Thai official charged after Rohingya refugee trafficked and raped

By AFP & DVB

A policeman has been charged with trafficking after a Rohingya woman was allegedly lured from a shelter in southern Thailand and subsequently raped by a man from the refugee Muslim minority, police told AFP Friday.

It is believed to be the first time a Thai official has been charged with trafficking of Rohingya boat people, despite probes into alleged people smuggling by authorities including the army.

The officer is accused of driving the 25-year-old victim along with her daughters, aged 12 and nine, and two other women, from the shelter in Phang Nga province in late May.

The woman was told she would be taken to Malaysia to be reunited with her husband, who is also from the minority group, but was instead held at several places in the region in an ordeal lasting several weeks, police said.

The woman was allegedly raped repeatedly by a Rohingya man, who is believed to have worked as a translator at the shelter and has been charged with assault.

The victim and her children were found on a roadside and returned to the shelter last week when she contacted the police.

“The officer has been charged with taking part in human trafficking and abuse of his position,” Police Colonel Weerasin Kwansaeng, commander of Kuraburi Police Station told AFP.

“The victim said he drove the car from the shelter,” he said, adding it was the first time charges had been brought against police over the trafficking of Rohingya.

Dozens of Rohingya women and children, who fled communal violence in Burma, are housed at the shelter while hundreds of men from the ethnic group are being held at an immigration detention centre in the same province.

Rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over the treatment of destitute Rohingya refugees by Thai authorities, saying they are held in poor conditions and are vulnerable to exploitation.

The rape “demonstrates the vulnerability of Rohingya women to human traffickers — even when they are living in government-run shelters where they should be protected,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

In January, Thai authorities opened an investigation into allegations that army officials were involved in trafficking Rohingya.

Around 2,000 Rohingya refugees remain in detention in Thailand, while authorities wait for a third country to offer to accept them.

Described by the UN as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world, Rohingya have for years trickled abroad to neighbouring Bangladesh and, increasingly, to Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Burma views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal ‘Bengali’ immigrants and denies them citizenship.

An explosion of tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Burma’s Arakan state since June 2012 has triggered a huge exodus of Rohingya from the country.

Defence minister vows to return land confiscated by military

By DVB

Burma’s Defence Minister Brigadier General Wai Lwin has informed the parliament-backed Land Grab Investigation Commission that the military was planning to return land appropriated by their forces, with the exception of property that is set to house construction projects.

Upper house representative from Magwe division and member of the Land Grab Investigation Commission Hla Swe said the group’s chairperson Tin Htut recently informed members that the defence minister pledged to return the seized land; however, a timetable was not provided.

According to the upper house representative, more than 100,000 acres of land has been confiscated by the military to build ‘ordinance factories’ in Magwe division alone.

Moreover, Hla Swe called on farmers across the country to start collecting evidence that would prove their ownership instead of waging “ploughing protests”.

The demonstrations, where farmers till land that had been confiscated, is a popular form of protest in Burma in response to the rash of land disputes across the country.

Following more than two years of reforms, land rights have become one of the most tempestuous issues in Burma as farmers begin to challenge authorities over property that was appropriated by the military and crony-connected companies during nearly five decades of junta rule.

UNHCR concerned over violence in Myanmar

Spokesperson of UNHCR Edwards expressed concern over escalating tension and violence in Myanmar's Rakhine region following Thursday's incident.

Adrian Edwards, spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), expressed concern over escalating tension and violence in Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) region following Thursday's incident which resulted injuries of two internally displaced people (IDP) and six locals.

Edwards held a press conference at UN Geneva Office and reminded that the incident occurred in the Kyein Ni Pyin IDP camp in Pauktaw township of Rakhine state and the UNHCR provided temporary shelter for the 4,400 people from the ethnic Rohingya community displaced in the region.

The violence is believed to have been triggered by false rumours that displaced people would be isolated and prevented from returning to their places of origin said Edwards and added, "When some of the displaced gathered at a nearby military post asking that the leader be handed over, gunfire was used by the authorities to disperse the crowd and resulting in the fatalities and wounding."

"UNHCR staff arrived at the scene shortly after to follow up with the victims' families and facilitate medical attention to the injured. We are also concerned about the safety of the village leader and his family," he added.

Stating that UNHCR was calling for an investigation into the incident, Edwards said, "The agency is appealing to the authorities to handle the matter in a peaceful and calm way to avoid fuelling further violence and loss of life."

Edwards also called for dialogue between the involved parties to resolve the grievance and stated that the government must build confidence with the communities and promote reconciliation, so that those displaced could eventually return to their areas of origin.

There are some 140,000 people displaced within Rakhine state since the eruption of viloence in June 2012.

www.worldbulletin.net

Malaysia clashes stoke fear of Myanmar spillover

AFP

SELAYANG, Malaysia - Myanmar migrant Yaza Min came to Malaysia several years ago seeking a better life but instead has hidden for more than three weeks in a temple, fearing for his safety as Muslim-Buddhist violence back home spilled over.

Secretarian bloodshed between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims erupted in Myanmar a year ago, leaving about 200 people dead, up to 140,000 homeless, and raising fears of wider instability in the region as refugees flee the country.

Recent incidents in nearby Malaysia and Indonesia are feeding those concerns.

At least four Myanmar Buddhists were killed in Malaysia in suspected revenge killings by Muslims that began on May 30 in an area on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur where many Myanmar migrants have settled.

In one attack, Yaza Min, a Buddhist, was hit with a steel pipe when he and several fellow workers at a vast vegetable market were targeted in a sudden assault by eight men also armed with machetes.

"I will go back (to Myanmar). I'm very afraid," he said, cowering in a Buddhist temple where he and dozens of others have sought refuge.

In April, eight Buddhist fishermen from Myanmar were beaten to death in an Indonesian detention centre by Rohingyas - a Muslim group that claims heavy persecution in Myanmar - over two alleged rapes blamed on Buddhists.

The violence back in Myanmar has sent fresh waves of Rohingyas fleeing on rickety boats in a perilous journey to neighbouring countries like Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Many fear staying in Myanmar due to a strident anti-Muslim movement that has included a campaign headed by Buddhist monks to shun shops owned by Muslims.

by AsiaOne

Myanmar authorities ‘not behind’ religious unrest

Myanmar president’s office spokesman Ye Htut delivers a speech in Yangon

AFP/Yangon

Myanmar’s government and army were not behind recent outbreaks of deadly religious violence, the president’s spokesman said yesterday, amid accusations that security forces stood by - or were even complicit - in the clashes.

Sectarian bloodshed, mostly targeting Muslims, has laid bare deep divides that were largely suppressed under decades of military rule which ended two years ago in the Buddhist-majority country.

Rights groups have criticised the police and army for failing to stop mobs attacking mainly Muslim neighbourhoods in two separate flare-ups of unrest in western and central Myanmar.

The speed of the destruction, coupled with eyewitness reports of investigators arriving to spark violence, also led to speculation it was organised by elements within Myanmar’s military intent on disrupting the reform process. “There has been some speculation about who is behind the conflict,” said president’s office spokesman Ye Htut.

“However, I would like to say firmly, at this point, that it’s completely false that the government is behind this and that the military carried out what happened,” he said. “In reality the first ones who get the headache of solving the problem are the government and the military.”

Monks have also been accused of involvement in the clashes. Eyewitnesses have said people dressed in monks’ robes were among angry mobs who destroyed houses and mosques.

Radical monks have led a campaign to shun shops owned by Muslims, but senior monks have accused foreign media of one-sided reporting of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict. Speaking at a US Embassy event on the tensions, Ye Htut said that sweeping economic and political reforms were for the benefit of the whole country. “There is no reason to leave a certain group or a religion or a ethnic group behind... as long as we leave someone behind in a human society our problems can never be solved.”

Meanwhile, two Muslims were shot dead and six others wounded when security forces opened fire at a camp for some of those displaced by last year’s violence in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, the UN refugee agency said.

The incident, on Thursday morning, took place as security forces tried to break up a dispute at the Kyein Ni Pyin camp in Pauktaw, home to at least 4,400 displaced people - mainly Rohingya Muslims whose homes were torched in deadly clashes with ethnic Rakhine locals.

“Gunfire was used by the authorities to disperse the crowd, resulting in the fatalities and wounding,” the UNHCR said in a statement, adding two of the wounded were minors.

It was unclear if the casualties were Rohingya, according to a spokeswoman for the UNHCR, explaining the camp is home to both the ethnic group and Kaman Muslims.

by Gulf Times

Two Muslims killed as police open fire on Myanmar refugee camp

Rohingyas are seen at a camp for displaced people in Myanmar's western Rakhine state (file photo)
At least two people have been killed and six others wounded as government forces opened fire on a refugee camp housing Muslim Rohingyas in western Myanmar.

According to the UN refugee agency, the incident happened when security forces tried to quell a dispute at the camp in the Pauktaw township of the western Rakhine state on Thursday.

The dispute was about how to resettle Rohingya Muslims displaced by deadly sectarian violence in Rakhine.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called for an investigation into Thursday's incident.

    “The agency is appealing to the authorities to handle the matter in a peaceful and calm way to avoid fueling further violence and loss of life,” it said in a statement.

Hundreds of Rohingyas have been killed and thousands displaced in attacks by extremist Buddhists over the past year.

The extremists frequently attack Rohingyas and have set fire to their homes in several villages in Rakhine.

Rohingya Muslims have faced torture, neglect, and repression in Myanmar for many years.

Thousands of Rohingyas in Rakhine are deprived of citizenship rights, becoming vulnerable to acts of violence, expulsion, and displacement.

JR/KA
Press TV

27 Die in Fresh Xinjiang Violence



Twenty-seven people were killed in clashes sparked by an attack on a police station in Pichan county on June 26, 2013.RFA
Twenty-seven people have been killed in new clashes in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, official Chinese media reported on Wednesday, saying the violence was sparked by an attack on a remote rural police station by a "knife-wielding mob."

The authorities have imposed a security and communication clampdown in Lukchun township, Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county where the incident occurred, and Uyghur rights groups accused Beijing of staging a cover-up and called for an independent probe into the circumstances that led to the killings.

Xinjiang is home to some 9 million ethnic minority Uyghurs, who say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.

"Knife-wielding mobs attacked the township's police stations, the local government building and a construction site, stabbing at people and setting fire to police cars," the state Xinhua news agency quoted regional-level officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as saying.

The clashes broke out at around 6:00 a.m. local time in Lukchun township near the Silk Road city of Turpan.

According to the official version of events, attackers killed 17 people, including nine police and security personnel, before police opened fire on them, killing 10.

It was one of the bloodiest incidents since unrest in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi killed nearly 200 on July 5, 2009.

Troop clampdown

An employee who answered the phone at a hotel in the Pichan county town said the clashes had quickly been suppressed by a large influx of troops.

"The army came here as soon as the main incident occurred, and suppressed everything," she said. "If they had let things drag out, it could have taken two or three days to sort out."

"The security measures are tighter today, with patrols and so on."

Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), questioned the circumstances which led to the killings, saying the only public account of the incident was relayed by Xinhua.

"This claim that so-called 'civilians' [were killed] comes from an attempt by China to cover up the real issues about which the Uyghurs were protesting," he said.

"After the clashes, the authorities imposed an information blackout and cut off local access to the Internet, forbidding people to go outside," Raxit said.

He said police raids are continuing in the area, and "a large number" of Uyghurs have been detained.

"There are large numbers of security personnel in military uniform in that township and county," he said.

Police have launched an investigation, and three suspects are currently in detention, Xinhua said, adding that the authorities are still in pursuit of others who had fled the scene.

Three people were receiving treatment at a local hospital on Wednesday for injuries sustained in the violence, it said.

Earlier blast

Separately, at least 12 Uyghurs were killed in a blast apparently triggered by explosive devices they were carrying while being pursued by police in Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture earlier this month, according to local officials.

The group was killed when they were cornered by police after they eluded a house-to-house search by police in Ghorachol town in Awat county, local town official Adil Semet said.

When police confronted the group near an area controlled by a semi-military unit 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, “some of them were arrested, some of them blew themselves up and others escaped,” Adil Semet told RFA’s Uyghur Service.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s local committee “told us that 12 of the suspects were killed,” he said.

His account could not be independently confirmed. Residents of Ghorachol were reluctant to speak about the alleged explosion, saying that they feared for their safety.

Call for independent probe

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) asked the international community to push Beijing to provide details of Wednesday's incident.

“What we know about events today stems from information provided by the Chinese state media. This alone should give cause for the international community to seek more details on this incident,” said UAA President, Alim Seytoff in a statement.

“In order to ensure no violations of human rights have occurred, a full and independent investigation is required. The three men allegedly detained should be accorded judicial procedures that meet international standards,” he said.

The incident came nearly a week after authorities in Xinjiang sentenced 19 Uyghurs to jail for alleged crimes linked to "religious extremism," Chinese media reported. Rights groups said the sentences were meant to send a message to Uyghurs in the lead-up to the upcoming Urumqi violence anniversary.

A resident of Pichan county told RFA's Mandarin service that security in the formerly sleepy melon-growing town was now extremely tight following the incident.

"Now they aren't letting people wander around, and there's going to be an anti-terrorist sweep or some such thing," said the Han Chinese resident, who declined to be named.

"[All the officials and police] are out of the office. I think there must be tight security in place over there right now, given that it was such a violent incident," he said.

He added that around 80 percent of Lukchun's population are ethnic minority Uyghurs, who mainly farm vegetables and melons for a living.

He appeared skeptical of official claims that the attacks were the work of a terrorist group.

"The government is saying it was the work of terrorists, but nowadays, as soon as there's any trouble with the ethnic minorities, it gets lumped in with terrorism," he said.

"Maybe they had a rush of anger because some of their demands weren't met."

Official response

Repeated calls to the Lukchun township government, police department and police station went unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

An officer who answered the phone at the police department in nearby Tuha declined to comment.

"I don't know about this," the officer said. "I am hanging up the phone now."

Raxit said local Uyghur sources had characterized the attacks as the result of persecution and provocation by police and government officials.

"There were no peaceful channels open to Uyghurs through which to protest," he said, calling on the international community to visit the area to gather more information.

"They should exert more pressure on the Chinese government, who we call on not to distort the truth," Raxit said.

"They should make known to the international community the factors surrounding this incident in a transparent manner," he added.

A Han Chinese employee who answered the phone at a business in Lukchun on Wednesday said the homes of Chinese migrants to the area weren't being included in police raids.

"There are a lot of police on patrol, but I'm not too worried," he said. "This wasn't a major incident. There are already a lot of police in Xinjiang anyway."

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

New Clashes in Myanmar Set Back Kachin Peace Process

A KIA delegation arrives for peace talks in Myitkyina amidst a crowd of supporters, May 27, 2013.RFA

Fresh fighting between Kachin rebels and government troops has erupted in northern Myanmar, causing civilians to flee, local sources said Thursday, in the latest clash defying a temporary cease-fire agreement signed last month.

The Myanmar military fired mortars at positions held by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the villages of Piekong, Khalon, Shanywa and Lisuywa in Kachin state near the border with China between 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday and 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, a resident told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“Four houses were destroyed by shells from the government army,” the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It is possible that more fighting may take place because both sides are digging in. The units involved are the government’s No. 128 Infantry and the KIA’s No. 27 Battalion.”

Another resident said at least 100 people were displaced by the fighting and staying in temporary shelters.

“Four villages which are very close to China-Myanmar border were affected by fighting,” the resident said.

“About 100 local people have been staying at a Kachin church and in nearby paddy fields.”

Sources were unable to confirm the number of casualties and officials from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the rebel movement, did not respond to calls for information from the media.

Peace deal

The clash comes despite a temporary cease-fire agreement signed between Myanmar President Thein Sein’s government and the KIO at the end of May in which the two sides agreed to continue holding talks, work on preventing further fighting, and resettle displaced persons.

But Myanmar troops have fought with Kachin rebels at least 21 times since signing the agreement last month, the Associated Press reported on Sunday, quoting KIO spokesman La Nan.

La Nan questioned the government's commitment to the peace process, saying the two sides “cannot build trust just by holding talks” and calling for “a firm commitment to resolve this through a political dialogue.”

He accused the government of using the temporary agreement as a chance to redeploy troops and send military supplies to areas closer to KIA camps so that it could “prepare for the next assault.”

The Kachin have called for greater autonomy and increased representation in Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government, which took power from the former junta in 2011 and set the country on a path to democratic reform.

Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with most of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups, but the KIO had held out on peace talks until recently.

The two sides had a cease-fire agreement in place for 17 years until it broke down in June 2011. An estimated 100,000 people have been displaced by fighting since then.

Fifteen rounds of peace talks between the government and the KIO have borne little fruit, with the Kachin saying that a political settlement is key to ending hostilities.

Reported by Ye Htet for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Over 500 migrants returning from Malaysia seek jobs from govt

By YUZANA KO KO (DVB)

Nearly 600 Burmese migrants, who recently returned home from Malaysia after a string of attacks against Burmese nationals, have applied for new jobs through the government.

A spokesperson for the labour ministry told DVB that 577 people formally applied for jobs through the state agency between 19 and 25 June. It follows a government pledge to find jobs for hundreds of Burmese migrant workers, who signed up for repatriation earlier this month.

The vast majority applied immediately upon their return to Rangoon International Airport, where the ministry has set up a special “employment” desk for returning migrants. Others submitted applications by post.

“There are vacancies for labourers, drivers, office assistants and security positions,” said Maung Maung Kyaw from the Ministry of Labour’s Employment and Social Welfare office.

He added that ministry officials were meeting with business operators to expand job opportunities for returning migrants. “Our ministry has a responsibility to find jobs for those who have returned and we are working on that,” he said.

As many as 1,500 Burmese migrant workers living in Malaysia are currently in the process of obtaining the necessary documents to return home. It follows news that five Burmese nationals were brutally killed and six others injured in a string of attacks widely believed to have been carried out to avenge a recent spate of anti-Muslim violence in Burma.

The state-owned Myanmar Airways International is currently flying 190 migrants per week back to Burma, after offering a 50 percent discount on airfares in the wake of the violence. A number of prominent cronies, including Tay Za, have also offered to help the migrant population in Malaysia, including offering return flights and job opportunities back home.

But employment agencies say that business has suffered since the government announced a ban on sending migrants to work in Malaysia. Managing director Kyaw Win from the Rangoon Win Star Overseas Job Employment Agency told DVB that many workers were waiting to be shipped off to Malaysia under job contracts.

“Usually we have a good work flow but now we just have to sit and wait,” said Kyaw Win. “If they keep the suspension for long it will just lead to more illegal immigration, because some people just have to go [to Malaysia] and if they can’t go officially, then they will go illegally.”

According to statistics by the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, there are around 300,000 Burmese migrants working legally in Malaysia and around 30,000 working illegally.

Marriage law stirs controversy

by DVB

Seven people share their thoughts on the proposed draft marriage law that would see restrictions on interfaith marriages.

The law demands that any Muslim man, who wants to marry a Buddhist woman, must first convert to her religion. Meanwhile, Buddhist women are obliged to obtain permission from her parents and local authorities before marrying a Muslim man.

A growing number of monks and religious leaders have come out in support of the controversial proposal.

The draft law’s architect, nationalist monk Wirathu, is due to present another draft of the law to a monks’ convention in Rangoon.

Special Report: Myanmar gives official blessing to anti-Muslim monks

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

YANGON |

(Reuters) - The Buddhist extremist movement in Myanmar, known as 969, portrays itself as a grassroots creed.

Its chief proponent, a monk named Wirathu, was once jailed by the former military junta for anti-Muslim violence and once called himself the "Burmese bin Laden."

But a Reuters examination traces 969's origins to an official in the dictatorship that once ran Myanmar, and which is the direct predecessor of today's reformist government. The 969 movement now enjoys support from senior government officials, establishment monks and even some members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.


Wirathu urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun interfaith marriages. He calls mosques "enemy bases."

Among his admirers: Myanmar's minister of religious affairs.

"Wirathu's sermons are about promoting love and understanding between religions," Sann Sint, minister of religious affairs, told Reuters in his first interview with the international media. "It is impossible he is inciting religious violence."

Sann Sint, a former lieutenant general in Myanmar's army, also sees nothing wrong with the boycott of Muslim businesses being led by the 969 monks. "We are now practicing market economics," he said. "Nobody can stop that. It is up to the consumers."

President Thein Sein is signaling a benign view of 969, too. His office declined to comment for this story. But in response to growing controversy over the movement, it issued a statement Sunday, saying 969 "is just a symbol of peace" and Wirathu is "a son of Lord Buddha."

Wirathu and other monks have been closely linked to the sectarian violence spreading across Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Anti-Muslim unrest simmered under the junta that ran the country for nearly half a century. But the worst fighting has occurred since the quasi-civilian government took power in March 2011.

Two outbursts in Rakhine State last year killed at least 192 people and left 140,000 homeless, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims. A Reuters investigation found that organized attacks on Muslims last October were led by Rakhine nationalists incited by Buddhist monks and sometimes abetted by local security forces.

In March this year, at least 44 people died and 13,000 were displaced - again, mostly Muslims - during riots in Meikhtila, a city in central Myanmar. Reuters documented in April that the killings happened after monks led Buddhist mobs on a rampage. In May, Buddhists mobs burned and terrorized Muslim neighborhoods in the northern city of Lashio. Reports of unrest have since spread nationwide.

The numbers 969, innocuous in themselves, refer to attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. But 969 monks have been providing the moral justification for a wave of anti-Muslim bloodshed that could scuttle Myanmar's nascent reform program. Another prominent 969 monk, Wimala Biwuntha, likens Muslims to a tiger who enters an ill-defended house to snatch away its occupants.

"Without discipline, we'll lose our religion and our race," he said in a recent sermon. "We might even lose our country."

Officially, Myanmar has no state religion, but its rulers have long put Buddhism first. Muslims make up an estimated 4 percent of the populace. Buddhism is followed by 90 percent of the country's 60 million people and is promoted by a special department within the ministry of religion created during the junta.

EASY SCAPEGOATS

Monks play a complex part in Burmese politics. They took a central role in pro-democracy "Saffron Revolution" uprisings against military rule in 2007. The generals - who included current President Thein Sein and most senior members of his government - suppressed them. Now, Thein Sein's ambitious program of reforms has ushered in new freedoms of speech and assembly, liberating the country's roughly 500,000 monks. They can travel at will to spread Buddhist teachings, including 969 doctrine.

In Burma's nascent democracy, the monks have emerged as a political force in the run-up to a general election scheduled for 2015. Their new potency has given rise to a conspiracy theory here: The 969 movement is controlled by disgruntled hardliners from the previous junta, who are fomenting unrest to derail the reforms and foil an election landslide by Suu Kyi's NLD.

No evidence has emerged to support this belief. But some in the government say there is possibly truth to it.

"Some people are very eager to reform, some people don't want to reform," Soe Thein, one of President Thein Sein's two closest advisors, told Reuters. "So, regarding the sectarian violence, some people may be that side - the anti-reform side."

Even if 969 isn't controlled by powerful hardliners, it has broad support, both in high places and at the grass roots, where it is a genuine and growing movement.

Officials offer tacit backing, said Wimala, the 969 monk. "By letting us give speeches to protect our religion and race, I assume they are supporting us," he said.

The Yangon representative of the Burmese Muslim Association agreed. "The anti-Muslim movement is growing and the government isn't stopping it," said Myo Win, a Muslim teacher. Myo Win likened 969 to the Ku Klux Klan.

The religion minister, Sann Sint, said the movement doesn't have official state backing. But he defended Wirathu and other monks espousing the creed.

"I don't think they are preaching to make problems," he said.

Local authorities, too, have lent the movement some backing.

Its logo - now one of Myanmar's most recognizable - bears the Burmese numerals 969, a chakra wheel and four Asiatic lions representing the ancient Buddhist emperor Ashoka. Stickers with the logo are handed out free at speeches. They adorn shops, homes, taxis and souvenir stalls at the nation's most revered Buddhist pagoda, the Shwedagon. They are a common sight in areas plagued by unrest.

Some authorities treat the symbol with reverence. A court in Bago, a region near Yangon hit by anti-Muslim violence this year, jailed a Muslim man for two years in April after he removed a 969 sticker from a betel-nut shop. He was sentenced under a section of Burma's colonial-era Penal Code, which outlaws "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings".

QUASI-OFFICIAL ORIGINS

The 969 movement's ties to the state date back to the creed's origins. Wimala, Wirathu and other 969 preachers credit its creation to the late Kyaw Lwin, an ex-monk, government official and prolific writer, now largely forgotten outside religious circles.

Myanmar's former dictators handpicked Kyaw Lwin to promote Buddhism after the brutal suppression of the 1988 democracy uprising. Thousands were killed or injured after soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters, including monks. Later, to signal their disgust, monks refused to accept alms from military families for three months, a potent gesture in devoutly Buddhist Myanmar.

Afterwards, the military set about co-opting Buddhism in an effort to tame rebellious monks and repair its image. Monks were registered and their movements restricted. State-run media ran almost daily reports of generals overseeing temple renovations or donating alms to abbots.

In 1991, the junta created a Department for the Promotion and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS), a unit within the Religion Ministry, and appointed Kyaw Lwin as its head. Sasana means "religion" in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism; in Burma, the word is synonymous with Buddhism itself.

The following year, the DPPS published "How To Live As A Good Buddhist," a distillation of Kyaw Lwin's writings. It was republished in 2000 as "The Best Buddhist," its cover bearing an early version of the 969 logo.

Kyaw Lwin stepped down in 1992. The current head is Khine Aung, a former military officer.

Kyaw Lwin's widow and son still live in his modest home in central Yangon. Its living room walls are lined with shelves of Kyaw Lwin's books and framed photos of him as a monk and meditation master.

Another photo shows Kyaw Lwin sharing a joke with Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, then chief of military intelligence and one of Myanmar's most feared men. Kyaw Lwin enjoyed close relations with other junta leaders, said his son, Aung Lwin Tun, 38, a car importer. He was personally instructed to write "The Best Buddhist" by the late Saw Maung, then Myanmar's senior-most general. He met "often" to discuss religion with ex-dictator Than Shwe, who retired in March 2011 and has been out of the public eye since then.

"The Best Buddhist" is out of print, but Aung Lwin Tun plans to republish it. "Many people are asking for it now," he said. He supports today's 969 movement, including its anti-Muslim boycott. "It's like building a fence to protect our religion," he said.

Also supporting 969 is Kyaw Lwin's widow, 65, whose name was withheld at the family's request. She claimed that Buddhists who marry Muslims are forced at their weddings to tread on an image of Buddha, and that the ritual slaughter of animals by Shi'ite Muslims makes it easier for them to kill humans.

Among the monks Kyaw Lwin met during his time as DPPS chief was Wiseitta Biwuntha, who hailed from the town of Kyaukse, near the northern cultural capital of Mandalay. Better known as Wirathu, he is today one of the 969's most incendiary leaders.

Wirathu and Kyaw Lwin stayed in touch after their 1992 meeting, said Aung Lwin Tun, who believed his father would admire Wirathu's teachings. "He is doing what other people won't - protecting and promoting the religion."

Kyaw Lwin died in 2001, aged 70. That same year, Wirathu began preaching about 969, and the U.S. State Department reported "a sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence" in Myanmar. Anti-Muslim sentiment was stoked in March 2001 by the Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and in September by al Qaeda's attacks in the United States.

Two years later, Wirathu was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in jail for distributing anti-Muslim pamphlets that incited communal riots in his hometown. At least 10 Muslims were killed by a Buddhist mob, according to a State Department report. The 969 movement had spilled its first blood.

969 VERSUS 786

Wirathu was freed in 2011 during an amnesty for political prisoners. While the self-styled "Burmese bin Laden" has become the militant face of 969, the movement derives evangelical energy from monks in Mon, a coastal state where people pride themselves on being Myanmar's first Buddhists. Since last year's violence they have organized a network across the nation. They led a boycott last year of a Muslim-owned bus company in Moulmein, Mon's capital. Extending that boycott nationwide has become a central 969 goal.

Muslims held many senior government positions after Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948. That changed in 1962, when the military seized power and stymied the hiring and promoting of Muslim officials. The military drew on popular prejudices that Muslims dominated business and used their profits to build mosques, buy Buddhist wives and spread Islamic teachings.

All this justified the current boycott of Muslim businesses, said Zarni Win Tun, a 31-year-old lawyer and 969 devotee, who said Muslims had long shunned Buddhist businesses. "We didn't start the boycott - they did," she said. "We're just using their methods."

By that she means the number 786, which Muslims of South Asian origin often display on their homes and businesses. It is a numerical representation of the Islamic blessing, "In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful". But Buddhists in Myanmar - a country obsessed by numerology - claim the sum of the three numbers signifies a Muslim plan for world domination in the 21st century.

It is possible to understand why some Buddhists might believe this. Religious and dietary customs prohibit Muslims from frequenting Buddhist restaurants, for example. Muslims also dominate some small- and medium-sized business sectors. The names of Muslim-owned construction companies - Naing Group, Motherland, Fatherland - are winning extra prominence now that Yangon is experiencing a reform-era building boom.

However, the biggest construction firms - those involved in multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects - are run by tycoons linked to members of the former dictatorship. They are Buddhists.

Buddhist clients have canceled contracts with Muslim-owned construction companies in northern Yangon, fearing attacks by 969 followers on the finished buildings, said Shwe Muang, a Muslim MP with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. "I worry that if this starts in one township it will infect others," he said.

"OUR LIVES ARE NOT SAFE"

For Zarni Win Tun, the 969 devotee, shunning Muslims is a means of ensuring sectarian peace. She points to the Meikhtila violence, which was sparked by an argument between Buddhist customers and a Muslim gold-shop owner. "If they'd bought from their own people, the problem wouldn't have happened," she said.

Her conviction that segregation is the solution to sectarian strife is echoed in national policy. A total of at least 153,000 Muslims have been displaced in the past year after the violence in Rakhine and in central Myanmar. Most are concentrated in camps guarded by the security forces with little hope of returning to their old lives.

A few prominent monks have publicly criticized the 969 movement, and some Facebook users have launched a campaign to boycott taxis displaying its stickers. Some Yangon street stalls have started selling 969 CDs more discreetly since the Meikhtila bloodbath. The backlash has otherwise been muted.

Wimala, the Mon monk, shrugged off criticism from fellow monks. "They shouldn't try to stop us from doing good things," he said.

In mid-June, he and Wirathu attended a hundreds-strong monastic convention near Yangon, where Wirathu presented a proposal to restrict Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men.

In another sign 969 is going mainstream, Wirathu's bid was supported by Dhammapiya, a U.S.-educated professor at the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon, a respected institution with links to other Buddhist universities in Asia.

Dhammapiya described 969 as a peaceful movement that is helping Myanmar through a potentially turbulent transition. "The 969 issue for us is no issue," Dhammapiya told Reuters. "Buddhists always long to live in peace and harmony."

NO MOSQUES HERE

The only mass movement to rival 969 is the National League for Democracy. Their relationship is both antagonistic and complementary.

In a speech posted on YouTube in late March, Wirathu said the party and Suu Kyi's inner circle were dominated by Muslims. "If you look at NLD offices in any town, you will see bearded people," he said. Followers of Wimala told Reuters they had removed photos of Suu Kyi - a devout Buddhist - from their homes to protest her apparent reluctance to speak up for Buddhists affected by last year's violence in Rakhine. Suu Kyi's reticence on sectarian violence has also angered Muslims.

The Burmese Muslim Association has accused NLD members of handing out 969 materials in Yangon.

Party spokesman Nyan Win said "some NLD members" were involved in the movement. "But the NLD cannot interfere with the freedoms or rights of members," he said. "They all have the right to do what they want in terms of social affairs."

Min Thet Lin, 36, a taxi driver, is exercising that right. The front and back windows of his car are plastered with 969 stickers. He is also an NLD leader in Thaketa, a working-class Yangon township known for anti-Muslim sentiment.

In February, Buddhist residents of Thaketa descended upon an Islamic school in Min Thet Lin's neighborhood which they claimed was being secretly converted into a mosque. Riot police were deployed while the structure was demolished.

A month later, Wimala and two other Mon monks visited Thaketa to give Buddhists what a promotional leaflet called "dhamma medicine" - that is, three days of 969 sermons. "Don't give up the fight," urged the leaflet.

Today, the property is sealed off and guarded by police. "People don't want a mosque here," said Min Thet Lin.

As he spoke, 969's pop anthem, "Song to Whip Up Religious Blood," rang over the rooftops. A nearby monastic school was playing the song for enrolling pupils.

(Additional reporting by Min Zayar Oo.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams)

Telenor, Qatar Telecom win Myanmar telecom licences

A screenshot of the web page Telenor. The Norwegian firm Telenor and Qatar Telecommunications on Thursday won telecom licences in Myanmar.
by The Hindu

Myanmar, one of the last remaining untapped mobile phone markets, on Thursday awarded telecom licences to Norway's Telenor and Qatari firm Ooredoo.

India's Bharti Airtel along with nine other players were also in the fray for the licences.

"Telenor Mobile Communications and Ooredoo have been selected as the two successful applicants in the Nationwide Telecommunications Licence Award Process", the Myanmar government said in a statement.

It added that a consortium consisting of France Telecom-Orange and Marubeni Corporation was named the backup applicant in case one of the two successful applicants does not fulfil the post-selection requirements contained in the Invitation to Tender.

The Myanmar Government had in late 2012 established an independent committee to conduct an objective and transparent process for selection of two telecom operators. The Committee’s invitation to submit Expressions of Interest (EOIs) saw application from 91 entities, and 12 from those, including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, SingTel, Telecom-Orange and Marubeni Corporation were shortlisted.

This was the first time Myanmar opened up the sector for private investments with the aim to increase the overall teledensity of the country to 75-80 per cent by 2015-2016.

In a separate statement, Telenor said in accordance with the described process, Telenor Group will now enter into final discussions with the Myanmar authorities, with the aim of acquiring a telecommunications licence over the coming months.

Additionally, the company will build a state-of-the-art mobile network using HSPA and LTE-ready technologies for Myanmar and plans to achieve nationwide coverage within five years.

"A full range of mobile services, both voice and data, will be commercially launched as the initial offering, anticipated to happen in 2014. The introduction of telecommunication services in Myanmar will drive social development and economic growth for the country", it said.

Foreign companies wait to hear if Myanmar will delay licenses for mobile phone network

In this June 24, 2013 photo, a man uses a mobile phone while standing on a balcony of an apartment as telephone and electricity cables dangle in the foreground in Yangon, Myanmar. Foreign companies will tap into one of the world's final telecom frontiers Thursday, June 27, 2013, when Myanmar hands out licenses to operate two new mobile phone networks — part of efforts by the long-isolated nation to use technology to spur economic development. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Edmonton Journal
By Robin McDowell, The Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar - Foreign companies hoping to tap into one of the world's final telecom frontiers grappled with lingering political uncertainties Wednesday after Myanmar's lower house of parliament ruled that licenses for two new cellphone networks should be delayed until a law governing the sector is passed.

The winners of the hotly contested bid were supposed to be announced Thursday, and officials were unable to say if that would change.

Currently fewer than 6 million of country's 60 million people have cellphones, putting it on par with North Korea when it comes to connectivity. The government hopes it will be able to push cellphone usage rates to 80 per cent within three years by releasing its grip on the industry.

Those are the kinds of numbers that have left international telecom consortiums salivating.

Of the 90 that initially submitted bids, 11 have been shortlisted including Singapore Telecommunications, Bharti Airtel of India, KDDI Corp. of Japan, Telenor of Norway and Digicel of the Caribbean — some opening offices and even recruiting staff in gleeful anticipation of the announcement.

"It's a great first start," said Richard Dobbs, director of the McKinsey Global Institute. "My only hope is that the winners will move quickly to get broadband — either 2G, 3G or 4G — rolled out countrywide."

He said the government views the opening of telecommunications to foreign investment as an opportunity to spur the type of rapid economic growth that has raised living standards in other developing countries.

"This should not just be about profit maximizing," he said. "It should be about enabling other services."

By using mobile banking and e-commerce the country may be able to spread banking and other consumer services more widely and at a reduced cost. Mobile telecommunications could also extend health and education services to even the remotest villages.

Myanmar, located in the heart of one of the fastest growing regions in the world, became one of the most isolated and poorest nations during its half-century of iron-clad military rule.

After taking control of a quasi-civilian government in 2011, former general Thein Sein started implementing promised political and economic reforms.

But the country faces monumental development challenges. Some roads are almost unnavigable, with pot holes several meters (yards) wide. Electricity blackouts are routine. Real estate prices in the commercial capital, Yangon, rival New York City due to limited supply and a surge in demand brought on by the country's emergence from isolation.

The communications industry, long-neglected by the country's military rulers, is in need of a complete overhaul. That's in part because the original network was intended for only a tiny number of subscribers — mostly the rich. Up until a few years ago, the cost of SIM cards could reach $2,000.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, says there are tremendous advantages to starting from scratch.

"You all will have an opportunity to skip all the previous ... generations of technology," he told a group of young business leaders during a visit to Yangon earlier this year.

"You'll have fiberoptic cable in your cities. You'll have 3G and 4G networks that will connect to smartphones. You will literally leapfrog 20 years of difficult to maintain infrastructure."

Experts are quick to point out, however, that while the potential returns for the winners of the bidding are staggering, so are the risks.

Investors preparing to invest billions of dollars are rightly nervous about how political reform will evolve, whether the government can maintain the fragile peace between ethnic groups, and how regulation and ownership rights will develop.

That was hammered home to the bidders late Wednesday night when the lower house of parliament unanimously agreed that — with the telecom bill to set the legal framework for the industry not yet approved — the decision about the two new mobile licenses should be delayed.

Lawmaker Thein Nyunt, the chairman of the New National Democratic Party, said the proposal will bypass the upper house and go directly to the president for review. It remained unclear if any decision would be made ahead of Thursday's planned announcement.

The government also insists a new industry regulator will take over within the next few years, but the job is still effectively in the hands of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

Foreign companies are "entering the market while the process is still taking place and major reforms are yet to happen," said Peter Evans, a senior analyst at the telecom research group, BuddComm.

It's also unclear what role the state-owned incumbent telecom operator, Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, will be playing. The idea is that it will eventually be divorced from state control but what its structure, funding and role will be at this time remains unclear.

Yatanarpon, which is majority government-owned and primarily an Internet service provider until now, has a much smaller network. And also newly on the scene is the army-owned Myanmar Economic Corp.

Myanmar's fighter for democracy

U WIN TIN: "I express myself very freely and democratically and not always on the party line." ANDREA VANCE

Stuff.co.nzBY ANDREA VANCE IN MYANMAR

In the listless heat of Yangon, a tiny pink fan pushes stifling air around a cramped three-roomed shack.

A dividing wall separates a bedroom/study from the living room, and a rudimentary kitchen area. The washroom is outside, in an overgrown tropical garden, swarming with mosquitoes.

It might be confined, sweaty and basic. But this wooden shack - painted a cheerful lime green - represents liberty for Myanmar's longest-serving political prisoner U Win Tin.

For two decades, he languished in the notorious Insein prison, mostly in solitary confinement in a cell reserved for military dogs. Once one of Burma's most famous journalists, he was imprisoned for "subversion" - criticising the military junta which ruled Myanmar through fear from more than half a century.

The jail sentence came a year after he helped found the National League for Democracy with democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi in the aftermath of the bloody pro-democracy protests of 1988. Since 2010 a reformist government has released both figures - she served years under house arrest - and begun to tread the path towards democracy.

Street noise, and the incessant drumming of the country's monsoon rain, almost drowns out Win Tin's gentle voice.

"I'm an old man now and my memory is fading," he says, apologising unnecessarily for his grasp of English.

He is now 84, frail, and recently discharged from hospital. His illness is a legacy of the regular beatings he received in prison - all of his lower teeth were kicked out in a particularly vicious attack.

Although his body is weak, the shack, in the garden of the home of a friend, bears witness to his formidable mind. Shelves are lined with books in both Myanmar and English - including Bill Bryson's A Short History of Everything. His desk is littered with pens and papers, which the military denied him in prison.

He writes columns for a number of weekly publications, and, according to friends, he maintains a ferocious passion for football.

A bright oil painting of Daw Suu (Suu Kyi) dominates the living room, in which also hangs a Reporters without Borders poster, marking his 75th birthday - spent behind bars.

After his release, Win Tin returned to politics and his quest for democracy for Myanmar. He is a regular adviser to the party and contributes to its weekly journal. But Suu Kyi's former deputy has wavered recently in his support for the NLD leader.

Myanmar bans Time magazine for story about monk

Controversial Buddhist monk Wirathu, center, who is accused of instigating sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims through his sermons, performs Buddhist rituals during an assembly of Myanmar's powerful Buddhist clergy in Hmawbi, outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, on June 13 (AP photo)
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

YANGON, Myanmar—Myanmar’s government has banned this week’s issue of Time magazine because of a cover story about a Buddhist monk accused of fueling recent religious violence in the country.

State television announced on June 25 that the decision was made “in order to prevent the recurrence of racial and religious riots.”

The magazine’s cover carries a photo of a Buddhist monk, Wirathu, with the words “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Wirathu is a leader of a radical movement of monks that preaches that the country’s small Muslim minority threatens racial purity and national security. He has called for restrictions on marriages between Buddhists and Muslims, and for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses.

Nearly 250 people have died and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, have fled their homes in religious violence in the past year. Buddhist mobs have marched through villages burning houses and mosques and brandishing machetes and clubs.

A special committee led by the home minister to deal with the recent violence said the Time article could damage government efforts to build trust among people of different religions, state television said.

The article quotes Wirathu as saying, “Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil.” Nevertheless, Witharu insists he’s a man of peace.

The article has drawn anger from Buddhists. On June 23, the President’s Office issued a statement denouncing the story and saying it damages the image of Buddhism.

The recent violence has threatened to undermine political and economic reforms undertaken by President Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of repressive military rule.

New freedoms of speech under Thein Sein have made it easier to disseminate radical views, while exposing deep-seeded racism felt by much of the population toward Muslims and other minorities.


Asahi Shimbun

Migrant school to teach Burmese curriculum in Thailand

Children from Mon state ride to a school on Thailand's side of the border with Burma in Sangkhlaburi (Reuters)
By NAW NOREEN (DVB)

A new primary school for migrant children is set to open near Bangkok next month, where students will be able to study their native curriculum in the Burmese language for the first time, according to local sources.

The school will open in Thailand’s Samut Sakhon’s Mahachai district on 1 July as part of a non-governmental initiative to improve education for Burmese migrant children and help prevent the use of underage labour.

Classes will be taught exclusively in the Burmese language using Burma’s national curriculum in a bid to expand educational opportunities for migrant children, who otherwise may not attend school.

The project – a joint initiative by the migrant rights advocacy group Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), local religious groups and NGOs — is expected to boost school attendance among Burmese school children in Thailand’s swelling migrant population.

“We aim to improve education for migrant children inThailandby officially teaching in the Burmese language,” said U Toe from HRDF. “[We] also [want] to prevent them from becoming child workers.”

Although there are a number of other NGO schools for migrant children in Mahachai, none of them offer the Burmese curriculum taught in their national language, said U Toe.

Burma’s labour attaché in Bangkok, Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, told DVB they were planning to negotiate with the Thai government to obtain official recognition for the new school.

“We gave social assistance for the school’s foundation but it requires negotiations with Thai authorities to become official – we see potential for the meeting [with the Thai government],” said Kyaw Kyaw Lwin.

In May, the Burmese embassy announced that it would begin issuing passports for migrant children in a bid to grant them legal status in the Kingdom. Although Thai law stipulates that all children, regardless of their status, are allowed to attend school, migrant children are often excluded for practical reasons, such as financial or language barriers, and forced to start working instead.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), over 200,000 Burmese children under the age of 17 live in Thailand. Less than 20 percent are estimated to attend school, mostly through specialist programmes set up by local NGOs.

Migrants in Thailand make up about five percent of the county’s workforce, and provide a crucial pool of labour for low-skilled, often dangerous, industries such as fishing and construction. Up to three million people, or about 80 percent, are estimated to come from Burma.

There are around 60 migrant schools along the Thai-Burma border in western Thailand’s Tak Province, while around 15 at Mahachai in Samut Sakhon near Bangkok. None are formally recognised by the Thai Ministry of Education.

By NAW NOREEN (DVB)

Monks and religious leaders back interfaith marriage ban

Many Burmese monks, who played an active role in the 2007 pro-democracy uprising, have come out in support of anti-Muslim government policies (Reuters)
By DVB

A growing number of monks and religious leaders have come out in support of Burma’s controversial proposal to ban interfaith marriages, despite accusations that it would violate basic human and women’s rights.

The backing comes on the same week that its main architect and leader of the ultra-nationalists “969” movement, Wirathu, prepares to present another draft of the law to a monks’ convention in Rangoon.

An earlier draft of the law was sidelined by religious leaders during another religious meeting earlier this month, after it attracted outrage from political and civil society leaders. But Wirathu says the latest draft is “more balanced” and has garnered significant support through the collection of signatures.

Senior religious figures told DVB that the law, which would force Buddhist women to obtain permission from the authorities before marrying a Muslim, is “necessary” to protect their religion.

“This law is necessary for Burma because it is a loss for Buddhists when [Buddhist women] get married to foreigners and those from other religions,” said Aung Myaing, chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network, a Burmese religious network. ”Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

A monk from Kaythara Rama monastery in Rangoon added that the law was drafted with support from legal experts, as well as the government-backed monastic body, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. This seems to contradict government claims that they do not actively support Wirathu’s “969” movement, which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and businesses.

The monk also slammed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently criticised the law for violating human rights and women’s liberty.

“Now a major political party’s chairperson is claiming this law violates human rights and she is absolutely wrong – she needs to change her statement,” said Monk Kaythara in an interview. “This law doesn’t say one cannot have interfaith marriage and so in no way violates human rights.”

The law demands that any Muslim man, who wants to marry a Buddhist woman, must first convert to her religion. Meanwhile, Buddhist women are obliged to obtain permission from her parents and local authorities before marrying a Muslim man.

Women’s rights groups have lashed out against the proposal and said that they would lobby against its implementation. But reports suggest that some women, who have spoken out against the proposal have been hounded and abused on social media by supporters of Wirathu.

However, in a parliamentary session today, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Kyaw Kyaw Tun, insisted that there were no plans to adopt new legislation addressing religious or racial tensions in Burma. “Existing laws are sufficient,” he said.

More moderate voices have also condemned the proposed marriage ban. “I don’t think we need that in our country,” said Thet Zin, the chief editor of Today’s Era Magazine. “Our country is inhabited by majority Buddhists and Buddha himself never taught or suggested forcing people into Buddhism.”

Burma’s national human rights commission has also slammed the proposal as unconstitutional. “It’s only necessary to have mutual respect between the two religions,” said secretary Sitt Myaing.

The proposed marriage ban comes amid escalating tensions over a recent cover of Time Magazine, which brands Wirathu “The Buddhist Face of Terror”. The edition was banned from publication by the government on Tuesday, after a flurry of outrage from political parties and local media.

Describing him as a “son of Buddha”, President Thein Sein on Sunday defended both Wirathu and his “969” movement as committed to peace.

In an interview with DVB on Monday, the president’s spokesperson, Ye Htut, also backed the notorious monk, who has been described as a “hate preacher” by most rights groups, adding that it was not his responsibility to monitor or restrict the content of his sermons.

But rights groups insist that it is the government’s job to both protect free speech and prevent incitement to religious violence. “Unfortunately what we can see here is that the government is failing to do either,” Oliver Spencer from the free speech group, Article 19, told DVB.

Burma has seen a rise in religious tensions since last year, when Buddhists clashed with Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state, displacing some 140,000 people and killing over 200. Since March, renewed bouts of anti-Muslim violence, which have been directly linked to Wirathu’s “969″ campaign, have claimed another 44 lives.

China Pushes Myanmar to Sign Kachin Cease-Fire

Yang Jiechi speaks in Beijing, March 9, 2013. Eyepress News

A senior official from China on Monday pushed the Myanmar government to forge a cease-fire agreement with rebels in Kachin state as he witnessed the signing of a bilateral “strategic” agreement and pledged a soft farm loan during his two-day visit.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi raised the issue of the Kachin conflict during talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein in the capital Naypyidaw, according to the official Chinese Xinhua news agency.

Yang, who was foreign minister until his new appointment in March, also promised during talks with Myanmar lawmakers to deliver some U.S. $100 million in loans to aid Myanmar’s agricultural sector, which employs nearly two-thirds of the country’s population, a lawmaker told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Yang’s trip came amid a reported sharp drop in Chinese investments to Myanmar, a top Beijing ally under the previous military junta, and concerns in the Southeast Asian nation over its giant neighbor's influence and rising anti-Chinese sentiment.

Thein Sein, just months after his nominally-civilian government came to power in March 2011, suspended construction on the China-backed Myitsone hydropower dam in Kachin state, which was to supply electricity to China, after local protests.

During his meeting with Thein Sein, Yang called for talks to continue between the government and rebels in Kachin state, which lies along the border with China, with the aim of signing a permanent cease-fire agreement, Xinhua said.

Naypyidaw signed a tentative cease-fire agreement with ethnic Kachin rebels last month following talks held inside Myanmar for the first time since fighting erupted in June 2011 and shattered a 17-year cease-fire agreement. Previous talks had been held across the border in China’s Yunnan province.

Yang pressed Thein Sein to “maintain the trend of peace talks and reach [a] ceasefire agreement as early as possible to realize eternal peace and stability in the north and China-Myanmar border areas,” the Xinhua report said.

He said that China, which is home to a large Kachin minority community, would continue to play a supportive role in the peace process.

Ongoing talks

Reformist President Thein Sein has signed cease-fire agreements with most of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups since he came to power in 2011, and the temporary peace agreement with the Kachin was seen as an important step in his bid to end the country’s last major ethnic conflict.

But reports by the Kachin News Group indicate that sporadic fighting occurred earlier this month in northern Shan state between civilian militias loyal to the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Myanmar military, resulting in the unconfirmed deaths of two government soldiers.

During the two years of fighting between the KIO and the central government an estimated 100,000 people were forced from their homes, with some 60,000 of those displaced now living in areas beyond the government’s control, according to the U.N.

Xinhua said that in his meeting with Thein Sein, Yang also called for the two countries to boost their strategic links and to “[ensure] smooth implementation of major cooperation projects … to benefit local people.”

Yang witnessed the signing of the “Action Plan of China-Myanmar Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that Beijing “is willing to take positive consideration and try to increase the import of Myanmar agricultural products.”

Bilateral relations

Yang also met with Myanmar’s members of parliament, offering a U.S. $100 million soft loan to the country’s farming community as part of efforts to improve bilateral ties, said Win Htein, a lawmaker from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Yang said in the meeting with MPs from political parties and ethnic parties that “China is interested in and is watching Myanmar's reform and development situation,” Win Htein told RFA.

“He also said that China will try to be a good neighbor to Myanmar and will lend U.S. $100 million for farmers at a low rate of interest,” he said, without providing specific terms of the loan.

Agriculture is key to Myanmar, contributing 58 percent to the county's economic growth, and making up for 48 percent of its exports, according to U.N. figures.

Beijing has invested heavily in Myanmar’s natural resources and power generation, including in deals that were agreed upon under the former military regime before recent reforms brought a wave of investment from other countries.

During his visit, Yang also held talks with Myanmar Vice President Nyan Tun, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament Shwe Mann.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Ye Htut on Wirathu, Buddhist nationalism and religious freedom in Burma

Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut. (Than Win Htut)
By NAY THWIN (DVB)

Following the publication of the July issue of Time that features notorious nationalist monk Wirathu on the cover along with the headline: ‘The Face of Buddhist terror”, Burma’s government says the magazine is undermining the religion in the eyes of the international community.

During an interview with Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut, DVB’s Nay Thwin asks the official about the government’s official response to the article and what they’re doing to address sectarian tensions in the country.

How much impact does the government think Time magazine’s article can have given that the President’s Office has released a statement denouncing it?

It had to be done especially because Time magazine’s cover portrayed Buddhism in association with terrorism. Moreover, the article is written from a rather one-sided point of view and could create misunderstandings among the international community concerning Buddhism. And the article could potentially damage inter-faith trust-building efforts in the country.

So a statement has been published on the President’s Office Burmese-language website. Do you plan to send an official complaint to Time?

For now we are just stating our opinion on the President’s Office website.

We saw the 969 movement was mentioned in the statement and you also mentioned the government was working to promote mutual understanding and trust among different religions. But at the same time, there are certain Buddhist monks who are being criticised for inciting misunderstandings among religions. How does the President’s Office view this issue?

As provided in Article-362 of the Constitution, everyone is entitled to follow any religion of their choosing. Besides Buddhism, it recognises Hinduism, Christianity, Animism and Islam as faiths practiced in the country. So everyone is entitled to follow, in line with the law, any religion. Moreover, they have the freedom to express their opinion, but we do not allow for the instigation of violence against other religions.

What plans does that government have to take action against individuals inciting religious violence?

The responsibility to judge what Buddhist monks preach mainly lies with the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. Today, various monks are preaching based on various concepts to promote their religion and we have not heard any complaints at the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee that alleges that any of these concepts are violent.

So does this mean that the President’s Office assumes that some of the sermons that are being preached in the country are not alarming?

The president mentioned in one of his speeches – we are in an era of transitioning into a democracy and must allow the practice of democracy, but on the other hand, we must also prevent violence and insulting others.

In order to do this, mutual-trust must be built among different religions and, just so, people will learn whether something they say about their religion could be harmful to other religions or not. To address that, we are organising inter-faith conferences and seminars to prioritise exchanging views. We have given serious concern to issues that may create misunderstanding, which is why we are committed to bringing about unity among religions.

Ethnic alliance, govt aim to hold talks in July as clashes continue

President’s Office Minister Aung Min and Kachin Independence Organisation’s General Secretary Dr La Ja shake hands during a press conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand on 20 February 2013. (Photo provided by Ye Htut)
By AYE NAI (DVB)

A coalition representing 11 of Burma’s ethnic armed groups and the government are planning to hold a new round of talks after months of delays as clashes continue to erupt in Burma’s far north.

In February, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the government’s Internal Peace Making Work Committee met in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai where they discussed establishing a framework to facilitate a political dialogue.

During the negotiations, the two sides agreed to hold a follow up round of negotiations within two months.

According to the Myanmar Peace Centre’s Hla Maung Shwe, the prospective meeting was delayed in order to prioritise negotiations with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which is a member of the UNFC.

“We had to prioritise discussing the conflict with the KIO – we informed the [UNFC] and they agreed to postpone the follow-up meeting,” said Hla Maung Shwe.

“There is a meeting appointed in early July between work groups from both sides – the follow-up talks would likely follow that.”

In late May, the KIO and the government negotiators met in Kachin state’s capital Myitkyina where they etched out a tentative deal aimed at reducing fighting between the two sides, opening a political dialogue and resettling residents who have been displaced by the fighting.

While the Naypyidaw-backed Myanmar Peace Centre has expressed confidence in putting an end to Burma’s myriad civil wars, renewed fighting between the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, and the military appears to have undermined the recent progress made by the government negotiators.

According to a report published by the AP on Monday, a KIO spokesperson said the negotiations had failed to quell the violence as the two sides have engaged in more than 20 clashes since holding in Myitkyina talks last month.

‘‘It will be correct to say that the government used the opportunity of peace talks to prepare for the next assault,’’ KIO spokesperson La Nan told the AP.

In a report published by the Shan Herald Agency for News last week, the Shan State Army-North, another UNFC member, claimed the military had launched assaults against one of their outposts in clear violation of the ceasefire they signed with Naypyidaw.

During an interview with DVB earlier this month, UNFC spokesperson David Tharckabaw said Thein Sein’s government has failed to prove they’re in control of the country’s massive military.

“The president’s delegation is doing something and the army is independent,” said David Tharckabaw.

“The president has no control over the army, so it does whatever it likes.”

According to government sources, President Thein Sein will hold a conference in the next couple of months with all of the country’s armed rebel groups to discuss a potential political solution aimed at ending the numerous civil conflicts that have rocked Burma since independence.

-David Stout provided additional reporting.

Burma president backs anti-Muslim ‘hate preacher’ Wirathu

In February 2013, Wirathu (right) received a controversial "freedom of religion" award in Mandalay. (DVB)
By HANNA HINDSTROM (DVB)

President Thein Sein has defended the prominent anti-Muslim monk Wirathu and his controversial “969” movement, which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, after Time Magazine described him as “the face of Buddhist terror” on the front cover of their 1 July edition.

In a public statement issued late on Sunday night, Thein Sein accused Time of slandering the Buddhist religion and harming the national reconciliation process by accusing the outspoken cleric of stoking anti-Muslim violence in Burma.

Describing him as a “son of Buddha”, the president defended Wirathu as a “noble person” committed to peace. “The article in Time Magazine can cause misunderstanding about the Buddhist religion, which has existed for millennia and is followed by the majority of Burmese citizens,” Thein Sein said.

Wirathu has attracted international condemnation for his vitriolic anti-Muslim sermons, which warn against the threat of “Islamisation” in Burma and have been denounced as “hate speech” by rights activists. Less than two weeks ago he attempted to push through a national law to ban interfaith marriages under the guise of “protecting” the Buddhist faith.

“[Muslims] are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told Time in the contentious 1 July issue. “Around 90% of Muslims in Burma are “radical bad people”.”

But a spokesperson for the president on Monday defended Wirathu’s right to “express [his] opinion” and dismissed allegations that his sermons encouraged violence. He added that it would be up to the government-backed monastic body, Sangha Maha Nayaka, to decide whether his actions should be investigated.

“We have not heard of any complaint made to the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee that alleges that any of [his] concepts are violent,” Ye Htut told DVB, adding that the Time cover unfairly links Buddhism with terrorism. “The article is written from a rather one-sided point of view.”

The self-proclaimed “Burmese bin Laden” was jailed by the former military regime in 2003 for fuelling anti-Muslim riots in Mandalay in central Burma. Since his release in January 2012, he has become the face of Burma’s “969” movement, which promotes an extreme form of Buddhist nationalism and has been linked to a series of violent attacks on Muslims.

In an interview with DVB last week, Wirathu accused Time of committing a “serious human rights violation” by refusing to present his views in a verbatim question and answer format.

“Before I had heard [rumours] of the Arab world dominating the global media,” he said. “But this time, I’ve seen it for myself.”

News of the 1 April cover of Time has also stirred controversy on social media, where supporters of Wirathu have set up a Facebook page calling for a boycott against the “lying, unjust” magazine. Meanwhile an online petition, which is pushing 50,000 signatures on Avaaz.org, is calling for Time to withdraw the edition.

The controversial Time cover has also prompted criticisms among other analysts, who worry that the media’s excessive focus on Wirathu may distract attention from the government’s failure to address anti-Muslim violence in Burma.

Some 140,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya were displaced during two bouts of ethno-religious clashes with Arakanese Buddhists in western Burma last year. Since March, anti-Muslim riots have spread to several towns in central Burma, including Meikhtila, where at least 43 people were killed and thousands more displaced.

But so far only Muslims have been sentenced to jail, including a woman who allegedly sparked violence in Oakkan township near Rangoon by bumping into a novice monk and spilling his alms bowl.

While Thein Sein blamed “political opportunists and religious extremists” for exploiting the Buddhist faith in a March speech, Sunday’s statement has raised questions about his sincerity in addressing the violence.

“The government’s claims that it is seeking to uphold ‘rule of law’ for all concerned is contradicted by the president’s apparent willingness to bend over backwards to protect those inciting violence when they wear saffron robes,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told DVB. ”By appeasing hate speech in religious form, Thein Sein and his government are heading in precisely the wrong direction on human rights.”

Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for failing to speak out for Burma’s Muslim minorities. But the opposition leader recently took a stance against both Wirathu’s proposed interfaith marriage ban, and the government’s two-child policy for Rohingyas.

Western governments, including the US, have also insisted that Thein Sein must stop violence against Muslims.

“We have consistently encouraged religious and civil society leaders and other citizens to take a stand against violence,” Michael Quinlan, a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Rangoon, told DVB. “We continue to discuss with the Burmese government the need to promote a pluralistic and tolerant society.”

Nay Thwin contributed reporting.

Time’s ‘Buddhist Terror’ headline irks Myanmar

The Peninsula

YANGON: Myanmar has reacted angrily to a Time magazine cover story on a prominent radical monk accused of fuelling anti-Muslim violence, accompanied by the headline The Face of Buddhist Terror.

Social media users in the former junta-ruled nation also voiced dismay at the US magazine’s July front page, which shows a photograph of controversial Mandalay monk Wirathu, whose anti-Muslim remarks have come under scrutiny following a wave of deadly religious violence.

The Time report “creates a misunderstanding of Buddhism which has existed for thousands of years and is the religion of the majority of our citizens,” said a statement posted on the presidential office website. “The government is currently striving with religious leaders, political parties, media and the people to rid Myanmar of unwanted conflicts,” it said, adding that the issue of religion should be handled respectfully by the media.

In a sign of the strength of feeling, one online petition started over the weekend to condemn the magazine had collected almost 40,000 names by yesterday. The use of the words “Buddhist” and “Terror” upset all followers of the faith, which is peaceful “and not for terrorists,” a message accompanying the petition said.

Eye-witnesses to violence which flared in March in central Myanmar said people dressed in monks’ robes were involved in the unrest, which left scores dead, mainly Muslims. Radical monks have led a campaign to shun shops owned by Muslims. Wirathu has also called for a law to restrict marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths.

Senior monks, however, have accused foreign media of one-sided reporting of the Buddhist-Muslim conflict. Facebook users accused Time of deepening divisions and defaming Myanmar’s main religion. “Insulting the monk Wirathu is the same as insulting Buddhism,” said one post by Wai Phyo. “What Wirathu is doing now is to protect our own nationality and religion,” the Facebook user wrote, urging the magazine to apologise. “Obviously this writer doesn’t understand Myanmar and Buddhism well,” another post said.

 AFP

Myanmar mystics give supernatural help to Asia elite

ET, Myanmar's most famous fortune teller, attends a local television programme in Bangkok on July 23, 2012. Tiny, frail and barely able to speak, she has for years whispered predictions to Asia's rich and powerful, from generals to foreign politicians. (AFP)
By Kelly Macnamara
AFP

YANGON (AFP) –  Tiny, frail and barely able to speak, Myanmar's most famous fortune teller -- known as ET -- has for years whispered predictions to Asia's rich and powerful, from generals to foreign politicians.

The soothsayer, whose popularity has inspired a recent Thai biopic, is one of a plethora of mystics in Myanmar, where generations of rulers have sought ethereal advice.

Sprightly despite a range of disabilities -- including, her family say, that her internal organs are all on the wrong side of her body -- ET looks every bit the mystic when accompanied by her sister Thi Thi, whose penchant for shawls and elaborately embroidered frocks enhances the spiritualist image.

"My sister (is a) very, very grand and special one," Thi Thi told AFP in a recent interview in Bangkok, adding that her guidance has been sought across the region.

"Some is politician, some is business people... Everybody happy, became very famous," said Thi Thi, who acts as an interpreter for her sister.

Myanmar's fortune tellers are thought to be behind several unexplained occurrences in the country, from the abrupt decision by the former junta to relocate the capital in 2005, to bizarre episodes when the generals appeared wearing women's longyi -- a sarong-like skirt.

Normally sartorially conservative, the top brass resorted to cross-dressing "so that a woman would not become president in the country," said Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, a news magazine started by Myanmar exiles, referring to the junta's fear of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

"They are very superstitious," he said.

Mystics have been ascribed great influence in a country where the workings of the secretive junta were kept hidden from the public for decades.

Aung Zaw said that amid the wilder speculation were strong indications that the army chiefs did dabble in the dark arts to try to reinforce their power.

"There is a lot of interpretation... but they do these things quite often," he said, adding that the practice of consulting astrologers dated back hundreds of years, with Myanmar's former kings regularly consulting fortune tellers.

Ne Win, the strongman who ruled Myanmar for around three decades, was notorious for his reliance on fortune tellers and their "yadaya" -- an occult practice where a symbolic act is performed to influence the future.

Rumours about the former junta chief's use of yadaya to ward off adversity include that he stood in front of a mirror and shot a gun at his own reflection, according to one foreign observer who has long studied the old regime.

Even Myanmar's new reformist President Thein Sein has indicated his openness to heed the predictions of mystics.

"I don't know a lot about astrology, but there are many people who know astrology very well in Myanmar," he said in a recent documentary "Un oeil sur la plan??te" (An Eye on the World) by French broadcaster France 2.

"Sometimes they give me advice on how the situation of the country could be affected from the astrological point of view. I willingly take this advice into account."

Thi Thi said her sister, who is in her 40s, had also met former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and predicted his rise to power.

"He come and see my sister, before politics. At that time he is (in the) telephone business," she said.

Thaksin reportedly visited ET just days before he was ousted in a 2006 coup, but Thi Thi declined to give details of the relationship, saying only that her sister's predictions over the years were "80 percent correct".

In three decades on the road, she said ET has travelled to "many many countries", including Japan, China, Singapore and Thailand, and now ploughs a portion of her income into a hospital foundation at home.

While her clients include the occasional Westerner, most are local businessmen and wealthy Asians.

"It's definitely hard to get an appointment," said one Western diplomat, who said prices have now risen to a hundred dollars a session.

ET begins her consultations with theatrical flair by writing out the serial number of an apparently unseen banknote in the client's wallet -- a "convincing" start, the diplomat said.

Soon after Suu Kyi was released from her last bout of house arrest in 2010, amid uncertainty about how much freedom the Nobel peace laureate would be allowed, the diplomat asked ET for a prediction of the veteran activist's future.

"In spite of a warning that she doesn't predict politics or the lottery, she did say that 'Aung San Suu Kyi would be more free, very free'," the diplomat said.

Suu Kyi has since been elected to parliament and is eyeing a bid for the presidency.

ET -- whose name is also written E Thi -- has predicted her own early death from heart failure, but her sister says it does not worry the soothsayer because she will be "very pretty" in her next life.

Her family say her powers, including visions of ghosts and future events, were discovered after she was struck by fever while praying at a pagoda as a small child.

Others took a more prosaic route to otherworldly insight and international popularity.

Hein Tint Zaw says he studied for five years under a famous Myanmar soothsayer, learning astrology, tarot and numerology with around 100 other pupils before graduating in the mystic arts and moving to Thailand to set up shop among the many migrants from Myanmar.

His little studio in the industrial town of Mahachai mainly attracts workers from his homeland, who staff local factories in their thousands, but Thais also seek his services and bring along their own interpreters.

"I have never had to advertise," he said.


 

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