Trishaw drivers protest ‘unnecessary demands’ by Prome council

Trishaw riders take to the streets of Prome [Pyay] on Thursday, 29 May 2014. (PHOTO: DVB TV)

Trishaw drivers pedalled the streets of Prome [Pyay], central Burma, on Thursday to protest a recent municipal council regulation requiring them to install side-rails on the passenger seats of their vehicles.

Thirty trishaw drivers were accompanied by some 50 supporters in the demonstration, which kicked into gear at 8:30 in the morning under the statute of Gen Aung San in the town centre. The ride continued on to the municipal office where trishaw licenses are issued as drivers chanted their objections to the new regulation.

“We are protesting today to demand a more streamlined procedure for gaining trishaw licenses,” driver Win Hlaing told a crowd of bystanders.

“As car owners, you all know how simple it is to extend your vehicle license at the Directorate of Road Administration – all you just need is to bring your license and the car to the license department. However it is not like that at the municipal council where they keep making unnecessary demands, just as they did under the Than Shwe military regime. This has to stop.”

As the trishaw drivers made their point, the crowd’s demands turned to the desire for an investigation into a 2012 case of forced displacement. In that instance, according to Ponn Ya of civil society organisation Karuna Latmyar (Hands of Compassion), the municipal council rounded up homeless families in Prome, including 30 children, and dumped them outside of town.

“The town’s authorities rounded up the homeless children and their parents including a blind old man,” Ponn Ya said. They were then taken on a garbage truck to a woodland called Nyaungchedauk, across the river from Prome. There they were left.”

The trishaw protest ended at around 11am. No arrests were reported.


Karens conclude ‘unity’ meeting at Lay Wah

The 10th Karen Unity Seminar in Lawkheela on 30 May 2014. (PHOTO: DVB)
The 10th Karen Unity Seminar wraps up on Saturday after three days of talks in Hpa-an focused on bringing together the various competing ethnic Karen factions.

Hosted by the Karen National Union (KNU) at its headquarters in Lawkheela, also known as Lay Wah, near the Thai-Burmese border, the meeting brought together some 500 to 600 Karens from Burma, Thailand and beyond.

In his opening speech on Thursday, KNU Chairman Mutu Say Poe urged the representatives to value diversity.

“We Karens have different languages, political beliefs, armed groups and geographical homelands,” he said. “It is important to express one’s own opinions but also consider others. By working on solutions together, we can bring unity to our people.”

KNU District Chairman Saw Eh Wah told the audience that the Karen people had long lacked unity as a result of instability in the country, the decades-long civil war, and the policy of divide and rule by the Burmese government. “Here and now is the time for the Karen to establish unity,” he continued.

Ethnic Karen in Burma make up about 5 million of the country’s estimated 60 million population. In addition to Karen State, many live in Rangoon, the Irrawaddy delta, and Pegu and Tenasserim divisions.

Led by the KNU, the Karen led many of Burma’s other ethnic groups into a civil war in 1949, fighting against the central government for autonomy; a war that has lasted until now.

However, in modern times the KNU was fractured by dissenting parties; a Buddhist faction, the Democratic Buddhist Karen Army split from the KNU in 1994, contributing to military defeat and the downfall of the KNU’s jungle headquarters in Manerplaw. Various other factions and sub-factions formed in recent years as commanders in each area looked to their own self-interests when business opportunities opened up.


Poets, cartoonists join campaign to overturn Article 436

Poets and cartoonists gather in Rangoon on 30 May 2014 to sign a petition to overturn Article 436 of the Burmese Constitution. (PHOTO: DVB)

A group of Burmese poets and cartoonists joined together in Rangoon on Friday to sign a petition to amend Article 436 of the Constitution, which stipulates that no provision of the 2008 charter can be altered without the prior approval of more than 75 percent of MPs in the Union Parliament.

Many critics of Burma’s Constitution – notable among them Aung San Suu Kyi of the main opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD) – have prioritised the overturning of Article 436 as they say it gives the military full veto power over any other proposed changes, owing to the fact that they control 25 percent of the seats in both houses.

On Friday, some of the country’s best known poets signed the petition at The Last Leaf Gallery on Pansodan Street while cartoonists put pen to paper at the Capacity Development Center on 35th Street.

Renowned cartoonist Shwe Min Thar said, “Everything depends on the military. If they don’t change, we can’t do anything. But it is possible for them to change. The Constitution is written by human beings, so it is easily within our power to change it. All of us here want to amend it. If the government follows the will of the people, then they will change it. I think it all depends on them.”

Another well-known cartoonist, Aw Pi Kyal, said, “I know that this petition will not compel the government to amend the Constitution, but we are offering our opinion to the president.”

Similarly, in Mandalay, about 100 members of a former political prisoners’ network signed a petition to amend the Constitution on Friday. Poets and cartoonists in Mandalay had earlier in the week signed the petition at Mandalay’s main NLD office.

The petition was launched by the NLD and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society civil society group this month as a 50-day campaign to collect signatures from people across the country, calling for the government to amend Article 436.


Vietnam's Religious Leaders Highlight Harassment of Pastor in Prison

Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh at a court hearing in Gia Lai, March 26, 2012.

Vietnamese religious leaders have appealed to the government to put an end to the harassment in prison of a Mennonite pastor and investigate other abuses against “prisoners of conscience.”

In a letter Thursday to Vietnam’s president Truong Tan Sang and Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quangl, the 14 churchmen called especially for a halt to the ill treatment in jail of pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh, who earlier this month was forced to stand before fellow prisoners to be verbally attacked by officials after he wrote a note to prison guards urging an improvement in prison conditions.

Chinh, who is also an activist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2012 for "undermining unity" by maintaining ties with dissident groups and distributing material deemed to have “slandered” government authorities.

The religious leaders, representing the Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao faiths, also sent their petition to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“We strongly condemn terrorist acts against prisoners, especially prisoners of conscience,” the letter said, calling for "accountability" for abuses.

“We urge the government to investigate police officers and prison officials and take immediate steps to stop all activities and policies that go against the law and international conventions on human rights,” it said.

Chinh is currently held at the An Phuoc prison in Vietnam’s southern Binh Duong province.

His note to prison guards complaining about prison conditions was also signed by other inmates and sent outside the prison, infuriating authorities, sources said.

Wife told of abuse

Chinh described the abusive public criticism he endured to his wife Tran Thi Hong during a prison visit on May 21, and she in turn reported it to friends, the sources said.

“I heard that [Chinh] is being publicly criticized in prison,” Protestant pastor Le Quang Du, one of those who signed the petition, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Friday.

“We don’t agree with this, and so we have to express our concern so that the government of Vietnam can see what they are doing wrong,” he said.

“They can’t just do whatever they want to a prisoner,” he added.

In August 2013, Chinh was beaten in An Phuoc prison when guards incited prisoners to attack him, and in May 2012 had been assaulted by police while praying in his cell, according to his wife.

“Recently, illegal acts including assaulting, torturing, and ill-treating prisoners are happening more often in prisons managed by the Ministry of Police,” said the petition sent on Thursday, calling also for an end to the “mental and physical terrorizing of prisoners daring to stand up against unfairness, and of prisoners of conscience.”


The petition pointed also to increased incidents of “corruption and cuts in food rations, or asking for bribes from prisoners in exchange for better conditions.”

Vietnam’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity is closely monitored and remains under state control.

Earlier this week, relatives of two jailed Vietnamese online activists who backed protests against China over a territorial dispute with Hanoi in the South China Sea said they are being regularly harassed in prison.

Citizen journalist Ta Phong Tan, a former policewoman who has received international awards for her work, is facing abuse from her fellow inmates, while fellow dissident Ngo Hao is suffering from ill treatment to the point that he is threatening suicide, their relatives said after visiting them.

Both were jailed after campaigning online in defense of Vietnam’s territorial integrity in the South China Sea and well as human rights and democracy.

In its latest country report on Vietnam, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that it had received information on several cases of police abuse, torture, and the killing of detainees in the Southeast Asian nation during 2013.

Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Women Detained After Naked Protest on Beijing's Tiananmen Square

Visitors walk on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, May 29, 2014.

Authorities in the Chinese capital on Friday released from police detention two elderly petitioners who staged a naked protest on Tiananmen Square, although relatives said they were on their way back home under escort by local officials, known as interceptors.

Xing Jiaying and He Zeying from Xinyang city in the central province of Henan were detained on May 25 on a seven-day administrative jail term for "disturbing public order" after they staged the protest along with one other petitioner from their hometown.

"We took off all our clothes and protested on Tiananmen Square about injustices we have suffered," He said.

"We were surrounded by a large number of police officers and taken to the Tiananmen branch police station," she said, adding that she and Xing had been roughly treated during their days in detention.

"I don't know yet whether we can go straight home," she said. But she gave no details of the third protester, who is believed to have escaped detention at the time.

The two women and their male relative—He's son-in-law and Xing's son—were met by interceptors from their hometown on Friday and escorted home, He told RFA.

"I have been in detention for the past few days," she said by phone on her way back to Henan under the escort of four police officers. "They said I was disturbing public order on the Square."

"Now we are out. We were released by police officers from Xi county [under the administration of Xinyang city]," she said.

Traffic accident

He's son-in-law Xing Wangli, known online by his nickname Wu Quanli, a pun on "powerless," said the women were protesting at a lack of compensation or redress after Xing's grandson was involved in a traffic accident.

"The family has been petitioning for a long time, but they have been subjected to revenge attacks by the government," he said.

He said the authorities had organized a student protest against him in Xi county on Thursday, for allowing his mother to shed her clothes on Tiananmen Square.

Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, whose Tianwang website first reported the incident, said he had been contacted by officials and told to delete the original news story from his site.

"A guy calling himself the head of the Xi county chamber of commerce called up and ... said Tianwang should delete the report," Huang said.

"They said they would give Wu Quanli 500,000 yuan (U.S. $80,000) and three mu (one-half acre) of land near his home at [a discounted price]," he said.

Huang said he had refused the takedown request, however.

"Tianwang hasn't deleted a post in 16 years, even when there is a risk of going to jail," he said.


Faced with thousands of complaints about its officials every day, China recently moved to ban its citizens from taking petitions directly to the central government without first going through local authorities.

From May 1, departments at higher levels of the central government have refused to accept petitions that bypass the local government and its immediate superiors, and have rejected petitions deemed to be the preserve of the judiciary or legislative bodies.

Beijing has repeatedly tried to stem the flood of thousands of petitioners who descend on the capital with complaints, often ahead of key political events, when petitioners hope their cases will get a more sympathetic hearing.

Next week, activists will mark the 25th anniversary of the military crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.

Petitioners say corrupt networks of power and influence at local levels ensure that a fair hearing is all but impossible, and that they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten, and harassed by local authorities if they try to take complaints to the top.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

25 Cambodian Workers, Activists Freed After Being Convicted

Members of the 23, including Vorn Pao (C), are taken away from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after their sentencing, May 30, 2014.

A court in Cambodia on Friday convicted 25 workers and activists for instigating violence during garment workers’ strikes but suspended their jail sentences and set the group free in a widely followed case that has come under international scrutiny.

Local civil society organizations welcomed their release but called their convictions “an injustice” due what they felt was a lack of evidence, saying that their trials were “tainted with numerous irregularities.”

Twenty-three defendants linked to a deadly Jan. 2-3 strike were given jail sentences of between one and four-and-a-half years for “causing intentional violence” and “damaging property” while two others implicated in another deadly strike in November received sentences of six months and three years in prison.

Both the strikes by garment workers campaigning for an increase in minimum wages had been backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and led to the deaths of five civilians and injuries to scores of people.

Two dozen local civil society groups welcomed the Phnom Penh Municipal Court decision to suspend the sentences imposed on the 25 and let them free but expressed “extreme disappointment” at the convictions and heavy fines imposed on some of them following “a deeply flawed trial process.”

Four of those convicted Friday were ordered to pay fines of 8 million riel (U.S. $2,000) each for inciting the others to stage the protest.

“While we welcome the court’s decision to release [them], we have not seen justice here today,” said Heng Samorn, General Secretary of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), whose leader was among the accused and slapped with the fine.

“They were all still convicted following trials which in fact confirmed the near total lack of evidence against them. The circumstances of the arrests and the fact that the trials were all held at the same time indicate that these cases were wholly political in nature.”

“The aim was not to seek justice but rather to try and bring an end to popular protest and make people afraid to take to the streets to claim their rights.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) said they, too, were “concerned about the criminal conviction” of the 25 “in view of the apparent procedural shortcomings” of their separate trials.

In a joint statement, the two organizations also expressed reservations over “the lack of evidence establishing direct responsibility of the individuals for the actions of which they were nevertheless found guilty.”

“Furthermore, in a number of cases, the evidence indicates that individuals were arrested when simply exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, while defending workers’ socio-economic interests,” the statement said.

The OHCHR and ILO called for “independent investigations and full accountability” for the violent dispersals of demonstrations.

Plans to appeal

Defense lawyer Kong Peisei told RFA’s Khmer Service that his team was considering an appeal against the convictions within a month, as stipulated by the court.

“We will hold a discussion between the lawyers and our clients to decide how to proceed,” he said.

Following his release from prison, IDEA president Vorn Pao thanked those who helped to fight for his freedom.

“I would like to thank my Khmer compatriots who supported me, as well as the NGOs and [foreign] embassies, donors and lawyers who defended us,” he told RFA.

Vorn Pao, who with 21 others had been held in detention until the court hearing Friday, had frequently complained about his health in custody. He had been repeatedly denied bail despite collapsing during one of his hearings.

He maintained his innocence following his conviction, saying that he had only acted as an observer during the strike and never incited workers to protest.

“I was monitoring the workers protest to demand U.S. $160 [per month minimum wage],” he said.

“I saw the [security personnel] intended to use force against the workers, so I used a megaphone to beg them not to. But they assaulted the workers and I was hit with metal bars until I was bleeding.”

Vorn Pao vowed to continue his fight for workers rights, despite the threat of arrest.

“I will continue to work for the sake of the workers’ freedom, human rights, democracy and social justice,” he said.

Mounting pressure

Friday’s verdicts came as international clothing brands and unions stepped up pressure on Cambodia’s government to respect the rights of garment workers, warning that continued unrest could spoil the country’s lucrative export earning industry.

Earlier in the week, representatives of 30 global brands and trade unions confronted the government about the trial of the protesters, according to a statement by IndustriALL Global Union, which represents workers worldwide in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors.

In the statement, IndustriALL said that the brands and unions urged that the trial be “based on evidence and stand up to international scrutiny,” adding that it had doubts over direct links to damage of property by the protesters and the impartiality of judicial proceedings in the case.

The brands—which included H&M, Puma, Gap and Levi’s—and unions also urged the government to bring to justice those who shot at the demonstrators in the crackdowns and to refrain from meeting peaceful worker movements with violence.

Levi’s said recently that it had cut sourcing from Cambodia to reduce supply chain risk and ensure delivery.

Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.

It is the country's biggest employer and key export earner.

Cambodian garment unions are fighting to increase the minimum wage from U.S. $100 to U.S. $160 per month.

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

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meets with reporters at parliament

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meets with reporters at parliament

Interview with NLD spokesman U Nyan Win over proposed amendments

Interview with NLD spokesman U Nyan Win over proposed amendments

BGB trades gunfire with Myanmar’s border police

Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) troopers have exchanged fires with their Myanmar counterparts at Bandarban's Naikhangchharhi.

No casualties were reported immediately, BGB’s Bandarban Sector Commander Col KM Saiful Islam said.

He said the gunfight started around 4pm on Friday and lasted for about 45 minutes.

BGB Director General Maj Gen Aziz Ahmed said the firing had stopped now.

Tension has been building along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border since Wednesday night when Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP) opened fire at BGB patrol teams at a Rohingya refugee camp near the border.

After the incident, a BGB trooper was reported missing. BGB officials said BGP had been silent about the matter. Later the issue was taken to the foreign ministry.

The ministry summoned Myanmar’s ambassador in Dhaka to protest, after which BGP said they had a dead body.

The BGB director general said BGP had not named the dead person. “We asked them to show us the body, because we have a man missing.”

The viewing was scheduled for 3:30pm Friday, but BGP began firing at that time and BGB fired back.

Staff Correspondent and Bandarban Correspondent,

Burma govt plans to establish Ministry for Youth Affairs

Soe Thein (centre, dark longyi) leaves the seminar on Thursday after declaring that the government plans to establish a Ministry of Youth Affairs. (PHOTO: DVB)

The Burmese government is planning to establish a Ministry for Youth Affairs, according to President’s Office Minister Soe Thein.

Speaking at a seminar in Rangoon on Thursday on the role of young people in Burma’s political parties, he said, “Youths have roles in various sectors of the country’s reforms – some are focused on the education sector or the health sector, as well as civil society. They also should offer a hand to work in the political arena as a step towards the country’s development.”

The seminar was attended by youth members from various political parties.

Sai Kyaw Thu Linn, a youth member of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, said that young people in Burma are more involved nowadays in political activities than they were in the past; however they don’t get much opportunity to play a role in the political system itself.

“I see that the youth of today, compared to the past, are now more keenly involved in the political world, but they still don’t get many opportunities,” said Sai Kyaw Thu Linn. “I think this is because members of the older generation lack confidence in youngsters and don’t give them the chances to prove themselves.”

Min Hein, a central youth wing member of the Democratic Party-Myanmar, said: “In my opinion, there isn’t much opportunity for young people to play a role in politics, and it may take a while, firstly because the country’s reforms are still in their infancy, and secondly because of the poor state of the education system.

“Too many restrictions are placed on students – in some schools, they are unable to form students’ unions,” he continued. “In other schools, officials just turn a blind eye, but they won’t offer any encouragement to those who are politically active.”

Yin Yin Gyi, a young member of the Democratic Party for New Society, said that politics and activism are generally stigmatised by Burmese parents who lived through decades of military rule, and this may contribute to why many of Burma’s youths lack the initiative to become involved in politics.”

Myo Zaw Linn of civil society group The Innovative, which organised the event at the Sky Star Hotel in the former capital, said the seminar was set to continue on Friday.

Burma is not the first country in the region to entertain the notion of a Ministry for Youth Affairs or some such similar department – India, Nepal and Bangladesh each have a Ministry for Youth and Sports; Sri Lanka has a Ministry for Youth Affairs and Skills Development; and Singapore has a Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.



Ups and Downs

The Burmese currency continued to fall slightly in value this week; the buying rate finished on Friday at 966 kyat to the US dollar (from 963 last week); while the selling rate rose from 966 to 970 kyat to the dollar. The price of gold has decreased notably: down from 662,700 kyat per tical to 649,800 kyat. Fuel prices remain unchanged: petrol is 820 kyat per litre; diesel 950 kyat; and octane 920 kyat a litre. Rice also remains constant: high-quality Pawhsanmwe rice is selling at 1,300-1,600 kyat per basket while low-quality Manawthukha retails at 900 kyat per basket in most Rangoon marketplaces.

Singaporean oil firm expands in Magwe

Gold Petrol, majority owned by Singaporean conglomerate Interra, has expanded drilling projects in Chauk, Magwe Division. Interra announced to the Singaporean stock exchange on Friday that Gold Petrol has expanded drilling to a fourth oil reservoir in the area, having tapped the previous three in March 2013. Gold Petrol hold a 60 percent stake in the Improved Petroleum Recovery Project at Chauk field, with the other 40 percent owned by the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.

Foreign firms to be contracted for road construction

The construction of Burma’s roads and bridges can now be outsourced to foreign firms who may also wish to invest in Burma’s infrastructure projects, an official from the Ministry of Construction said. Many of the country’s highways are deemed sub-standard, he said, and with plans afoot to implement international pan-Asian and pan-ASEAN road networks, the ministry has decided to lift the restrictions. Current and proposed highway projects include routes to the borders of China, India and Thailand.

Japanese industrial firm moves into Burma

The Burmese government has approved a large-scale investment project put forward by Japanese multinational corporation Komatsu Ltd. The firm, involved in mining as well as industrial and military manufacturing, intends to construct a power plant and an assembling factory in Pyigyitagon Township, Mandalay. The plan was put forward to the Myanmar Investment Commission, who also approved the company to distribute heavy machinery for industrial use. Komatsu equipment, previously imported from abroad, has been widely used in Burma’s mining sector in the past.

Arakan’s dismal economy due to unrest, VP says

Burma’s Vice-president Sai Mauk Kham, in a meeting with Arakanese locals in state capital Sittwe last week, said the steady decline of GDP in Arakan could be attributed to the destabilising outbreaks of communal violence in the region that began in mid-2012. Previously ranked as second least developed state in Burma above remote Chin State, last year Arakan plummeted to the bottom of the list.

Corn production on the rise in Burma

DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical and agribusiness corporations, has set up shop in Rangoon, and predicted that corn could become a major crop for Burma. A representative told DVB that based on the company’s experience in neighbouring Thailand, raised income will lead to higher demand for meat, which will lead to higher demand for corn feed.

Pulse price up as Burmese farmers turn to mung bean

The price of a popular Burmese pulse, green gram, has raised dramatically amid falling production rates, Eleven Myanmar has reported. The green gram is a traditional commodity in terms of Burmese exports to India, where it currently fetches upwards of US$750 per tonne, up by around $100 from prices this time last year. The green gram, also known as mung bean, is a staple of many Chinese diets and has taken over as a preferred crop for Burmese farmers. The Burmese mung bean is currently fetching over $1000 per tonne on the international market.

What a load of rubbish! Firms compete to collect Rangoon’s garbage

Seven joint-venture companies have submitted tenders for contracts to operate garbage collecting services in Rangoon. Having paid a bidding fee of five million kyat (US$5,000), the companies have until the end of the year to study garbage collection and disposal procedures by the municipality before they make a presentation outlining their proposals for collecting the rubbish of the city’s six million residents. The contract winner will be announced in December and operations begin on 1 April 2015.

Foreign banks ready for launch

Overseas banks can now register with Burma’s Central Bank to apply for various banking services and operations, according to a Bank official who said that a board had been formed to scrutinise foreign bank operations. Thirty-five foreign banks currently have representative offices in the country, a step that is required before licenses can be granted and branches opened. Bank of India, ANZ and various Thai, Japanese, Korean and Chinese banks are among them.

Kunlong dam gets green light from Burma

Burma’s Ministry of Electric Power has approved the 1,400-megawatt Kunlong hydropower project on the Salween River in northern Shan State, industry news site Hydroworld reported. The project is being developed by a joint venture between Burmese firm AsiaWorld Group and China’s Hanergy Group Holdings, a private company. As much as 90 percent of the energy produced is believed to be bound for China. The project is one of six controversial hydropower plants proposed for the Salween, which is among the last and longest undammed rivers in the world.


Charges dropped against detained Shan politician

Pictured: The Shan National League for Democracy flag.

Sai Jan, a regional chairman for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), has been freed from Kengtung prison after being held for almost a month.

The politician was arrested in his home in Namt Lin Mai, Kengtung, eastern Shan State, on 5 May by the Burmese army on suspicion of having breached Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act through alleged links to the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S).

That charge, formally pressed on 22 May, was dropped on Thursday.

SNLD spokesman Sai Lek confirmed that Sai Jan would not have to face court on 2 June, as was previously slated.

“Police earlier today have dropped the charge against Sai Jan – our party officials went to pick him up and are now taking him back home,” Sai Lek said on Thursday. “We are all incredibly relieved that he was released.”

The SSA-S is the armed wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a political party considered an illegal organisation by the Burmese government, despite partnership in a 2013 ceasefire.

Pitched battles have raged in Shan State between the SSA-S and the Burmese army in recent months, in breach of that ceasefire. Such battles have contributed to reluctance on the part of the RCSS to join current ceasefire talks between the National Ceasefire Coordination Team — an alliance of 17 armed ethnic groups — and the government. However the paramount reason for reclusiveness on the part of the RCSS is the inclusion of rivals, the Shan State Army-North, among the 17 ceasefire parties, say observers.

On 6 May, the day after Sai Jan’s arrest, Burmese army troops “raided” the RCSS liason office in Kengtung.


5.9 magnitude earthquake hits China

A shallow earthquake with a magnitude of 5.9 has hit southwest China close to the border with Myanmar, the US Geological Survey says.

It's he second in a week to hit the area.

The epicentre was in China's Yunnan province, 65km southeast of Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar, USGS said on Friday, adding the quake was 10km deep.

Shallow earthquakes can often cause greater damage than more powerful deep ones.

Chinese state media said the tremor hit Yingjiang county, where a 5.6 magnitude quake struck last Friday, injuring at least 13 people.

'Tremors were strongly felt in the county seat, where local residents rushed to open areas,' the official Xinhua news agency said.

'Police have been sent to the township of Kachang, which is close to the epicentre,' it added, citing local publicity officials.

Xinhua put the magnitude at 6.1, citing China's earthquake authorities.

Many people posting on Sina Weibo - China's version of Twitter - said the shaking lasted between six and eight seconds.

A picture posted online showed people in the centre of Mang, in Yingjiang county, standing in the street, with the poster saying they had run out of an eight-storey building because of the tremors.

USGS graded it as a seven on its 'Shakemap' scale, saying that shaking would have been 'very strong' and expecting 'moderate' damage.

More than 50 relief workers have been sent to the region for 'surveying, investigation and disaster evaluation', Xinhua said.

Southwest China is prone to earthquakes, lying where the Eurasian and Indian plates meet.

In May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude quake rocked the neighbouring province of Sichuan, killing tens of thousands of people and flattening swathes of the province.

In September 2012, 80 people were killed when twin earthquakes struck the mountainous border area of Yunnan and Guizhou.

The two 5.6-magnitude quakes also left some 820 people injured and 201,000 displaced.

A month later 18 children were killed when their school was buried under a landslide triggered by sustained rains in the earthquake-hit area.

In March 2011, Yingjiang county was jolted by a 5.8-magnitude quake, leaving 26 people dead and more than 300 others injured.

Yingjiang had a population of 305,200 people at the end 2010, according to official figures, of which 59.7 per cent was from 26 ethnic minority groups including Dai and Jingpo.

Cambodian Monks Urge Halt To Buddhist Institute’s Loss Of Land To A Casino

Monks lead a protest march against the demolition of parts of a Buddhist institute in Phnom Penh, May 29, 2014.
Riot police armed with batons and shields prepare to block marching protesters in Phnom Penh, May 29, 2014. Credit: RFA
Nearly 100 Cambodian villagers and monks were blocked on Thursday by riot police armed with batons and shields as they marched in the capital Phnom Penh to protest the demolition of a Buddhist institute’s main gate and portions of a surrounding wall to facilitate power supply to a nearby casino.

The marchers later handed a petition to Cambodia’s Ministry of Cults and Religion calling on the government to protect the boundaries of the Buddhist Institute, a government-supported scholarly institution and library of Buddhist texts founded in 1930.

“It would be a shame to lose any of the property of the Buddhist Institute,” Independent Monk Network for Social Justice spokesman But Buntenh said, warning of a nationwide demonstration if the government allows demolition to proceed.

Ministry spokesmen said on Wednesday that Cambodia’s government has not sold or leased any part of the institute’s land, however, according to a May 28 report by The Phnom Penh Post.

Instead, the government is only allowing casino owner NagaCorp to assist in the “construction of a substation on the institute’s grounds,” according to government statements quoted by The Post.

“The substation will be used to power a new addition to the casino across the street from the institute,” The Post said.

Rumored land 'swap'

Accepting the protesters’ petition on Thursday, a ministry official confirmed the government’s approval of a request by the foreign-owned Naga Casino to remove the institute’s gate and part of the wall to make way for the construction.

Protesters accused Cambodia’s government of transferring a parcel of institute land measuring 30 by 100 meters (100 by 330 feet) to Naga Casino in exchange for a rumored “swap” of other property, but urged a halt to the exchange, calling too for the Buddhist Institute’s boundaries to be defined and for an end to the sale of government property of cultural value.

Monks briefly confronted ministry authorities after one official reportedly “cursed” the protesters, witnesses said.

But a ministry spokesman apologized, assuring the monks that ministry employees would be educated in how to behave correctly in similar encounters in the future.

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

Chinese Mining Company Staffs Fined for Visa Violation

Chinese Mining Company Staffs Fined for Visa Violation

Farmers Reject Government's Project Crops

Farmers Reject Government's Project Crops

Chinese Censorship 'Spreading Overseas': Rights Group

Nepalese riot police arrest Tibetan protesters in front of the consular section of the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, March 10, 2014.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is taking increasing steps to target public opinion, governments and institutions overseas, in a bid to stifle free debate over its human rights record, according to a U.S.-based rights group.

Beijing has used its economic muscle, especially in developing countries in Africa and along its borders, to force acceptance by governments of its requirements, sometimes resulting in police action against exiles or other critics of the regime in those countries, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on its website.

"Beijing has unambiguously pressured other governments not to discuss—even on their own soil—human rights issues in China or with visiting Chinese officials," the statement, authored by HRW China director Sophie Richardson, said.

"Some governments, such as Nepal, have effectively agreed to employ Chinese political imperatives as laws," Richardson wrote, adding that Nepal officials have been heard using the term "anti-China activities," though the concept has no meaning in the country's own laws.

Chinese authorities also attempt to impose restrictions on independent organizations and individuals, Richardson wrote, citing intense diplomatic pressure on countries not to send representatives to the award ceremony for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, which was won by jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.

'Threat to the world'

Australia-based activist Yuan Jie, president and editor-in-chief of Tiananmen Times and president of the Chinese Democracy School in Australia, agreed.

"They are using penetrative methods overseas so as to have an impact on public freedom of expression," Yuan said. "They are investing in overseas, Chinese-language media, or acquiring it to serve as an overseas mouthpiece."

"This is the main method they use to influence overseas Chinese."

He said Beijing is particularly keen to undermine "universal values" including democracy and freedom of speech.

"China uses its economic power in some countries which need something from China," Yuan said. "It sets itself against the mainstream of world civilization, and as such constitutes an actual threat to the world."

Corporate power

According to Richardson, Beijing is already using its growing corporate power to limit what people can say about it in public.

"Chinese corporations, some of them state-owned, and media outlets, which are wholly-government run entities, now operate all over the world," Richardson said.

"In some circumstances they too enable restrictions on the freedom of expression," she wrote, citing a complaint by workers at Zambian copper mines owned by the state-controlled China Non-ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNMC).

"Many expressed serious concern of being fired if management identified them as having spoken to Human Rights Watch," Richardson wrote.

At last year's review of China's rights record by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Beijing blocked a bid by independent activists to hold a minute's silence for Cao Shunli, an activist who was detained en route to Geneva to contribute to the review, but who was detained and who later died after being refused medical treatment by detention center staff, her lawyer said.

Freedom of expression

Meanwhile, domestic controls over freedom of expression continue to intensify, Richardson said.

She listed imprisoning popular bloggers, maintaining the "Great Firewall" to censor the Internet and expunging from history books references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as examples of the party's continuing throttle-hold on free speech.

"These are some of the familiar methods the Chinese government uses to restrict that right inside the country," she wrote.

According to Cai Yongmei, editor of the cutting-edge Hong Kong magazine Outlook, one has to look no further than Hong Kong to see how Beijing plays a powerful game of influence beyond its political jurisdiction.

"We have always had China-owned magazines [and media] here in Hong Kong," Cai said. "For example, the Mirror monthly magazine ... and the Ta Kung Pao and the Wen Hui Po are all on the side of the Chinese Communist Party."

"This is traditionally how it operates," she said, adding that the prospect of entry to the China market is often too important to risk by publishing content critical of Beijing.

"The Communist Party is rich, and its methods are getting more and more effective."

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

Vietnamese Dissidents Who Backed Anti-China Protests Harassed in Prison

Ta Phong Tan in an undated photo before her 2011 arrest.

Two jailed Vietnamese online activists who backed protests against China over a territorial dispute with Hanoi in the South China Sea are being regularly harassed in prison, their relatives have said after recent visits.

Citizen journalist Ta Phong Tan, a former policewoman who has received international awards for her work, is facing abuse from her fellow inmates, while fellow dissident Ngo Hao is suffering from ill treatment to the point that he is threatening suicide, their relatives said.

Both were jailed after campaigning online in defense of Vietnam’s territorial integrity in the South China Sea and well as human rights and democracy.

They were imprisoned well before the worst anti-China protests in decades broke out in Hanoi and other key Vietnamese cities earlier this month following Beijing’s deployment of a giant oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast.

The protests initially were allowed by the government but it began clamping them down after they turned violent. Vietnam's authoritarian leaders usually keep a very tight grip on public gatherings for fear they could snowball into protests against the Communist leadership.

Tan, who is  serving a 10-year prison sentence for “anti-government propaganda” at a jail in Thanh Hoa province, has in recent weeks faced stepped-up harassment over her advocacy of Vietnam’s claims to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, her sister Ta Minh Tu told RFA after visiting her on Tuesday. 

Other inmates at the prison regularly curse Tan and “mentally terrorize” her, said Tu, who visits Tan every other month. 

“This times [she said] they mentally terrorized her twice as much as before.”

“Now they’re doing more of it because she wore a hat that had the words Hoang Sa and Truong Sa,” the Vietnamese names for the Spratly and Paracel islands, Tan said.

“They cursed at her and took the hat away.”

Prison inmates also curse her mother, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, who burned herself to death two years ago in protest against the charges against Tan, Tu said.

“She talked about how they mentally terrorized her in prison, for example by cursing at her, and throwing stinky shrimp sauce at her.”

Tan, who was given a “Woman of Courage” award from the U.S. State Department last year, ran a blog named “Justice and Truth” and was among the first bloggers to write and comment on political news events long considered off-limits by the Vietnamese authorities until she was detained in 2011.

In 2012 she was convicted of carrying out propaganda against the government of Vietnam alongside renowned dissident blogger Nguyen Van Hai and another fellow ‘Free Journalists’ Club’ member, amid a crackdown on online dissent that Vietnamese authorities have stepped up in recent years.

Cracking under pressure

Hao, who was also jailed over his online activities, has grown much weaker over his more than a year in detention, his wife Nguyen Thi Kim Lan said.

When she visited him on Sunday in Xuan Phuoc prison in southern Vietnam’s Phu Yen province, he told her he may not survive his jail term and threatened suicide, she said.

“I’m very worried because he said they might kill him in prison,” she said. 

“He said he might die in prison before his release.”

“He said sometimes he just wanted to commit suicide.”

She said Hao, a former soldier now in his mid-60s, is less than two years into a 15-year prison sentence on charges of plotting to overthrow the country’s one-party communist government.

Hao was arrested in February last year and convicted in September for writing and circulating “subversive” articles.

“He told me to go ask the lawyer why he was imprisoned when he called on people to save the Paracel and Spratly Islands,” Lan said.

“He said he was under a lot of pressure.”

Vietnamese authorities have clamped down in recent years on anti-China protests sparked by tensions over the islands.

China’s May 1 deployment of an oil rig near the Paracels sparked demonstrations by thousands of Vietnamese, which Hanoi initially allowed in a rare move widely seen as a way to amplify state anger against Beijing.

But the government backpedaled after protests turned bloody, with riots targeting Chinese business interests. Beijing says four Chinese citizens were killed in the unrest, while Hanoi says three Chinese died.

Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Interstate Highway: Kachin State and Sagaing Region

Interstate Highway: Kachin State and Sagaing Region

Twenty-five Years On, Memories of June 4 Loom Large

PLA tanks stand guard in Tiananmen Square on June 9, 1989.

Twenty-five years after the China's army quashed several weeks of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square with machine guns and tanks, those who were involved say they have been living with recurring memories of the violence ever since.

Li Xiaoming, a former lieutenant in the 1164 artillery regiment of the People's Liberation Army's 39th division, said he left China as soon as he was able after being ordered into the heart of the Chinese capital to clear the square of students and their supporters in the June 4, 1989 crackdown.

"On the evening of June 3, our commanding officers heard that some PLA soldiers had been beaten to death by rebels, and we were all worked up and angry about that," Li told Hong Kong media.

"Everyone was issued a bag full of bullets, several hundred rounds maybe," he said, adding that his group arrived after the students had left, and was ordered to secure the area instead, remaining in Beijing until July.

Weeping during the interview with Hong Kong's NOW TV, Li said: "This was the biggest shame of my entire life, and the PLA's biggest shame too."

A Beijing resident who worked at the PLA's 301 military hospital as a young woman told RFA she had lived near Muxidi, the site of a pitched battle between advancing troops and furious local residents armed with petrol bombs, rocks, and other makeshift weapons.

"At Muxidi, there were people lying on the ground after being hit by bullets, and there was blood," she said.

"There were bicycles on the ground too; I saw a lot of them, squashed to the ground, flattened."

Asked if they had been run over by tanks, she replied: "Yes, that's right."

First gunfire

A second Beijing resident surnamed Zhang said he took a camera to Tiananmen Square during the crackdown. "I took my camera and a got a lot of black-and-white photographs," he said.

"That was the first time that we'd heard gunfire in Beijing since the founding of the People's Republic [in 1949]," Zhang said. "The first time they fired live ammunition within Beijing city limits."

But Zhang said his abiding memory is of a bus driver called Ya Sen who drove the early morning 305 route in the western part of the capital.

"On the morning of June 3, Ya Sen was at Ma Dian, in his 305 bus," Zhang said. "He had a bunch of college students aboard the bus at the time, and they told him to park the bus across the avenue, so he pulled over into the middle of the road and blocked the troops from advancing."

"[Local] people then set fire to the bus, and he was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison," Zhang said. "I reckon Ya Sen must be nearly 60 years old now."

And a third Beijing resident surnamed Li said he also had vivid memories of the crackdown.

"I was there, at the scene," he said. "[But] I wasn't hit. I am a soldier born and bred, so they wouldn't hit me."

But he declined to comment further. "I won't talk about this on the phone," Li said. Asked if he was concerned that the call was being monitored, he said: "That's right."

A waking dream

Meanwhile, 49-year-old social worker Chen Qinghua told Swiss television he had never spoken about his experiences during the crackdown until the opening of a June 4th Museum to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed next week.

"Everyone tries to avoid the pain of those memories," Chen said. "I still have nightmares about that year and I wake up screaming in the middle of the night."

He said he had recurring visions of streets devoid of people in the center of Beijing in the two years following the violence.

"It was like a waking dream," Chen said. "There were no people on Chang'an Avenue."

"I attend the June 4 gatherings year after year, but I can't join in with the singing or the chanting of slogans," he said. "I just sit there in silence, and sometimes I weep."

"My wife doesn't understand it at all," he said.

China's leadership has ignored growing calls for a reappraisal of the 1989 student protests, which the party has styled a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."

The number of people killed when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 remains a mystery.

Beijing authorities once put the death toll at "nearly 300," but has never issued an official toll or list of names, and has always maintained that the violence was necessary to end the unrest.

The crackdown sparked a wave of international condemnation, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Cambodia Opposition Doubts Ruling Party Commitment to Ending Impasse

Kem Sokha (C) speaks to the media in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Jan. 14, 2014.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Wednesday questioned the sincerity of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party in efforts to resolve a 10-month political standoff amid an impasse in negotiations to reform the country’s electoral body following disputed polls.

The CNRP’s Deputy President Kem Sokha said that he doesn’t expect an easy resolution to the standoff that has led to elected CNRP lawmakers boycotting parliament.

“I don’t believe that the CPP wants to work with my party to end the political deadlock,” Kem Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“There is nothing new … As I understand, the CPP only wants to test us,” he said from the campaign trail in Kampong Cham province, after the CNRP gained ground on the ruling party in local council elections last week.

During the last round of talks last week, the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) were unable to agree on how to revamp the government-appointed National Election Commission (NEC) which declared the CPP as winner of the July 2013 polls despite widespread fraud claims.

Working groups decided to draft their own statements on reforming the electoral process, saying they would meet again early this week, but negotiators announced Wednesday that they had failed to reschedule talks, without providing details.

“They invited experts [to come to Cambodia] to see if we would change our stance, but we didn’t and now they have withdrawn. We have yet to see what other tricks they will employ next,” Kom Sokha said.

Following a request from the government, a Japanese study team traveled to Cambodia on May 19 for a five-day visit to assist on electoral reform, but the CNRP refused to budge on its demands to revamp the NEC, which the opposition and rights groups have accused of lacking independence from the CPP.

The CNRP had proposed that the mandate of the NEC be enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution, but the CPP would not agree, resulting in a stalemate.

Blame for impasse

Meanwhile, working groups from the two parties laid blame for the stalled talks at one another’s feet.

CNRP working group member Kuy Bunroeun told RFA Wednesday that the opposition party had drafted a statement on key decisions that had been jointly made and which was delivered to the CPP, per the agreement set at the end of talks last week, though he did not disclose what terms were included.

“We are waiting for answers from the CPP,” he said. “We have sent our statement to the CPP but have seen no result yet.”

CPP working group member Cheam Yeap said he hopes that the two parties would meet again “soon,” adding that there is no better way to end the impasse than to hold talks.

“The winning parties must talk,” he said.

“No solutions will come from demonstrations,” he added, referring to repeated calls from opposition supporters for Hun Sen to step down and for the government to hold new general elections.

Hang Puthea, director of the election watchdog Neutral & Impartial Committee for Free & Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), expressed frustration over the long-standing dispute, saying that the two parties “are playing games” and, despite calls for talks, have done little to find a resolution.

“The two parties value their own interests much more than the country, and that is why there is a deadlock,” he said.

Talk breakdown

Last week’s talks ended with the two sides deciding to draft statements on 14 points they had agreed to in principle in March, including guidelines on how to reform voter registrations and voting lists, laws on providing financial support to political parties, and party access to independent media.

Other points included rules on election dispute resolution, election monitoring, and how to ensure neutrality of the armed forces during the vote.

The two sides also agreed that a new election should be held in the aftermath of the disputed July 28 ballot but without any decision on the timing of the fresh polls.

In April, CNRP president Sam Rainsy refused an offer from Hun Sen to sign a deal ending the deadlock on terms which the two had hashed out during talks via telephone.

When refusing Hun Sen’s offer in April, Sam Rainsy had said that the two were not in full agreement.

The two leaders had agreed to revamp the NEC, but they were far apart on a date for new elections, with the prime minister offering to hold polls in February 2018 following earlier demands from the CNRP for a mid-term election in early 2016.

Shortly after their talk by phone, Sam Rainsy left Cambodia to travel to Europe and his deputy Kem Sokha went to Australia, returning to campaign ahead of the council elections.

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

Drinking Water Shortage in West Bank of Rangoon

Drinking Water Shortage in West Bank of Rangoon

Burmese media groups call for Thai junta to release journalists

In this file picture from January, anti-government protestors in Bangkok prepare for a rally. (PHOTO: AP)
Burma’s two major media organisations have expressed concerns over media restrictions and the detention of Thai journalists by the [Thai] junta.

They sent their statements via the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a non-profit organisation campaigning for press freedom in Southeast Asia.

They demanded the junta quickly restore press freedom to their fellow Thai journalists.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has “requested cooperation” from all types of local media outlets to refrain from reporting content that might be provocative, incite public disorder or opposition to the efforts following the military coup d’état last Thursday.

It urged the media to consider the interests of the country and people as a priority.

Thanapol Eiwsakul, editor of the magazine Fah Diew Gan (Same Sky) was arrested following an anti-coup protest on Friday.

On Sunday, a senior reporter from The Nation, Pravit Rojanaphruk, was taken into custody after the junta summoned him. Both are being held in custody.

Some reporters have also been called in by the military, including Bangkok Post security reporter Wassana Nanuam.

The Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) on Tuesday said it was “saddened” and “seriously concerned” over the fact that some Thai journalists had been detained by the Thai army. “We condemn the actions by the military,” it said.

It said Burmese journalists had a long experience of suffering under a military regime and understood the plight of their Thai counterparts.

The organisation urged the Burmese government, in its capacity as the current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to help secure the release of the detained Thai journalists.

“MJN will stand together with the Thai journalists for press freedom in Thailand,” it said.

“Those who have been detained must be released unconditionally.”

The Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA) also spoke out on the same day, saying Burmese journalists had great sympathy with their Thai colleagues because they experienced “similar restrictions and persecutions under former governments”.

The MJA has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Thai Journalists Association.

“We would like to appeal earnestly to the Thai military junta to restore the freedom of the press after lifting the restrictions on Thai journalists and ceasing arbitrary arrests if they really desire to bring about genuine national reconciliation and safeguard democracy,” it said.


Peace without constitutional reform is like ‘hopping on one leg’, says Min Ko Naing

88 Generation leader Min Ko Naing (left) signs a petition on 28 May 2014 in Hpa-an calling for a constitutional amendment to Article 436. Next to him is NLD central committee member Nan Khin Htwe Myint, and standing behind (white hair, black jacket) is NLD lawyer Aung Thein. (PHOTO: 88GPOS)

Representatives of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), together with leading members of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS), on Wednesday took their constitutional reform campaign to Karen State capital Hpa-an where they addressed a crowd of several hundred.

88GPOS leader Min Ko Naing and prominent NLD lawyer Aung Thein spoke at a public meeting in Hpa-an’s Kanthar-Oo Hall where they urged the mostly ethnic Karen audience to sign a petition calling for the amendment of constitutional Article 436, the clause that effectively blocks any attempt to change the 2008-drafted charter without support from military representatives in parliament.

Nan Khin Htwe Myint, an NLD central committee member who was at the event, told DVB that Min Ko Naing stressed that efforts to amend the Constitution should be implemented concurrently with agreements towards a peace process in Burma.

“Min Ko Naing said that amending the Constitution’s Article 436 without a peace agreement or vice versa was akin to hopping on one leg,” she said. “Only when we achieve both goals will we be able to walk properly.”

Nan Khin Htwe Myint said the organisers initially planned to include speeches by Karen community leaders, but those invited could not make it due to a shortage of time. However, she said, they should be able to participate at other Karen locations on the tour, such as Hlaing Bwe, Hpa-pon and Thandaung.

The petition campaign to amend Article 436 was launched nationwide by the NLD and 88GPOS earlier this week but has already been signed by a number of well-known leaders and celebrities, including Hkun Htun Oo from the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and the Rakhine National Party’s Aye Thar Aung, as well as well-known singers, actors and actresses.

NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi has also urged government workers and servicemen within the Burmese army to sign the petition and support constitutional reform.


Lawyers take to streets to save historic courthouse

Burma's former Supreme Court building in downtown Rangoon. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Dozens of lawyers marched through downtown Rangoon on Wednesday to protest the privatisation of two colonial-era buildings.

The demonstrators, members of the Myanmar Lawyers Network (MLN), oppose developments slated for the former Supreme Courthouse and Police Commissioner’s Office, both built more than 100 years ago.

Both structures are named on the city’s heritage list, designated by the municipal government.

The march began at the courthouse on Maha Bandoola Garden Street, and continued to the site of the old commissioner’s office on Strand Road. About 60 people took part, holding placards and shouting slogans.

Participants said that the buildings were being leased by the Myanmar Investment Commission to private companies, who plan to develop them into luxury hotels.

The demonstrators also called for a more open dialogue with city leaders about preserving the former capital’s historic architecture and cultural relics.

“We, lawyers, are protesting here today to protect our dignified courthouses from being turned into unseemly hotels,” said high court lawyer Zaw Min Hlaing, who was present at Wednesday’s march.

The MLN held a similar demonstration in October 2012.

Ko Ni, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that because the MIC has repeatedly ignored the lawyers’ objections, the MLN are preparing to take legal action against the commission for breaching the Protection and Preservation of Cultural Heritage Regions Law.

“We are running out of options,” he said, “so the MLN has considered suing the MIC for a breach of law. We informed them of the plan, but they responded only by saying that they have the authority to manage these buildings.

“This left us with no choice but to go ahead and sue them. But we thought we’d give it one last try with a protest, which is why we are here today.”

Another Supreme Court lawyer, Kyi Myint, said the lawsuit will proceed if the MIC does not make an appropriate response within 30 days.

“We hope that [the MIC] will choose to negotiate,” said Kyi Myint, “but we have to make our point on legal grounds.”


Obama champions US role in Burma reform

US President Barack Obama speaks at West Point military academy on Wednesday. (PHOTO:The White House)

In a robust speech to graduates of West Point military academy in New York on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama pointed to “American leadership” as a driver of democratic reform in Burma.

In his annual Commencement Speech, the US president ran through a recent history of US military accomplishments, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, he singled out Burma as a country which has progressed towards democracy, and boasted that such reform owes gratitude to the effectiveness of US diplomacy.

“Thanks to the enormous courage of the people in that country [Burma], and because we took the diplomatic initiative … we have seen political reforms opening a once- closed society,” Obama said.

“Progress there could be reversed,” the US commander-in-chief warned, “but if Burma succeeds [in establishing democracy] we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot — American leadership.”

Dr Thaung Tun is former UN representative for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an organisation that existed for 22 years as a US-based alternative Burmese government. He believes the US is not entitled to take too much credit for Burma’s economic turnaround.

“The reform process in Burma can be credited to domestic actors in their negotiations with the regime,” Thaung Tun told DVB on Thursday.

“However the ‘carrot and stick’ approach employed by the US government in its relationship with Burma has been successful,” Thaung Tun conceded.

In a speech that characterised the US military as the “strongest advocate for diplomacy and development” in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama hailed the different track taken by the US in Burma. The US president insisted that “We’re now supporting reform and badly needed national reconciliation through assistance and investment, through coaxing and, at times, public criticism.”

The American “stick” was revisited earlier this month. Citing ongoing human rights violations in ethnic minority areas, the US extended the “National Emergency” situation in Burma for another year. The status imposes a block on US businesses or individuals investing with Burmese nationals associated with the repression of the democracy movement.

However since the majority of US sanctions against Burma were dropped mid-2012, the government has been generous when it comes to “carrots”.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are so far responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in Burma since 2012, when reforms ushered in a slew international investors. The two major international financial institutions have been at the forefront of US financial engagement with the former pariah state, having supported a diverse range of development projects, agricultural grants to luxury hotels and education projects.

Obama highlighted the work of the World Bank and the IMF in his West Point speech as “force multipliers” for the United States in the international arena, in the absence of exercised military might. However, those institutions are “not perfect” Obama conceded.

Washington-based rights group US Campaign for Burma (USCB) shares that view. The rights group’s policy director, Rachel Wagley, noted in an article for DVB earlier this month that:

“The Bank’s financial commitment to Burma has so far outpaced its commitment to caution and poverty alleviation,” and that “Bank staff on the ground have displayed negligible interest in Burma’s political, legal and economic situation.”

Noting that the US remains at the forefront of the thaw in relations between Burma and the international community, Mya Aye of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society civil network warned that the reform process is far from over. “The undemocratic 2008 Constitution indicates that the military is still in control in Burma,” Mya Aye said. “Reforms are a long way from absolute.”

Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK seconds this assertion. “America has led the world in endorsing a sham process, a transition from direct military rule to authoritarian regime rather than democracy.”

As human rights violations continue to be alleged in Burma, Farmaner believes that the US is, in fact, impeding that road to democracy.

“If anything, President Obama has undermined reform in Burma by lifting pressure too quickly and so reducing a key incentive for reform,” Farmaner said on Thursday.

“The US might not have fired a shot, but the Burmese army certainly has.”


China Announces New Clampdown on Messaging Apps

A device displays the logo of instant messaging platform WeChat, March 12, 2014.

China has launched a month-long crackdown on hugely popular instant messaging apps in a bid to purge them of "illegal and harmful information" and to fend off "hostile forces," official media reported on Wednesday.

Many Chinese netizens rely on the WeChat app, and others like it, as an unofficial news channel for information that would usually be censored by the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known colloquially as the Great Firewall (GFW).

"We will firmly fight against infiltration from hostile forces at home and abroad," state-run news agency Xinhua quoted Beijing's State Internet Information Office (SIIO) as saying.

Anyone "spreading rumors" or information linked to violence, terrorism, or pornography or using the WeChat or similar apps for fraudulent purposes would be targeted in the month-long crackdown, Xinhua said.

"Some people have used [these services] to distribute illegal and harmful information, seriously undermining public interests and order in cyberspace," it quoted the SIIO as saying.

WeChat, owned by Chinese Internet giant Tencent, currently has more than 800 million users. The service allows users to send text, photos, videos and voice messages over mobile devices.

It has more than twice as many monthly active users, 396 million, as the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, but most users send their messages privately rather than sharing them publicly.

The government's campaign will target big-name public accounts on instant messaging services who are capable of spreading information on a large scale and mobilizing followers, the SIIO said in a statement.

Besides private accounts used for communication among friends, family and acquaintances, many organizations, companies, and high-profile individuals use the WeChat service.

Service providers will be held responsible "if they do not fulfill their duty," the SIIO statement said.

'Far beyond' anti-terrorism measures

Sichuan-based rights activist and network expert Pu Fei said authorities were using "anti-terrorism" rationale for the clampdown as an excuse for a politically motivated purge of government critics.

"To carry out surveillance of WeChat and other messaging platforms amounts to an invasion of individual privacy," Pu said.

"This goes far beyond anti-terrorism measures."

The government is calling on members of the public to report any users who violate the guidelines, Xinhua said.

And "instant messaging companies should ... introduce practices to identify and clear rumors on their applications," the SIIO statement said.

It said a total of seven service providers, including WeChat, Momo, Mi Talk, and Yixin, have agreed to cooperate with the authorities and launch internal inspections of users and content.

'Pre-emptive strike'

The campaign, overseen jointly by the SIIO, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Public Security, comes after service providers and officials held a meeting to discuss the issue, the agency said.

Independent writer Ye Du said Tencent and other service providers had likely succumbed to intense political pressure during that meeting.

"It's pretty clear that the government saw that citizens ... were using WeChat and [other services] to share information, as well as in the area of citizen protests," Ye said.

"The Chinese government's method has always been to ensure that it retains control of all communications channels," he said. "This time, the Chinese government has launched a pre-emptive strike in a bid to clean up this information that is being shared on WeChat."

"This is just the beginning of China's controls over instant mobile messaging apps," Ye said. "We are likely to see many more such campaigns in future."

Unprecedented move

Wu Fei, professor in the school of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University in the southern city of Guangzhou, agreed.

"The last time it was the government propaganda department that did a clean-up operation, but ... there has clearly been a huge shift behind the scenes," Wu said.

"Back in March, all the propaganda department did was to ... shut down some account holders who didn't make the grade, but then they were allowed to reopen their accounts after a short time."

"This campaign will be the first, and in future there will be wave after wave of them," Wu said.

In January, a report from the government-backed China Internet Network Information Center showed a nine percent drop in the use of Twitter-like microblogging services in 2013 following an extended crackdown on social media, particularly big-name tweeters.

Of the respondents who reported having reduced their use of microblogging services, 37 percent said they had switched to WeChat instead, the report said.

China cracked down on a number of high-profile journalists and tweeters last year, including Chinese-American billionaire blogger Charles Xue, who regularly posted reform-minded comments on a variety of sensitive issues to 12 million followers.

On Sept. 1, 2013, China's highest judicial authorities issued a directive on Sept. 1 criminalizing online "rumor-mongering," in a move widely seen as targeting critical comments and negative news on the country's hugely popular social media sites.

Last year saw increasing levels of official control over freedom of expression, including criticisms of the government that were merely implied, the Hubei-based rights group Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch said in a recent report.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Tibetan Monk Who Fled to India Was 'Tortured' in Detention

Golog Jigme Gyatso (second from left) speaks to reporters for the first time since his escape at a press conference in Dharamsala on May 28, 2014.

A Tibetan monk who miraculously escaped detention in China’s Gansu province and fled to neighboring India after trekking across mountains and forests said Wednesday that his spirit is unbroken though he was brutally tortured during his imprisonment.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday for the first time since his May 18 arrival in Dharamsala, India, Golog Jigme Gyatso, 44, said he was taken into custody three times since 2008 because of his activities protesting Chinese rule.

He later managed to flee from a detention center near the border between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Gansu province.

“While in detention, I was hung from the ceiling and tortured,” said Gyatso, who was recently hailed a “hero” by a global media group for helping to make a documentary film on the lives of Tibetans under harsh Chinese rule.

“I was severely tortured, especially during my seven months of detention in 2008, which really hurt my health,” he told RFA’s Tibetan Service separately. “The most painful part was when they hung me from the ceiling. They hung me up overnight, and I was beaten and tortured.”   

The abuse he suffered in jail caused internal injuries, said Gyatso, whose detention stemmed from his role in helping to produce the film “Leaving Fear Behind.”

Addressing the press conference organized by Filming for Tibet, which produced the controversial film, and by the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, Gyatso said he had also suffered “broken ribs and damaged knees.”

Gyatso told RFA that he “managed to escape from the police detention center” where he was guarded by 16 policemen. He did not give details of how he slipped away from the detention facility.

“Even today, I continue to have severe pain on the backbone and ribs, and my knee dislocates whenever my body gets cold,” Gyatso said, according to a report by the Dharamsala-based Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), Tibet’s government in exile.

'Politically sensitive'

Gyatso, who was briefly detained for a second time in 2009 and later in 2012, was formerly a monk in Labrang monastery in Gansu province.

The 25-minute film he helped produce features interviews with Tibetans living in Tibet’s northeastern Amdo region and covers topics, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Tibetans’ reverence for exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, considered politically sensitive by Chinese authorities.

Speaking in Dharamsala, Gyatso said that he escaped from his last detention, freeing himself from his shackles and walking through an open door, after learning of a plot by authorities to kill him in jail.

“For one year and eight months, I traveled in hiding across mountains, rivers, and forests in Tibet,” Gyatso said, adding that he heard following his escape that authorities had offered a 200,000 yuan [U.S. $32,082] reward for his capture after falsely accusing him of murder.

“I thought of self-immolating in protest against this baseless accusation, but then realized it would be more important to survive in order to serve the Tibetan cause,” he said. “So I changed my mind.”

Tibetan opposition to Beijing’s rule is now largely driven by Chinese criticisms of the Dalai Lama and by China’s refusal to allow him to return, Gyatso said.

“China also seeks to destroy the Tibetan language, tries to undermine Tibetans’ aspirations, and opposes and misrepresents Tibetan support of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach,” he said.

In what the Dalai Lama has called a Middle Way Approach to the problems of Tibet, the exiled spiritual leader and the CTA have accepted the region’s present status as a part of China, while urging greater cultural, religious, and political freedoms for the Tibetan people.

“These are the main reasons for fighting against China,” Gyatso said, adding that a majority of Tibetans in Tibet now protest “for the same reasons.”

Sporadic demonstrations challenging Beijing’s rule have continued in Tibetan-populated areas of China since widespread protests swept the region in 2008, with 131 Tibetans setting themselves ablaze in self-immolation protests calling for Tibetan freedom since February 2009.

Reported by Ugyen Tenzin for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Myanmar Lawyers Protest to Stop Historic Buildings’ Redevelopment

A man rides a trishaw past the former High Court building in Yangon on February 18, 2013.

A group of 70 Myanmar lawyers protested Wednesday in a bid to stop the redevelopment of two British colonial-era buildings in the former capital Yangon, saying they will file a lawsuit within a month to prevent the structures from being converted into a hotel and other businesses.

The protesters from the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network said they opposed the privatization of the former High Court and Police Commissioner’s Office buildings in downtown Yangon, and wanted to see them remain in service of the country’s justice system. 

The private development of the two buildings, which were once listed as national heritage sites and auctioned off to developers by Myanmar’s Investment Commission two years ago, violates the country’s historic preservation laws, they said.

Lawyers’ Network member Soe Tint Yee said the lawyers were preparing a file a lawsuit soon in a bid to stop the redevelopment from going forward.

“We are going to file a lawsuit against the Myanmar Investment Commission and the companies within a month,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the lawyers gathered in downtown Yangon.

Interior renovation has already begun on the former police headquarters, according to the lawyers, after both buildings were leased to private developers in 2012.

Myanmar-owned company Flying Tiger Engineering is working with Singapore-based Diamond Asia Capital Co to turn the sprawling two-story structure into a luxury hotel.

Part of the former High Court building, a century-old red brick edifice that housed the country’s top court until the capital was moved in 2005, has been converted into condominiums. The rest of it is slated to be turned into a museum and restaurant, according to reports.

The Lawyers’ Network has been in a long-running bid against the privatization of both buildings, which were put on a national heritage list in 1998.

A symbol of the rule of law

Lawyer Thein Than Oo said the group wanted to see them continue to be used for purposes related to the judiciary.

“Yangon’s 101-year-old High Court building has been designated as a heritage site. It is also a symbol of the rule of law.”

“Judicial buildings should be splendid, but the authorities are trying to move the courts to a small street corner and replace the historic court with a [new development]. That’s why we’re protesting to stop the project.”

The businesses have pledged to preserve the architecture of the buildings, according to reports in local media.

But Thein Than Oo said concerns remained about how well the buildings’ historical features would be preserved, citing examples of privately-led conservation and renovation projects on other architectural gems in the country that had gone awry.

The Lawyers’ Network has filed several petitions to President Thein Sein and top ministers opposing the projects, citing a 1988 preservation law that carries a five-year prison term for anyone who makes structural changes to landmark buildings and calling for charges to be filed against those responsible for the buildings’ auction.

In recent years the two buildings were used for Yangon district and regional legal offices until they were handed over to the Investment Commission in April 2012.

Authorities have said the buildings, were expensive to maintain and renovate.

Reported by Ba Aung and Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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