Feb 22nd, 2010
Sat Feb 20, 6:35 am ET
YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – A Buddhist monk in Myanmar was quietly sentenced to seven years in prison during the visit of a United Nations envoy, who had little positive to say about the junta’s progress on human rights, a lawyer said Saturday.
The sentencing of the monk on Wednesday also came after four activists were ordered to serve prison terms with hard labor on Monday, the day that U.N. envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana arrived in the country to assess the human rights situation.
During his five-day trip, the ruling military further refused him permission to see detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as on his two previous visits.
Opposition figures say the latest jailings illustrate the continuation of human rights violations, the lack of an independent judiciary and the junta’s disregard for the demands of the United Nations.
A court sentenced monk Gaw Thita to seven years’ imprisonment, saying he was guilty of violating immigration laws by taking a trip to Taiwan last year, said Aung Thein, a lawyer known for defending political activists. Gaw Thita was also convicted of unlawful association and failing to declare possession of foreign currency.
The monk had a valid passport for traveling to Taiwan and committed no known immigration violation, the lawyer said. He was jailed in August upon his return from Taiwan with a group of other monks. It is common for monks to take overseas trips for religious reasons.
It was not immediately clear why the monk faced such a harsh penalty, and whether authorities suspected he was involved in political activism. Members of the Buddhist clergy were in the vanguard of mass pro-democracy protests in 2007.
“Myanmar doesn’t have an independent judicial system. The courts are passing judgments based on the charges put up by the prosecution rather than on legal facts,” said Aung Thein.
Quintana gave a glum assessment as his visit ended Friday. As well as being barred access to Suu Kyi, he said senior junta officials he met gave no indication of when a general election planned for this year would take place, or when an election law guiding it would be passed. It will be Myanmar’s first election in two decades.
Quintana said the junta is holding almost 2,200 political prisoners and reiterated U.N. demands that all be released and allowed to take part in the election.
“I have not received any indication that the government is willing to release all prisoners of conscience,” he told reporters before leaving. “The government of Myanmar does not accept there are any prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”
Quintana said he met 15 political prisoners during visits to three prisons, including activists, journalists, community leaders from the Shan ethnic minority and Muslim minority and political party members.
Posted : Sun, 21 Feb 2010 13:22:10 GMT
Yangon – Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand have been given until the end of the month to register with authorities or face possible deportation, the English-language Myanmar Times reported Sunday. Myanmar and Thai officials agreed on the Thai National Verification process at a meeting in Bagan, Myanmar last week, the Yangon-based weekly newspaper said.
Under the programme, Myanmar workers must return to Myanmar to get temporary passports and Thai work permits. They must express their intention to register by February 28, Thai government officials said.
Once registered, they would be granted the same legal status as Thai workers under Thai law, the Myanmar Times reported. With the temporary passport migrants would then be eligible for a Thai visa, work permit and health insurance.
According to the newspaper, the director of Thailand’s Employment Department, Jirisak Sukhonchaat, said the workers who fail to express their intention to register prior to the deadline would face deportation.
He said that more than 200,000 of the estimated 1 million Myanmar migrants working in Thailand had already expressed their intention to register. Nearly 27,000 had completed the process, according to the Myanmar Times.
Myanmar’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, U Maung Myint, told The Myanmar Times that the government planned to complete issuing temporary passports for about 1.2 million illegal Myanmar workers in Thailand by February 2012.
Last week the United Nations raised concerns over the possibility of mass deportations of migrants in Thailand back to Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which are also included in the process.
“A potentially large number of documented and undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic face the threat of deportation from Thailand after February 28, 2010,” Jorge Bustamante, the UN human rights expert for migrants, said in Geneva.
In January, the Thai cabinet passed a resolution allowing for a two-year extension of work permits for some 1.3 million migrants provided that they were willing to submit biographical information to their home governments prior to February 28, 2010.
Human rights groups have noted that the lack of national identity documentation in countries such as Myanmar will mean many migrants working in Thailand will fail to meet the deadline.
They have also raised concerns that migrants who are fleeing their homelands for political reasons would be unwilling to seek verification documentation from their governments.
Andy Hall, the director of Thailand-based Human Rights and Development Foundation’s Migrant Justice Program, told The Myanmar Times that migrant workers would continue to work in Thailand illegally after the deadline passed.
He said the Thai economy needs them and they will just come back, but they will be driven underground and subjected to even worse exploitation.
Workers rights groups have called for the deadline to be extended to avoid further exploitation of Myanmar workers in Thailand.
But Thailand’s Labour Minister Paitoon Kaewthong told the Myanmar Times the registration process was an attempt to reduce, rather than exacerbate, exploitation of migrant workers.
By SETH MYDANS
Published: February 20, 2010
BANGKOK — Stateless refugees from Myanmar are suffering beatings and deportation in Bangladesh, according to aid workers and rights groups who say thousands are crowding into a squalid camp where they face starvation and disease.
Bangladeshis fish in a river between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar has forced ethnic Rohingyas to build the border fence in the background.
In a campaign that seems to have accelerated since October, the groups say, ethnic Rohingya refugees who have been living for years in Bangladesh are being seized, beaten and forced back to Myanmar, which they had left to escape persecution and abuse and which does not want them.
“Over the last few months we have treated victims of violence, people who claim to have been beaten by the police, claim to have been beaten by members of the host population, by people they’ve been living next to for many years,” said Paul Critchley, who runs the Bangladesh program for the aid group Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders.
“We have treated patients for beatings, for machete wounds and for rape,” he said, quoting a report issued Thursday that describes the situation as a humanitarian crisis. Some had escaped after being forced into a river that forms the border with Myanmar, formerly Burma. “This is continuing today.”
Since October, he said, the unofficial Kutupalong makeshift camp with its dirt paths, flimsy shacks and open sewers has grown by 6,000 people to nearly 30,000, with 2,000 arrivals in January alone.
They are among about 250,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, a Muslim minority from neighboring Myanmar, where they do not have citizenship and are subject to abuse and forced labor, and where they cannot travel, marry or practice their religion freely.
Despite the hardships, people are continuing to flee repression and fear in Myanmar, and when they are deported, many return, several people said.
About 28,000 of them have been recognized by Bangladesh and documented as refugees. They receive food and other assistance in a camp administered by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and have not been subject to the abuses and forced returns described by other Rohingya, said Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the agency in Bangkok.
The government has not allowed the agency to register new arrivals since 1993.
Most Rohingya in Bangladesh have no documentation and struggle to survive, evading the authorities and working mostly as day laborers, servants or pedicab drivers. They have no rights to education or other government services.
“They cannot receive general food distribution,” Mr. Critchley said. “It is illegal for them to work. All they can legally do in Bangladesh is starve to death.”
The current crackdown is the worst they have ever suffered, according to aid workers and the refugees themselves.
“Over the last month and in Cox’s Bazaar District alone, hundreds of unregistered Rohingyas have been arrested, either pushed back across the border to Burma or sent to jail under immigration charges,” said Chris Lewa, who closely follows the fate of the Rohingya as director of the Arakan Project, which also issued a report last week.
“In several areas of the district, thousands were evicted with threats of violence,” she said. “Robberies, assaults and rape against Rohingyas have significantly increased.”
A risky route to a better life, by sea to Thailand and then to Malaysia for work, was cut off after the Thai Navy pushed about 1,000 Rohingya boat people out to sea last year to drift and possibly to drown.
More than a year later, more than 300 are known to be missing and more than 30 are confirmed to have died, Ms. Lewa said. No boats are reported to have landed in Thailand in the recent post-monsoon sailing season.
“The brutal push-backs and the continuous detention of the survivors seems to have stopped the Rohingya from doing it again,” Ms. Lewa said. “That horrible action has had the effect of basically stopping people from leaving.”
In Bangladesh, the situation in the unofficial camp is becoming desperate, aid workers and refugees said.
“We cannot move around to find work,” said Hasan, 40, a day laborer who lives with his wife and three children in a dirt-floored hovel made of sticks, scrap wood and plastic sheeting. He said he had no way to feed his family.
“There is a checkpoint nearby where they’re catching people and arresting them,” he told a photographer who visited recently. Like other refugees here, he asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals.
“We aren’t receiving any help,” he said. “No one can borrow money from each other. Everybody’s in crisis now.” People do what they can to survive.
“When I visit the camp,” Mr. Critchley said, “I see small girls going out in the forest to collect firewood, and we have treated young girls and women who have been raped doing this.”
In its report, Médecins Sans Frontières said that a year ago 90 percent of the people in the makeshift camp were already running out of food.
“Malnutrition and mortality rates were past emergency thresholds, and people had little access to safe drinking water, sanitation or medical care,” the report said.
The overcrowded camp has become an incubator for disease, Mr. Critchley said, and with the monsoon season peaking in late March and early April, medical workers fear a lethal spread of acute diarrhea.
“International standards would assume that a latrine is shared by 20 people,” Mr. Critchley said. “With the number of latrines in the camp, over 70 people share each latrine. I’ve seen small children using piles of human feces as toys.”
The Rohingya know that they live at the very bottom of human society, that they are not wanted anywhere and that they are outsiders without legal standing or protection.
Abdul, 69, who has lived in Bangladesh for more than 15 years, said that those thoughts disturbed his dreams.
“When I sleep I think that if someone kills an animal in the forest they are breaking the law,” he said. “They are caught and punished. But as human beings it isn’t the same for us. So where are our rights? I think to myself that we are lower than an animal.”
Erie Times-News – Refugee family from Myanmar gets stranded in Erie
By MIKE MACIAG
mike.maciag@ timesnews. com
A refugee family traveling from Myanmar to Erie on Thursday got an early introduction to some of the headaches Americans experience when flying.
Erie International Airport employees were surprised when the family of seven arrived on a bus with nowhere to go at about 2 a.m.
Tom Rivers, a night custodian at the airport, knew there was a problem when he looked at their identification tags.
“I saw where they were from, and I thought, holy smokes,” he said.
Airport staff assisted the family, who had no money and did not speak English.
Traveling from Myanmar, the family took several connecting flights. They finally arrived at the airport on a bus from Cleveland after their flight from Cleveland to Erie had been canceled.
But they would have to wait several more hours to move into their new Erie apartment.
Representatives of the International Institute of Erie, who were to meet the family, were never notified that the Continental Airlines flight had been canceled.
With nowhere to go, the family wandered around the airport barefoot, as is the custom inside homes in Myanmar.
“They were dead tired when they got off the bus,” Rivers said.
A police officer and airport staff bought the exhausted family a gallon of milk and energy bars. The family members bundled up with blankets and slept on the floor before they were picked up later in the morning.
Names of the family members were not released by the institute.
The International Organization for Migration, which is not affiliated with the Erie institute, coordinates travel for refugees immigrating to the United States.
Airline officials usually contact the organization, which in turn calls the institute or other host groups when a flight delay or cancellation occurs, said International Institute Director John Flanagan.
As it turned out, the institute didn’t know the family was here until the Erie airport, not the international organization, called at about 6:30 a.m.
“It was a broken line of communication, ” Flanagan said. “We usually do a pretty good job.”
The institute provides resettlement services for 300 to 400 refugee families relocating to Erie County each year. The group assists refugees from all over the world, with Myanmar, Nepal and Iraq being the most common countries of origin.
The Myanmar family’s home country, previously called Burma, is one of the poorest countries in Asia. A military government, often accused of egregious human-rights abuses, has controlled the nation since 1962.
With little knowledge of their new home, the family members will now rely on the institute to help them assimilate to life in America.
Before the institute came with a van to pick up the family, Continental Airlines paid the airport restaurant to prepare sausage biscuits for the newcomers.
A few of the children took the biscuits apart to see what was inside. They didn’t seem to have the appetite for them, though.
“It’s definitely not what they normally eat for breakfast,” Rivers said.
STAFF WRITER 13:57 HRS IST
Syed Zishan Haider Moreh (Manipur), Feb 21 (PTI) Chinese weapons in large numbers are finding their way to the north-eastern states through five major routes most of which pass through Myanmar territory, a senior intelligence official said here.
“Around 80 per cent of the weapons seized or recovered from the militants in recent years have ’star’ mark on them, which means they were manufactured in China,” he said.
Over four dozen militant groups are active along India-Myanmar border and they smuggle the traditional weapons like AK series rifles, grenades, pistols, cartridges and bombs into India through four land routes and one sea route.
Most of the weapons are brought from the southwestern China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, the official said.
The weapons are smuggled into India via Ukhrul, Moreh in Chandel and Churachandpur, the districts bordering Myanmar, and some parts of Mizoram.
The Straits Times – UN gained nothing from visit
BANGKOK- A VISIT by a UN rights envoy to Myanmar has yielded little progress ahead of elections, experts say, in the latest setback for the world body’s efforts in the military-ruled nation.
Making his third trip to Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana had his request to meet opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi turned down and said he was given no information about the polls promised for some time this year.
Myanmar authorities also continued to lock up dissidents during his stay, gave no sign that it would free Suu Kyi, and even denied there were any ‘prisoners of conscience’ in the country.
‘It clearly hasn’t gone well,’ said Benjamin Zawacki, Myanmar expert for the London-based rights group Amnesty International. ‘Despite the fact that the government has claimed that cooperation with the UN is a cornerstone of its foreign policy, it’s quite clear it’s not.’
The UN’s efforts to foster democratic reform in Myanmar have met with little apparent success, with secretary general Ban Ki-moon also being refused access to Suu Kyi, the world’s only Nobel Peace laureate still in detention.
Mr Quintana, who was appointed in 2008, left Myanmar after a five-day visit on Friday with a parting shot for the regime, saying that he ‘deeply regretted’ its denial of a meeting with Suu Kyi. ‘I am disappointed that even this time I was unable to meet her at this crucial time in this election year, the first national election in 20 years,’ Mr Quintana said.
Indiantelevision. com Team
(20 February 2010 8:50 pm)
NEW DELHI: World’s Untold Stories: A Forgotten People documentary by CNN International on the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar has won a 2009 George Polk Award in the ‘International Television Reporting’ category.
The documentary, which has already won Amnesty International UK Media Award, tracked the story of abuse and neglect across Southeast Asia of these people.
The CNN documentary was fronted by CNN’s Bangkok-based correspondent Dan Rivers and produced by Kit Swartz, Kocha Olarn and Theerasak Nitipiched. The award will be presented to Rivers on 8 April at a luncheon in New York City.
“To receive another prestigious award for this documentary is a tremendous reflection of the quality and depth of CNN’s reporting and the tenacity and resourcefulness of Dan Rivers,” said CNN International EVP and MD Tony Maddox.
Rivers travelled to parts of Indonesia and remote islands off the west coast of Thailand, where he uncovered shocking photos showing the Rohingya boat refugees being taken out to sea and abandoned by Thai military. Following a government inquiry, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted these practices to Rivers in an exclusive interview and said he would bring those responsible to account.
“This story underscores all the reasons why I became a journalist,” said Rivers. “It’s about getting the facts and using those facts to engage an audience and make a difference.”
Deal struck with Burma on workers in Thailand
Published: 20/02/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Thailand and Burma have agreed to speed up the nationality verification of Burmese workers despite the UN’s warning that the process could lead to human rights violations.
The two governments had jointly set up three registration stations along the border, said Labour Minister Paitoon Kaewthong, who met his Burmese counterpart Aung Kyi last week to discuss verifying the nationality of Burmese workers working in Thailand.
Each station, which could verify the nationality of 300 Burmese applicants a day, would be asked to process 1,000 applications a day, Mr Paitoon said.
Burma also agreed to look at a Thai proposal for Burmese officials to verify the nationality of Burmese workers on the Thai side of the border in Ranong during the monsoon season. Workers who travelled by boat to Burma’s Kawthaung islet to apply for nationality verification could put their safety at risk.
Mr Paitoon was confident nationality verification of all alien workers would be completed before the deadline.
In January, the cabinet passed a resolution allowing for a two-year extension of work permits for over one million migrants provided they were willing to submit biographical information to their home governments.
The workers are required to register to enter the nationality verification process before Feb 28.
On a call by non-governmental organisations for Thailand to extend the verification deadline, Mr Paitoon said he could not make the decision alone. It was government policy to have all alien workers apply for national verification so they would become legal workers and be protected by the law.
Human rights activist Somchai Homlaor said the verification period must be extended as many illegal immigrants were not aware that they had to apply for nationality verification. Of about 1.1 million Burmese immigrants working in Thailand, about 200,000 had applied for verification, or only 20% of them.
Some people attempted to exploit legal loopholes to extort money from alien workers, and extending the deadline would help prevent such abuse.
A UN expert on the human rights of migrants, Jorge A Bustamante, on Thursday raised concerns about the nationality verification process in Thailand. He warned that its implementation may lead to forced deportation of many migrants, in breach of human rights obligations.
“A potentially large number of documented and undocumented migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Lao face the threat of deportation from Thailand after Feb 28,” he said.
“The precarious situation of migrants in Thailand is exacerbated by the nationality verification process,” said the UN special rapporteur on migrants.
“Some of the groups who may be deported may be in need of international protection and should not be returned to their country of origin,” said Mr Bustamante.
Xinhua – YANGON, February 21, 2010
A Myanmar company has planned to open the country’s first information technology shopping mall in Yangon in the first week of April to mainly sell IT and communication products, according to one of its share holders Sunday.
The E-trade Myanmar company, in partnership with other two business entrepreneurs from the IT industry, will form the new company and work to open the IT mall in the Hlaing township.
“We see the strong demand for IT products whenever IT exhibitions are held. IT and communication products are no more luxuries and become the necessities,” said U Htun Htun Naing, chief executive officer of the E—trade Myanmar company. Meanwhile, an information and communication technology (ICT) exhibition will be held in the third weekend of next month in Yangon, aimed at empowering people with IT knowledge and enabling them to get in close touch with modern IT equipment.
The three—day event from March 19 to 21, which will be the first ICT exhibition this year, is jointly organized by Myanmar Computer Federation, Myanmar Computer Professionals Association ( MCPA) and Myanmar Computer Industry Association.
With about 156 booths, IT companies will showcase the country’s latest technology, hardware, software, communication products, computer—related electronics devices and electrical goods.
Computer organizations have been holding such ICT exhibition twice a year since 1999 and the latest exhibition of its kind was in October last year, in which 71 companies took part.
Source: Hueiyen News Service
Imphal, February 20, 2010: With the assistance of the Chinese Government, a bridge has been constructed over the bordering Mynal river on Manipur sector of the Indo-Myanmar International boundary, much to the benefit of Myanmarese traders.
In sharp contrast, there is no visible sign on improvement of the Imphal-Moreh stretch of the National Highway 39 even in the near future.
After completion of Chinese Government-assisted bridge the border trade has not only boosted economy of Myanmar but also opened up a large market for the electronic items manufactured in China.
With construction of the bridge, Myanmarese traders do not have to any more pass through parts of Manipur while coming to Namphalong Market for selling or trading their goods.
Import and export activities of the two neighbouring countries are currently being carried out at Moreh Gate no.1 as per an agreement of the ongoing border trade and efforts are being made to extend the trading activities at Moreh Gate no.II as well.
But with the construction of the bridge over Mynal river which directly connects Namphalong Market, Myanmarese traders are reaping the benefit of the border trade all the more.
Not a sizable market though, with an eye on development of the Namphalong Market, Myanmar Government has also started construction of various trading structures at different parts of the market.
On the other hand, there is no immediate prospect on the development of Imphal-Moreh road which would ultimately connect the Saurastra-Silchar Super Highway when it extends upto Moreh and joins with the Trans-Asian Highway to connect with Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan of Myanmar.
The bridge at Lokchao which is located along the Imphal-Moreh road and was constructed during World War II still stands today with no sign of construction of a new bridge to replace the old one.
By virtue of being under Military Junta, pace of development works in Myanmar is comparatively very swift unlike in democratic India where it takes time to take decision on developmental works as well as in the implemention.
As a part of the measure initiated by the Centre for improving the diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring countries, BRTF is currently being engaged in the construction of a ‘Friendship Road’ to be connected with Mandalay from the point of the bridge constructed over Mynal river, which is flowing in between the two neighbouring countries and situated little beyond Moreh Gate no.11. However, when it comes to the development of the Imphal-Moreh Road, despite the efforts being made by the Ministry of Surface Transport and Highways, none of the local contractors have qualified in the pre-qualification bidding and the outside firms which qualified in the bidding are hesitant from coming even though the work is going to involve money in terms of crores.
According to sources from the Works Department of the State, the Ministry has not released any more fund for the maintenance of Imphal-Moreh Road and there is no possibility on repairing the road stretch in the next 2/3 years.
Nonetheless, condition of the National Highway stretch has been deteriorating over the years.
This is inspite of the great expectation on increasing the volume of the ongoing border trade activities from the present 22 items to 44 items through this road stretch.
To bring about a change in the character of the ongoing border trade and speed up the import-export activities, the Land-Ports Authority of India had already approved setting up Integrated Check Post (ICP) at 13 different locations along the border with Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Consequently, the land acquisition process in connection with construction of an ICP at Moreh has been completed.
Along with acquisition of 45.50 acres of land near Moreh Gate No.II for the purpose, the Government has already entrusted the district administration for payment of compensation to 405 land owners.
The Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the proposed ICP at Moreh which would be constructed at an estimated cost of 130 crores and on the model similar to Wagah border in Punjab is being prepared by the Rail India Technical Economic Services.
When completed the proposed ICP would provide facilities for Land Customs, Police, Customs Prevention Department, Forest, Narcotics, Postal, Banking, Telecom, Animal and Plant quarantine, Quality Certification Inspection Agency, Trade Facilitation Counter, Food Testing Laboratory, Parking and cafeteria.
Tomas Ojea Quintana pushed for greater human rights, but said he ‘deeply regretted’ not being allowed to see the world-famous detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, during his five-day visit, which ended Friday.
By Simon Montlake Correspondent / February 21, 2010
A United Nations special envoy to military-ruled Burma (Myanmar) ended a five-day visit Friday to monitor human rights there without being allowed to meet its most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tomas Ojea Quintana said he “deeply regretted” not being allowed to see the detained opposition leader. He also said the junta had given him no indication on the timing or framework of parliamentary elections that it plans to hold this year, the first since a 1990 poll won by Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and annulled by the military.
Observers swiftly criticized the snub of a UN envoy, the first to visit since two senior US diplomats traveled there in November. The US mission was part of a shift by the Obama administration towards engagement with Burma after decades of sanctions and arms-length diplomacy.
But human rights activists and Western diplomats argue that Mr. Quintana wasn’t expected to wrest major political concessions from the prickly junta. Instead, he went to meet prisoners of conscience, whose ranks swelled after a violent 2007 suppression of Buddhist monk-led protests.
On the eve of his visit, Tin Oo, a senior NLD leader, was released after seven years of house arrest, an apparent sop to the UN visit. However, the NLD has argued that any elections won’t be credible unless the junta releases Suu Kyi and more than 2,100 other political detainees and restores freedom of speech and assembly.
In addition, Quintana also tried to shine a spotlight on human rights in Burma’s ethnic minority areas, which have been largely overshadowed by the international focus on Suu Kyi. He traveled to Rakhine in western Burma to investigate the treatment of detainees held there, including minorities. Rakhine is home to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, whom Burma doesn’t recognize as citizens, leaving them effectively stateless.
Getting access to Rakhine “is a bit of a coup because [Quintana] has requested access before and been denied,” says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok for Amnesty International. “It’s a high-value visit.”
The Argentine diplomat has previously raised the issue of the Rohingya at the UN Human Rights Council. He is due to address the council again in March. Activists say a firsthand report should strengthen the UN’s hand in advocating for increased protection for this and other ethnicities in Burma, where about one-third of the roughly 50 million population belong to 135 recognized minorities.
The Rohingya, who aren’t in this category, are estimated to number about 700,000, though no reliable census exists. Over the past two decades, many have sought sanctuary across the border in neighboring Bangladesh and in other parts of Southeast Asia.
On Thursday, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, said thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh faced sickness and even starvation after being driven out of their homes in recent months. Most have moved to slums on the outskirts of UN-run refugee camps but aren’t eligible for food aid and run the risk of being forced back to Burma, the medical charity said.
Paul Critchley, MSF chief in Bangladesh, said more than 6,000 refugees had arrived since October at an unofficial camp of nearly 30,000 where the charity runs a clinic. Many reported harassment and beatings by security forces and neighbors, part of an apparent political campaign against an estimated 200,000 Rohingya who live illegally in Bangladesh.
The abuses meted out to refugees included being pushed into a river separating the two countries and told to swim back to Burma, say MSF officials. Those who make it to the camps have no means of making a living, and women who go outside to collect firewood have been raped.
“The only thing that they can legally do in Bangladesh is starve. This is not acceptable,” Mr. Critchley told a press conference in Bangkok.
Last year Thailand’s military was accused of forcing hundreds of Rohingya boatpeople back out to sea after they arrived from Bangladesh and Burma. Some later drowned or were rescued in neighboring countries.
This crackdown led to a drop in sailings, says Chris Lewa, who runs The Arakan Project, a human rights group focused on Rohingya. But the renewed harassment in Bangladesh is spurring more refugees to consider fleeing by boat, despite the hazardous journey and risk of reprisals.
Ms. Lewa says the anti-Rohingya campaign seems aimed at deterring new arrivals from Burma. But the upcoming election could be the trigger for another exodus, if the tensions aren’t handled properly by authorities.
“There is mounting tension that could develop into communal violence,” she warns.
Rangoon woos property and tourism investors ahead of October elections that the junta hopes will improve its image.
Published: 22/02/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Business
After five decades of isolation from most of the world, Burma is seeking investments in the tourism and property sector to help stimulate its economy.
The military-ruled country also known as Myanmar is counting on a modest improvement in its image after it stages general elections – the first since 1990 – this coming October. While critics say the outcome of the vote is already known, there are those who hope that elections will usher in the beginnings of political change for the better.
A group of Thailand-based investors recently visited Burma to get a sense of the business opportunities available in a country that 50 years ago was the richest in Southeast Asia.
Impetus for change is also being provided by freer trade. The Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) on Jan 1 this year eliminated more than 97% of all tariffs in six of the bloc’s 10 economies. The four less-developed members – Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – have an additional five years to comply with Afta.
Sopon Pornchokchai, the chairman of the independent real estate consultancy Agency for Real Estate Affairs (AREA), said political stability in Burma would be an important factor in supporting the property sector. If the elections can be staged successfully and lead to improved international acceptance, more foreign investors are expected to enter the country.
Mr Sopon reports a keen interest in various segments of the real-estate market in Burma from Thai and Asean investors even though government rules are quite restrictive.
Foreigners cannot own land in Burma but can lease plots up to 30 years, and leases are relatively flexible depending on government approval.
Despite the perception of risk from investing in Burma – some companies face shareholder opposition or even consumer boycotts – Mr Sopon says the government is relatively relaxed about granting licences to such investments since property cannot be taken away from the country.
The Burmese government also says it has measures in place to protect foreign investors and allows them to transfer capital and profits back to their home countries.
This is beneficial for property developers as it allows rental income, as well as sales of low- to mid-priced housing to local residents.
“If Burma can prove it is taking steps toward a more democratic system, such as the planned general elections, then more foreign investors will be ready to invest there,” Mr Sopon said.
The wealth of resources available in Burma is also a big draw, he says. “There are greater opportunities for Thai and regional developers to seek investment opportunities. ”
Among those who visited Burma recently was Fragrant Property Group, the developer of Prime 11 and The Circle condominiums in Bangkok.
James Duan, chief executive officer of Fragrant Property, said that although it may not appear as though there is a huge market for property development in Burma, there is a potential market of about 1 million people, or 2% of the population.
Currently the investment choices for this small segment of the population with investable funds are limited to land and commodities such as gold.
Mr Duan acknowledges that politics is the greatest impediment to growth for the property sector in the country. However, free trade agreements can help support the sector as more foreign investors become interested in the country.
According to the latest available official statistics for the first nine months of 2009, Burma attracted US$77.25 million in foreign investment from three sources: Thailand invested US$30.25 million in hotels and tourism, the United Arab Emirates $41 million in oil and gas, and Hong Kong $6 million in the manufacturing sector.
Of the total foreign investment to date from 31 countries, Thailand topped the table at $7.42 billion or 47% of all foreign investment, a lot of it in petroleum projects spearheaded by PTT Plc and its partners.
Burma allows foreigners to invest in 12 sectors: electricity generation, oil and gas, manufacturing, real estate, hotels and tourism, mining, transport and communications, livestock breeding and fisheries, industry, construction, agriculture and services.
“In the services sector, Burma has plenty of eco-tourism destinations so many infrastructure projects could be undertaken to link them to eco-tourism attractions in the Asean region, which could help push the growth of the related property industry,” Mr Duan said.
He said a few brave Thai investors had already established themselves in Burma’s property market and were prospering.
Authorities in Rangoon are also trying to develop the country into a new and vibrant tourism destination.
Recently the government allowed a local private company, Nwe Win, to undertake a feasibility study on building an artificial beach in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, in co-operation with international enterprises. The project, the first of its kind in the country, involves investment by the New Zealand Trades Enterprise Limited (NZTE) and other enterprises from Japan, Australia and China.
The planned artificial beach is near the bank of the Irrawaddy River and close to the Lido highway connecting India, Burma and China.
Another recent development is the first international standard hotel in the Myeik archipelago, famous among diving enthusiasts worldwide for its natural beauty and rich marine life (including sharks).
The $15-million property is being constructed by the Thailand-based developer KR Commercial and Property (KRCP), with the first phase of the 100-room resort scheduled to be completed by December this year, while the final phase will open in 2012.
Mr Duan and Mr Sopon agree that Thai investors could benefit by doing some early studies of the market in Burma if they want to be prepared for further opening up of the economy in the future.
Apart from hotel and resort development, Mr Duan suggested that Burma can accommodate some high-end housing development, where foreign investors co-venture with local partners.
The government of Burma allows foreigners to invest in the country under BOT (build, operate and transfer) terms for the property sector including hotels. In joint ventures with the government or the private sector, foreigners must hold at least 35% of the total investment value and the minimum foreign capital has to be around $500,000 in the industrial sector or $300,000 in a services venture.
Published: 22/02/2010 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Burmese security authorities have approached the Thai military to help uncover clues to officers who disappeared following a skirmish with drug traffickers near the Thai border.
The deputy commander of the 3rd Army’s Phamuang Task Force, Somsak Nilbanjerdkul, said Burmese authorities had asked if any bodies or wounded officials were found in the Mekong or along the Thai border.
Col Somsak said officials had not seen anything as the part of the river in question was shallow and this impeded the flow of objects – including bodies – downstream. He said the clash took place 20km north of the Thai border.
A drug gang attacked a Pong district police station, two kilometres north of Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai, on Saturday.
Dozens of gang members brandishing AK-47 assault rifles stormed the police station. The police station chief was killed along with four junior officers, official sources said.
The gang is believed to be made up of about 80 armed Lahu, an ethnic minority group, headed by a former Burmese defence volunteer named Norkham.
The armed men fled after the raid by boat along the Mekong. A combined force of Burmese police and soldiers chased them before a gunfight broke out about 30km upstream from the station.
The government force’s three boats were sunk during the fight and 14 officials drowned.
Col Somsak said 10 bodies were pulled from the river yesterday. The search for others continues.
He said Burmese authorities had sought the cooperation of their Thai counterparts in the search.
Burmese authorities have launched an intensive crackdown on drugs since last month. They have arrested or gunned down members of the gang and seized their drugs.
Five members of the gang have been killed and 400,000 amphetamine pills seized in Laos.
By WAI MOE – Saturday, February 20, 2010
Burma’s ruling military junta and the government-backed state monks committee plan to introduce new rules that will further restrict the activities of monks in the country, according to reports in the state-run media.
The official Burmese-language newspaper Myanma Ahlin reported on Saturday that Ashin Kumara, the chairman of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, said he planned to call a meeting of all senior abbots to discuss the new regulations, which he said were aimed at improving monastic discipline.
The move would help to “safeguard Buddhism,” which had been weakened by attacks on the state monks committee by critics at home and abroad, the senior monk added.
Since the monk-led mass demonstrations of September 2007, monks throughout the country have come under intense scrutiny from the authorities. Observers said it was unusual for the state monks committee to call a nationwide meeting of all the major sects of Theravada Buddhism in the country, and suggested that it could signal a further crackdown on activities deemed political.
“Usually, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee and the heads of the various Buddhist monastic orders hold their meetings separately. The fact that this meeting will include senior leaders of all nine gana [Buddhist sects] means that the State Sangha Committee is planning to take some action,” said Ashin Issariya, a scholar monk from the State Pariyatti Sasana University in Rangoon who is now living in exile.
Observers also said that it was also clear that the government was behind the push to impose tighter restrictions on monks.
“Although the State Sangha Committee is headed by senior monks, it is controlled by the Ministry of Religion,” said Ashin Javana, a former abbot of a monastery in Rangoon who is now a leading member of the Thailand branch of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance.
“The Sangha Committee cannot do anything without ministry approval. The worst thing is that the committee allowed the junta to forcibly disrobe and imprison monks,” said the monk, who was disrobed in 1993 and spent 16 years behind bars for opposing military rule in Burma.
After his release in September 2009, Javana tried to reordain as a monk, but was denied permission by the State Sangha Committee because he had been imprisoned for political reasons. It wasn’t until he fled to Thailand late last year that he was able to return to life as a monk.
In 2008, as part of its effort to rein in monks considered a threat to the ruling regime, new ID cards were issued to monks to make it easier for the authorities to keep track of their movements, according to monastic sources.
“Under the new ID process, monks from different divisions and states were given different-colored ID cards,” said Ashin Kaythira, a longtime friend of Ashin Gambira, one of the imprisoned leaders of the 2007 uprising.
Other monks who took part in the mass protests of September 2007 said that the government was not the only source of pressure on monks. Speaking to The Irrawaddy in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, exiled monks said that those still involved in politics inside the country also faced opposition from their families and the abbots of their monasteries.
“Their parents are now asking them to give up the monkhood if they want to join the monks’ movement,” said Ashin Naymeinda, a leading monk during the 2007 protests.
“Abbots are also telling young monks to leave their monasteries if they are active in the movement,” he added.
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN – Saturday, February 20, 2010
BANGKOK — As China’s economic and political rise makes itself felt in Asia, Japan and Southeast Asia face serious foreign policy dilemmas in the coming years.
In 1990, Japan’s economy was twice as big as the rest Asia combined, and the country looked set to challenge America’s global economic primacy. After two decades of flat performance, however, this has changed. Some projections claim that China is already the second largest economy in the world, having overtaken Japan, and others predict that the Chinese economy will be 5-6 times larger than Japan’s within the next 40-50 years.
Adding to concerns about Japan’s position in Asia is recent friction in its relationship with its most important ally, the United States. Despite wrangles between Tokyo and Washington over naval bases and troop deployment in Japan, however, the alliance between the two countries is steady and remains crucial to security in the wider region, Prof Takashi Shiraishi, currently a member of the Japanese cabinet office, told a forum at Chulalongkorn University.
Supporting this view is the fact that distrust of China still outweighs Japanese public resentment of the US presence. According to opinion polls, more than half the population have a negative opinion of China. Prof Kitti Prasirtsuk, a Thai academic based at Thammasat University who specializes in Japanese politics, said that there is a growing wariness in Japan of Beijing’s longer-term strategic intentions.
While it is almost impossible to assess Beijing’s long-terms goals, predicting what might happen within China in the coming years—something that will affect how the country projects its new-found power into the 21st century—is even more difficult. This has complicated the debate over whether China wants to become a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs, or prefers to continue engaging with the rest of world purely in terms of perceived self-interest.
Either way, “We need create a situation where it is in China’s interest to work multilaterally, and integrating China into the global economy is the way to do it,” according to Shiraishi.
Whether or not China sees things this way is unclear. It has recently launched a “Buy China” drive which foreign investors and multinationals believe will give Chinese businesses an unfair advantage within the domestic market. It is thought that senior Chinese business leaders, who are often former military cadres, want to corner the vast Chinese market and use this as a platform for Chinese enterprise to challenge Western and Japanese multinationals on the global stage.
Meanwhile, the US has long pushed for a revaluation of China’s currency, insinuating that Beijing gives rhetorical support to free trade but unfairly undermines competitors through a skewed yuan valuation.
The key to maintaining regional security in the coming years is to interlock China more closely with the regional political and security architecture, according to Shiraishi, who says there is a need to refashion security to fit better with the economic realities of the broader Asia-Pacific region.
“China, Vietnam and Myanmar [Burma] are all part of the regional economic system, but remain outside the US-led security system that has been in place since the early 1950s,” he said.
Recently, Japan, Australia and China have floated similar-sounding ideas for a form of Asia-Pacific community, with the major sticking point being whether or not to include the US.
However, China’s rise has provoked a reassessment of military needs among some US allies. In May 2009, Australia issued a new defense white paper advocating a substantial upgrade and expansion for the country’s defense forces to better enable it deal with a rising China and contribute more forcefully to the US military alliance.
Asked by The Irrawaddy if Japan was thinking along the same lines, Shiraishi intimated that a new defense plan was being considered at the moment. He would not go into further detail, but said that Australian-Japanese -American naval cooperation was key to Pacific maritime security. The new Japanese government has made noises about resetting the US-Japan relationship on a more equal footing, which if pushed would likely see Washington demand that Japan increase military spending and do more to assist in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
For now, however, Japan’s main regional security worry is North Korea. China is seen in some quarters as the key to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, though this may overestimate Beijing’s influence over the regime of Kim Jong Il, which now has nuclear weapons and would likely be loathe to give these up.
Noting the security threat posed by North Korea, Shiraishi joked that “People in Japan would be happy if North Korea became more like Myanmar.”
Similarly, China’s influence over Burma has long been a point of speculation, with the junta playing China off against India in trade and investment and now apparently trying to counterbalance between China and the US diplomatically while the Americans try to counter a growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
However, China is seeking ways to expand domestic consumption and reduce reliance on trade, after demand in the West for Chinese goods declined since late 2008. This would have profound implications for its Asian neighbors, not least members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that recently signed up to a China-Asean free trade area, enticed by the lure of the vast Chinese market.