US refugee resettlement programme draws to a close

Ethnic Karen children at Mae La refugee camp in Tak, Thailand. (PHOTO: Reuters)
By FELIZ SOLOMON
30 January 2014

The United States resettlement programme for Burma’s refugees living in Thailand has officially ended, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Wednesday.

Last Friday marked the final deadline for refugees living in nine temporary shelters along the Thailand-Burma border to apply for permanent placement in the US, as “UNHCR received the final expressions of interest from eligible Myanmar [Burma] refugees.”

The programme’s pending termination was announced early in 2013 in Mae La, the largest of Thailand’s border camps, home to an estimated population of 43,000 people. Programme closure was rolled out independently at each camp, where the announcement was followed by a three month deadline to submit an application.

“Almost 90,000 people have been re-settled in several countries since 2005, and those who are still in the system will be processed accordingly,” said Mike Bruce of The Border Consortium (TBC), a Thailand-based NGO that offers development and administrative support to refugee camps along the border.

“Those who are still in acute or urgent need can be considered on a case by case basis,” he confirmed.

The US resettlement programme is among the largest to have served Burma’s refugees in Thailand; since its start in 2005, more than 73,000 people from Burma were resettled in the US, far outnumbering other host nations like Australia and Canada.

Since the announcement of the programme’s termination, about 6,500 resettlement applications were filed, a 2,500 count increase from previous years, according to UNHCR figures.

In mid 2013 the UNHCR, in collaboration with the Royal Thai government and administered by Thai NGO Mae Fah Luang Foundation, surveyed refugees living in Mae La Camp to obtain more information about camp demographics and to gauge refugees’ preferences for alternatives to camp life.


Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for UNHCR, told DVB that “The majority of the respondents said they preferred either resettlement to a third country or to stay in Thailand.” Tan added, however, that more than half of those who preferred not to return to Burma were unregistered refugees, hence they would be ineligible to apply for resettlement regardless.

Thailand is not party to the 1951 UN Convention on the Rights and Status of Refugees, which guarantees legal status and protection to asylum seekers. Those who fled from civil war and persecution, largely from southeastern Burma, are casually permitted to remain in Thailand. The UNHRC then registers refugees and oversees subsequent applications to third-country resettlement programs.

Nearly half of the population in Mae La is not UNHCR verified, and the registration of new refugees ceased completely in 2006, leaving the option of resettlement unavailable to many who have fled in recent years.

Termination of resettlement programmes begs the question of eventual repatriation, which at the moment has no clear timeframe, according to Tan.

Less than ten percent of refugees surveyed last year said that they prefered to return to Burma, citing such reasons as “a lack of trust in the current cessation of hostilities, a perceived lack of status or citizenship” and “access to land,” which makes the prospect of ‘voluntary return’ seem a distant goal.

Based on this assessment from the refugees themselves, coupled with a general evaluation of Burma’s in-country progress, Tan said that, “at this point the conditions in southeast Myanmar are not yet conducive for organised returns to be promoted. Some of the key safeguards are not in place to ensure a safe, dignified and sustainable return. In particular, there is no permanent cease-fire in most places of return.”

As the possibility of landing a new life abroad dwindles for those left along Thailand’s western boundaries, opinion seems unanimous that while they can’t move on, returning to Burma is not likely imminent.

“We agree with the UNHCR, the government of Myanmar and Thailand, and our international partners,” said TBC’s Bruce, “that now is not the time to return.”

An estimated 120,000 refugees from Burma remain in nine border camps, according to the UNHCR.

DVB

Swire speech moved from Rangoon University campus

British Foreign Minister Hugo Swire with Justine Greening, Aung San Suu Kyi and William Hague at the Foreign office, central London, in October 2013. (PHOTO: Reuters)
By ALEX BOOKBINDER
30 January 2014

A public address by visiting British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire, scheduled to be held at Rangoon University on Thursday, was moved to a last-minute closed-door session at the British Council in Rangoon “for reasons beyond our control.”

The British Embassy received word late Wednesday evening that the university’s Diamond Jubilee Hall was no longer being made available for the address, forcing the organisers to find another venue and denying students the ability to hear the minister’s speech in person.

“I hope that one day people like me will be able to give speeches there, at the university, that provoke and give cause for debate,” Swire said. “This is, after all, the first duty… of any university.”

Rangoon University has historically been a hotbed for activism and anti-government agitation, playing a crucial role in the country’s struggle for independence and the ill-fated 1988 anti-government uprising. Despite recent reforms, students still face significant restrictions on their ability to engage in political activities.

Swire concluded a three-day visit to Burma on Thursday afternoon, his second to the country in fourteen months. On Tuesday, he met with Aung San Suu Kyi and “senior Burmese government figures” in Naypyidaw, before traveling to Myitkina the following day, where he visited a camp for internally displaced persons and met with NGOs, UN agencies, and the KIO’s technical advisory team. He subsequently flew to Chiang Mai, where he will meet with representatives of ethnic armed groups involved in negotiations with the government to implement a nationwide ceasefire.

Burma’s reform process faces many challenges, Swire noted, but he identified two areas as being of particular concern: democratic reforms and the future of Burma’s fragile peace process.

Constitutional reform will be prerequisite to any further democratic reform, Swire said. He singled out section 59(f) of the constitution, which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the Presidency owing to the British citizenship of her two sons, as being a “very simple and very important” amendment that needs to be made.

“The 2008 Constitution is perhaps unique. I can think of no other constitution that makes an individual citizen’s eligibility to become President conditional on the nationality of their adult children,” he said. “As Prime Minister David Cameron has made clear, it is time for this restriction to be removed. It is a hangover from a very different era. It is fundamentally undemocratic. And it is fundamentally wrong.”

The UK government has brought a cross-section of Burmese political and civil society leaders to Belfast over the past year – “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Minister U Aung Min, the United Nationalities Federation Council, the Karen National Union, and the 88 Generation” – to learn from the successes and failures of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Swire was himself Minister for Northern Ireland before joining the Foreign Office.

“The international community today fully recognises the importance of the peace process, and its centrality to this country’s future,” he said. “Without a fair and equitable peace settlement that reflects the aspirations of its diverse communities, the potential to become a prosperous, stable and democratic country will never be realised.”

On his first official visit to the country in December 2013, Swire became the first European minister to visit Arakan State. He stated today that “there has been little progress in addressing either the humanitarian situation or underlying intercommunal relations” since his first visit. In recent weeks, credible reports that dozens of Rohingya Muslims were killed in northern Arakan have surfaced. The government disputes the accuracy of these claims.

The UK controversially revived military links with the Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) last year, appointing a defence attaché after a 20-year absence. “We made these moves after consultation with opposition, ethnic and civil society leaders, the vast majority of whom firmly supported cautious and calibrated engagement,” said Swire.

A training course for Burmese officers, provided by lecturers from the UK Defence Academy “covering topics including the role of the military in a democracy, security sector reform, governance, accountability, and the rule of law,” recently concluded in Naypyidaw. The UK and the United States have both established limited military ties with Burma over the past year; the Tatmadaw observed the US-led Cobra Gold exercises, held annually in Thailand, for the first time last year.

But the prospect of revived links with the Tatmadaw has provoked criticism of Britain’s engagement with Naypyidaw, despite the training program’s ostensible focus on promoting more democratic and accountable practices. In a report released this month, Burma Campaign UK, a London-based activist group, claims the British government “has been unable to explain how the training will achieve these goals. It has admitted in Parliament it is not possible to monitor whether the training actually leads to any improvements.”

The organization accuses Swire and other ministers of dodging tough questions in Parliament, claiming “the [UK] government is increasingly resorting to avoiding giving a straight and clear answer to questions, probably in order to avoid proper scrutiny of its policies.”

Swire dismissed concerns that the UK’s engagement with the Tatmadaw will make it any less critical of the abuses perpetrated by it. “The fact that we are engaging with the Tatmadaw does not mean we will shy away from raising very real and continued concerns,” he said. “I am convinced that cautious engagement with the Tatmadaw is the right thing to be doing, and that now is the right time to be doing it.”

DVB

Opponents of US-Afghan Security Pact Outline Post-War Vision

Afghanistan's former Prime Minister Ahmad Shah Ahamdzai, right, talks with an Afghan delegate as Ghairat Baheer, center, head of political cell Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan listens during a conference title 'Peace and Reconciliation in Afghanistan', in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 28, 2014.
Ayaz Gul
January 30, 2014

ISLAMABAD — After more than 12 years of war, Afghanistan faces a pivotal year as foreign troops prepare to leave. Both supporters and critics of the U.S. presence worry the conflict could worsen in the years ahead, similar to the civil war that engulfed the country following the 1989 departure of Soviet forces.   In Islamabad this week, a group of Afghan and Pakistani elders and militant leaders discussed how to avoid that fate.

The gathering in the heart of the Pakistani capital brought together a group largely opposed to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. They included Taliban-allied militant groups, political representatives as well as Pakistani religious parties.

Many like the spokesman for the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, Shahzada Shahid, recognize some of the gains Afghanistan has made, and do not want to lose them.

He said, “the fact is that Afghanistan is not Afghanistan of 12 years ago. Let me tell you that in a very small border town of Kunar [province] we have 500 schools. Similarly, we have almost complete network of paved roads, a state structure in place, we have our own currency, trade.”

He said the group does not want to discard those resources after foreign troops leave.

Most of those gathered oppose keeping any foreign troops in Afghanistan after 2014.  But they also are of the opinion that civil war is preventable in the post-withdrawal period.

Many here like former Afghan Prime Minister, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, believe a key to post-war peace is the complete departure of foreign troops.

“The foreign forces must withdraw -- no option of being in Afghanistan because we strongly believe as far as the ISAF and American forces are in Afghanistan there will no peace at all. Afghans who are real, sincere followers of jihad they are fighting the invaders those who have invaded our country. Americans, they are the occupiers. This is wrong that they have come to promote democracy and justice and so on. These are all wrong slogans,” said Ahmadzai.

Many observers worry that democratic values and support for women’s rights could erode in the coming years. As the country tries to discuss peace with insurgent groups, negotiators are working with people like Ghariat Baheer, spokesman for the Taliban-ally Hizb-e-Islami, who see echoes of the Soviet defeat in the planned U.S. departure.

“We support the courageous Afghan president and we pray that he will stick to this principle stand and will avoid signing this BSA accord with the U.S. I am advising my Afghan countrymen as well not to beg for the stay of the Americans in Afghanistan. The Americans have not come to Afghanistan at the invitation of Afghans and they are not leaving Afghanistan at the request of Afghans but they are leaving Afghanistan because of the tough resistance of Afghan mujahideen,” stated Baheer.

While such sentiments are widely shared by the Taliban and their allies, there is also broad recognition that Pakistan, where many Taliban top leaders allegedly live, plays a key role in determining Kabul’s future.

Shahid of the High Peace Council said in fact the fate of both countries rests on finding a resolution to the Afghan conflict.

“Prime Minister [Nawaz] Sharif has promised his people that he will solve the power and economic problems and will bring peace to Pakistan,” he said. “He can achieve these three objectives only when there is peace in Afghanistan. If there is no peace in Afghanistan, perhaps Mr. Sharif may not be able to live up to the expectations of his people.”

Pakistani veteran politician Afrasiyab Khattak has long criticized Islamabad’s policy towards Kabul, particularly its military’s ties to warring Afghan factions like the Taliban.

He said that Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as the United States need to coordinate their efforts or Afghanistan could repeat its devastating civil war of the 1990s.

“Last time when Afghanistan got chaotic it became the hub of international terrorism. This time around there is a real threat of Afghanistan becoming an origin of ethnic earthquakes and these earthquakes can spread in the region like cancer and Pakistan will be affected by it very, very fundamentality. So, I think it is in our best interest to help in stabilizing Afghanistan and befriending Afghanistan not a party, not a group, not a particular school of thought,” Khattak said.

Such a broad minded attitude toward Afghanistan’s future would mark a significant break for governments, political parties and insurgent groups who have long focused on advancing more narrow agendas. But because many now recognize that Pakistan’s fate is intertwined with its neighbor’s, there is hope that shared interests in peace will bridge longstanding divisions.

VOAnews.com

India’s Gay Community to Build Political Support to Win Rights

Indian LGBT activists hold placards as they demonstrate against the Supreme Court's reinstatement of Section 377, which bans gay sex in a law dating from India's colonial era, in Bangalore, Jan. 28, 2014.
Anjana Pasricha
January 30, 2014
NEW DELHI — India’s gay community is seeking to build political support for its rights after the Supreme Court reinstated a 153-year-old law that bans gay sex. Despite the huge blow to gay rights, activists say they have managed to bring what had been a taboo subject into the open in a country that remains largely conservative.
 
Forty-three-year-old gay rights activist Shaleen Rakesh recalls the time when he was growing up in New Delhi. He said homosexuality was a subject no one ever mentioned, and it was certainly not discussed or debated.

“I used to really wonder if there are any other gay people in the country except for me, because I never met one until much later, when I was in college. Really, there was a suffocating silence around us,” he said.

That silence was broken about ten years ago, when activists began a legal battle to overturn a colonial era law that banned gay sex. They succeeded in 2009.

But last month, the Supreme Court reinstated the law criminalizing gay sex, once again putting Rakesh and others of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community at risk of prosecution.

Hopes that the court would take a second look at its decision were dashed this week when it turned down a petition to review that judgment. That leaves one legal route - the top Court agreeing to hear a second review petition by a larger bench.

But even though the legal window is closing, rights activists have vowed not to back off from their fight. They have now started looking at building political support for their cause. That is what the Supreme Court judgment had indicated, saying changing laws was the legislature’s job.
 
Gender rights activist Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation moved the courts to overturn the law. She admitted that possibly the only option now was for parliament to change the law.

“Long term we have to think political. But at this point with elections coming up, I don’t know who will win the elections, because one of the major political parties has already taken a fairly negative stand on issues of homosexuality. So it is really a very problematic time for us right now. It’s going to be a long battle, no matter what,” she said.

There are many conservative voices in India’s parliament. This includes one of the country’s two mainstream parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which opinion polls say may head India’s next government.

So far, the main political support for gay rights has come from the ruling Congress Party, which filed the review petition in the Supreme Court. But its clout is expected to diminish in the next parliament.

The bias of many lawmakers is not surprising in a country where homosexuality has still to win wide social acceptance.

The challenge to the initial judgment overturning the law which criminalizes gay sex had come from religious groups including Muslim and Christian. But Gopalan says even liberal sections of India will draw the line at a gay couple living together openly.
   
However there has been a huge change in the past decade. The silence that troubled people like Shaleen Rakesh has been broken. Many more homosexuals have now “come out of the closet.”  

Magazines for the gay community such as Bombay Dost, once distributed clandestinely, are available openly. The subject finds space in a supportive, mainstream media. 15 years ago, only a handful of people attended the country’s first gay pride march in the eastern city of Kolkata. Now many university students and young professionals turn up to lend support to the gay community at such events.

Among them is Aditi Sengupta, a 35-year-old Delhi-based journalist. She said the issue is not LGBT rights, but “human rights.”

“We need to take this as a movement for civil liberties. If we call ourselves a democracy we have to include everybody, irrespective of sexual orientation, creed, color, religion everything. It is not just about them, if you look at the larger picture, it is about each one of us,” she said.

Activists said the long-term hope for the gay rights movement lied in gaining a groundswell of support from more people like her in a country which is now predominantly young.

Gender rights activist Gopalan said younger lawmakers were more empathetic to their concerns, even some from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Even younger BJP leaders, on one on one basis with us they are so much more accepting of homosexuality than the public stance they can take. So I think it is also a question of ensuring that we continue engaging with them.  Look at the experience of countries like Spain, where when the parliament got younger, laws changed," said Gopalan.  

Most activists hope that the nascent gay rights movement which took shape as they fought to scrap the original anti-gay sex law will once again gather momentum.  

Shaleen Rakesh is confident this will happen.

“It is really going to strengthen in terms of the number of people who are gong to talk about these issues openly, it is also going to increasingly see different kinds of resistance from the LGBT community to the political forces which are trying to suppress the community, it is going to see a larger representation of their lives in popular culture, whether it is in films or books, and this is really, in a sense, a tipping point, a turning point for the movement, it is going to grow at a exponential rate,” said Rakesh.

Activists stress that scrapping the law banning gay sex will remain the focal point of the movement. But they also say they will have to begin a social movement and engage ordinary people to change minds.

VOAnews.com

Myanmar Launches Probe Into Maungdaw Violence

A Muslim man walks out of a damaged mosque in Rakhine state, Oct. 3, 2013. AFP
Following international pressure, the Myanmar government has launched an investigation into the latest violence in Rakhine state in which the United Nations said at least 48 Muslims have been killed.

But no foreign groups will be included in the probe team as requested by the U.N., United States, and human rights groups following the reported killings by Buddhist mobs in Du Chee Yar Tan village in Maungdaw township earlier this month, according to local media.

Rakhine is home to the minority Muslim Rohingyas, most of whom are regarded as illegal immigrants and have borne the brunt of the violence since it erupted in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

The Myanmar government has rejected the U.N. account of the incidents in Maungdaw, saying it was based on “false reporting.”

Speaking at a briefing in Yangon on Tuesday, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said the team that would investigate the circumstances that led to the Maungdaw violence would include representatives from three government-appointed bodies—the Central Committee for Rakhine State Peace, Stability and Development Implementation; the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission; and the Rakhine Conflict Investigation Commission, the state-owned New Light of Myanmar reported.

It added that the government would, however, arrange for foreign diplomats, including a team led by the European Union ambassador, to travel to Maungdaw to look into the issue.

U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell on Wednesday reiterated calls for the government of Myanmar to allow an international representative to take part in the investigation.

“What I would ask for them is, if possible, to have an international representative—a credible person from the international community who can take part and assist in that process and therefore reassure people on the ground in Rakhine and the international community that it’s not simply the government investigating the incident,” he said.

Wunna Maung Lwin said the three groups in the probe team would hold separate investigations into the killings, which reportedly occurred in two incidents between Jan. 9 and 13.

Reports of violence

In the first incident on Jan. 9, eight Rohingya Muslim men were attacked and killed by local ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said last week, citing what she called "credible" information.

This was followed by what she said was a clash four days later in which a police sergeant was captured and killed by the Rohingya villagers, she said.

Following this, on the evening of Jan. 13, at least 40 Rohingya Muslim men, women, and children were killed in Du Chee Yar Tan village by police and local Rakhines, she said in a statement, adding that information gathered by the U.N. has already been shared with the Myanmar government.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), among a few outside groups allowed to operate in the region, said last week that it had treated at least 22 patients with injuries believed to have resulted from violence in the village.

The organization said it was concerned that more victims could need medical treatment and urged the government to allow access to the area.

Thailand-based rights group Fortify Rights said that it had spoken to witnesses and other sources who confirmed the killings, believed to be the deadliest incident in Rakhine state since 2012, when two rounds of violence between local Rakhines and Rohingyas sparked religious unrest that has since spread across the country, leaving some 250 people dead.

Myanmar's government considers most of the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in the country to be illegal immigrants, although many of them have lived in the country for decades. The U.N. has referred to the group as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

Myanmar President Thein Sein visited Rakhine state in October last year, calling on Buddhists and Muslims to sink their differences and prevent further bloodshed, as rights groups warned that the unending sectarian strife could dampen his reform program, which has earned praise across the globe and resulted in the lifting of long-running international sanctions imposed during the previous military junta rule.

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

Myanmar’s Wa Rebels to Join Peace Process ‘When Time Is Ripe’

United Wa State Army soldiers stop a truck at a checkpoint along a road leading to Nandeng in the Wa region of Shan state, Sept. 3, 2009. AFP
Myanmar’s strongest rebel group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), appears to be in no rush to hold talks with other armed ethnic organizations or the government ahead of a proposed nationwide cease-fire agreement and political dialogue for a durable peace.

The UWSA will enter the negotiations “when the time is ripe,” Sai Paung Nap, a Wa Democratic Party representative in Myanmar’s parliament who has close links with the UWSA, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

He said the Wa rebels had different demands from the other ethnic groups, which have been meeting among themselves and with the government in recent months over a nationwide cease-fire pact which reformist President Thein Sein wants sealed early this year before grappling with negotiations on political demands by the groups.

“The ethnic groups can’t all have the same demands,” Sai Paung Nap said, suggesting that the UWSA would want to upgrade the administrative status of the six townships in eastern Myanmar’s Shan State currently designated as its special region.

“For example, the Wa people have requested, as an essential need, recognition of our region as its own state,” he said.

“The Wa people will only be able to submit requests for their needs when the time is ripe for discussion of all the political problems of ethnic people to take place openly and face-to-face.”

“They think that it would be a waste if they discuss their needs without all-inclusive [dialogue],” he said.

Absent at Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference

The UWSA was a notable absentee in the Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference attended by 17 armed ethnic groups in Laywa in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state last week.

In talks hosted by the Karen National Union that went three days beyond schedule, 16 of the groups signed on to a draft framework for a nationwide cease-fire, which is to be officially discussed with the government in February.

The UWSA is one of three rebel groups that has not signed on to the plan—the others being the National Democratic Alliance Army, which also did not attend the talks, and the Shan State Army-South.

But the UWSA has maintained a cease-fire agreement with the government since 1989—signing a fresh agreement in 2011—in what is believed to be one of the longest such deals in a country that has been wracked by ethnic revolts since independence from Britain in 1948.

While most of Myanmar’s armed rebel groups have signed individual cease-fire agreements with the government in recent years, Thein Sein is banking  on a single nationwide agreement signed by all the groups to signal the end to decades of conflict.

Draft nationwide cease-fire agreement

On Wednesday, leaders who attended the Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference last week met with the government’s chief negotiator Minister Aung Min in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and presented their draft of the nationwide cease-fire agreement, The Irrawaddy online journal reported.

The government negotiators were there to “receive the ethnic groups’ draft cease-fire agreement and listen to their explanations on each section of the draft,” he told the Irrawaddy.

Aung Min said the government was trying to bring the UWSA and other armed groups currently outside the discussions into the fold.

“We will try to make them part of the political dialogue, as we aim to be inclusive in the process.”

When asked about his view on the UWSA not being present at the cease-fire talks, Aung Min said, “We have asked them to attend the meetings before.”

“They replied to us that there is no need for them to have talks for the cease-fire as there is no engagement between Wa and the government troops.”

“But I am sure that they will attend the political dialogue meeting [and] when they do, they will raise issues concerning their people and own state. Based on their demands, we will see what we can agree on,” Aung Min said.

Pushing for greater acknowledgment

Observers say the UWSA, a formidable force with an estimated 30,000 troops and which has close links with neighboring China, is using political openings following the end of Myanmar’s military junta rule in 2011 to push for greater official acknowledgement.

Military analysts say China has long supplied weapons to the UWSA—despite Beijing’s official policy of noninterference in Myanmar’s border affairs—making it the best equipped of the country’s resistance forces.

The group is also reported to be a major player in the cross-border drug trade.

Last year, the UWSA demanded that its Wa Special Region 2, which is recognized in Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, be made into a state on par with the seven ethnic states currently existing in the country’s administrative structure, according to reports.

The group, which formed from members of the Communist Party of Burma following its collapse in 1989, uses Chinese as its working language.

UWSA leaders said they would not join last week’s Ethnic Armed Organizations Conference because of a “language barrier,” saying there had not been enough time to translate the materials into Chinese after they received their invitation, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Upcoming Hpa-An meeting

The conference, held in the rebel Karen National Union-controlled territory, was held in advance of a meeting with government peace negotiators expected to be held in the Kayin state capital Hpa-An next month.

The Myanmar government had wanted all of the rebel groups to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement at a joint ceremony in Naypyidaw in July, but the event has been postponed several times.

Last week’s conference was a follow-up to a meeting held in Laiza in Kachin State in October and November last year, at which ethnic leaders reached an 11-point agreement on their goals for the nationwide ceasefire negotiations.

The UWSA, Shan State Army-South, and National Democratic Alliance Army are the same three groups that did not sign the Laiza agreement.

Reported by Myo Thant Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Foreign Ministry Updates on Rakhine State Situation

Foreign Ministry Updates on Rakhine State Situation

Land Confiscation in Chaung-U and Myaung Townships

Land Confiscation in Chaung-U and Myaung Townships

Tourist boat capsizes in Andaman Sea, 'killing 21'

The boat sank off Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, reports said
A tourist boat has sunk off India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, with the loss of 21 lives, officials say.

The boat, Aqua Marine, capsized on Sunday afternoon off Port Blair, the capital of the islands.

The Indian air force is helping the coast guard and 13 people have been rescued, authorities say - but up to 11 people are unaccounted for.

Most of those on board are believed to be Indians from Tamil Nadu and Mumbai.

An investigation is looking at the cause of the sinking amid reports the Aqua Marine was carrying too many people when it capsized.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "expressed shock over the boat tragedy", said his office in a statement.
'Serious injuries'

Mr Singh said he had asked India's national agencies to help in the rescue and relief operation.

Those rescued have been taken to hospital in Port Blair, with "several of them seriously injured", an official told AFP news agency.

"There were three children on board. One child is dead,'' local deputy commissioner P Jawahar told BBC Radio Hindi.

Every year thousands of tourists visit the coral-reef fringed Andaman islands, which form the most easterly part of Indian territory.

The archipelago of hundreds of islands sits at least 1,000 km (600 miles) from the mainland, and is closer to the coast of Burma (Myanmar).

BBC

Daw Aung San Su Kyi's speech at Nam San

Daw Aung San Su Kyi's speech at Nam San Daw Aung San Su Kyi's speech at Nam San, Shan State

Myanmar drug ring busted

Health Ministry head of media relations enforcement Kamarul Azhar Kamaruddin holding up some of the products seized in a raid in Bangsar. — Bernama
by nicholas cheng

KUALA LUMPUR: A Myanmar syndicate selling unregistered drugs, including aphrodisiacs, has been busted by health enforcers in a series of raids here that netted pills weighing up to 10 tonnes.

City Heath Department deputy director (pharmacy) Syed Fadzli Syed Syialuddin said the authorities spent a month gathering intelligence on the syndicate and identified five locations – three stores and two bungalows in Bangsar and Persiaran Syed Putra – which were used to store the pills.

Other than aphrodisiacs, the haul worth an estimated RM2.1mil included painkillers, antibio­tics, antihistamines, antacids, psychotropic pills, contraceptives and motion sickness pills. They were mostly made in Myanmar and India.

Four Myanmar nationals operating from a shop in Lebuh Pudu here were also detained in the raids by the department’s pharmacy enforcement division yesterday.

The drugs were not registered with the Health Ministry, and some even contained scheduled poisons and violated the Food Act.

“We believe they were smuggled through land and sea in boxes labelled as food, and sold to Myanmar nationals in the city.

“The medicine is in quite high demand as it is nearly twice cheaper than the legal ones, and are the preferred choice among foreigners here,” Syed Fadzli told reporters.

A Health Department officer revealed that the shop in Lebuh Pudu, which is the sole profit centre for the syndicate that has opera­ted for more than 10 years, was making a minimum of RM5,000 per day selling drugs.

Syed Fadzli added that such illicit activities were detrimental to the economy as revenue streams were being directed away from the local pharmaceutical industry.

“I urge the public to buy only approved health products,” he said.

http://www.thestar.com.my

Minority Muslims killed in Myanmar, group says; government denies report

By Susanna Capelouto, CNN

(CNN) -- At least 40 members of a religious minority in Myanmar were killed by security forces and Buddhists in the western village of Du Char Yar Tan last week, a human rights group said.

Fortify Rights, a group based in Southeast Asia, claims the attacks against the Rohingya Muslims were carried out after the suspected killing of a police officer, who is still missing. Most of dead were women and children, the group said.

But the government denies the killings, and Myanmar's deputy minister of information told reporters that the news outlets reporting them are "wholly and totally wrong."

In a statement, the government outlined the details of an incident that led to the missing police officer at the center of the latest clashes.

It apparently started January 13 when a police patrol led by the missing officer encountered a group of men described in the report as Bengalis "sitting around a fire in front of shops." The group apparently started throwing stones at the patrol and was joined shortly after by about 100 villagers with knives and sticks, according to the report.

The officers fled, except for police Sgt. Aung Kyaw Thein, who has been missing since. Riot police have moved into the village, and journalists and human rights activists have been denied access, according to Fortify Rights.

"When the police went into the village to find the missing police, almost all the men had fled, leaving women, children and old people," a police spokesman told CNN. He said there are so many security forces now looking for the missing police officer that violence between Muslims and Buddhists is no longer possible.

Valerie Amos, United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, warned of "alarming levels of violence, including the killing of many civilians and a policeman." She called on Myanmar's government to launch an impartial investigation into the claims.

The U.N. calls the Rohingya Muslims one of the most persecuted populations in the world, and 3,500 of them live in the village of Du Char Yar Tan.

They've been the frequent targets of violence by Buddhists, who are the majority in Myanmar.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged Myanmar's President Thein Sein during a visit to the White House last year to respect the rights of the Rohingya minority.

Mandalay ruby miners may get land-grant



By DVB

Local miners in Mandalay Division’s ‘Ruby Land’ town of Mogok may soon get access to more gems.

The Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association plans to allocate small-scale mining plots to locals to promote gem trade in the area.

“We are looking to allocate more small-scale plots for local miners”, said Tun Hla Aung, Deputy-Secretary of Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association. “Members of the public who cannot afford to invest large sums of money, to allow them to work freely at the mines, looking to redevelop the gem market in the region.”

Rubies from the mines, many now being extracted by large mining companies in joint ventures with the government, are mainly sold overseas. After the government allocated some small plots for local miners in 2012, the local gem market improved slightly but not as much as expected.

“Small-scale mining plots, operated mostly manually without heavy machinery, are becoming rare – which led to a decline in ruby production”, said Hla Aung, Patron of Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association. “When the supply is low, the buyers are inconvenienced, which leaves the market dry.”

In 2012, the government allocated over 400 small-time plots, mainly for local miners, with three-year contracts.

This new plan will hopefully help kick-start the gem trade in the region.


Can Work Together If DASSK Becomes President: Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann

Can Work Together If DASSK Becomes President: Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann

Parliament Probes Over Land Grab Cases

Parliament Probes Over Land Grab Cases

Deadly Fire Broke Out in Mingaladon, Near Mingaladon International Airport

Deadly Fire Broke Out in Mingaladon, Near Mingaladon International Airport

Suu Kyi rallies Karen State, says charter hinders peace process

A crowd greets Aung San Suu Kyi In Karen State capital Hpa-an on 18 January 2014. PHOTO: DVB)
By DVB

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), spoke to her party supporters at a public assembly in Karen State capital Hpa-an on 18 January, declaring that the 2008 Constitution stands in the way of peace between the military and the people of Burma.

“The effort to reconcile the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] and the people is made difficult by the way the constitution was written, so it must be amended,” she said, urging her supporters to take a clear stand on constitutional reforms.

The event was attended by around 40,000 people, according to an NLD official.

The party delegation went on to another Karen State town, Hlaingbwe, where a similar public assembly was held and joined by some 30,000 people.

Suu Kyi’s Karen State appearances follow a similar tour through Burma’s western Chin State, where she also held rallies in several towns to explain the party’s stance on constitutional reform and urge popular support for several changes, including the proposed lifting of Article 59(f), which bars the opposition leader from assuming the Presidency.

Among other contentious sections of the military-drafted charter are the designation of 25 percent military representation in parliament and 75 percent parliamentary approval for amendments.
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Party executive Win Htein said 90 percent of attendees in Hpa-an and Hlaingbwe wished to see the constitution amended, according to a survey following the assembly.

Likewise, nationwide assessments conducted throughout 2013 and early 2014, which gauged public opinion about whether to amend or completely rewrite the Constitution, also indicated that 90 percent of those surveyed supported amendment.

“According to surveys conducted in Naypyidaw, Kawhmu and Tharawaddy townships, and in Chin and Karen States, the majority wished to see the constitution amended rather than completely rewritten,” said Win Htein.

A government-established Joint-Committee for Reviewing the Constitution charged with recommending modifications is due to finish compiling requested changes by 31 January. The ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party have expressed openness to revisions.

Suu Kyi’s speech, which preceded an upcoming round of peace talks between ethnic armed groups and a government peace-building team in Hpa-an, centered on constitutional clauses that hamper the ongoing attempts at peace and reconciliation between the two sides, which have struggled with civil war and ethnic conflict for decades.

The upcoming peace negotiations, which have twice been postponed but are set to resume in February, are geared towards implementing a nationwide ceasefire and setting a plan of action for political settlement and national reconciliation.

Union Parliament Law amended, changing MP vote protocol

File photo of Union Parliament meeting in Naypyidaw, 2012. (PHOTO: Reuters)
By SHWE AUNG (DVB)

Burma’s Union Parliament on Friday approved a bill amending the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw Law [Union Parliament Law], which affects voting protocol among Union Parliament members. The amendment effectively empowers the parliament’s speaker to choose a voting method – i.e. show of hands, rising vote or computerised vote – for adopting bills in the legislative body.

The voting method employed to approve the legislation has not yet been confirmed. Lawmakers have told DVB that the bill was approved on 17 January despite objections from several MPs. Powers granted to the speaker by the new bill were informally used before it’s passage, but until now they were not legally enshrined.

Pe Than, a lower house representative from Arakan State’s Myebon township said the privilege could allow parliament’s speakers to manipulate lawmakers’ votes, as has been the case in the past.

“For example; the Bill Committee, when seeking a decision from lawmakers, would ask a leading question,” said Pe Than. He explained that depending on the issue, the speaker might choose to say, “Anyone who wishes to object to the Bill Committee’s decision please rise,” which led to some members withholding their objections out of either fear or conformity, if no one else was seen standing.

“But there are times,” he said, “when necessary procedures are adopted… because of leading questions, as the parliament speaker is more insightful than an ordinary lawmaker and can lead us in the right direction.”

Pe Than said that the Parliament’s ‘anonymous’ computerised voting system, which is the most commonly used, is also flawed, claiming that the system is not secure enough to ensure a confidential vote.

“The computer panel shows a green light visible to others when we vote ‘yes’, and a red light for ‘no’. Also, we know the people in the control room can see who voted for what,” he said.

“We would like to suggest not having the lights on the panel – to conceal the votes – so lawmakers can vote as they really prefer, without having to be afraid of anyone.”

DVB

DASSK Meet with NLD Members From Dewei

DASSK Meet with NLD Members From Dewei

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The Act of Killing (full movie)

Mawchi Mine Working Condition

Mawchi Mine Working Condition

US urges Myanmar to probe attacks on Muslims after 60 killed

A Muslim man is escorted by police officers following a trial at a township court in Meikhtila in central Myanmar, in this May 21, 2013 file photo. (Photo: AP)
17 January 2014 /YANGON, REUTERS, AP

The United States on Friday urged Myanmar to investigate reports that security forces and Buddhist mobs attacked members of the Rohingya Muslim minority this week, killing as many as 60 people.

Rights groups reported attacks by security forces and ethnic Rakhine Buddhist mobs against Rohingya in a village in the Maungdaw township of western Rakhine state over the past three days.

“The United States is deeply concerned about reports of fresh violence in Rakhine state, including reports that security forces may have committed abuses,” a US Embassy official told Reuters. “We urge the government to thoroughly investigate such reports.”

Chris Lewa, director of Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, said the numbers of unconfirmed dead ranged from 10 to 60. She said the violence appeared to have started when Rohingya villagers clashed with police on the evening of Jan 13.

Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myaing denied anyone was killed.

Incidents in Maungdaw township and other parts of Rakhine state are difficult to verify independently, as they are off limits to journalists and the government strictly controls access by international aid groups.

Aung Win, a Rohingya activist based in the state capital of Sittwe, told Reuters his contacts were unable to reach the village because it had been “encircled” by security forces, preventing anyone from checking for dead bodies.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, which runs a nearby clinic, said it was concerned that residents who fled the area may need medical care.

“MSF confirms that on Wednesday it saw two wounded people suffering from injuries inflicted as a result of violence - one from a gunshot wound and the other exhibiting injuries consistent with a beating,” said Myanmar head of mission Peter-Paul de Groote.

Any deaths this week would add to the tally of at least 237 people killed in religious violence across Myanmar since June 2012, which has also displaced more than 140,000 people.

Most of the victims were Muslims and the most deadly incidents happened in Rakhine state, where about one million Rohingya live under apartheid-like conditions, denied citizenship with their movements tightly restricted and with little access to health care, jobs or education.

Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in droves, crowding into dangerously overloaded boats, with many dying at sea. The exodus has created problems for neighbouring countries dealing with the flood of illegal immigration.

Myanmar's government said on Thursday, however, it would not discuss the issue at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional political and economic bloc it will chair through 2014.

“This Bengali issue is our internal affair so we wouldn't discuss it, even if other countries demanded at the ASEAN meetings while our country is the chair,” government spokesman Ye Htut told reporters.

Like many in Myanmar, Ye Htut used the term “Bengali” to refer to the Rohingya, who reject the designation, which they see as underscoring an assertion that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many families have lived in western Myanmar for generations.

Today's Zaman

Myanmar sectarian ‘unrest erupts’

YANGON: Several people including women and a child have been killed in an attack on Rohingya Muslims in strife-torn western Myanmar, a rights group said on Friday, as the US embassy voiced alarm.

Myanmar’s Rakhine state remains extremely tense after several outbreaks of communal bloodshed between Buddhist and Muslim communities since 2012 that have killed scores and displaced some 140,000 people, mainly from the Rohingya minority.

Details of the latest unrest were unclear, but Rohingya activists said at least two women and a child were stabbed to death in an attack on a village near the border with Bangladesh earlier this week, with possibly several dozen casualties.

Myanmar authorities denied any civilian deaths but confirmed a clash took place in which a police officer was presumed to have been killed. Chris Lewa, the Bangkok-based director of The Arakan Project, which lobbies for Rohingya rights, said the attack on the village of Du Chee Yar Tan on Monday happened sometime after the initial clash with police.

“There were people killed, mostly women and children,” she told AFP, but added that reports from sources in the area on the number of people killed varied widely, from around 10 to several dozen.

The US embassy in Yangon said on Twitter that it was “deeply concerned” about the violence “especially reports of excessive use of force by security officials.”

“We urge (the) government to thoroughly investigate, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure equal protection and security under the law in Rakhine,” it added.

Lewa said one villager, who has worked with The Arakan Project, reported seeing the bodies of two women and a 14-year-old boy with stab wounds after returning to the village days after the unrest.

She said the use of knives suggested the involvement of local Rakhine Buddhists, who have repeatedly clashed with the Rohingya, rather than the police.

The Maungdaw area is populated mainly by stateless Rohingya, whose movements are strictly controlled by a heavy security presence.

Aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the few outside organisations permitted to operate in the region, said it saw on Wednesday two wounded people “suffering from injuries inflicted as a result of violence,” one with a gunshot wound and the other apparently badly beaten.

It said its medical clinic nearby had seen an “unusually low” number of patients Friday, which had caused fears for the local population.

“MSF is concerned that there may be unmet medical needs among the affected population,” said Head of Mission Peter-Paul de Groote.

Local police denied any villagers had died, but said authorities had come under attack on Monday without giving any reason why.

“A police sergeant is still missing along with his weapon. We are looking for him,” a senior police official in nearby Maungdaw town told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Another police officer in the state capital Sittwe said dozens of people had been rounded up after the unrest, with 10 still in custody.

Myanmar’s government considers the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in the country to be foreigners while many citizens see them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and view them with hostility.

Agence France-Presse

Govt denies Buddhist mob attacked, killed Muslims in Maungdaw

Muslim children gather outside a water-well in northern Arakan's Maungdaw township, September 2013. (PHOTO: AP)

By ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Burmese government denied on Friday that a Buddhist mob ripped through a town in an isolated strife-torn corner of the country this week, attacking Muslim women and children. Villagers and a rights group said more than a dozen people may have been killed, and that hundreds have fled their homes.

“We have had no information about killings,” President’s spokesman Ye Htut told reporters on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Nations Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Burma’s ancient city of Bagan.

Burma, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people, has been grappling with sectarian violence for nearly two years. More than 240 people have been killed and another 250,000 forced to flee their homes, most of them Muslims from the western state of Arakan.

The northern tip of the state, where Tuesday’s violence occurred, is home to 80 percent of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, considered by the U.N. to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The region is also one of the most isolated in the country, with access to foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers almost always either denied or heavily restricted.

Chris Lewa of the Thailand-based Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been documenting abuses against Rohingya for more than a decade, said details about the violence in Duchira Dan (Kilaidaung) village were still emerging, with many conflicting reports.

The death toll could be anywhere from 10 to 60, said Lewa, whose sources range from a village administrator to witnesses. One described the slashed-up bodies of three acquaintances — two women and a 14-year-old boy — found in their homes.

Tensions have been building in the region since last month, when monks from a Buddhist extremist movement known as 969 arrived and started giving sermons by loudspeaker advocating the expulsion of all Rohingya.

One resident said by phone that an initial flare-up followed the discovery of three bodies in a ditch near Duchira Dan village by several firewood collectors.

Believing they were among several Rohingya who went missing after being detained by authorities, they alerted friends and neighbours, who returned with their cellphones to take pictures, said the man, who works as a volunteer English teacher. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals.

That night, five police officers went to the village to confiscate the phones and check family lists, but the crowd turned on the officers, beating and chasing them off, said the man. The police returned at 2 a.m., saying one of the officers had gone missing, accusing villagers of either abducting or killing him.

That triggered a security crackdown.

Soldiers and police surrounded Duchira Dan, breaking down doors and looting livestock and other valuables, the English teacher said. Worried they would be arrested, all the men fled, leaving the women, children and elderly behind.

Lewa said her sources reported that Rohingya women and children had been hacked to death, but the numbers varied widely.

That some of the victims appeared to have been stabbed with knives, not shot or beaten, “would clearly indicate the massacre was committed by (Buddhist) Arakanese villagers, rather than the police or army,” the Arakan Project wrote in a briefing Thursday.

The English teacher said 17 women and five children were killed. Another resident put the toll at 11.

Ye Htut, the deputy information minister, said the “reports might be a cover-up, because of the policeman going missing.”

Shwe Maung, a Muslim Lower House lawmaker who represents Buthidaung Township for the Union Solidarity and Development Party, told the local news agency Irrawaddy that he had received conflicting reports about the numbers of casualties.

“A lot of people are missing,” he said. “Normally when they are missing family members, Rohingya people think they are dead.”

Some of the Rohingya in northern Arakan State descend from families that have been there for generations. Others arrived more recently from neighbouring Bangladesh. All have been denied citizenship, rendering them stateless.

DVB

Rights Group Claims More Than a Dozen Muslims Killed in New Myanmar Violence

A security guard stands by a camp for displaced Rohingyas near the Rakhine state capital Sittwe on May 15, 2013. RFA
More than a dozen Muslim Rohingyas were killed by a Buddhist mob hacking its way through a remote village in western Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state, a rights group and villager were reported saying Thursday.

A lawmaker told RFA’s Myanmar Service that hundreds of security forces have been rushed to the scene of the riots in Maungdaw township’s Duchiratan village, while an official in Rakhine state said tension was running high but denied knowledge of any deaths.

It was the latest violence to rock the state, home to minority Rohingya Muslims and where deadly riots first erupted in 2012, killing about 200 and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

The advocacy group Arakan Project,  which has been documenting rights abuses against Rohingyas for about a decade, claimed that women and children—from as low as 10 to as many as dozens¬—had been hacked to death, citing sources.

The violence followed increased tensions when a group of extremist Buddhist monks toured the area, calling for the expulsion of all Rohingyas, Chris Lewa, an official of the group, was quoted saying by the Associated Press.

That some of the victims appeared to have been stabbed with knives, not shot or beaten, "would clearly indicate the massacre was committed by [Buddhist] Rakhine villagers, rather than the police or army," the Arakan Project said in a briefing note Thursday.

AP also quoted an unnamed resident as saying that violence stemmed from the discovery of three bodies in a ditch near Duchiratan village by several firewood collectors, who believed they were among a group of eight Rohingya who went missing after being detained by authorities days earlier.

The resident said that when the firewood collectors alerted friends and neighbors, they returned to the area to take pictures with their cell phones and later that evening, five police officers went to Duchiratan to confiscate the devices.

A crowd in the village turned on the police, he said, beating them and chasing them off, but additional police returned at 2:00 a.m. the next morning, saying one policeman had gone missing.

The resident said that authorities surrounded the village, destroying property and looting livestock and other valuables. Nearly all of the men in the village fled, leaving women, children and the elderly behind, he said.

The resident said 17 women and five children had been killed.

Another account on Rohingyablogger.com, which monitors human rights abuses on the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Myanmar, said that villagers had initially discovered eight Rohingyas dead in a ditch. It claimed that they had been killed by Duchiratan administrator Aung Zan Phyu, before police confronted villagers.

The villagers turned on the authorities, who killed several of them before fleeing, but not before the Rohingyas hacked local police sergeant Aung Kyaw Thein to death, the account said.

Later, a larger group of police and Rakhines returned to the village, killing a total of 18 people—seven of whom were children, according to the blog.

It said several women were raped, at least two people were severely injured and that a number of people had been arrested, leaving the village empty.

Legislator’s account

Shwe Maung, a member of parliament from nearby Buthidaung township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that he had heard about the deaths in Duchiratan, but could not confirm they had taken place.

“There are things that are being said by people who definitely know about it, but I heard it secondhand so it’s hard for me to say what is true and what is not,” he said.

“No one can go into that village. It’s difficult to say whether the women and children were killed. The best thing is for concerned security forces and authorities from the Home Affairs Department to investigate and report their findings.”

Shwe Maung said that a source had reported to him by phone that eight people were found dead in the nearby jungle.

He said that another MP, Aung Myo Min, had told him that around 400 security forces had entered the village when he was at the scene.

Shwe Maung  said that he was informed that police had looted shops and “harassed” the local women, and later that evening they opened fire on the village, causing “lots of people to run away.”

“From about 4,000 [people], only 20 women, 15 children and four elderly people remain. They were arrested and released. This is true,” he said.

“But as there are no other people in the [village], we have no way of confirming who or how many died, and what happened. Only if we hold an open investigation will we get the true answer.”

He said assurances should be given to the villagers that they would be safe to return before “investigating and taking action on the perpetrators only.”

Unaware of deaths

AP quoted Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing as saying that police had surrounded the village because they were looking for the policeman who went missing, but that he was not aware that anyone had been killed.

Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most in Myanmar and the government to be illegal immigrants.

Most people in Myanmar call the Rohingyas “Bengali,” indicating that they have illegally immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh.

Rights groups have said Rohingya Muslims bore the brunt of the violence in Rakhine state in 2012 and 2013 and blamed radical anti-Muslim Buddhist monks for stoking tensions in other areas of the country.

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

Burma Hosts First High-Level ASEAN Meeting

Wunna Mg Lwin meets with media in Nanmyint mhawsin, Pagan. He talks on ASEAN foreign ministers level summit while Myanmar is chair for the first time, Jan. 16, 2014. (Photo by Sithu, Burmese Service)
Thar Nyunt Oo
January 16, 2014

BAGAN, BURMA — Burma, also known as Myanmar, has opened its first high-level meeting as chair of ASEAN by saying relations with China will be enhanced by its leadership of the regional bloc.

Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began meeting Thursday in the ancient Burmese city of Bagan.  It is the first high-level ASEAN meeting since Burma took over as chair at the beginning of the year.

Burmese presidential spokesman Ye Htut told reporters that Burma’s policy of mutual understanding with China is a strength in solving regional problems, including the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“I believe that we will get the trust of all parties concerned due to our traditional, independent and active foreign policy.  Again, the mutual trust and good relationship between China and our country is a strength in resolving, as chairman, the regional problems," said Htut.

The ASEAN nations of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia are all involved in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told reporters his country will also act fairly towards the United States, which says it does not take a position on the sovereignty disputes, but has consistently criticized Chinese moves it calls aggressive.

“Myanmar will be acting as coordinator between ASEAN and the United States of America until 2015.  That is why relations with the U.S. are good and improving," he said. "Myanmar's foreign policy is to have good relations with any country.  Although relations got frozen at some point due to different situations and different political systems, the relationship now is very warm and good."

Burma's role chairing ASEAN follows political reforms that have led to the lifting of most international sanctions.

Thein Sein's government has won praise for freeing hundreds of political prisoners, lifting censorship laws and holding elections in which many opposition members won seats in parliament.

Critics, however, say the country has not done enough, pointing to continuing sectarian violence against Muslims and the country's remaining political prisoners.

Burma, which joined ASEAN in 1997, was passed over for the chairmanship in 2006.

VOICE OF AMERICA

Thailand's Political Protests Taking A Toll On Myanmar's Economic And Infrastructure Development

Anti-government protesters march to ministries and other state bodies in central Bangkok, Jan. 15, 2014. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
By Sophie Song

Thailand’s political strife is having a negative impact beyond its borders as important investment projects in Myanmar are being shelved as a result of the paralyzed Thai government.

Anti-government protests, continuing from December, are without a doubt wreaking havoc on Thailand’s domestic economy, and have all but paralyzed the government and civil service activities. As a result, major Thai investments abroad, including many planned ventures in neighboring Myanmar like the Thailand-Myanmar joint venture Dawei port and industrial zone on Myanmar’s southeast coast, have been frozen, the Irrawaddy reported on Tuesday.

Thailand is currently the second-largest foreign investor in Myanmar with $9.98 billion in approved investment at the end of October last year, after China.

Myanmar and Thailand only recently reached an agreement to jointly develop the Dawei port, which has already suffered multiple financial setbacks as funding could not be secured. Japanese investors declined to invest in the project.

“In reality [Dawei] is dependent on the Thai side developing infrastructure that will link Dawei to the rest of Southeast Asia by road and railway,” Bangkok independent energy industries consultant Collin Reynolds told the Irrawaddy. But the Yingluck Shinawatra government has had to resign authority to a caretaker government until the next round of elections.

“The [Thai] courts have effectively blocked most funds to the caretaker government and it is hard to see any election going ahead as planned on Feb. 2,” Reynolds added.

The Dawei project will eventually include an oil trans-shipment port, a refinery, steel mills, petrochemical plants and a major electricity generating station, if companies involved can get the funding. The development also includes road, railway and oil pipeline routes running from Dawei into Thailand to link up the north-south transport infrastructure.

Plans from the Thai government for a new network of high-speed railways linking Thailand, Laos, China, Myanmar and Malaysia are similarly on hold.

“The [Thai] government has seen its flagship 2 trillion baht ($60.6 billion) infrastructure investment bill hobbled by the political crisis,” according to the Financial Times.

International Business Times (US)

Homeless Retired Teacher Shouts for Help on President's Visit

Homeless Retired Teacher Shouts for Help on President's Visit

TNLA Holds 51st National Revolution Day

TNLA Holds 51st National Revolution Day

Upper Burma Monks Conference in Mandalay

Upper Burma Monks Conference in Mandalay

Danish Refugee Council and Princess Mary Press Conference- Sittwe

Danish Refugee Council and Princess Mary Press Conference- Sittwe

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Press Conference- Naypyidaw Jaunary 14

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Press Conference- Naypyidaw Jaunary 14

Locals raise concerns over national ID applications and USDP member cards

Locals raise concerns over national ID applications and USDP member cards

Former Chinese Labor Camp Inmates Struggle For Justice

Former Masanjia labor camp inmate Shi Yunxiang in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of CHRD
Just days after China's parliament voted to abolish the controversial "re-education through labor" system, Beijing police detained and tortured a former inmate who penned an open letter about abuses she had suffered under the system, a rights group said this week.

Labor camp activist Shi Yunxiang was held by Beijing police on Dec. 27, soon after she posted the letter online, and sentenced to 10 days' administrative detention after she went to publicize her campaign in the capital, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said in an e-mailed statement.

Shi is a former inmate of the Masanjia Women's Re-education Through Labor Camp in the northeastern province of Liaoning and one of a group of women who have demanded compensation from the government over their time there.

Former inmates have detailed a regime of daily torture and abuse, failure of medical care, and grueling overtime at the facility.

Shi was held by police from Beijing's western Xicheng district and then handed over to police from her hometown of Benxi in Liaoning.

On her arrival in Benxi, police charged her with "creating a disturbance" and held her until Jan. 7, CHRD said.

"Shi reportedly was shackled to a 'tiger bench,' a tool of torture where a person is strapped to a long board and their legs are pushed upwards," the group said.

Abolishing the system

The administration of President Xi Jinping has agreed to abolish the re-education through labor system this year following a prolonged campaign by lawyers, former inmates, and rights activists.

But Yu's treatment shows the authorities at local level are still unlikely to be receptive to complaints from former inmates.

And rights lawyers have warned that many more forms of arbitrary detention remain in China, including the system of "administrative detention," which can be imposed for up to 15 days by police without trial on anyone they see as a troublemaker.

Demand for compensation

Last week, a group of former Masanjia inmates issued a demand for compensation from the government based on their experiences in the camp.

"We have been harmed and tortured in various ways in Masanjia ... all of us," activist Zhu Xiaoming told RFA's Mandarin Service.

"We don't know whether this will get to court, or what the next step will be," she said. "We'll wait to see what they say."

The women say prison guards repeatedly flouted the Re-education Through Labor Law in their treatment of prisoners at Masanjia.

Some women with serious illnesses were incarcerated, while others have reported being forced to work long hours in the late stages of pregnancy and being denied medical attention.

Others say they were repeatedly beaten, subjected to verbal abuse and physical punishments, as well as being required to work longer than 10 hours a day.

The Women of Masanjia

Documentary filmmaker Du Shibin, whose film "Above the Ghosts' Heads: The Women of Masanjia Labour Camp," was banned in mainland China but posted online and screened in Taiwan, said his film had only shown a small part of the abuses that went on.

"There is so, so much more than the stories they have told us," said Du, a former New York Times photographer who was detained for "illegal publishing" after the film came out.

He said Beijing's powerful re-education through labor committee had never commented on the accounts given by former inmates in the film.

"They haven't said a word this whole time," Du said. "No one is interested in what went on at Masanjia, and there's so much more that happened to them than what has already appeared in the media."

Du said he is currently working on a longer version of his film, incorporating more material.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Natural Disasters Add to Myanmar’s Troubles

A bridge in Mandalay: rickety infrastructure makes Myanmar prone to greater damage in disasters. Credit: Fawzia Sheikh/IPS.
By Fawzia Sheikh  / Inter Press Service News Agency

YANGON, Jan 11 2014 (IPS) - As Myanmar nurses a fragile democracy after long years of military rule, a new danger has reared its head. Climate change, say experts, has the potential to spur migration and exacerbate conflict in the country.

NGOs point out that more than five years after Cyclone Nargis killed 146,000 people and severely affected 2.4 million, inhabitants of the Ayeyarwady Delta are yet to find their feet.

Dr. Lynn Thiesmeyer, vice-president of the Environmental and Economic Research Institute of Myanmar, says the sheer number of livelihoods left in tatters made a rebound difficult.

Delta residents who lost farms to salinisation or lost a season’s crop with no money to plant a new one “either subsist on debt or occasional day labour,” said Thiesmeyer, who has knowledge of recovery operations and the status of disaster management plans in the region.

Another option, she said, was for family members to move to newly established Export Processing Zones, known as free-trade areas.

After Cyclone Nargis, the Myanmar government organised recovery initiatives in the form of community-based projects in many districts, but little could be implemented due to lack of resources, including money and trained personnel, she said.

“The government did ensure that everyone received radios and knew how to tune into emergency news. But escape from another storm would still be problematic given that they would need to travel by boat. What they really need is shelters,” Thiesmeyer told IPS.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs last June ranked Myanmar – with a 53 million population – as the most “at-risk” country in the Asia-Pacific region in 2011. It noted that the country has a high chance of medium to large-scale natural disasters occurring “every couple of years.”

Since Cyclone Nargis – the most devastating natural event for Myanmar in recent years – local and international NGOs have accelerated efforts to counter climate related impacts.

The pivotal question is how the next major natural disaster will now affect Myanmar’s social and economic progress, with a civilian government having come to power in 2011.

Linda Yarr, director of partnerships for international strategies in Asia at George Washington University in Washington DC, said Myanmar suffers from “many of the anticipated deleterious impacts of climate change.”

These include coastal erosion, vulnerability to more frequent and severe weather events such as cyclones, extensive and unpredictable drought in the dry zone, and heavy precipitation leading to flooding and landslides in mountainous areas, she said.

“We can’t be complacent and we need to prepare,” said Win Zin Oo, humanitarian emergency affairs director at the NGO World Vision Myanmar.

The “hard evidence” suggesting the elusiveness and complexity of natural disasters came last spring when Cyclone Mahasen was tracked to Myanmar, he argued. The country was spared the brunt of the damage that was largely borne by other countries in South and Southeast Asia.

He said the most prominent hazard within the last two years has been flooding, which hurt local livelihoods and social stability.

World Vision offers communities both disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction (DRR), and has assisted residents affected by Cyclone Nargis, the Shan State earthquake, the Ayeyarwady flood and the Kayin State flood.

Win Zin Oo said that after the Nargis disaster, his NGO realised that aid coordination among response stakeholders is still challenging, but DRR, including community-based initiatives, may significantly curb the negative effects of climate-related events.

According to Dear Myanmar, a Yangon-based NGO focused on environment-friendly agriculture, the main roadblocks to adequate preparation include the lack of meteorological news in the country, limited advance warnings, and the failure of some residents to consider disaster forecasts seriously.

Yarr says Myanmar’s ability to adapt to climate change is also impeded by the “lack of an up-to-date census, insufficient infrastructure like roads and electrical grid, outdated agricultural practices and poorly regulated logging and mining.”

Yarr’s organisation, along with a Yangon-based NGO called ALARM, offered a programme known as the Myanmar Leadership Institute on Climate Change last February to 45 government officials from 12 different ministries and departments. Homegrown organisations and institutions are trying to boost the country’s resilience.

At the government level, Myanmar chose the coastal provinces of Tanintharyi and Ayeyarwady in December for a pilot project to integrate disaster and climate risk management into regional development plans for 2014-2015.

Dr. Win Myint, director of the NGO Environmental & Economic Research Institute in Yangon, also initiated a revitalisation project after Cyclone Nargis to support farmers with technology and rehabilitate damaged soil.

“After the cyclone, they had to survive,” Dr. Win Myint told IPS, but the challenge was to help them “escape from a poverty cycle.”

Working with the Asian Institute of Technology, administrators of the programme chose nine families in 11 villages, targeting landless, poor residents and women in particular. Some wanted to raise pigs or livestock to sell, or to fish for shrimp or grow vegetables, he noted. The NGO then offered the families training and materials to fulfil their goals.

In another example of an NGO aiding local livelihoods, Dear Myanmar has been promoting sustainable agriculture among the farming community.

The organisation offers a monthly knowledge-sharing programme that teaches farmers how to use organic fertiliser which, it argues, is better than methane producing chemical pesticides that harm soil quality and hasten climate change.

Chemical fertiliser gets washed away during severe weather and is not conducive to food security for the local population, Nyan Lin, founder of Dear Myanmar, told IPS.

The devastation brought on by Cyclone Nargis forced the Myanmar government to accept international assistance. Experts argue that it also mobilised local actors to play a crucial role in strengthening the state against catastrophe.

Despite these efforts, the final report of George Washington University’s Myanmar Leadership Institute on Climate Change offered a caveat: “Climate change is a new and unpredictable threat to the transition process.

“A major natural disaster on the scale of Cyclone Nargis could pose a threat to government legitimacy and reverse progress made toward democratisation.”

Inter Press Service News Agency

 

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