to be common, is not recognized as a crime in Burma. Htar Htar easily pointed out many other discriminatory policies, which is why she is part of a committee working with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to draft the Anti-Violence Against Women Law. She expects the bill to reach Parliament by late next year.

The law will create legal mechanisms through which women can seek recourse and support. It will also offer a new legal definition of rape that would align with international norms, which Burma has never had before. Current law only sees rape as non-consensual penetration by a man against a woman, if they are not husband and wife and where "penetration is sufficient enough to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offense." Prosecution requires women to prove that they did not consent, even in the context of conflict. According to the Rome Statute, an international law treaty to which Burma is not party, consent is irrelevant in conflict because the environment is inherently coercive.

That is a distinction that will need to be addressed during the reform process, argued the Women's League of Burma, an umbrella group of women's rights organizations that on Tuesday launched a report about state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic territories. The group has documented more than 100 cases since 2010, roughly when the former military junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government and began to undertake a peace process with the country's myriad armed rebel groups.

It is still unclear which of the committee's recommendations will be accepted, but members are optimistic. The draft embraces a broader and more inclusive view of what violence is: namely, a threatened or actual use of force that could result in injury, death or psychological harm. While rape and domestic abuse are extreme forms of violence, Htar Htar pointed out that, "when we talk about violence against women we are also talking about harassment, and this is a part of everyday life."

Women in Burma routinely experience harassment in public places. One woman told The Irrawaddy that it is not uncommon for men to ejaculate on women in close spaces, such as city buses. Htar Htar was one of a handful of activists behind a popular "Whistle for Help" campaign, launched in 2012. The idea was to canvas Rangoon distributing plastic whistles to women on buses, encouraging them to blow the whistle on men who harassed them.

Many people knew about the Whistle for Help campaign, which was popular in the media and among activists. What fewer people realized was that the project was soon stopped by organizers out of concern that exposing harassment in public places risked retaliation and could even spark a riot. The pattern of using sexual assault as a premise for communal violence has scared some women silent, several activists said.

Burma signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1997, but has not signed an additional protocol that would create enforcement mechanisms and allow intervention by the convention's committee. Burma endorsed a Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in June 2014, a non-binding UN initiative.

Nearly 52 percent of Burma's total population is female, according to preliminary results of the 2014 census. Only about 5 percent of the nation's lawmakers are women.

The post On UN Women's Day, Burma's Shortcomings Exposed appeared first on The Irrawaddy Magazine.

Cambodia Khmer Rouge Trial Suspended Until January

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 08:41 PM PST


Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan is seen on a television screen in the media room at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in October. (Photo: Samrang Pring / Reuters)

Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan is seen on a television screen in the media room at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in October. (Photo: Samrang Pring / Reuters)

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal announced Tuesday it will suspend trial sessions until January, bowing to pressure from lawyers of one of the two defendants charged with genocide.

A tribunal statement said hearings would resume Jan. 9, deferring to threats of a boycott by lawyers of Khieu Samphan, who said it was unfair to proceed while they are still working on appealing the verdict in his first trial. The tribunal met briefly Monday before suspending proceedings. That hearing itself, at which it had planned to begin witness testimony, had already been delayed several weeks.

Khieu Samphan, the 1970s regime’s head of state, and Nuon Chea, right-hand man to the communist group’s late leader, Pol Pot, received life sentences in August after being found guilty of crimes against humanity. Some 1.7 million people are estimated to have died from starvation, disease and execution due to the group’s extremist policies.

The tribunal said it was impractical to replace Khieu Samphan’s lawyers without causing even more delays, even though it had found that his defense team was obstructing proceedings.

It did not, however, ruling out appointing additional lawyers or taking actions with legal professional organizations regarding the counsels’ conduct.

The U.N.-backed tribunal split the cases into two trials for fear that Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, could die before complete proceedings against them could be finished. In addition to genocide against minorities, the second trial will address for the first time accusations of rape and forced marriages.

Nuon Chea’s team had also sought a delay on separate grounds.

After years of legal and political wrangling, the Khmer Rouge tribunal was established in 2006, but has been plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and financial woes. The hybrid structure of the court, in which UN-appointed international judges and lawyers share duties with Cambodian counterparts, has led to allegations of political interference and repeated deadlocks.


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Burma Army to Assist with Festival Security in Kachin State

Posted: 25 Nov 2014 04:00 PM PST

A performance in Myitkyina during the Manau festival in 2011. (Photo: Khin Maung Win / The Irrawaddy)

A performance in Myitkyina during the Manau festival in 2011. (Photo: Khin Maung Win )

RANGOON — The Burma Army has announced it will provide additional security for the first Manau festival to be staged in the Kachin State capital in four years, despite complaints about the level of military involvement in the last festival.

Col. Than Aung, Minister of Border Security in Kachin State, told The Irrawaddy by phone on Tuesday that the Burma Army would assist local police in Myitkyina by providing government troops during the festival period.

"Since some clashes have broken out recently, we will provide additional security for the government officials and diplomats who will be attending the ceremony," he said.

The Manau festival is held annually around Jan. 10 to commemorate the founding of Kachin State in 1948. The festival was held every year from the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the Burmese junta and the Kachin Independence Organization in 1994 until renewed fighting broke out in 2011.

With prospects for a durable peace agreement improving over the course of the last 12 months, the Kachin State government has decided to stage the festival next year from Jan. 7-11.

The last time the Manau festival was held in 2011, local Kachin media reported attendees were unhappy about the level of control exercised by the military over the proceedings.

Col. Than Aung said that the military had no plans to intervene in the operation of the festival.

"We are just taking responsibility for security," he said.

The festival's working committee is currently redecorating Manau National Park and arranging a schedule of events.

"We sent out the invitation letters to all the embassies in Yangon [Rangoon] in the past few weeks," said Zaw Shan Lun, vice-president of the working committee for the Manau festival. "We are now arranging accommodation and transport for our guests."

"We will make sure the festival is held in January, as long as conditions don't worsen," he added.

The Burmese army will collaborate with the police force in drawing up security plans and government troops will act jointly with police over the course of the festival, according to Mya Than Htike, the Myitkyina police chief.

Tensions between the Burma Army and Kachin State residents have escalated since the shelling of a Kachin Independence Army (KIA) base last week claimed the lives of 23 cadets from other non-state armies.

On Sunday, the Army fired more than a dozen mortar rounds in the vicinity of KIA positions and camps for internally displaced civilians.

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