Myanmar’s remaining independence fighter dies at 91

Struggle over: Portraits of Ye Htut are displayed at his residence during his funeral Thursday in Yangon. Ye Htut, the last surviving member of the 'Thirty Comrades,' the legendary group that spearheaded Myanmar's independence struggle against British colonial rule, died in Yangon on Wednesday at age 91. | AP

YANGON – Ye Htut, the last member of the “Thirty Comrades,” the group that spearheaded Myanmar’s struggle against British colonial rule, has died. He was 91.

Ye Htut died from health problems related to old age at a hospital in the main city of Yangon on Wednesday, family members said.

The Thirty Comrades were led by Gen. Aung San, father of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. During World War II, the men went to Japan for training to fight British colonizers in what was then known as Burma. Aung San later negotiated independence from Britain, but was assassinated before that occurred in 1948.

Ye Htut, who served in the Myanmar army until independence, went underground soon afterward, joining the armed struggle of the banned Burma Communist Party.

He laid down his weapons in 1963 to join the ruling party of then-dictator Gen. Ne Win, but was purged several years later in an inner-party struggle, according to his eldest son, Kyaw Kyaw.

Ye Htut was involved in the 1988 democracy movement.

Tin Oo, a former chief of staff and veteran of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, expressed his condolences, saying he had great respect for those who helped the country fight for independence.

“I am very sad to hear about the death of the last surviving member of the Thirty Comrades,” he said.

Ye Htut “served as a patron of the Patriotic Old Comrades league — a group formed by retired army leaders during the peak of the 1988 uprising. He shared his experience and had given us advice during the initial days,” Tin Oo said.

Ye Htut is survived by his two sons.

The Japan Times

Daw aung San Suu Kyi at Sydney Opera House

Daw aung San Suu Kyi at Sydney Opera House

Australians from Myanmar welcome Suu Kyi

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived in Australia on a five-day visit.
After fleeing Myanmar's repressive regime 25 years ago, Dr Myint Cho is meeting his "inspiration", world-renowned democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi on her first visit to Australia.

Dr Myint Cho fled the troubled Southeast Asian nation in 1988, after being placed on the authoritarian government's wanted list for his pro-democracy views.

On Wednesday, he was welcoming the 68-year-old Nobel Peace prize laureate and Myanmar parliamentarian, who touched down at Sydney Airport to begin a five-day Australian tour.

She's here to drum up Australian support for further democratic reforms and opening up in Myanmar.

Dr Myint Cho told AAP it was an exciting time for the Myanmar community in Australia.

"We're so excited to meet Aung San Suu Kyi because she's such a huge inspiration," he said.

"She's trying to work with all political stakeholders inside and outside the parliament (of Myanmar) for the national reconciliation process."

The Myanmar regime only in recent years has allowed elections and lifted restrictions.

That has prompted the removal of some international sanctions and paved the way for Ms Suu Kyi to enter national parliament after years of house arrest.

One of Ms Suu Kyi's first engagements, around noon on Wednesday, was meeting NSW Governor Marie Bashir at Government House.

She was then expected to head to the Sydney Opera House to address hundreds of Myanmar people living in Australia before giving a keynote speech on Wednesday evening.

Since becoming a parliamentarian in 2012, Ms Suu Kyi has faced criticism over her dealings with the military-led government.

But Dr Myint Cho said that criticism was unfair, because Ms Suu Kyi was forced to work with all politicians to help Myanmar's people.

He also said the Myanmar government still had many issues to address, though he was very grateful for the elections.

"However, he (President Thein Sein) still fails to deliver the benefit of the reforms to the broader population ... especially in the areas of human rights, the rule of law and the peace process."

Dr Myint Cho says the Australian government should "throw their full economic and diplomatic clout" behind Ms Suu Kyi's cause.

Ms Suu Kyi will also visit Melbourne and Canberra on her five-day tour.

Village being charged over resistance on removal for Dawei project

Village being charged over resistance on removal for Dawei project

Mi Chaung Kan land grab problem

Mi Chaung Kan land grab problem

Myanmar's chinlone set to steal show

YANGON - Zay Koko Shine and Zay Nyinyi Shine, 11-year-old twins from Myanmar's Karen state, are glad they listened to their grandmother.

The two boys were among 222 players selected to take part in a mass display of Myanmar's traditional chinlone wicker-ball sport at the opening ceremony of 27th South-East Asian Games, which Myanmar will host from Dec 11 to 22, 2013.

Chinlone requires dexterity, concentration and years of practice, which will make the twins stand out as the youngest participants at the gala opening.

Zay Koko Shine and Zay Nyinyi Shine, from Hpa-An, the capital of Karen state, have spent the past four years honing their chinlone skills, after kicking their video-games habit.

"We were real video game addicts," Zay Koko Shine said. "At the age of eight we started to suffer from short-sightedness and grandma told us to abandon the video games and try chinlone instead."

Myanmar, as host to this year's games, is allowed to select some indigenous sports to include on the agenda at the event, held once every two years.

It has decided to include chinlone, the first time the local version of the sport will reach an international arena. There will be eight gold medals up for grabs in the chinlone contests.

"We have included traditional chinlone in the SEA games, not for the medals but only to bring attention to one of the oldest traditional sports in the world," said Ye Aung, secretary general of the Myanmar Chinlone Federation.

The sport is similar to takraw in Thailand, versions of which are also popular in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Both takraw and chinlone are based on fancy foot work and a wicker ball that needs to be kept in the air.

Takraw has been included in SEA Games and Asian Games for years, but has never made it to the Olympics.

Unlike takraw, in chinlone there is no net. Instead, a team of six form a circle and use their feet and knees to control a ball that makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked. There is no opposing team.

"You can't play this game without concentration," said U Kee, 72, a lifelong devotee of the sport. "You must concentrate on every touch of the cane ball. Sometimes in a higher state, you have to touch a ball without seeing it."

Often players kick the ball behind their backs.

The objective of the game is not winning or losing, but in how skillfully it is played, experts say.

"It is not a competitive sport. The point is how to play the game beautifully, and help your fellow players to do so," Ye Aung said.

The winning team is decided by accumulated points for skill, he said.

The participating countries have welcomed the introduction of chinlone, he said.

"There are similar sports to chinlone played in the region so this will strengthen unity among the countries," U Kee said. "Try it once and you will like it. It will unify us."

That would be a new role for Myanmar, which was for years a divisive factor among the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), a regional economic and security group it joined in 1997.

Myanmar's entry into Asean sparked international criticism, given the poor human rights record of the country's former ruling junta that came to power in 1988 in the wake of a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that left an estimated 3,000 dead.

The country has been under the rule of a nominally civilian government since 2011.

The SEA Asia Games will be Myanmar's first major sports event in 44 years.

The country, formerly called Burma, hosted the 2nd SEA Games in 1961 and the 6th SEA Games in 1969, before it entered a period of isolation and economic decline under military strongman Ne Win.

After 1990, Myanmar's bid to host the Games was rejected several times due to the lack of large stadiums.

The upcoming SEA Games will be held in the capital Naypyitaw, where a new stadium has been built, Yangon, Mandalay, and Ngwe Saung Beach, featuring 33 sports.

Bangkok Post

In Myanmar, Newly Free Media Struggle to Turn a Profit

The newsroom at the Eleven Media Group in Yangon, Myanmar. The company has a daily and a weekly publication.


YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s journalists celebrated this year when the government lifted a five-decade ban on private newspapers.

But six months after a dozen dailies rushed into production, journalists who had withstood the wrath and cruelty of a military dictatorship are struggling against something much more mundane: market forces.

Despite expectations of pent-up demand, publishers say they are suffering from a lack of advertising and competition from the Internet.

“Every publisher is bleeding,” said U Sonny Swe, chief executive of the Mizzima Media Group, which publishes a daily. “You have to be ready to fight. And ready to lose.”

Three of the 12 dailies introduced this year have already shut down, and none of the remaining nine are reporting profits, publishers say.

Some of the challenges facing Myanmar’s new dailies are the same as those that have confronted the news business globally for years, like declining readership for print publications.

But Myanmar’s new dailies are also operating in an impoverished country where the legacy of military rule is pervasive. The private dailies are competing with state-run newspapers that were the mouthpieces of the junta and remain in business.

Distribution in big cities is still unreliable for the private papers, especially during the rainy season, and nearly nonexistent in the countryside. And a typical cover price of 20 cents a copy for the private papers is too high for many readers, publishers say. State-run publications sell for a fraction of that.

Private newspapers were banned in Myanmar, formerly Burma, by a military government in the 1960s. A junta that took over in 1988 allowed private weekly publications, but only under heavy censorship. The civilian administration that came to power in 2011 abolished censorship last year and allowed dailies to start publishing in April after obtaining licenses.

Daw Nyein Nyein Naing, the executive editor at The 7 Day Daily, one of the new newspapers, said finding good reporters had been difficult. Her reporters are addicted to Facebook, she said, and often post scoops to their Facebook pages, rather than filing stories to their editors.

She also lamented that many readers appeared to prefer dailies and weeklies that she said ran sensational articles of dubious veracity. “People are not buying quality,” she said.

“It was our dream to have a daily paper,” Ms. Nyein Nyein Naing said. “Sometimes I feel that maybe it was too early for Myanmar to have daily newspapers. We are not giving the best quality to readers. Maybe we were not ready, especially on the human resources side.”

With Myanmar’s future still uncertain, troubled by sectarian violence and questions about the military’s power and influence, editors say there is a great need for high-quality reporting from around the country.

This was evident during bouts of violence between Buddhists and Muslims this year, says U Than Htut Aung, the chairman of the Eleven Media Group, which has both a daily and a weekly.

When the central city of Meiktila erupted in sectarian violence in March, one of his photographers was chased away by a mob of angry Buddhists. A second photographer was dispatched from a nearby city, but he too was confronted by a marauding mob and forced to seek shelter in a police station. A third photographer was sent and posed as a businessman, discreetly taking photos of the city, where dozens of homes were burned and at least 44 people were killed. The Daily Eleven’s photos were among the first images sent from the city after the carnage.

Mr. Than Htut Aung said he printed about 85,000 copies of The Daily Eleven, which is not yet profitable despite being the largest private daily newspaper.

The paper is effectively subsidized by a weekly sports journal, which began publishing 13 years ago and which has consistently made money.

But smaller newspapers do not have that kind of financial support.

U Thiha Saw, a longtime journalist who clashed with censors many times during military rule, runs the country’s only private English-language daily, Myanma Freedom Daily.

“We scrimped and saved and sold our apartment,” said Mr. Thiha Saw, who is also vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association. “Relatives and friends chipped in.”

He is considering courting outside investors but is worried that their money might come with “strings attached.”

Journalists say they face unfair competition from the state-run newspapers, especially because the state publications sell for a fraction of the price and have plentiful advertising, a legacy of military rule when they were the only dailies in the country.

U Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of the Irrawaddy, a widely read Internet news site that also publishes a monthly magazine, said the state-run papers are an impediment to the development of a free press in the country.

“In a democratic society you don’t expect the Ministry of Information to publish newspapers,” he said. “It’s a barrier for the freedom of the press, and for private and independent media groups.”

Some of the new dailies, although private, have the backing of the old military establishment.

Union Daily, which is published by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, or U.S.D.P., the party formed by the former junta that has a majority in Parliament, makes no secret about its mission.

“Union Daily reflects the policies of the U.S.D.P.,” said U Win Tin, a former army officer who is the paper’s chief editor. “We are doing P.R. for the U.S.D.P.”

In the long term, both private and state-run newspapers are likely to find it harder than ever, editors say.

With Internet connections improving and big foreign telecommunications companies poised to install mobile phone networks that could bring tens of millions of people online for the first time, Myanmar is likely to follow the global trend of people looking online for their news.

“Newspapers are so new for this country — that is why everyone is publishing,” said Mr. Sonny Swe, the chief executive of Mizzima.

“But you don’t want to be in newspapers for 10 years,” he said. “Our future is in mobile.”

Wai Moe contributed reporting.

The New York Times

Myanmar's Thein Sein to visit PH

HISTORIC. Myanmar President Thein Sein speaks during the closing ceremony and handover of the ASEAN Chairmanship to Myanmar on October 10. AFP File Photo
Posted on 11/25/2013 5:39 PM  |

MANILA, Philippines – President Thein Sein of Myanmar will be in Manila for a state visit from December 4 to 6.

The historic visit is upon the invitation of President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Monday, November 25.

Aquino and Thein Sein will meet to discuss issues of mutual concern, particularly in the areas of trade and investment, agriculture, energy, cultural exchanges and information cooperation, among others.

They will also discuss regional issues, including Myanmar’s historic chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year. (READ: Myanmar takes lead role in ASEAN)

The last time a head of state from Myanmar visited the Philippines was in 2005 when Prime Minister Soe Win visited Manila. This is Thein Sein’s first visit to the Philippines since his assumption to office in 2011.

Thein Sein is a former military leader and is considered by some of his constituents as a moderate and reformist in the post-junta government. (READ: Myanmar: Prison, parliament and the Internet)

The two leaders had their first bilateral meeting in Nay Pyi Taw on June 07, 2013, when Aquino attended the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia hosted by Myanmar.

The Philippines will host the WEF along with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 2015.

Myanmar recently donated 7 tons of relief goods and US$100,000 to the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

The Philippines and Myanmar established diplomatic relations in 1956 and will celebrate the 60th anniversary of their relations in 2016. –

Government plans 15,000-km Asian Gas Grid to connect with producers in Iran, Myanmar

By Rajeev Jayaswal, ET Bureau | 25 Nov, 2013,

NEW DELHI: India is keen to build a 15,000-km gas grid across Asia to connect producers such as Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh and central Asian nations with big consumers including itself, China and Pakistan, government officials said.

The proposal, which revives prospects of India importing gas from Iran and seeks to extend the proposed pipeline from Turkmenistan, already has the backing of oil minister Veerappa Moily. It was scheduled to be discussed at the SAARC Energy Ministers Meet that was expected early December but was postponed as some ministers were not available, officials said.

Moily has argued that the proposed Green Energy Highway would improve the competitiveness of gas consumers as they will be able to cut energy costs. "This would also be beneficial for the gas suppliers as they would get access to such a large and growing market," he said in a note reviewed by ET.

The proposed grid could be an extension of the $7.6-billion Turkmenistan- ..

The Economic Times.

Military land grabs leave farmers in despair

In Khanaung Chaung Wa Village, in Dalla township just south of Rangoon, 44 people have been driven from their homes since August this year.

Five hundred acres of the land they have farmed for generations have been confiscated by the military to make way for a naval storage base.

Farmers who resisted were forced to relocate.

“I refused to obey the government request to move from my house. They told me they would return in three days. Then a couple of days later they came and destroyed my home. I got a camera and took photos of what happened. Ten soldiers tried to stop me,” said Soe Soe Myint.

Despite praise for recent reforms in Burma, for farmers who happen to be in the way of military plans, rights haven’t improved. Land grabs are widespread and continuing, and ownership of land in is dictated by the rich and well connected.

Regardless of the fact they have cultivated this land for generations, the farmers of Khanaung Chaung Wa don’t officially own the land. Three months ago the area was declared a restrictive zone under Burma’s notorious Section 144 curfew law and the villagers were told they had to go. The 144 curfew is a provision that gives authorities emergency powers to control public order.

Village spokesperson Kyi Soe says the provision is being misused and is not supposed to be used in peaceful areas.

“If the farmers don’t move, they [security personnel] will come at night and destroy everything. According to Section 144, they have the authority to shoot farmers.”

The villagers lodged a complaint with parliament, but despite their attempt to reach out to the authorities, their homes have now all been destroyed.

Some have moved to the nearest town to work as street vendors while others have built temporary shelters just outside the restricted zone. Farmer Htun Ko Ko Oo says without their crops the families are struggling to get food.

“No business is allowed – as we are all farmers around here, that’s all we know,” he said.

“Without farms we face uncertainty with food and despair for our futures. We know great hardships are coming. We don’t even have access to our own water – we don’t own even an inch of land.”

Their paddy fields have now been destroyed by chemicals to stop them from entering the area. They have no way to earn a living.

The farmers are still waiting for a response to their case from the parliament. For now they struggle to survive, just yards away from the land they use to own.



Aung San Suu Kyi, and Myanmar, faces an uncertain future

The famous former dissident, now in parliament, has her sights set on the presidency. But her support of the military establishment has many wondering whether her voice has lost its moral weight.

Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters in Yangon, Myanmar, as she leaves the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party. Suu Kyi has launched an aggressive campaign to change the nation's constitution, which bars her from seeking the presidency. (Nyein Chan Naing / European Pressphoto Agency / September 27, 2013)
By Kate Linthicum

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — The Lady, uncharacteristically, is late.
But she is unflustered, graciously indulging the pack of photographers that follows as she glides out of her car, up a granite staircase and into her seat in the grand assembly hall.
Just in time for roll call, Aung San Suu Kyi has arrived at the parliament. But that doesn't mean Myanmar's most famous face has arrived at real political power — or that anyone knows quite what she would do if she had it.
A Nobel Peace laureate who endured years of house arrest under a harsh military dictatorship before being freed and allowed to run for office as part of a sweeping reform program, Suu Kyi wants to become president but can't. The constitution, written by the former military junta in 2008, bans anyone with a foreign spouse or children. Suu Kyi has two British sons with her late husband, the British scholar Michael Aris.
Now the Lady, as she became known during the decades when it was unsafe to speak her name, is launching an aggressive campaign to change the charter, taking her message to Western diplomats and her legions of supporters at home. She told a crowd at her party's headquarters recently that until the ban is lifted and the military's powers reduced, "this will be a fake democracy."
Despite strong backing from the United States and the European Union, the battle to change the constitution before the next general election in 2015 could prove the toughest test yet for Suu Kyi, who has faced a rocky road in her transition from prisoner of conscience to party politician.
The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi has drawn criticism from human rights leaders and ethnic minorities for her silence on a harsh military campaign against armed members of the Kachin ethnic group as well as a recent spate of sectarian violence against the nation's Muslim minority. An editorial published on the Irrawaddy newsmagazine website complained that Suu Kyi had kept herself "aloof from the burning issues that rack the country she hopes one day to lead."
Suu Kyi has said she doesn't want to "add fire" to the conflicts, instead calling for the implementation of the "rule of law" in a country with a notoriously corrupt justice system.
Critics, though, question whether she has chosen political expediency over principle, believing she has calibrated her message to appear non-threatening to the former military leaders who hold the key to her political future.
The international community cheered when President Thein Sein, a former general, came to power 2 1/2 years ago and enacted broad reforms that included releasing political prisoners and relaxing longtime restrictions on the press. The United States and Europe rewarded the former pariah state by dropping economic sanctions.
But despite their democratic pledges, Myanmar's former military leaders have designed a political system that continues to grant them sweeping authority.
A quarter of the parliament seats are set aside for military officers appointed by the military's top commander. They sit together in uniform when the parliament is in session in Naypyidaw, the sprawling new capital built in secret by the former junta, and have the power to veto amendments to the constitution, which require more than 75% of the vote.
The majority of the other parliament members are recently retired military officers aligned with the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is led by a former general who has said he wants to replace Thein Sein, 68, who is not expected to seek a second term because of health problems.
The election of Suu Kyi as president would be hugely symbolic. Her father, Aung San, was the hero of Myanmar's independence movement. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was 2 years old.
After Myanmar's first short experiment with democracy was put to an end by a 1962 military coup, Suu Kyi spent most of the ensuing decades of dictatorship living in England.
She was in Myanmar, also known as Burma, attending to her ill mother in 1988 when hundreds of thousands of anti-military protesters took to the streets. The movement needed a figurehead, and Suu Kyi stepped into the role. The party she founded swept a 1990 election, but the results were nullified by the military junta and Suu Kyi was confined to house arrest.
Her release from detention in 2010 was viewed as a sign that Myanmar's former military leaders were serious about change.
At first, Suu Kyi appeared to seek a strategic alliance with her former captors. To the dismay of her pro-democracy allies, she said she was "quite fond" of the army and even appeared in the first row at a televised military parade.
But in recent months, Suu Kyi has sharpened her criticism of Myanmar's reform efforts and the outsized role that the military still plays in this impoverished nation of nearly 60 million sandwiched strategically between India and China.
"She obviously seems to feel that they aren't delivering on what she expected," said Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group. He said that in conversations with Suu Kyi, she has expressed concern about the number of political prisoners still being held and the lack of progress on changes to the constitution.

Some say her perceived support of the establishment has cost her crucial political capital and has raised questions about what kind of leader she might be.
"She gave her blessing too easily and in too short of a time," said Khin Ohmar, a pro-democracy activist who spent years living in political exile. "Her message to the world has lost its weight."
Ohmar said she had been disappointed by Suu Kyi's muted reaction to human rights concerns, including the anti-Muslim violence that has taken hundreds of lives. Many have blamed the government for not doing enough to calm religious and ethnic tension, which many believe flared as a result of the loosening of the police state.

Ohmar said that Suu Kyi appeared to have made a political calculation to curry support from the majority Buddhist population, which harbors deep-seated resentment of the Muslim minority.
U Han Thar Myint, a member of the National League for Democracy, said Suu Kyi was simply being diplomatic.
"When you are under detention it is very easy to be idealistic. You need to be idealistic to be able to withstand it," he said at the party's headquarters, a crumbling two-story building in Yangon decorated with dozens of portraits of the Lady. "But if we want to do practical things we must be practical."
He acknowledged that the NLD had been struggling to find its way amid criticism that Suu Kyi has been an aloof leader and slow to modernize the party. But he also pointed to gains. The party has launched health clinics, dug wells and opened schools across the country, he said, and among most people, Suu Kyi remains hugely popular.
One devotee, Minn Minn, left a well-paying job to earn a $100-a-month paycheck as an English teacher at an NLD-run high school in central Yangon, the former capital also known as Rangoon. He described Suu Kyi as the "only" option for Myanmar.
"We know the wrong things but don't know the right things," he said. "What is human rights? What is democracy? I am still learning. We all studied under the military government; we don't know. Most of the public does not understand politics, so she is teaching us."

By Kate Linthicum

Los Angeles Times

Cambodian Logging Tycoon Accused of Concession Violations

Timber is transported by a truck belonging to one of Try Pheap's companies.
A Cambodian rights group has alleged that a logging tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the ruling party has been granted state land concessions that are nearly seven times above the limit under the law.

In a 50-page report, local nongovernmental organization Cambodia Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) also accused timber magnate Try Pheap of blatantly flouting conditions for granting the economic land concessions (ELC).

It also charged that Try Pheap had channeled around U.S. $1 million to Hun Sen’s family and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for unspecified expenditures before the July 28 elections whose results remain disputed despite official returns declaring the CPP as the victor.

In response to the allegations, a senior CPP official told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the government would investigate the matter, saying the authorities would never allow companies to operate ELCs illegally.

In Wednesday’s report, CHRTF claimed that Try Pheap had amassed nearly 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of ELCs, or seven times more than the 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) allowed to a single individual, through as many as 15 companies operating under his name or that of his wife, Mao Mom.

According to Article 59 of Cambodia’s Land Law, individuals or legal entities controlled by the same person cannot hold more than 10,000 hectares of ELCs, even if it is spread over multiple concessions.

That law allows the government to make use of all “private state land” and lease them to companies for as many as 99 years.

Nearly 1,500 families have been evicted from their homes since 2010 as a result of Try Pheap’s acquisitions, which have also encroached on protected forests, wildlife sanctuaries and as many as 20 national parks, the report said.

“We have conducted studies on Try Pheap’s companies and we found that they breached their contracts with the government [according to what is required under] land concession licenses,” Ouch Leng, director of CHRTF, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“The companies have mainly cut down the forests, but they have left the land undeveloped,” without facing punishment, he said.

Ouch Leng said that Try Pheap and his family had paid around U.S. $1 million to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the CPP.

“Before the election, they spent more than U.S. $1 million,” Ouch Leng said, claiming that he had been told about the payment by members of Try Pheap’s family.

“[Try Pheap’s] family members can’t enjoy a rich lifestyle because they spent so much money on the ruling party and Hun Sen’s family,” he said, without providing details about how the money was channeled or what it was used for.

Special preference

CHRTF said it had sent a team of investigators to compile information on Try Pheap’s companies and to track company officials as they transported the timber into Vietnam for resale to third countries.

Try Pheap has exclusive rights to collect and buy luxury timber, mainly rosewood, from government-granted land concessions in 15 provinces, the CHRTF report said, and his companies also clear timber from concession areas in nine other provinces.

“Through our investigation, we found that [the main entity] Try Pheap Import Export is the biggest operation [in Cambodia] extracting luxury wood and exporting it to foreign countries through Vietnam,” the report said.

“The company pays only minimal attention to [developing the] agricultural industry, such as through the planting of rubber and pepper [as required under the concessions]. It received land concessions and only cuts down the forests—it doesn’t develop the concession areas.”

The Phnom Penh Post cited Ouch Leng as saying that the company has also “fed and sponsored armed forces and civil servants in the concession area[s] by helping build offices, but it does not help improve people’s lives.”

Try Pheap’s 14 other companies are largely involved with logging and the exporting of wood, though the tycoon also controls some mining interests as well, the report said.

His “close ties” with the government have allowed Try Pheap Import Export to open 27 offices in 12 provinces, it said, adding that CHRTF is in possession of documents from the environment and commerce ministries that detail the company’s concessions.

It claims Try Pheap is closely connected with officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, the military, forestry officials and other concessionaires.

CHRTF said in a statement that it had released the report focusing only on Try Pheap’s companies “to urge the government to take action and show the truth behind why our forests are disappearing.”

Response to claims

Try Pheap could not be reached by RFA on Thursday for comment on the allegations.

But the Post reported that a company representative in Preah Vihear province denied allegations of illegal activity.

“Our company does not log illegally,” said the representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Try Pheap’s companies had rights to buy timber in only eight provinces.

“We buy wood that has been seized by the authorities … The money goes to the state. We do not export it. We process it in Phnom Penh as furniture.”

He called allegations about the companies’ practices false, and said that villagers were given adequate compensation when they were relocated.

When asked by RFA about claims of concession violations by Try Pheap’s companies and allegations about money funneled by the tycoon to the CPP and Hun Sen, senior CPP official and National Assembly—or parliament—spokesman Chheang Vun called non-sanctioned deforestation “a crime.”

“But any deforestation that is done with the permission of the government following detailed studies is legal,” he said.

Hun Sen’s government would never allow anyone to conduct logging without prior approval, Chheang Vun said, adding that the prime minister “has already made it clear that anyone who is caught illegally logging will be prosecuted.”

He criticized CHRTF for issuing a report without having consulted the government.

“NGOs should [first] file complaints with the government,” Chheang Vun said, as well as with Cambodia’s anti-corruption task force and the National Assembly, calling for a probe into the claims.

He pledged to investigate the allegations, saying “leading lawmakers in the areas raised by the NGO will hold discussions with permanent commissions to see which steps to pursue.”

Try Pheap’s activities have been the focus of several reports this year, including one in August by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which said it had evidence of rampant illegal logging in Preah Vihear.

Another investigation in October by National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization concluded that licenses granted to the tycoon for extracting and buying timber from ELCs will leave the areas ecologically impoverished.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Myanmar Political Parties Set to Hold Talks With Armed Rebel Groups

Representatives take part in the Ethnic Armed Organizations' Conference in Laiza, Oct. 31, 2013.
Representatives from Myanmar’s ruling and opposition parties will meet with armed ethnic rebel leaders this week to help lay the framework for an elusive nationwide cease-fire agreement that the government wants to get signed by the end of the year. 

Ahead of three-day talks in Thailand beginning Friday, a senior member of Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a Kachin rebel army leader indicated that issues over lucrative business interests in conflict zones could mar negotiations to end decades of military conflict. 

USDP central committee member Hla Swe questioned whether ethnic rebel leaders were “really representing the interests of their people” in the negotiations.  

“Some leaders from ethnic armed groups are mostly working based on business [interests]. I don’t think they are working enough for ethnic rights,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service ahead of the talks in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai.

He warned the government against giving in to rebel demands, saying President Thein Sein’s negotiating team led by Minister Aung Min had been too patient already.  

“I think the government has acceded more than it should,” he said. 

General Gwan Maw, chief of staff of the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), accused other prominent rebel groups of signing ceasefire agreements with the government in exchange for lucrative car import permits.

“To those making efforts for peace, I urge them not to exchange peace for car permits,” the Kachin News Group quoted him as saying in a speech to hundreds of ethnic Kachins in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Tuesday before heading to Chiang Mai for the talks. 

The KIO, the only major rebel group without an active individual cease-fire agreement with the government, is a key member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) rebel alliance, which is based in Chiang Mai. 

Talks with a dozen political parties

UNFC leaders will meet Friday with representatives from a dozen Myanmar political parties, comprising, among other groups, the USDP, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and ethnic-based parties, including those not represented in parliament. 

In talks organized by the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, the political party representatives will also meet with the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team, the Restoration  Council of Shan State, the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination, and the Women's League of Burma. 

The meetings are aimed at narrowing differences between the government and the rebel groups ahead of the next round of nationwide cease-fire talks scheduled to take place next month in the Kayin (Karen) state capital Hpa-An.  

After the talks in Thailand, the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team is expected to draw up a draft nationwide cease-fire pact that will be sent to the government next week. 

Government negotiators have said they want to get all of the rebel groups to sign the nationwide cease-fire together at a ceremony in Naypyidaw by the end of the year. 

But the peace process has hit stumbling blocks as the rebel groups demand a federal military and amendments to the constitution to create a federal political system allowing ethnic states greater autonomy, as well as political and social reforms. 

This week’s meetings will be an opportunity for political parties to weigh in on the peace process spearheaded by President Thein Sein’s government, which is racing to end conflict with the rebels to speed up reforms after decades of military rule. 

Aside from the cease-fire they are also expected to discuss amendments to the country’s 2008 constitution, the creation of a federal political system, and women’s roles in national reform. 

Myanmar has a number of small ethnic-based parties, many of which have called for amending the constitution to allow for more autonomy for ethnic states.  

This week’s talks will include representatives from the ethnic-based Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the Shan National League for Democracy, the Chin Progressive Party, the Karen People’s Party, as well as the National Democratic Force and the Peace and Diversity Party, among others. 

Preparing for political dialogue

Myanmar Peace Center representative Nyo Ohn Myint said the government welcomed input from other political parties since they are expected to participate in political dialogue the government and rebels have agreed to hold after signing a nationwide cease-fire. 

“When we hold political dialogue, political parties and ethnic parties that are not armed groups will be in the dialogue. It is good to have their opinion in advance before the political dialogue,” he told RFA. 

The Myanmar Peace Center had arranged for the parties to join the discussions at their request, he said. 

SNDP general secretary Sia Nyunt Lwin said the talks would focus “mainly” on the nationwide cease-fire and that as an ethnic-based party, the SNDP could help mediate discussions between ethnic leaders and the government.

“Although SNLD is familiar with the ethnic armed groups, other political parties are not. We will all be dialogue partners, and that’s why this talk was arranged—for us to meet each other and share opinions,” he told RFA. 

UNFC secretary Naing Han Tha said rebel groups welcomed the chance to talk with political party representatives. 

“Having the discussions here with all groups will be helpful to solving problems such as how to proceed based on what the people want and how to amend 2008 constitution,” he told RFA.

Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Yadanar Oo, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

China's Top Court Bans Torture, Forced Confessions

A file photo of the Supreme People's Court building in Beijing.
China's highest court on Thursday called for an end to torture to extract confessions from suspects, as part of a package of legal reforms announced by the ruling Chinese Communist Party last week.

"Interrogation by torture in extracting a confession, as well as the use of freezing, hunger, drying, scorching, fatigue and other illegal methods to obtain a confession from the accused must be eliminated," the court said in a tweet on its verified account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.

The move came one week after the party said in a top communique that it would scrap the much-criticized "re-education through labor" system and reduce the scope of the death penalty.

Rights activists and lawyers commonly report abuses of police power in China's legal system, which is heavily controlled by local party officials and police, and influenced by state-backed business interests at every level.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the guidelines were largely symbolic, as Chinese law already forbids forced confessions and torture.

"If they really want to solve this, the most effective thing to do would be to protect the right to remain silent, as well as not admitting verbal confessions as evidence in court," Liu said.

Under Chinese law, defendants have the right to remain silent under police questioning and cross-examination in court.

But experts say this right is rarely upheld in practice.

Liu said police should also transfer suspects to detention centers immediately after their arrest, rather than keep them locked in police stations, where torture is more likely.

But he said China's law enforcement agencies lacked awareness of human rights issues.

"When they detain someone, they beat them up," Liu said.

Independence needed

Hangzhou-based rights lawyer Wang Cheng said the ruling might result in a slightly more lenient climate for people trying to overturn miscarriages of justice, however.

"The courts in China haven't enjoyed a very high reputation in recent years, and there are usually a comparatively large number of votes against the Supreme Court's annual work report each year at the National People's Congress," Wang said, in a reference to the country's annual parliament, which rarely opposes the official party line on any topic.

"There has been some loud criticism of the situation regarding trumped-up charges, framing and forced confessions, which is generally seen as very serious," he said.

He said that if the authorities continued to issue better guidelines, this could eventually have an impact on the way the legal system operates.

"But...the problem in China is that...we won't see a fundamental resolution to this problem before we set up an independent judicial system," Wang said.

Lawyer Yuan Yulai said that the Supreme Court guidelines were still a long way from addressing how the legal system was run on the ground.

"I think we're still a long way from judicial independence, and there are many more things that need to be done," he said.

"The core issue is whether the courts will be allowed to act as supervisors to the government, or whether they will carry on protecting government interests," Yuan said.

He said no reforms ordered by the party leadership would have much effect until the core issue of independence was addressed.

"Otherwise, any reform will just be chasing its own tail, and won't bring about any real change," he said.

'Framework for communication'

However, he said courts at ever level in the system would likely follow suit with their own guidelines now that the Supreme Court had spoken out on the issue.

"At least this provides a framework for more communication between the courts and society, a channel for communication," he said.

In a judicial system that lacks independence, forced confessions are commonplace, while torture is also frequently reported by inmates, rights groups say.

According to statistics from the U.S. State Department, Chinese courts currently find 99.9 percent of defendants guilty.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Bi Zimo for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Rights Group Slams ‘Rampant Impunity’ in Cambodia

Chea Vichea's statue in Phnom Penh after its unveiling on May, 3, 2013.

A Cambodian rights group said Wednesday that impunity is on the rise in Cambodia, hitting out at the authorities for failing to resolve a number of high-profile killings and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Ahead of International Day to End Impunity on Saturday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) highlighted murders of human rights activists and journalists which it says are never investigated, cases where security forces that have beaten civilians go unpunished, and cases where several well-connected officials have evaded justice despite being convicted.

“Rampant” impunity is hindering the development of democracy and human rights in the country, the CCHR said in a statement.

CCHR Cambodia Freedom of Expression Project Coordinator Sorn Ramana called on Cambodia’s government to conduct immediate investigations into cases of human rights violations and to ensure that the country's judiciary is independent, impartial, and effective.

“Perpetrators and bad people commit crimes arbitrarily, and they are not afraid of any laws. They are not afraid of being prosecuted,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“The impunity is making innocent people into victims,” she said.

Ongoing cases

Authorities have not yet responded to the CCHR statement, which comes after rights groups accused authorities of failing to hold police responsible for shootings last week that killed one person and left others injured in a clampdown on a demonstration by factory strikers in Phnom Penh.

CCHR highlighted eight cases as examples of the rampant impunity in Cambodia, including the unsolved 2004 murder of outspoken labor activist Chea Vichea and the  “botched” investigation into the murder of environmental rights activist Chut Wutty who was shot dead in April last year while investigating illegal logging claims.

“Perpetrators of crimes often go unpunished, and victims of these crimes never see justice,” CCHR’s statement said.

“More often than not, those who evade justice are well-connected individuals who are targeting those very people fighting for justice and human rights in Cambodia.”

Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Aid Groups Stretched by Refugees in Myanmar’s Kachin State

A Kachin woman holds her baby at a relief camp in Kachin state's Laiza town, Sept. 21, 2012.

Aid groups in Myanmar’s Kachin state are facing a humanitarian crisis as thousands of villagers fleeing homes to avoid fresh fighting between government troops and ethnic rebels inundate ill-prepared refugee camps, sources said Wednesday.

Around 2,000 villagers have been displaced by a surge in clashes since Oct. 16 between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the military in Mansi township in Kachin, a region near Myanmar’s northern border with China.

Mary Tom, an official from the nongovernmental organization Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), which is based in Kachin’s Lizayan town, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that some 1,000 of the new refugees had already found their way to camps for the displaced and that a similar number were still in transit.

“According to the list we have, about 700 people have arrived in Lagutyam refugee camp and about 300 … have arrived in Lazazuja refugee camp,” both of which are located in areas of Mansi township controlled by the Kachin rebels, she said.

“Between 800 and 1,000 refugees are still on their way to refugee camps.”

The Lagutyam refugee camp is being administered by a Christian religious organization, she said.

Many of the new refugees had already been displaced from earlier fighting and were staying at Nantlinpa village in Mansi when they were again forced to flee, Tom said.

A KIA spokesman told RFA on Monday that government troops had “attacked the village” on Oct. 16 and that “because the troops came in firing their weapons, the villagers and refugees ran away, and there is no one at the camps now.”

Government troops, numbering around 300, “took advantage” of the situation by entering the area “just minutes after a Catholic funded aid convoy reached” a camp in Nantlinpa village,” according to a report by the Kachin News Group, which cited a KIA official as saying that resistance “would have resulted in many civilians getting caught up in the cross fire.”

Tom said Wednesday that although there has been no recent fighting in Nantlinpa, the KIA and government troops have set up encampments in the area and further clashes are expected.

She said that when the residents of Nantlinpa gathered their belongings and left, many people from neighboring villages decided to do the same.

Inadequate supplies

According to Tom, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Organisation and several local civil society organizations are working to assist the flood of new refugees, but they are in short supply of food, medicine, clothing, blankets, shelters, and sanitation equipment.

“We have delivered [some] blankets to the refugees, as they are the most necessary in this [cold] weather. We also have delivered some clothing that other people have donated for them,” she said.

“Most of them have asked us for shoes or slippers and cots, as they don’t have any of these things. As many more refugees have arrived in the camps, we are facing difficulty even finding wood to use to cook for them.”

In addition to the 1,000 refugees in Lazazuja and Lagutyam, Tom said, around 70 have been staying at the Minekaung village Baptist Christian Church, while an additional 30 arrived there Wednesday from a neighboring village because “several landmines exploded in the area last night and this morning.”

Tin Maung Naw, secretary of the Minekaung Baptist Christian Church, confirmed the new arrivals.

“More than 70 people are … staying at the camp and some people just arrived this morning because there were several explosions around their villages,” he said.

“I think we may have more refugees [arrive] in our camp, as the situation between the two sides is tense.”

The church’s pastor Zaw Latt, said resources were running low at the makeshift camp.

“The shelters in our camp are not enough for all of the refugees, so we have arranged some places in nearby villages for them [to stay],” he said.

“The refugees have diarrhea and colds, as it is in the middle of winter right now. The older people are weak, as they had to walk two to three days to get here, and the children need nutrition because they were only able to eat a little food on the way.”

Call for peace

In light of the fresh fighting, the international community and rights campaigners have called on both sides of the conflict to end hostilities, which they say are severely endangering local residents.

Earlier this week, the U.N. called for an “immediate cessation of hostilities,” according to Agence France-Presse. The U.N. voiced particular concern for villagers fleeing the fighting and for hundreds of schoolchildren blockaded in their school but later released following an appeal by the Catholic Church.

Several Kachin campaign groups have also called for an end to hostilities “to allow humanitarian access” to the area.

Speaking to reporters on Monday in Yangon, KIA chief of staff Gen. Gwan Maw remained confident that the new clashes would not derail plans for a nationwide cease-fire—a draft proposal for which will be released and sent to the government next week, following a Nov. 25 meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Ethnic rebel groups, which have fought civil wars with Myanmar’s central government since independence from Britain in 1948, individually signed numerous cease-fire agreements with the country’s former military regime in late 1989 and early 1990, with some of those agreements breaking down in 2010 and 2011.

The government has inked peace deals with 10 out of 11 major armed groups in Myanmar since President Thein Sein extended an olive branch in August 2011, after his nominally civilian government took power after decades of military misrule.

Thein Sein's efforts to secure a nationwide cease-fire are part of a bid to speed up political and economic reforms in Myanmar.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is the only major Myanmar rebel group that has not yet signed a cease-fire pact with the government.

Last month, the government and Kachin rebels failed to nail down a permanent cease-fire accord, but signed a new agreement aimed at reducing hostilities and laying the groundwork for political dialogue.

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

Burma Rejects UN Resolution on Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya Muslims are seen in Bawdupa IDP camp outside of Sittwe, Burma, Aug. 11, 2013.
November 21, 2013

RANGOON — Burma rejected on Thursday a U.N. resolution urging it to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority group, and accused the United Nations of impinging on its sovereignty.

The U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee resolution, which passed on Tuesday, also called on Buddhist-majority Burma to curb an increase in violence against Muslims since military rule ended in March 2011.

“Citizenship will not be granted to those who are not entitled to it under this law no matter whoever applies pressure on us,” government spokesman Ye Htut said in a statement. “It is our sovereign right.”

After emerging from 49 years of military rule in 2011, Burma has faced repeated spasms of sectarian violence that have marred its transition to democracy and threatened to undermine its nascent political and economic reforms.

Clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists exploded in June and October last year, making 140,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya. Burma's government says 192 people were killed in the unrest; Rohingya put the toll at 748.

Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Burma by boat, hoping to get to Malaysia, a majority Muslim country.

Violence against Muslims spread further this year, most recently in Thandwe, a township on the Rakhine coast where ethnic Rakhine mobs killed five Muslims in a series of attacks between Sept. 29 and Oct 2.

Burma's government says the Rohingya are migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. A 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Rohingya from Burma's official list of 135 ethnic groups, effectively rendering them stateless. Bangladesh also disowns them and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.

Many of the 1.1 million Rohingya in Burma's western Rakhine State, however, trace their roots back generations.

The United Nations calls them “virtually friendless” and says they are subject to many forms of “persecution, discrimination and exploitation”.

The United States Embassy in Rangoon said on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” about reports of violence against Muslims in Rakhine state, including the burning of a mosque and threats against internally displaced people.

It urged the national and state authorities to do more to “ensure progress in security, rule of law, justice, humanitarian access, and reconciliation.”

Voice of America

EU Task Force in Myanmar and Vietnam

by Karafillis Giannoulis

The European Union (EU) aims to deepen its economic relations with Myanmar and Vietnam.

On 12 - 13 November, European Commissioner for Industry, Antonio Tajani will visit Vietnam accompanied by 47 representatives from EU industry associations and companies in particular those operating in key areas of EU-Vietnam business: the tourism, agri-business and manufactured goods sectors. Then on 13 - 15 November, Tajani will participate in the Myanmar - EU Task Force. The Task Force will be headed by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, with the participation of Commissioners Dacian Cioloş (Agriculture & Rural Development), Tajani and Andris Piebalgs (Development). A number of MEPs will also participate in the Task Force.

The EU Task Force in Vietnam will be in Ho Chi Minh City - Vietnam’s economic capital - and the companies involved will participate in a matchmaking event with local entrepreneurs. To further help EU businesses operate in Vietnam Vice President Tajani will also witness the inauguration of the new EU Vietnam Business Network (EVBN). Some EU companies will participate in an agricultural food sector event aiming to boost sustainable development. During the event the companies will examine how resource efficiency and eco-innovation can contribute to both business opportunities and more sustainable food chains.

The Myanmar – EU Task Force will mainly focus in agriculture, as more than 70 per cent of the population is working in the agricultural sector. Speaking ahead of the Taskforce, Commissioner Cioloş underlined the EU's readiness to share experiences in agricultural policy-building and help the country to develop the sector. According to the Commission, this will be done mainly through the coming multi-annual Indicative Programme (2014-2020). Commission experts from the departments for Agriculture and for Development Aid will work together with Myanmar officials in elaborating and implementing EU-funded actions which are best suited to Myanmar's agricultural needs.

Phuket tour bus plunges off Patong hill, 44 students injured

Phuket Gazette - Saturday, November 9, 2013

PHUKET: A tour bus carrying students on holiday from Bangkok plunged off Patong Hill this afternoon after failing to make it up the steep incline.

No deaths were reported in the incident, but 38 students were taken to Patong Hospital while six others were rushed to Bangkok Hospital Phuket in Phuket Town.

“One of the students, a Pakistani national, suffered serious head injuries,” said Capt Witaya Sinchumrern of the Patong Police.

More than 20 emergency rescue vehicles sped to the scene at about 2:30pm after receiving reports that the bus had rolled backwards and plunged into a ditch at the base of the east side of Patong Hill.

“There were four tour buses in total, all carrying students from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok,” tour guide Tiwaporn Hongwongpaisarn, 50, told the Phuket Gazette.

“I was on the third bus, but the fourth bus – the one travelling behind us – did not make it up the hill,” she said.

Police have yet to question the driver of the bus, which is marked as belonging to "Tao and Friend Limited Partnership".

“We have yet to locate him and he has not yet presented himself to police,” said Capt Witaya.

Thawit Bilabdullar

Myanmar Cease-Fire Deal ‘Impossible’ This Month: Rebel Groups

Myanmar Cease-Fire Deal ‘Impossible’ This Month: Rebel Groups
Representatives take part in the Ethnic Armed Organizations' Conference in Laiza, Oct. 30, 2013.
Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups may not be able to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement this month as anticipated by the government, a representative said Monday as the two sides kicked off two days of peace talks in northern Kachin state.

Naing Han Tha, the leader of representatives from 17 ethnic armed groups meeting with government officials in the Kachin capital Myitkyina, said  an umbrella peace deal by the end of November is "impossible" as both sides have not fully responded to the deluge of proposals on the table.

“[A cease-fire agreement this month] is impossible because we and the government representatives each have to make our comments on each proposal and decide how to respond,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

But he said he believed the two sides’ “points of view are not very different.”

Naing Han Tha, who is general secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), said that the first day of talks had “made progress” and that government representatives “generally agreed” to points put forth by the ethnic groups during three days of meetings they held amongst themselves last week.

The main points of the so-called “Laiza Agreement” include political dialogue with the government, a move toward a federal union in Myanmar when dialogue begins, and an agreement to form a federal army.

“They have generally agreed to them, although we haven’t discussed the details yet … We have to continue our discussion,” he said.

Naing Han Tha said that one of the main sticking points is the possibility of forming a federal army, which government representatives have said should not be a prerequisite to building a federal union.

“It seems they will consider this point, although we have to continue our discussion on the details … for forming a federal army,” he said.

“If we want to create a federal union, we need to have a federal army. If the army is controlled by a small group of people, it is not proper for a federal union and it can’t guarantee [inclusion] for ethnic minorities.”

The ethnic groups, many of which have signed individual peace pacts with the military, will address proposals from the government side on Tuesday, he said.

The two sides did not discuss the possibility of amending Myanmar’s constitution, which was adopted in 2008 under the former military junta, and which ethnic groups say must be rewritten to provide their states with greater autonomy.

The Myitkyina meeting was attended by international observers, including United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar and Chinese special envoy Wang Ying Fan.

Gradual process

Government representatives remained hopeful that a cease-fire agreement could be reached within the month, though they admitted this was unlikely to take place within this round of talks.

Lt. Gen. Myint Soe, commander of the government’s bureau of special operations, told reporters, “It is not impossible to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement in November,” adding that it was “difficult to say” when it might be done.

“The government has written a framework to work together with ethnic armed groups [to achieve peace]. The armed ethnic groups have written up their framework as well,” he said.

“After we all sign the cease-fire agreement, we will have real peace and everything will be done.”

Hla Maung Shwe, an adviser from the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, said it is natural to encounter “challenges” when dealing with several ethnic groups at once, as Naypyidaw had experienced “difficulties” in individual talks with each group in the past.

But he said that each side must be flexible in its position “to get what we want … peace.”

“We need to prepare to sign a nationwide cease-fire, to make frameworks and then to hold political dialogue. We are now at the first door to move on all of these,” he said.

“Aung Min [a minister in President Thein Sein’s office] said that it is impossible to achieve a 100 percent agreement within two days of talks, so we will simply have to continue the discussion.”

Differing views

Hla Maung Shwe called the first day of talks “historical” with both sides holding “open” dialogue and actively negotiating to advance their positions.

He said that while the government was in agreement with the ethnic groups on many issues, the two sides were opposed on whether to begin holding political dialogue before or after signing a cease-fire agreement.

The ethnic armed groups would prefer to forge ahead with policies that would guarantee them a greater voice in Myanmar’s rapidly democratizing political system, while the government believes that an overarching cease-fire agreement is imperative to speed up the country’s political and economic reforms.

“Not only in Myanmar, but in all other countries, cease-fire agreements are signed between the government and armed ethnic groups."

"All relevant organizations and stakeholders, such as members of parliament, political parties, and ethnic leaders need to be involved in the political dialogue,” he said.

“If only the government and armed ethnic groups hold political dialogue first, it would mean other stakeholders are less important. We don’t want things to be like this.”

The government has inked peace deals with 10 out of 11 major armed groups in Myanmar since Thein Sein extended an olive branch in August 2011.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the only one of Myanmar’s major ethnic rebel groups that has not signed its own individual cease-fire with the government, which is racing to put an end to the fighting with rebels in a bid to further the country’s reform process.

Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Win Naing and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Ethnic groups want the constitution revised or completely rewritten to reflect a federalist system.

Myanmar Peace Talks Fail to Nail Down Cease-Fire Agreement
Government peace negotiators and ethnic rebel leaders attend talks in Myitkyina, Nov. 5, 2013.
Myanmar’s government and armed ethnic rebel groups failed to hammer out details of a nationwide cease-fire accord at the end of landmark peace talks Tuesday, putting off further discussions until next month.

The government delegation and representatives from more than a dozen rebel groups will hold their next meeting in southern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state capital Hpa-An in December, the two sides said in a joint statement after a two-day meeting in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state.

The statement said however that the two sides have agreed to sign a nationwide cease-fire, after which they will draw up a framework for and hold a political dialogue. But it gave no time frame for doing so.

The government, which is racing to end conflict with ethnic rebels to speed up reforms after decades of military rule in Myanmar, had aimed to hammer out details of the cease-fire at the meeting this week in order to have an agreement signed this month.

Proposal for federal army

Reports suggested that this week’s talks, the first the government has held with rebel groups collectively in decades, stalled after the government delegation rejected the rebels’ demands for a federal army and rebel representatives insisted on having more time to review the government’s proposals.

Government delegation member Lieutenant-General Myint Soe, commander of Myanmar military forces in Kachin state, said the government could not accept the idea of breaking up the army as reports suggested that the rebel groups had proposed an army combing all ethnic communities, including those who have been fighting Burman-dominated government troops for decades.

“The army must not be broken up and it must not be destroyed. It can’t be changed either,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the meeting.

“Every country has only one army. Nobody would accept having the army broken up [into a federal army],” he said.

Myanmar’s current constitution, drawn up in 2008 under military rule, dictates a “one nation, one national armed forces” policy and reserves a quarter of parliamentary seats for the military.

Ethnic groups want the constitution revised or completely rewritten to reflect a federalist system.

Laiza talks

The talks in Myitkyina came after rebel leaders discussed plans among themselves for a nationwide cease-fire at a conference in the Kachin rebel stronghold of Laiza last week.

The main points of the “Laiza Agreement” they drew up included political dialogue with the government, a move toward a federal union in Myanmar when dialogue begins, and an agreement to form a federal army.

More time needed

During this week’s meeting, rebel leaders say they needed more time to discuss government proposals for the nationwide cease-fire.

Col Sai La, a spokesperson for the Restoration Council of Shan State rebel group, told the Irrawaddy online journal that the national ceasefire agreement would “take some time” yet because ethnic leaders need more time to consider the government proposal.

The government’s 15-point proposal included instructions to the rebel groups to give up their armed resistance, according to the journal.

Peace progress

Earlier this year, the government had said it wanted to host rebel leaders in Naypyidaw to sign the nationwide cease-fire at a ceremony in November.

Hla Maung Shwe, an adviser from the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, said the peace process between the two sides was progressing despite the failure to nail down plans for the nationwide cease-fire at this week’s talks.

“After 60 years of conflict, the government held negotiations with each group individually first and now has held talks with all groups together,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We have made progress and will reach a better situation if we keep going at this rate.”

The sooner the rebel groups sign the nationwide cease-fire, the sooner the two sides can move toward discussing broader issues in their political dialogue, he said.

“We need to sign the cease-fire agreement first before moving on to the framework,” he said.

International observers including United Nations special envoy Vijay Nambiar and Chinese special envoy Wang Ying Fan attended the meeting.

Last week’s conference in Laiza, which marked the first time so many rebel groups had met within Myanmar’s borders in decades, was hosted by the Kachin Independence Organization, the only major rebel group that has yet to sign its own individual cease-fire with the government.

At the conference, the ethnic leaders formed a 13-member joint peace negotiation team that will represent the ethnic armed groups in negotiations with the government peace delegation.

Ethnic rebel groups individually signed numerous ceasefire agreements with the former military regime in late 1989 and early 1990. But some of those agreements with many ethnic rebels, including the KIO, broke down in 2010 and 2011.

Reported by Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translate by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Myanmar Human Rights Panel Members Meet Rakhine Residents

Myanmar Human Rights Panel Members Meet Rakhine Residents
Security forces stand guard as a mob looks on following unrest at an internally displaced persons' camp on the outskirts of Sittwe in Rakhine state, Aug. 9, 2013.
Myanmar government human rights officials met community leaders and other residents of riot-torn Rakhine state on Wednesday, appealing to them to help contain communal violence in a bid to uphold human rights following deadly clashes last year.

“Whenever there is violence, human rights are violated. So we must not fight each other,” Sit Mying, secretary of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, told an audience of ethnic majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims in the state capital Sittwe.

Clashes between the two groups last year in the state in northwestern Myanmar left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are seen by many in Myanmar as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.

Another 45 have died this year in sporadic outbreaks of violence in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar, according to official sources.

Rights groups have expressed concern that sectarian strife may also hinder Myanmar President Thein Sein's program of political and economic reforms, which has drawn praise around the world and resulted in the lifting of international sanctions imposed during the previous military junta’s rule.

Speaking on Wednesday to the gathering of about 300 representatives of civil society organizations, members of political parties, government service providers, and community leaders in Rakhine, Sit Mying urged an end to the fighting.

“We told them that the nation will develop only if there is stability and the rule of law and if there are no riots or other clashes in the country,” Sit Mying told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview.

“But we need to understand that we won’t be able to accomplish this tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow,” he added.

Clear understanding

At the meeting, the Commission, which was established in September 2011 to protect and promote the rights of Myanmar citizens, also presented an outline of the rights provided in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with guidance on how to submit letters complaining of violations, Sit Mying said.

“The people in these places now have a very clear understanding of their basic rights—not only what they should reasonably expect, but what they can gain through demands or complaints, and how to report concerns about violations to the authorities,” he said.

Meeting participants also asked questions concerning freedom of religion and citizenship issues in the Buddhist-majority country, where the Rohingyas are denied official recognition, Sit Mying said.

“On the question of citizenship, we are going to contact the relevant government ministry. Then we will tell them what local residents have said to us on this issue and will urge the ministry’s officials to follow up.”

The majority of Rohingyas, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the country's government to be illegal immigrants, preventing them access to many basic rights in the country.

Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law recognizes only those families who had settled in the country before independence from Britain in 1948, but many of the 800,000 Rohingyas who live in Rakhine state say they have lived there for generations.

The U.N. has referred to the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Sit Mying said that commissioners also visited two refugee camps in Rakhine.

“The people in the camps look okay with the food and shelter they’ve been  provided,” he said. “We also saw several clinics, as well as schools in which their children are being given an informal education.”

Following Wednesday’s meeting in Sittwe, commissioners will travel to the towns of Ponnagyun, Kyauktaw, and Mrauk-U to hold talks with local residents there, Sit Mying said.

Most of those displaced by the fighting in Rakhine are Rohingyas and remain in camps—more than half of them children under the age of 18.

Reported by Min Thein Aung and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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