- ‘Crony’ Win Aung Removed From US Blacklist: Who’s Next?
- Govt Targets Economic Growth of 9.3% This Year
- Photo of the Week (English Version)
- Dramatic Drop in Water Levels Affects Inle Lake
- Winners of Annulled 1990 Election Plan Silver Jubilee
- Kaman IDPs in Arakan State Ask Govt to Rebuild Homes
- Burma Ponies Up $840,000 for a Rebranding
- Kokang Rebels Claim Dozens of Govt Soldiers Killed, Arms Seized
- Strong Winds Disrupt Flights to and From Rangoon
- On the Road With Student Protestors, a Photographic Journey
- Volvo Prepares to Send ‘Made in China’ Cars to US
- China to Crack Down on Strippers at Rural Funerals
- Rehabilitating Burma’s Cronies
- Google Lavishes Chairman with $109 Million Pay Package
- Thai Government Holds Talks With Politicians, Activists
- US Lifts Sanctions on Prominent Burmese Businessman
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 05:42 AM PDT
RANGOON —Burma's business community roundly welcomed the US Treasury Department's announcement on Thursday that sanctions had been lifted against business mogul Win Aung, predicting that the delisting could signal a tide of redemption for a long list of so-called cronies ostracized by the Western superpower.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement on Thursday that Win Aung and two of his businesses had been removed from the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list, a roster of individuals and entities that cannot conduct business with the United States.
The statement offered little in the way of explanation for his removal, but affirmed that the United States' "sanctions architecture for Burma remains in place." Blacklisted individuals can petition for removal from the list, which is maintained by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), though the delisting criteria arefar from transparent.
The State Department said that "positive steps and changed behavior" could warrant removal, but the US Embassy and OFAC declined to elaborate on what specific progress motivated the decision to absolve Win Aung, who was described as "a regime crony" in a 2007 US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks.
The leaked cable shows that the US Embassy recommended Win Aung be added to the SDN list because he "not only financially supports the Than Shwe regime, but also uses his contacts with the senior generals to amass and maintain his fortune." The cable further said that Win Aung had been awarded permission from the generals to log in protected forests, and that he was believed to have illegally exported US$5 million of teak annually.
Win Aung is the cofounder and CEO of Dagon International Ltd., one of Burma's biggest conglomerates with interests in timber, rubber, energy and construction. He is also the chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), the nation's largest business association, representing more than 10,000 domestic companies.
Controversially, he also serves as chairman of the Myanmar Thilawa SEZ Holdings Public Company (MTSH), a nine-member consortium invested in a major development near Rangoon associated with opaque business deals and unresolved land disputes. Credible researchers monitoring the development, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Irrawaddy that Win Aung's SDN status risked compromising his position as chairman of MTSH because of pressure from Japanese implementing partners. The researchers said they believed Win Aung's interest in Thilawa, which may include ambitions beyond his current chairmanship, to be a main driver of his petition for delisting. They added that he may have been "removed from the SDN list without adequate investigation from the US Department of Treasury."
Local businessmen have been less critical. Maung Aung, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Commerce, said the business community urged Treasury officials to remove Win Aung from the list because of his high standing in the UMFCCI, claiming that his blacklisted status was causing a bottleneck in bilateral commerce.
"Win Aung plays a major role here, but due to his US sanctions he wasn't able to do as much as he could," said Maung Aung, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday. "That's why, when US delegates came here, we told them about the impact of sanctions against him."
Like several of his colleagues, Maung Aung predicted that "more Burmese businessmen will be removed from the US sanctions list" in the near future. Some suggested that ZawZaw, chairman of the Max Myanmar Group of Companies, could be next in line. Htoo Group's TayZa and Asia World's TunMyintNaing were also contenders, according to several prominent businessmen. Neither the State Department nor the Treasury could confirm the speculations, thoughTreasury officials are known to have met with TayZa and several other blacklisted individuals in June 2014, when they were briefed on procedures for seeking removal.
While several members of the business community were pleased with Thursday's delisting—UMFCCI central committee member Myat Thin Aung welcomed the "good news" as "a benefit to us all"—one lawmaker argued that while longstanding Western sanctions ultimately hurt the Burmese public, rewarding "cronies" simply makes the rich richer.
"Burmese people suffered many impacts of Western economic sanctions," said Khine Maung Yi, an Upper House parliamentarian from the National Democratic Force (NDF) party."Though the US targeted cronies, the real impact was felt by the people. … By lifting sanctions against Win Aung, I believe that only he will benefit."
Burma's economy stagnated under the former military regime, which ruled the country until ceding power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. Since that time, the relationship between the United States and Burma has undergone rapid transformation. Diplomatic relations have been fully restored after more than two decades of reproach, and US legislation has been amended to allow for limited military and humanitarian cooperation.
US economic sanctions were eased beginning in 2012, though some restrictions remain. An arms embargo and a ban on US imports of jade and other minerals from Burma remain in place, and the SDN list still limits American partnerships with certain Burmese businessmen and companies. Some individuals, such as Win Aung, have been removed from the list, while others have since been added.
Last November, shortly before US President Barack Obama made his second visit to Burma in as many years, Lower House lawmaker Aung Thaung was added to the SDN list for undermining reforms and "perpetuating violence."
The post 'Crony' Win Aung Removed From US Blacklist: Who's Next? appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 05:21 AM PDT
RANGOON — Burma is targeting economic growth of 9.3 percent in the fiscal year that started this month, driven by an unprecedented amount of foreign investment and rapid expansion in its nascent telecoms sector.
The target was outlined in the country’s National Planning Act, approved by President Thein Sein on April 9 and seen by Reuters. It surpasses estimates by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has forecast 8.3 percent growth and the World Bank, which sees about 8 percent expansion this fiscal year.
The Southeast Asian country is growing fast, albeit from a low base, endowed with rich energy, mining and agriculture resources, but rife with poverty. The ADB estimates the economy grew 7.8 percent in fiscal 2013-14 and 8.5 percent in 2014-15.
Burma was for five decades beset by wayward policymaking and scant foreign investment under a military dictatorship that stifled progress in what was among the region’s most developed countries under British colonial rule.
Its economy has undergone a major facelift since 2012 led by Thein Sein, a former general who sought help from technocrats and financial institutions and is now luring foreign direct investment (FDI) on a scale Burma has never seen.
The $8.1 billion FDI recorded for 2014-2015 is a staggering 25 times the $329.6 million received in 2009/2010, the year before the military ceded power. An official at the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development told Reuters its FDI target for this fiscal year is $6 billion.
Of 14 prominent economic areas in Burma, the government sees 46.9 percent growth this fiscal year in telecoms, which has exploded since Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo launched cellphone services in the country of more than 50 million people.
Economist Khin Maung Nyo said the GDP growth target was reachable, provided an election this year went smoothly. "I wouldn’t say their target is unrealistic with some positive developments like soaring FDI and progress in political and economic reforms," he said.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 04:47 AM PDT
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 04:14 AM PDT
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INLE LAKE, Shan State — Southern Shan State's Inle Lake is facing drought conditions this dry season that have seen many of the area's waterways dry up.
The picturesque lake, one of Burma's most famous tourist attractions, has for years been suffering from a range of environmental problems such as drought, deforestation and pollution. The rapidly rising number of tourist visitors has led to an expansion of tourist infrastructure that adds to the pressures on the lake and its environs.
Currently, though boating through the lake's central reservoir remains possible, water levels are significantly lower at the villages of Ywa Ma and Nant Huu, located on the southwest end of the lake near the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, and at the waterway south to Nang Pan village.
Water levels in the channel linking the lake to the tourist town of Nyaung Shwe and the entrance to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, the lake's most famous shrine, are down considerably but motorized boats are still able to pass through.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 03:27 AM PDT
RANGOON — Elected representatives who won seats in Burma's historic 1990 election, the results of which were ignored by the former military regime, will mark the 25th anniversary of the poll next month.
David Hla Myint, secretary of the 1990 Elected Pyithu Hluttaw Representatives Group and a member of the anniversary's organizing committee, told The Irrawaddy that the silver jubilee would be commemorated at an event at Rangoon University's Yudathan Hall on May 27.
"We would like to express the reality of the 1990 elections, the elected representatives and their sufferings through this anniversary," he said.
In the 1990 general election, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 out of the 485 contested seats. The junta refused to recognize the victory, and officially annulled the victory in 2010 ahead of that year's election, which was widely regarded as fraudulent.
David Hla Myint, who won the constituency he contested for the NLD in 1990, said that the anniversary would be marked with the release of a report detailing the histories of those elected in the poll, many of whom were arrested and tortured by the military regime in the election's aftermath.
The 1990 Elected Pyithu Hluttaw Representatives Group was formed last year and is chaired by Khun Htun Oo, the leader of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy. Its membership is drawn from a number of politicians currently serving in Burma's myriad ethnic political parties.
The group is also pushing for constitutional reform on many fronts, arguing amongst other points that the current charter's allocation of one quarter of parliamentary seats to military appointees would undermine the next poll's credibility.
"The 1990 election was free and fair, despite the fact that the results were not recognized," said David Hla Myint. "But the 2015 election is not likely to be free and fair because it will be conducted under the 2008 Constitution."
The post Winners of Annulled 1990 Election Plan Silver Jubilee appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 03:22 AM PDT
RANGOON — More than 4,000 ethnic Kaman Muslims in Arakan State remain in need of new houses after their homes were destroyed during intercommunal violence in 2012, according to the Kaman National Development Party, which is working to get government support for a rebuilding effort.
About 500 Kaman houses were burned down in Sittwe, Yanbye and Kyaukphyu townships during the violence, which pitted Buddhists against Muslims and left more than 100 dead in the western state.
Some of the displaced now live in nearby camps set up by the government, while others went to live with relatives in Rangoon or elsewhere, according to Tin Hlaing Win, secretary of the Kaman National Development Party.
The situation in the camps has deteriorated since the violence, said Tin Hlaing Win, who told The Irrawaddy that "the Kaman do not deserve to live in camps."
"When the president went to visit Thandwe, he was shown almost 100 rebuilt homes out of more than 100 [destroyed]," he said, referring to a subsequent spate of violence in Thandwe in September 2013. "But in Yanbye, Kyaukphyu and Sittwe, the area is still just burned out fields."
More than 100 buildings in Yanbye, including four religious structures, were destroyed in 2012. Another 100 in Kyaukphyu and almost 200 in Sittwe were also razed in the rioting.
The Kaman National Development Party has asked the Arakan State government, its Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn and Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann to resettle the affected Kaman internally displaced persons (IDPs).
"We requested that they rebuild our lost property just as [they did for] ethnic Rakhine [Arakanese], because the state is stable now," Tin Hlaing Win said.
The state's chief minister has scheduled to meet with representatives from the Kaman party on April 28 to discuss possible resettlement plans.
"They do not have homes to go back to. If the houses that were burned down and destroyed are rebuilt, everybody will resettle. Because we are ethnic, we would like to get our rights according to the law," he said, referring to the fact that Kaman Muslims, unlike the state's persecuted Rohingya, are recognized as an official ethnic group under the country's 1982 Citizenship Law.
There are about 20,000 Kaman currently living in Arakan State, Tin Hlaing Win said.
The 2012 violence displaced about 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims but also ethnic Kaman and Rakhine Buddhists. The vast majority of the affected Rohingya Muslims remain in squalid camps on the outskirts of Sittwe and other townships in northern Arakan State, where humanitarian conditions were described last year as "deplorable" by the UN human rights rapporteur for Burma.
The government does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as one of Burma's 135 official ethnic groups, denying them the rights of citizenship and referring to them as "Bengalis," implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh despite many having lived in Arakan State for generations.
A draft Rakhine Action Plan revealed in September 2014 does instruct that the government "allocate land and build accommodations for displaced Bengali communities" in the affected townships, but the plan has drawn condemnation from human rights groups because a separate component would consign any Rohingya who refuse to identify as Bengali to temporary detention camps.
Additional reporting by Andrew D. Kaspar.
The post Kaman IDPs in Arakan State Ask Govt to Rebuild Homes appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 01:29 AM PDT
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:46 AM PDT
RANGOON — Kokang rebels claimed they have killed dozens of government soldiers and seized numerous small arms while fending off a Burma Army attack on one of their bases in the mountains of northern Shan State's Laukkai Township on Thursday.
Htun Myat Lin, a spokesperson of the Kokang's Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), said four battalions belonging to Light Infantry Division No. 33 were involved in an assault on a mountaintop rebel base in an area called Nan Htein Mang Shai, and fierce clashes broke out at three sites around the base.
He said the attack began with an artillery bombardment at 3 am, followed by a ground troop assault starting on 9 am that continued throughout Thursday, adding that the fighting occurred about 6 km northeast of Laukkai.
"We had fighting the whole day and even at night. They stopped attacking us at midnight. Many of them were killed: 90 of them were killed from our estimates at three places and over 100 of them were wounded," Htun Myat Lin told The Irrawaddy on Friday.
He said the MNDAA seized weapons of the dead and wounded soldiers, adding, "We got 3 pistols and one 120 mm mortar, we even got 50 machine guns normally carried by the army."
The Irrawaddy was unable to independently verify the claims by the MNDAA, which has been fighting the Burma Army in remote, rugged terrain on the Burma-China border that is difficult to access.
Several Facebook users shared photos of the supposed arms' seizures, showing dozens of machine guns with the emblem of the 33rd Light Infantry Division.
Htun Myat Lin said some MNDAA fighters posted the photos on social media. He added, "I told them not to post photos of dead bodies because I am worried this fighting will become a racist problem… Burmese people will think the Kokang are very brutal if they see such photos."
State media on Friday made no mention of the clashes.
Fighting occurred during Thingyan Festival, according to state media, which reported last week that 16 soldiers were killed and 110 injured during attacks on strategic MNDAA outposts on April10-16.
A total of 126 government troops were killed and 359 others injured since fighting in the region erupted on Feb. 9, the report said, while the army recovered the bodies of 74 rebels resulting from 253 hostile engagements.
Fighting broke out in Laukkai Township after the MNDAA, with support of ethnic Palaung and Arakanese rebels, launched attacks on army and police bases. Tens of thousands of civilians have since been displaced. Most belong to the ethnic Chinese Kokang minority and have fled across the border into neighboring China.
The government and an alliance of 16 ethnic armed groups reached an in-principle agreement over the content of a draft nationwide ceasefire agreement on March 30. The ethnic groups are due to convene to discuss endorsing the draft ceasefire.
The government, however, refuses to acknowledge the MNDAA and the Arakan Army as potential signatories to the agreement.
The post Kokang Rebels Claim Dozens of Govt Soldiers Killed, Arms Seized appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:42 AM PDT
RANGOON — Strong winds in Burma's former capital led to a suspension of all flights to and from Rangoon International Airport on Thursday, according to reports in local media.
Winds between 35 and 38 miles per hour were recorded by Burma's Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, lasting for about one hour starting at 5:55 pm.
Burmese-language 7-Day Daily, citing an official from the Department of Civil Aviation, reported that the winds caused one Thai Airways flight to be rerouted to Bangkok, while five other flights also had to about-face and return to their departing airports.
The sudden gale and subsequent downpour uprooted trees in several parts of the city and widespread power blackouts shortly followed, but no injuries have been reported.
The Department of Meteorology and Hydrology has issued a warning that whirlwinds originating in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea may cause strong wind and thunderstorms all over the country, continuing through the month of April as the monsoon season nears.
Similar gusts and early rainstorms were reported this week in central Burma's Sagaing and Monywa, leaving some houses damaged.
State media reported that two people died during a 30-minute storm in Tamu, Sagaing Division, on Wednesday.
Posted: 24 Apr 2015 12:40 AM PDT
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RANGOON — Photographs documenting an education reform movement, led by students whose historic protest march of more than 300 miles was brutally crushed by police last month, will be on display from Saturday to Monday at the Think Art Gallery in Rangoon.
The exhibit, "Documenting Burma's Long March," charts the students' 49-day journey from Mandalay to Rangoon, with the four featured photographers having followed nearly the entirety of the march.
The photos capture the highs and lows of a protest that at turns featured jubilant chanting and tense confrontations with local authorities, right up through the brutal crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division, that effectively sent the movement underground.
About 40 pictures will be on display in total, shot by The Irrawaddy's photojournalists JPaing, Sai Zaw, Hein Htet and Teza Hlaing, and one photojournalist from The People's Age weekly journal, La Min Tun.
The onset of the protest march was documented by Mandalay-based Teza Hlaing. JPaing then followed the marchers until their arrival in Letpadan, about 80 miles northwest of Rangoon. Sai Zaw was on hand for the police crackdown on March 10, and Hein Htet and La Min Tun covered student solidarity protests in Rangoon on March 5 and March 10.
"To leave a record of that moment, the students' protest, our photojournalists shot their activities," JPaing said.
Student activists on Jan. 20 began their march from Mandalay to Rangoon, but the protest came up against a police blockade in Letpadan in early March, with authorities refusing to allow them to proceed to the commercial capital. The standoff ended violently on March 10, when baton-wielding police dispersed the students and detained more than 120 people.
Seventy students remain in police custody facing trial, and 11 of their supporters are also facing charges but have been released on bail.
The post On the Road With Student Protestors, a Photographic Journey appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 11:20 PM PDT
CHENGDU, China — On the verge of exporting the first “Made in China” cars to the United States, Volvo is determined to show they are as good as vehicles it produces in Europe.
In contrast to its European factories that check a few completed cars from each batch, every vehicle that rolls off Volvo’s 3-year-old assembly line in this city in China’s southwest goes through a five-hour battery of tests on a driving track. Once a month, or three times as often as in Europe, Volvo tears apart a finished car in Chengdu to examine the quality of welds and other work.
The effort to persuade Americans to buy a premium car from China is a new step up in Volvo Car Corp.’s campaign to establish itself as a global luxury brand following its 2010 acquisition by Chinese automaker Geely.
“I have heard no customer ask me where his car is built. It is built by Volvo and is Volvo quality, and of course Chengdu will be exactly the same,” said CEO Hakan Samuelsson. “I am quite confident that we will demonstrate that.”
The sedan due to be exported from Chengdu is the S60 Inscription, based on Volvo’s S60L, a version of the S60 sedan designed for China with an extra eight centimeters (three inches) of rear seat legroom for buyers who have a driver and ride in back. Volvo follows automakers including Cadillac and Mercedes Benz that sell extended sedans for the distinctively Chinese market of “rear seat customers.”
In June, the first U.S.-bound S60 Inscriptions are to be shipped down the Yangtze River to Shanghai, then across the Pacific to the United States. Volvo expects to send about 5,000 per year to the United States, according to Samuelsson. He said Volvo has no plans to “massively export” but, since that model will be produced only in China, will send a few to add to its U.S. lineup.
The decision follows a string of product quality scandals in the U.S. over faulty or tainted Chinese goods ranging from tires to toothpaste.
Still, Americans are comfortable enough buying Chinese-made products that the location of Volvo’s factory is unlikely to matter so long as the company maintains its quality standards, said industry analyst Yale Zhang of Auto Foresight, a Shanghai research firm.
“Many things are selling in America that are made in China,” said Zhang. “Now it’s just another one, a foreign brand that is a car.”
Exports of Chinese-produced cars to the United States, even under a European brand, are a milestone for the ruling Communist Party, which wants to see its auto industry expand into global markets.
A handful of China’s young but ambitious auto brands have announced plans to export to the United States or Western Europe only to find they could not meet emissions and safety standards.
For its part, Volvo has been exporting to the United States since the 1960s from its European factories in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Ghent, Belgium.
The company wants its Chinese auto factories in Chengdu and in Daqing in the northeast and its engine plant in Zhangjiakou near Beijing to be seen as an equal part of that network with the same technology, components suppliers and quality standards. The company says the Chengdu factory’s air emissions will be cleaner than the average auto plant in Europe.
Volvo is planning a U.S. assembly plant and says the location will be announced in the next few weeks.
“We have to explore the global market,” the founder and chairman of Geely, Li Shufu, told reporters during the Shanghai auto show this month.
Other foreign brands including GM export some Chinese-made vehicles to other developing markets but most say they need all their production capacity to supply China, the biggest auto market by the number of vehicles sold.
Instead of being absorbed into Geely, which also sells cars under its own name, executives say the 2010 acquisition liberated Volvo, which had been a unit of Ford Motor Co. and shared vehicle platforms and components with Ford brands. Following the acquisition, Volvo launched an $11 billion campaign to create its own technology and models and to expand its factory and sales networks.
“Everyone tells me that we are now more independent than we have ever been,” said Samuelsson.
2014 was Volvo’s best year to date, with sales up 9 percent to 465,866 vehicles. Profits were 2.2 billion kronor ($252 million) on revenue of 130 billion kronor. China was its biggest market, accounting for 17 percent of sales, followed by Sweden at 13 percent and the United States at 12 percent. This year, the company says it aims to exceed sales of 500,000 vehicles for the first time.
Volvo is working with Geely on developing shared vehicle platforms. Li, the Geely chairman, said the Chinese brand wants to draw on its Swedish sibling’s know-how in safety and in cleaning the air inside the vehicle — an important feature in China’s smog-choked cities. Geely has just launched its first vehicle made with Volvo technology, the Borui sedan.
With that partnership, “Geely’s products can develop much faster than other competitors,” said Zhang, the analyst.
Li says he has avoided telling Volvo’s Swedish managers what to do, because he wants to protect the special qualities of a brand he admires. When asked whether Volvo might cut prices in response to a slowdown in the Chinese auto market, Li said a reporter would have to ask the Swedes.
“Li Shufu is a very smart guy,” said Zhang. “He understands the gap between the two brands and he purposely tried not to interfere.”
One area where Li played an active role with Volvo was in developing the extended sedan, according to Samuelsson. He said Volvo needed a Chinese-style vehicle but, with its roots in Scandinavia, where most buyers drive themselves, lacked the right experience.
“His opinions have influenced this as a very experienced ‘rear seat customer’,” said Samuelsson.
Volvo also has gained from its Chinese ownership, a status that exempts it from regulatory handicaps faced by foreign-owned automakers in China.
“We can move much, much faster,” said Lars Danielsson, a Volvo senior vice president in charge of China.
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 11:03 PM PDT
BEIJING — Chinese officials are launching a campaign to crack down on stripteases and other lewd shows that have become popular at funerals in some rural areas, the Ministry of Culture said Thursday.
The ministry said in a statement that it will tighten control over rural culture, where vulgar performances have been thriving because of a general lack of cultural events.
Such erotic performances at funerals are a relatively new phenomenon. Many rural people believe that a large attendance at funerals is a sign of honor for the deceased, and the shows are used to attract more people and display the family's prosperity.
The funerals also are a rare occasion for crowds to gather as villagers working as migrant workers in industrial centers return home to bury the deceased.
Performances of traditional opera were once popular at funerals, followed later by movie screenings.
In the last several months, people who have returned to their rural homes for funerals have complained on social media about lewd shows, remarking that troupes hired to play dirges suddenly changed their tune and began to peel off their clothes.
The ministry cited a performance by six strippers at a funeral in the northern province of Hebei and a lewd show by three performers at a funeral in the eastern province of Jiangsu. Those responsible for vulgar acts will be punished, it said.
"Such illegal operations have disrupted local entertainment markets and corrupted social mores," the ministry said.
Photos and videos of such performances circulating online show children in attendance at shows featuring scantily clad women.
The post China to Crack Down on Strippers at Rural Funerals appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 10:53 PM PDT
The United States Treasury announced on Thursday that prominent business leader Win Aung had been removed from its sanctions list, allowing him and some of his companies under the Dagon Group umbrella to conduct business in the US. In this article from January 2013, The Irrawaddy's founding editor Aung Zaw examines the efforts of other local tycoons to rehabilitate their public profiles after a history of close collaborations with the former military junta.
Burma's richest tycoons are back in the news again—not for their shady ties to Burma's former ruling generals, but because of their recent efforts to cozy up to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tay Za, Zaw Zaw and several other notorious figures who came to prominence during the bad old days of military rule have been making headlines recently for donating generously to NLD causes. This, in turn, has led to criticism of the NLD, which has been accused of defending cronies whose names are virtually synonymous with corruption.
On Dec. 27-28, the NLD held a fundraiser in Rangoon to mark the second anniversary of the party's Education Network. The event netted around 500 million kyat (US $580,000), including a sizable portion from some of Burma's richest men.
During the event, Skynet, a television operator and a subsidiary of Shwe Than Lwin Company owned by Kyaw Win, donated 135 million kyat ($155,000), while the Htoo Company, owned by Tay Za, donated 70 million kyat ($81,000).
Kyaw Win is known to be close to the office of President Thein Sein, while Tay Za has been accused by the United States of being an "arms dealer and financial henchman" of the former junta—a claim he denies.
Aides to Tay Za have told me that it was the NLD that approached him first; leaders of the party tell that that is not the case.
Tay Za is known to be close to Burma's senior military leaders, including ex-dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe. When I met him at his residence in Rangoon last year, however, he told me that he never met the reclusive former strongman until after his helicopter crashed on a snow-capped mountain in the far north of Kachin State in February 2011.
Than Shwe—who three years earlier refused for a full month to allow foreign aid workers into the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 140,000 lives and left millions homeless—immediately ordered hundreds of troops to conduct a search-and-rescue mission for Tay Za and his crew, all of whom survived.
Tay Za told me he later went to the residence of the recently retired junta supremo to express his heartfelt gratitude.
Tay Za also quietly met Suu Kyi soon after her release in November 2010. He had reportedly offered to assist the NLD. Party sources told me Suu Kyi did not reject his offer.
Suu Kyi has also recently been seen visiting a children's hospital that Burmese tycoon Zaw Zaw of the Max Myanmar Group helped to renovate. Like Tay Za, Zaw Zaw wasted no time finding an opportunity to meet with the Noble Peace Prize laureate. Soon after she was freed from house arrest, Zaw Zaw, who is the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation, invited her to watch a match together with him. This reportedly earned him a scolding from some senior generals, but that hasn't stopped him from meeting her again.
When I met him in Rangoon earlier this month, Zaw Zaw—who is still in his mid-forties—said that people should support Suu Kyi. He admitted that sanctions were a big hindrance in making business as the country is opening up to the outside world. He said he cares about his image and his company, but added that if he can't shed the label of crony, he wants to at least try to be a "a good crony."
Zaw Zaw is media savvy and friendly. He will proudly tell visitors and the media that he once washed dishes in Japan before coming back to Burma to run his own business selling used cars and later getting involved in the jade mining business in Kachin State.
"I have nothing to hide," he told me. He was a university student during the 1988 uprising in Rangoon and he witnessed the crackdown and his fellow students being gunned down.
True or not, he doesn't hide his admiration for Suu Kyi. Indeed, many businessmen who are on the US sanctions list know that Suu Kyi holds the key to their future.
She is the one who can recommend the US government to remove some tycoons from the list. It's no wonder why some tycoons have been seen making public donations to the NLD and Suu Kyi.
Since his early days, Zaw Zaw's business empire has expanded considerably. In addition to his mining interests, he now has his own bank (Ayeyarwady Bank, one of the largest in Burma), a cement factory, gas stations and a major construction company. The latter company was awarded numerous lucrative contracts in Naypyidaw, the new capital, including a stadium for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games.
Zaw Zaw may be rich, but he also know that he needs to contribute to society.
In 2010, he set up the Ayeyarwady Foundation, a charitable organization. Since then, he has been building schools across Mon and Karen states and Irrawaddy and Mandalay divisions. Recently, the chairman of the Max Myanmar also attended the wedding of a former student leader and member of the 88 Generation Students group.
But many Burma watchers say that providing cash to the NLD and local community and civil society groups isn't enough to redeem Zaw Zaw's reputation. One Rangoon–based observer said that Zaw Zaw and other cronies need to show not only that they support current political reforms, but also that they are willing to make a long-term commitment to the development of civil society. They should also return land that they acquired under the former regime, he said.
"The cronies must show that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem," the observer added.
From the point of view of the US, which was long the staunchest critic of Burma's former military rulers, the cronies must make fundamental changes in the way they operate if they want to be removed from the sanctions list.
There has been wild speculation in Rangoon recently that the US is looking into potential waivers of entities, particularly banks, to allow foreign businesses to do business in Burma. This would open up some opportunities for some cronies, but it is unlikely that those involved in drugs or who helped purchase arms for the regime will be removed from the list anytime soon.
Providing cash and building schools and hospitals here and there isn't enough, one Rangoon-based diplomat said firmly. Some cronies now realize that strong recommendations from Suu Kyi and prominent activists such as Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi and other actors in the civil society movement are important, as the US is closely monitoring them.
Suu Kyi surprised many by saying that those who became wealthy during military rule should be given another chance to reform themselves. They should be considered innocent until proven guilty, she said, before adding that cronies of the former ruling generals should be investigated for any alleged wrongdoing.
"People may have become rich in different ways. But whether they were involved in any illegal action to make themselves rich must be investigated," said the opposition leader.
Now, many in Burma are asking whether the tycoons are trying buy off Suu Kyi.
In early January, senior NLD leaders held a press conference to explain the activities of the party's education network. The press conference was held at the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel—owned by none other than Tay Za.
At the reception, Soe Win, a senior leader of the NLD, told me that he welcomed tycoons' contribution to education and health. When I asked if the tycoons approached Suu Kyi, he smiled and nodded.
But the question now is: can Suu Kyi rehabilitate some of Burma's most notorious cronies?
Suu Kyi, who is now the chairwoman of the rule of law and tranquility committee, said that even if they have committed crimes, they should be given a chance to reform themselves.
The right of criminals to rehabilitate themselves should be regarded as part of the rule of law, she said, adding that punishment that is solely intended to inflict suffering is barbaric. "What civilized people should have is a vision that punishment is for reform," she said.
"Those who are considered cronies have supported the social activities of the NLD and others. What is wrong with that? Instead of spending their money on things that have no purpose, they have supported things that they should support. It's a good thing," said Suu Kyi.
Indeed, there are many questions that need to be asked. Can cronies become builders of industry and national economic power? How can they contribute back to society by building philanthropic foundations and provide life-long assistance to society? Many showy tycoons and cronies in Burma are not interested in helping society.
In fact, critics have charged that contributions from cronies are tiny compared to the money they spend on their posh Italian sports cars.
Cronies who have quietly supported Suu Kyi and the opposition movement and donated to the Burmese community in the past were upset to see some cronies who just popped up and threw some cash at the NLD. "They are just opportunists, because they want to be removed from the [US sanctions] list, a young tycoon told me.
"In fact, we have been helping opposition groups for many years," he said.
He also warned the US not to overlook the fact that several big-time businessmen who were arms smugglers and involved in the opium trade and other shady business are still not on the US sanction list. Moreover, there are several tycoons who have provided profit shares to the generals' family members.
Sean Turnell, an expert on Burma's economy at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, thinks the cronies are destructive and resistant to reform. "I think the majority are cronies of the destructive sort—but some might turn out for the better."
"They are rent-seekers pure and simple rather than builders of genuine enterprise," he added.
"[They are] living off government regulatory largesse, the recipients of monopoly and quasi-monopoly profits and so on. As such, they are political animals as much as economic ones. But certainly there are some too who may emerge as something else. On this front, I guess we have to hope so, since they are amongst the few with sufficient capital to do transformative things, if this is what their desire is."
A question now is how can cronies be rehabilitated in Burma?
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 10:46 PM PDT
SAN FRANCISCO — Google paid its billionaire Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt nearly $109 million last year while the company’s stock slumped.
Most of the compensation consisted of stock valued at $100 million. It was the largest stock package that Schmidt has received since 2011 when Google Inc. awarded him a bundle valued at $94 million at the time he relinquished the CEO’s job to company co-founder Larry Page.
Documents filed with regulators Thursday also disclosed that Page and the company’s other founder, Sergey Brin, limited their 2014 pay to $1 each, as has been their practice for years.
Schmidt also pocketed a $1.25 million salary, a $6 million bonus and perks valued at nearly $1 million. His total pay last year soared by more than five-fold from 2013 when his Google compensation was valued at $19.3 million.
The hefty raise came in a year that saw Google’s stock drop by 5 percent amid investor concerns about the company’s big spending on far-flung projects. Analysts have also questioned whether Google will be able to maintain its dominance in Internet search as more people rely on smartphones instead of personal computers to access digital content.
The downturn in Google’s stock contrasted with an 11 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index last year.
Schmidt, 59, already is among the world’s richest people with an estimated fortune of $9 billion, according to Forbes. Most of his wealth has been built on the Google stock that he began accumulating when he became the Mountain View, California, company’s CEO in 2001.
The Associated Press calculates executive compensation by including salary, bonuses, perks, above-market interest that the company pays on deferred compensation, and the estimated value of stock and stock options awarded during the year. It does not include changes in the present value of pension benefits, so the AP total can differ slightly from the total reported by companies to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The post Google Lavishes Chairman with $109 Million Pay Package appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 09:48 PM PDT
BANGKOK — Thailand's military government on Thursday held reconciliation talks with the leaders of the Puea Thai party it toppled from power nearly a year ago, along with other politicians, academics and student activists.
The talks, held at the site of the May 2014 coup staged by the army, come as Thailand debates a draft constitution that the junta says will help heal the country's deep divisions, but which parties from both sides of the political spectrum have criticized as undemocratic.
Members of the conservative Democrat Party also attended the meeting. Some of the participants called for the draft charter to be put to a referendum.
Thailand needs to reach a constitution acceptable to all, said Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the opposition "red shirt" movement and a former lawmaker of Puea Thai.
"If the public does not agree, we have to amend the constitution," Jatuporn, who attended the meeting, told Reuters. "Even if it means wasting another year or two, it is better than moving forward to where problems will be waiting."
Thailand's military rulers have said a general election will be held in 2016 but warned a return to democracy could be pushed back if the country held a referendum.
Critics say a provision in the charter for proportional representation would lead to weak coalition governments.
They say the charter is an attempt to ensure limited powers for any future government allied to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The constitution also includes a curb on populist-style policies, such as those favored by Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who was the leader of Puea Thai. Yingluck's administration was toppled in the 2014 coup, while Thaksin was the victim of another coup in 2006.
Thailand has suffered nearly a decade of political turmoil as Thaksin and his allies have vied for power with the traditional Bangkok elite threatened by his meteoric rise.
Thaksin lives abroad to avoid a jail sentence handed down for graft in 2008.
Since taking power, the junta has stifled dissent by detaining politicians and activists for "attitude adjustments," targeting mostly supporters of the government it ousted.
The junta has been criticized for lifting martial law and replacing it with a security provision in the interim constitution, known as Section 44, that gives sweeping powers to the military.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who, as army chief, led the May coup, told reporters he would not use the security clause to force reconciliation.
"Reconciliation must come from each individual's heart," he said.
The post Thai Government Holds Talks With Politicians, Activists appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
Posted: 23 Apr 2015 08:25 PM PDT
WASHINGTON — The Treasury on Thursday removed a prominent Burmese businessman from a blacklist that had barred him from doing business in the United States.
The beneficiary, Win Aung, is president of Burma's main business association. Treasury also removed two companies of the Dagon Group that he heads off the sanctions list. The Dagon Group has interests in timber, rubber, energy and construction.
The Obama administration rolled back trade and investment sanctions against Burma in 2012 to reward its shift from direct military rule, but the United States still forbids business dealings with military corporations and certain other individuals and companies, mostly officials and cronies of the former regime.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday that the United States has made clear that those sanctioned can seek delisting by demonstrating "they have taken positive steps and changed behavior."
Burma wants Washington to lift sanctions entirely, but the quasi-civilian government has been criticized for stalling on reforms and detaining peaceful protesters as the Southeast Asian heads toward elections in November.
"We have made clear to the Burmese government that additional changes in US sanctions policy are dependent on the government's continuing its democratic and economic reforms and resolving disputes with members of ethnic groups," Harf said in a statement.
The US administration has looked to promote American investment in Burma's untapped market, and Win Aung's blacklisting had caused some awkwardness.
Although he was alleged to have used his close ties to Burma's military rulers to build one of the country's biggest business conglomerates, he's supported the country's opening.
Right activists criticized the United States when in 2013, Jose Fernandez, then-assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, shook hands with Win Aung, head of the Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, at an event in Burma to promote business ties with the United States.
The post US Lifts Sanctions on Prominent Burmese Businessman appeared first on The Irrawaddy.
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