Mar 16th, 2012
AFP News – 5 hours ago Myanmar democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi said Thursday she hoped to travel abroad “in the near future”, in what would be the Nobel laureate’s first visit to another country since 1988.
Suu Kyi, who spent much of the past 22 years under house arrest until her release in 2010, said she would like to travel outside Myanmar, also known as Burma, if only for “a matter of days, or even a matter of hours”.
“I hope though that in the near future, it will be possible for me to travel out of Burma, and that then I will be able to come to you, and be part of your campus life, for perhaps just a very short period,” she said in a video message as she received an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Hong Kong.
Despite numerous invitations, Suu Kyi has not left Myanmar since 1988 when she returned from Britain to nurse her dying mother.
She refused to leave in 1999 when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer in Britain, fearing that she would be refused re-entry by the junta. The regime denied Aris a visa to see his wife before he passed away.
Myanmar’s regime has embarked on a surprising series of reforms since decades of outright military rule ended last year, including freeing political detainees and welcoming Suu Kyi back into mainstream politics.
Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a landslide victory in an election in 1990 but the ruling junta refused to accept the result.
A 2010 vote, in which a party packed with former generals claimed a crushing victory, was marred by widespread complaints of cheating.
Since a nominally civilian government took power early last year, Suu Kyi has been welcomed back into the political mainstream and her party is contesting 47 seats of 48 available in upcoming by-elections.
The government has said she is free to travel but many of her supporters still express concern that she might not be allowed to return.
Suu Kyi, who is standing in the April 1 by-elections, also called for rule of law in her country as she accepted the honorary degree.
AFP News – 9 hours ago
Myanmar’s new law allowing peaceful protests falls well short of international standards because of provisions such as the threat of jail for permit violations, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
“Burma’s new law on assembly rejects the previous ban on demonstrations, but still allows the government to trump the Burmese people’s basic rights,” the group’s Asia director Brad Adams said, using the country’s former name.
“There is a lot of excitement about changes in Burma these days, but the government shouldn’t be given credit for allowing some freedom just because none existed before. Instead, it should be pressed to make sure its laws meet international standards.”
The bill, formally approved by the president in December after passing parliament, is one of a series of reformist moves by the quasi-civilian government which took power last year after the end of outright military rule.
It requires that demonstrators seek permission from the authorities five days in advance in order to hold a protest. People who demonstrate without permission risk one year in jail.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar’s parliament to repeal the law’s provisions that fall short of international standards, such as the threat of imprisonment as a penalty for permit violations.
It also voiced concern that the legislation is vague and gives too much discretion to the authorities when dealing with protests.
Even if permission is granted, protesters can be jailed for up to six months for offences such as giving speeches that contain false information or hurt the state, it said.
“The real test of new laws will be to see what happens when Burmese attempt to use them,” Adams said. “Burma’s government will deserve kudos for legal reform only when people are allowed to exercise their basic rights.”
Protests are rare in the authoritarian country, where pro-democracy rallies in 1988 and 2007 were brutally crushed by the junta.
By Hla Hla Htay | AFP – 3 hrs ago
The United States is concerned about the plight of thousands of people displaced by fighting between troops and ethnic rebels in northern Myanmar, a US special envoy said Thursday.
“We have seen progress in many ethnic minority areas over the last several months and weeks,” Derek Mitchell told reporters in Yangon, referring to a series of peace deals between the government and other guerilla groups.
“But in the Kachin state the violence is sticking out as inconsistent with a trend toward dialogue and confidence building and national reconciliation that we’ve seen.”
Fierce fighting in northern Kachin state between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army since June last year has displaced tens of thousands of people.
“The immediate concern that we have is on the issue of internally displaced persons, who by any definition are innocents caught in the crossfire of conflict,” Mitchell said.
The envoy, who met government ministers and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during his latest trip to Myanmar, urged the government to enable aid to reach those affected.
He announced the US would provide $1.5 million in additional funding to the UN refugee agency to assist those displaced.
Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948. An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.
With Myanmar preparing for by-elections on April 1 in which Suu Kyi is standing, Mitchell said Washington’s concern was not about who won but whether the polls were free and fair.
He described the vote as “a critical moment and a marker towards building trust and confidence on the road towards democracy”.
Asked whether there should be foreign observers, the envoy said that while such monitors could provide “an objective eye”, it was not up to outsiders to say if the outcome was fair.
“It’s actually up to the people of a country in elections to decide whether this is acceptable in terms of being a representation of the popular will, whether it was conducted freely and that they were able, without intimidation, to exercise their right to vote,” he said.
Mitchell however stressed that the elections were not the only factor Washington would take into account when considering whether to ease sanctions.
“The conditions for sanctions and other restrictions are more than these elections or democracy, there are specific issues that have to do with the release of all political prisoners, that have to do with the ethnic minority issues, have to do with other issues,” he said.
Myanmar’s new government has surprised observers with a series of reforms, including talks with Suu Kyi and the release of hundreds of political prisoners since the end of nearly five decades of military rule last year.
AFP – 23 hrs ago
A United Nations court Wednesday laid down a new sea border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, ruling on a complex dispute in a resource-rich area that has been a frequent flashpoint for the two nations.
In a two-hour ruling at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in the northern German city of Hamburg, presiding judge Jose Luis Jesus set out a new maritime line widely seen as a compromise between the two rival cases.
He ruled that both countries should retain sovereignty over their respective continental shelves and, while ruling in favour of Myanmar’s method of measuring the border, handed more sea area to Bangladesh.
The 23 judges from all over the world arrived at the decision unanimously although some offered dissenting opinions on some parts of the judgement.
“Both sides won something and lost something,” said the German judge on the panel, Ruediger Wolfrum, according to local German agency DPA.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni also acknowledged it was a “victory for both sides,” according to DPA, although she said Dhaka could now begin to exploit the area for gas and oil.
The row, dating back decades, brought the two countries close to military conflict in 2008 when Bangladesh accused Myanmar of exploring for gas in disputed waters.
Myanmar sent military vessels to support drilling for gas by South Korean company Daewoo some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Bangladesh’s Saint Martin island.
Bangladesh responded by sending four warships of their own. Troops massed on the border before the tensions calmed.
Myanmar has discovered huge reserves of natural gas in the Bay of Bengal and has made clear it intended to explore further in an area also claimed by Bangladesh.
Dhaka hopes to resolve a similar maritime border dispute with India in 2014.
Both sides have agreed to abide by the ruling and there is no possibility of appeal.
Reuters – Wed, Mar 14, 2012 YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar will raise all monthly civil service and armed forces salaries by 30,000 kyat (about $37), almost double the current rate for lower-income officials, to meet the rising cost of living, the finance ministry said on Wednesday.
“With the intent to help the livelihood of the government employee and the military personnel, an additional allowance of 30,000 kyat per month will be provided to them besides their current monthly salaries effective April 1,” state-owned MRTV said in a report, citing the Ministry of Finance and Revenue.
The raise comes after pressure by lawmakers on the government to boost salaries amid price hikes and appreciation of the kyat, which the central bank plans to begin a managed float of from April and bring an end to use of its flawed fixed-rate system.
President Thein Sein acknowledged the salary problem during a televised March 1 speech to parliament and said it would be resolved as soon as possible. He is keen to win domestic support for his year-old government as it continues a programme of reforms on a scale not seen in over half a century.
In an unusual step in Myanmar, Thein Sein’s cabinet was strongly criticised by parliament speaker and his former comrade in the old military junta, Thura Shwe Mann, who said the government was being “sluggish and unsatisfactory” and had dragged its heels over the salary problem.
The increase will mean the lowest bracket of civil servants will receive 65,000 kyat per month, up from 35,000.
The highest tier, known as gazetted officers, will earn 130,000 kyat, compared to 100,000 previously, while workers paid on a daily basis will receive 2,100 kyat, up from the current 1,100, MRTV said.
The kyat traded at about 818 to the dollar on Wednesday on Myanmar’s black market, which is used for most transactions.
Published: March. 15, 2012 at 12:19 PM
NEW YORK, March 15 (UPI) — A law on the right to peaceful assembly in Myanmar falls well short of international expectations, Human Rights Watch stated.
Authorities in Myanmar announced last month they had lifted some restrictions on political rallies after the opposition National League for Democracy complained.
The government has been praised for opening its political system after years of military rule, though concerns remain.
Human Rights Watch said a measure signed into law on the right to peaceful assembly should be repealed by the country’s Parliament.
“There is a lot of excitement about changes in (Myanmar) these days, but the government shouldn’t be given credit for allowing some freedom just because none existed before,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement from New York.
Demonstrators in Myanmar need to get permission from local authorities five days ahead of a planned protest. Permits can be denied if the application is deemed “contrary to union security.” Permission is needed for a gathering of more than one person.
“(Myanmar’s) government will deserve kudos for legal reform only when people are allowed to exercise their basic rights,” said Adams.
Myanmar has elections April 1 to fill 48 seats in the country’s Senate and lower house of Parliament.
Last Updated: Monday, March 12, 2012 09:15:00
By Phuong Thao, Thanh Nien News
Two Myanmar frigates docked at the Tien Sa Port in the central city of Da Nang on Monday, beginning an official three-day visit.
The UMS Mahar Bandoola (F21) and UMS Mahar Thiha Thura (F23) are both 103.2 meters long and 10.8 meters wide.
Each frigate has 123 crew members.
Officers and sailors of the two warships will meet with leaders of the Da Nang City People’s Committee and the Region 3 High Command of Navy.
They will also visit the famous Hoi An Town in Quang Nam Province near Da Nang.
It is the first time that Myanmar warships are visiting Vietnam.
They are also the first warships to dock in Da Nang this year.
Press Release: Foley Hoag LLP – 21 hours ago
WASHINGTON & HAMBURG–(BUSINESS WIRE)– The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea today sustained Bangladesh’s claims to a full 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal, and to a substantial share of the outer continental shelf beyond 200 miles.
The ruling, by a vote of 21 to 1, brings to a conclusion the case initiated by Bangladesh against Myanmar in December 2009, to resolve a longstanding dispute in regard to the maritime boundary between the two neighboring states in the oil-and-gas rich Bay.
“This is a great day for Bangladesh,” declared Foreign Minister Dr. Dipu Moni, after listening to the President of the Tribunal, Jose Luis Jesus of Cape Verde, read the judgment in the Hamburg courtroom. The judgment is final and without appeal.
“All of our strategic objectives were achieved,” the Foreign Minister continued. “Bangladesh’s full access to the high seas out to 200 miles and beyond is now recognized and guaranteed, as are our undisputed rights to the fish in our waters and the natural resources beneath our seabed. Bangladesh claimed 107,000 square kilometers while it got
111,000 square kilometers area in the Bay of Bengal.”
The Foreign Minister added that energy-starved Bangladesh’s exploration for petroleum and natural gas in the Bay of Bengal, long delayed by conflicting boundary claims, can now proceed.
Bangladesh was successfully represented by Foley Hoag LLP, led by partners Paul Reichler and Lawrence Martin. Bangladesh’s legal team also included Prof. James Crawford of Cambridge University, Prof. Philippe Sands of the University College London, Prof. Alan Boyle of the University of Edinburgh, and Prof. Payam Akhavan of McGill University.
Mr. Reichler hailed today’s decision as “a balanced and equitable result that brings great credit to the Tribunal, and finally settles a long-standing boundary dispute in a manner acceptable to both States.”
“This is a victory for both States,” the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh emphasized, “because it finally resolves – peacefully and according to international law – a problem that had hampered the economic development of both States for more than three decades.”
Myanmar had claimed that its maritime boundary with Bangladesh cut directly across the Bangladesh coastline, severely truncating Bangladesh’s maritime jurisdiction to a narrow wedge of sea not extending beyond 130 miles. Myanmar also claimed that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to award continental shelf rights beyond 200 miles from either State’s coast. The tribunal rejected both of these arguments.
The International Tribunal, based in Hamburg and known as ITLOS, was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to adjudicate disputes between States concerning issues covered by the Convention, including the delimitation of maritime boundaries. The 151-page judgment is the first by any court or tribunal to delimit the maritime area beyond 200 miles, known as the “outer continental shelf”, and is certain to establish an important precedent in that regard.
“We are very pleased with the expertise, fairness and efficiency of ITLOS and its judges,” said Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister. “The case was resolved, from beginning to end, in a little over two years. This is unprecedented for judicial efficiency in a maritime boundary case.”
Myanmar was represented by Profs. Alain Pellet and Mathias Forteau of the University of Paris; Sir Michael Wood of 20 Essex Street Chambers; and Coalter Lathrop of Sovereign
Indonesia ‘Thinking Of Food’ Cooperation With Myanmar, Cambodia JAKARTA, March 15 (Bernama) — The Indonesian government is looking into the possibilities of agricultural cooperation with rice-producing countries such as Cambodia and Myanmar, Indonesia’s ANTARA news agency reported.
“To ensure food security, it would be better if Indonesia has rice stocks in other countries, for instance, Cambodia and Myanmar that are also rice-producing countries,” Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Hatta Rajasa said here on Wednesday.
The planned cooperation however does not mean that Indonesia will be importing rice from those countries, he said.
“The planned cooperation has nothing to do with rice imports. They (Cambodia and Myanmar) will invite us to develop rice millers there,” he noted.
He said the planned cooperation will also be directed towards the development of rice seedling technology.
“That is why we are planning to establish cooperation with them. So it does not mean we will import rice from them.”
He also added that the government will send its Agriculture Minister, Suswono, to Cambodia and Myanmar to discuss the possibility of the cooperation.
Hatta hoped that through the cooperation, the National Logistics Agency (Bulog) will play a greater role not only in ensuring domestic food supplies and rice reserves, and stabilising rice prices, but also in enhancing its role internationally.
Published on Thursday 15 March 2012.
Reporters Without Borders is worried by the mining ministry’s announcement that it plans to launch “legal proceedings” against the Rangoon-based weekly The Voice for reporting that cases of alleged corruption involving the mining ministry and five other ministries were revealed by the report of a government audit that was given to parliamentarians last week.
The press freedom organization urges the mining ministry not to bring a libel suit against the weekly as it would send a negative signal to the media and they have a legitimate right to take an interest in the functioning of government institutions.
Several news media mentioned the audit report and the corruption allegations. The mining ministry has a right of response and has publicly denied the allegations. But a libel suit would intimidate Burmese journalists and would encourage self-censorship.
The ministry’s announcement has served to re-emphasize the need for the creation of an independent press council that can mediate between the media and plaintiffs.
The mining ministry’s statement was reported yesterday by the government-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper. One of the cases of alleged corruption involving the mining ministry concerns the sale of a mining project to Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), a leading industrial holding with close links to the military.
An official with the information ministry, one of the six ministries named in the audit, told Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Than Win Htut that he objected to the use of the word “embezzlement of Information Ministry” and intended to respond to the article.
On 13 March, Reporters Without Borders and its partner organization, the Burma Media Association (BMA), expressed concern about recent restrictions on media freedom in Burma.
She not only called for “repressive laws” to be revoked, and constitutional reform and the “democratic rights of the people” to be better protected, but also called for a freer media and a stronger judiciary.
“All repressive laws must be revoked, and laws introduced to protect the rights of the people,” The BBC quoted Suu Kyi, as saying.
“The judiciary must be strengthened and released from political interference,” she added.
Suu Kyi was able to make the address under a government provision that allows parties contesting by-elections on 1 April to be given 15-minute slots on television and radio, a significant new departure in Burma.
According to the report, her remarks were a step forward for Burma, which normally has repressive prior censorship of political speeches that are broadcast or appear in print media.
The Nobel Peace laureate cited a provision in the 2008 constitution, which reserves a quarter of all seats for the military in the country with a nominally civilian government.
She said that this meant that the current parliament is composed of un-elected people, and that was not democracy.
New York Times – Where Myanmar Keeps Trampling Rights
By MATTHEW F. SMITH
Published: March 15, 2012
International optimism toward Myanmar is at a fever pitch. The government is allowing the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run in parliamentary by-elections in less than two weeks, hundreds of former political prisoners now walk the streets, and media censorship has been relaxed. Governments and policy makers around the world are rightly impressed.
But how far has the Burmese government really progressed on human rights?
In the remote, rugged mountains of the northern Kachin State, the Burmese Army has been engaged in a brutal war with the Kachin Independence Army, K.I.A., since last June, breaking a 17-year cease-fire agreement. In its renewed military operations against the K.I.A. — Myanmar’s second-largest armed rebel group, which has existed for 51 years — the army has attacked ethnic Kachin civilians and villages, pillaged properties, and committed severe abuses.
I have traveled twice to the conflict areas, spending more than six weeks interviewing more than 100 people. Burmese soldiers have raped Kachin women, tortured civilians, used forced labor on the front lines, and opened fire on villagers with small arms and mortars, causing tens of thousands to flee.
“It was intended that way,” a Burmese Army deserter told me after explaining how his battalion had shelled a village to disperse civilians.
One 16-year-old Kachin boy explained how he and his 14-year-old brother had been tortured by the Burmese Army for information about the K.I.A., and then forced to porter supplies on the front lines.
“They pointed the knife against my stomach and they put it on my brother’s throat,” he said. “We were asked repeatedly where the K.I.A. is and in which house the weapons are hidden, and then the soldier said, ‘If you don’t show us and don’t give us the answers, then you will be killed and your hands will be cut off.’ And then we were tied up.”
All told, the conflict and abuses have caused the displacement of approximately 75,000 Kachin since June, and all while the world applauded the Burmese government’s reform efforts far from the battlefield. Of those displaced, an estimated 45,000 fled to 30 makeshift camps in K.I.A.-controlled territory along the Myanmar-China border, where the Burmese authorities have denied them access to international humanitarian aid.
President Thein Sein has granted U.N. agencies humanitarian access to the area only once, in December, six months after the conflict began. Grassroots organizations are providing aid but are in need of international support. Items like food, medicine, blankets and warm clothing are in short supply.
The K.I.A. has also been involved in serious abuses, including using child soldiers and widespread sowing of antipersonnel mines. When hostilities finally cease, the mines will complicate the safe return of displaced civilians to their villages. Childhoods, lives and limbs have already been lost.
This situation stands in stark contrast to the dominant narrative on Myanmar today. Many of the country’s people and the international community are hopeful for a better future. Thein Sein has even publicly vowed to end ethnic conflicts, famously telling Parliament earlier this month that he wanted to help ethnic young people “who had brandished guns” to use laptops.
Nevertheless, the plight of the Kachin is worse than it has been in two decades. Thein Sein’s government is not only failing to protect their rights, it is actively violating them.
U.N. member states should continue to back reform and reformers in Myanmar. As part of that effort, an international mechanism should be created to investigate human rights abuses in the ethnic areas and throughout the country. The presence of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the ground to monitor and investigate abuses would be a good start.
Objective investigations into wartime abuses will not come from the Burmese government now or anytime soon. The military still wields significant political power by law, and the nascent national human rights commission lacks independence and is restricted by the same self-censorship that has plagued Myanmar for decades. An independent judiciary will take years, perhaps decades, to establish.
Meantime, the government should be pressed to grant humanitarian agencies unfettered access to all internally displaced populations in need, including those in the conflict zones.
Now is a crucial time for Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations. Ignoring their plight for fear of disrupting reforms will only stifle development and democracy in the long run.
Matthew F. Smith is a consultant to Human Rights Watch and author of the organization’s report “Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State.”
Daily Star Online – MetropolitanNo troop build-up by Myanmar: BGB
A Correspondent, Cox’s Bazar A high-level team of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) yesterday visited Bangladesh-Myanmar borders but found no troops build-up by Myanmar.
Headed by BGB’s Chittagong Sector Commander Col Bashirul Islam, the team visited the bordering Naikhangchhari upazila for about seven hours from 10:00am.
During the visit, the team members found regular patrol of Myanmar’s border force, Nasaka, but no sign of additional military deployment along the Bangladesh border.
“We could not find any evidence of military build-up along the border during our investigation”, said Lt Col Khalequzzaman, battalion commander of 17 BGB battalion in Cox’s Bazar, after concluding the visit around 5:00pm.
He said BGB officials wanted to know about troop mobilisation when they met with Nasaka officials on Wednesday, but the Myanmar officers rejected the claim terming it propaganda.
Some newspapers and television channels reported in the last few days that Myanmar had mobilised huge troops along the border with Bangladesh.
BGB sources said that yesterday’s visit was to verify if there was actually any such mobilisation.
Daily Star Online – Business: Myanmar promises future food security
Analysts stress cooperation at a programme organised by CPD and ADB
Star Business Report Myanmar can help ensure food security not only in Bangladesh but also in other countries in South Asia, analysts said yesterday.
Myanmar has plenty of cultivable lands while its population is much lower than in its neighbours: Bangladesh, India and China, they said.
But rice productivity per hectare remains lower in Myanmar, an area where its neighbours, including Bangladesh, can extend cooperation to address future food security.
“Bangladesh can explore scope to lease lands in Myanmar and work to expand agricultural technologies among farmers to boost rice productivity there,” said Mahabub Hossain, executive director of BRAC
Hossain, who follows agriculture, shared the views at a daylong programme on the opportunities for regional cooperation in Myanmar.
The Myanmar government took steps to reform the economy, opening up windows of opportunity for building regional and bilateral ties.
The Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and Asian Development Bank jointly organised the programme at Ruposhi Bangla Hotel in the capital where analysts from Bangladesh and neighbouring countries took part.
Chaired by CPD Chairman Rehman Sobhan, Commerce Minister GM Quader inaugurated the programme where issues of regional cooperation in energy and transport were also
Hossain said Bangladesh has to import more food to feed its growing population due to lack of cultivable lands.
The country, which boosted its rice production through expansion of farming technologies, can contribute not only to expand agricultural technologies among growers but also to develop rice processing and trading infrastructure in Myanmar, he added.
By contributing to agricultural production through bilateral cooperation, Bangladesh can get a guaranteed supply of rice from Myanmar which will become a major rice exporter in future, Hossain said.
There is also scope to increase the trading volume of pulses with Myanmar, said Hossain, adding that Bangladesh imports huge quantity of pulses to meet its domestic demand.
A vast portion of land remains uncultivated in Myanmar where per hectare productivity is very low, Koichi Fujita, professor of Division of Economics and Political Dynamics of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University of Japan.
Myanmar has the potential to develop its agriculture sectors, as the country has 11.9 million hectares of farmland, he said.
The country, which is also rich in natural gas, needs investments in research and infrastructure to develop, he said.
Food security should be one of the potential sectors of regional cooperation, said Deng Lan, associate professor and director of Centre for Trade and Industrial Cooperation Studies of Institute of South Asian Studies under Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences.
She said the bilateral ties between Bangladesh and Myanmar can be improved through trading of agricultural commodities, including rice.
Former education minister Osman Farruk said Bangladesh can extend cooperation also in diversification of agriculture in Myanmar.
The Irrawaddy – Fighting Corruption Begins at Home
By KYAW ZWA MOE Thursday, March 15, 2012
In Burma, bribery is a way of life. There seems to be no escaping it in all its many forms. From the tea or beer money paid to low-ranking officials to the car keys and cookie tins full of cash or gold reserved for those with real influence, corruption exists at almost every level of society.
Most Burmese grow up thinking that the only way to get things done is by making “donations” to the right people. Even schoolchildren know that their parents are under constant pressure to pay gratuities to their schools and teachers.
Graft is a family affair in Burma. Ministers and directors of governmental departments rarely take their kickbacks directly. A particularly weighty gift of biscuits delivered to the hands of their wives is the preferred way of letting senior officials know how much their help is appreciated.
In Burma, there is no happy occasion that can’t double as an opportunity for slipping a gift to someone who matters. The sons and daughters of the powerful are not burdened with oversized presents when they marry, but they invariably acquire quite a collection of car keys, usually to the latest Mercedes or SUVs. When former Snr-Gen Than Shwe gave away his daughter in 2006, for instance, the happy couple reportedly received 70 sets of keys.
For all its ubiquity, however, corruption is still a taboo topic. That’s why many Burmese have taken a keen interest in the release of a government audit report submitted to Parliament last week that revealed rampant malfeasance in six ministries operating under the former junta.
Nobody is surprised to learn about wrongdoing among public officials. In Burma, it’s as natural as wind and rain. But it’s a little startling, to say the least, when the government itself decides to shed some light on these activities.
According to the report, the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Co-operatives, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministries of Industry No (1) and No (2) were all guilty of gross abuse of power and misuse of state resources.
The sums of money in question, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars, would be remarkable in any society. In a country as impoverished as Burma, they are breathtaking.
What’s all the more disturbing is the fact that each of these ministries was led by someone who still wields power in the current government. Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, for instance, held the same position under the old regime, and the former minister for industry (1), Aung Thaung, is the chief negotiator in peace talks with ethnic armed groups.
Nearly a year has passed since President Thein Sein vowed to tackle corruption in his inaugural address. “The most important task of the new administration is to work together to create good governance and clean government,” he said at the time, urging all levels of government to be transparent and accountable.
Despite these words, however, Burma still scored extremely poorly on corruption last year. In December, Berlin-based Transparency International ranked it 180th out of 182 countries (tied with Afghanistan) in its “Corruption Perceptions Index 2011.”
Soon after the audit findings were submitted to Parliament, Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann agreed to discuss forming a parliamentary anti-corruption commission. It’s a welcome move, but already there are doubts about how far it will go to address the issue, given that Shwe Mann’s own son, Aung Thet Mann, has reportedly received various lucrative government business concessions for his Ayeyar Shwe War Company. He is on a US blacklist together with other sons of current government officials.
In fact, it would be difficult to come up with the name of a single senior official who is not in some way linked to shady business deals. In Burma, that’s just one of the perks of public life.
Last year, a senior presidential adviser warned that any effort to stamp out graft would meet with resistance from people in high places, and sure enough, the backlash has already begun.
On Wednesday, the state-run New Light of Myanmar reported that the Ministry of Mines will sue the Rangoon-based journal The Voice for publishing allegations of corruption.
If Shwe Mann and others who claim to want a clean government are sincere, they will begin their anti-corruption drive with a full disclosure of their own wealth and that of their closest relatives. And they must also ensure that any commission they create to address this issue is independent and fully empowered to prosecute offenders under laws that treat
corruption as the social cancer that it is.
By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY Thursday, March 15, 2012
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters on Wednesday that the Burmese government is still restricting media freedom, and cited the case of a government ministry’s intention of filing a lawsuit against local journals for reporting about corruption within various ministries.
She made the statement at a press conference at her lakeside home in Rangoon following a meeting with the US envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell.
By restricting media freedom, the government is preventing the country from developing, she said, adding that an announcement by the Ministry of Mining that it will sue The Voice journal is one of the ways that the government attempts to gag the media.
Suu Kyi said that media freedom is a necessity in Burma if there is to be rule of law.
Her comments come just a few days after the Ministry of Mining denied allegations in The Voice that it was involved in corruption.
According to state-run The New Light of Myanmar, the Ministry of Mining denied there was corruption in its ranks, and said legal proceedings would soon be launched against The Voice journal.
“Amid the country moving forward to full peace and development with discipline of democracy [sic], it tarnishes the dignity of the ministry and is not ethical for the media to write like this,” read a statement from the Ministry of Mining.
Based on a government audit report, The Voice and other Burmese media outlets reported cases of corruption within six key ministries with regard to the misuse of billions of kyat of government funds, as well as engaging in a variety of illegal transactions.
The six ministries singled out in the audit report were: the Ministry of Information; the Ministry of Cooperatives; the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation; the Ministry of Mining; and the Ministries of Industry (1) and (2). The Ministry of Mining is the only government department to have responded to the allegations at the present time.
Despite a statement by Tint Swe, the head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, that the censorship bureau should be abolished, Rangoon-based journalists have reported that Burma’s censorship board has become more strict once again, censoring news about the controversial hydropower Myitsone dam project, the upcoming by-election, and Suu Kyi’s political campaigns.
By NYEIN NYEIN/ THE IRRAWADDY Thursday, March 15, 2012
More than 2,300 villagers in the town of Anyarphyar have signed a petition against the construction of a hydropower dam on the river outside their village in Tenasserim Division. The petition was sent to President Thein Sein on Monday.
The villagers are protesting that the dam will flood their fields. Myint Aung, a committee member of the village administration in Anyarphyar, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that “if the village is inundated, it will never recover.”
The site for the dam project is located some 20 km east of the Dawei Economic Zone and is scheduled to be one of at least two hydropower projects that will provide electricity to the multi-billion-dollar industrial plant and deep-sea port.
The project has been contracted to the Delco Company, based in Rangoon, which is also involved in tin mining in the area.
Construction of the 175-foot-high dam began in November and is scheduled to take three years to complete.
Apart from Anyarphyar, three other villages will be affected by the project: Darthwekyaut, Satechaung and Nyaungchaung. In total, more than 9,000 acres of cultivable land will be lost, say local farmers who mostly grow rubber, betel and cashew nuts.
“Our losses will be enormous,” said a farmer who asked not to be identified. “A one-year-old rubber tree is valued at 80,000 kyat [US $100] and can provide latex for more than 30 years.”
The villagers of Anyarphyar have also voiced complaints about the construction of a tunnel by the Myanmar Natural Energy Wave company, which will also destroy land and agriculture.
“They just came in and bulldozed about three acres of land,” said Myint Aung. “No representative of the company spoke to us about their plans.”
He said the petition was sent not only to the Burmese president, but to the Myanmar Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Energy and various political parties, as well as to the Delco Company.
When contacted by The Irrawaddy, Delco’s head office in Rangoon declined to comment.
Delco is a private firm invested in tin-tungsten and mixed ore mining in Kanpuak, near Dawei, a project that was initiated in 2007.
It received a Build-Operate-Transfer agreement for the hydropower project at Dawei, or Tavoy, in 2010.
Thursday, 15 March 2012 18:31 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – Representatives of domestic and international media organizations and Burmese officials will meet to discuss media organization and development on Monday and Tuesday in Rangoon.
Organized by the Ministry of Information and UNESCO together with International Media Support and Canal France International, the conference will work to establish a way forward in the development of media in Burma.
Burma’s domestic media are central to upholding and supporting new democratic reforms. Since April 2011, Burma has carried out a number of social, economic and political reforms which have kick-started a democratic process in the country.
Conference speakers and experts will share international best practices in media development with local media workers, policy makers and civil society, looking at alternatives and options for future media development in the country. Issues to be addressed include laws and ethics of media practices, media empowering communities, the role of media in peace building and national reconciliation, sustainable business models for media and journalists’ professionalization.
High ministry officials will also address the conference and serve on various panels as moderators.
Soe Myint, the founder and managing director of Mizzima Media, will speak on “Collective Responsibilities of different media stakeholders in strengthening the democratic transition” on Tuesday.
A sampling of other speakers include Kavi Chongkittavorn, chairman, Southeast Asian Press Alliance, on “The role of the media for democratization in the Asean region and in Myanmar”; Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice Weekly journal and Living Color magazine on “The needs and challenges of the media in Myanmar’s democratic transition”; and Steve Buckley, former president, World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters on “The role of media in empowering communities.”
Thursday, 15 March 2012 12:38 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – Representatives from 85 South Korean private companies will meet with Burmese counterparts during an economic cooperation forum in April to enhance trade between the two countries.
The Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said participants would have one-to-one trade and investment business meetings and construction and infrastructure meetings on economic development plans and strategies.
Large conglomerates will include Samsung, Daewoo and Posco Steel.
The South Korean companies will seek investments in construction, mining, agriculture, electricity, energy, logistic and freight-forwarding, vehicles and auto parts, communication and multi-media, iron and steel, agro-fishery, timber and wood, financing, real estate, garment, transport, hotel and tourism, civil engineering and industries, the agency said.
Commercial trade between the two countries reached US$ 970 million in 2011, according to Korean statistics.
South Korea’s export to Burma amounted to $660, while its import from the Southeast Asian country was about $300 million.
South Korea mainly imports garments, textile, forestry products, agriculture and marine products while exporting construction materials, machines, iron and steel.
South Korea’s total investment in Burma was US$ 2.9 billion as of January 2012 in 48 projects since Burma opened to foreign investment in late 1988, according to Burmese government data.
Daewoo is one of Burma’s largest foreign investors, with extensive holdings in the oil and gas industry. While most European and western oil and gas companies do not conduct business in Burma on account of economic sanctions and its poor human rights record, Daewoo has developed natural gas production in Burma. During explorations, Daewoo found one of the largest gas deposits in Southeast Asia, in the Shwe field about 100 kilometres off Sittwe in Rakhine State.
By HANNA HINDSTROM
Published: 15 March 2012 With the world’s eyes fixed on Burma, there’s been much commotion about free and fair elections, political prisoners and ceasefire talks. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has endorsed these three issues as criteria for lifting sanctions against the new government. But beyond the media frenzy, perhaps the country’s greatest challenge will be the continued mismanagement of its abundant resource wealth.
Burma ranks third from last on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and according to a 2008 study by the International Monetary Fund, less than one percent of the country’s gas revenues (totalling $US3 billion dollars annually) even enters its budget. No visible improvements have been made since President Thein Sein took power, with land-grabbing and human rights abuses continuing unabated. Earlier this month, nine activists were arrested in Tharkaeta township for participating in a global day of action against the Shwe pipeline project, which is expected to net $US29 billion over 30 years and has already led to the confiscation of thousands of acres of land without compensation.
Campaigners say revenue transparency is key to boosting pressure on the nascent government, and steps have been taken in this direction. The European Union (EU) recently approved new legislation that would require European listed (and large non-listed) extractive companies to disclose all payments made to foreign governments for natural resource projects. It follows in the footsteps of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act in the United States, which made similar provisions for US-listed firms.
The new legislation would force companies like Total and Chevron to divulge their exact contributions for the controversial Yadana and Yetagun projects, which are the two single largest sources of income for the Burmese regime. It is also expected to “shame” other companies into ethical practices, deter investors from backing them and set a global standard for transparency legislation. Reporting requirements are also now being debated in the South Korean National Assembly.
But overall progress has been slow and the Dodd-Frank Act is facing growing pushback from industry lobby groups. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is set to issue final rules on transparency for the extractive industries by 19 April, but it is looking increasingly likely that its provisions will be watered down. “The oil industry has made some fairly overt threats to sue the SEC if they don’t like the rules,” Paul Donowitz from EarthRights International told DVB. Last month a group of 14 Congress representatives wrote to the SEC urging them to resist this pressure. Any delays or alterations will have a direct impact on the EU and Korean legislation, which are both set to be modelled on the SEC’s guidelines. As it stands US reporting requirements will not come into effect until 2014 at the earliest.
Industry voices insist that reporting requirements will cripple domestic firms with “red tape” and provide an unfair competitive advantage to less scrupulous companies. Indeed, the four biggest investors in Burma are China, Thailand, India and Singapore. Out of the 27 oil and gas companies currently operating in Burma – only three (Chevron, Total and the China National Offshore Oil Company) will be required to report under the Western regulations. If Korea’s amendment goes through – it would throw KOGAS and Daewoo International (a large investor in the Shwe project) into the mix. But substantial gaps remain, notably the Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which has one of the worst sustainability records in Burma.
While more Western companies are likely to pour into the country if further sanctions are lifted, they are unlikely to challenge China’s regional dominance. Despite rumours of a split between Burma and its northern neighbour, compounded by Thein Sein’s decision to drop the Myitsone Dam project, China is still responsible for nearly $US14 billion or 35 percent of Burma’s total foreign direct investment. Most of this money is pumped directly into hydropower, oil, gas and mining projects. So the reach of any extra-territorial transparency legislation remains incomplete at best.
Among the growing clamour around corporate accountability, there is also a risk of becoming distracted with “transparency for transparency’s sake”. Most of Burma’s challenges are inherently domestic, linked to the legacies of the endemically corrupt, military-dominated government. While exact payment figures could help tailor criticisms towards the regime, especially at the project level, it won’t necessarily reduce corruption and much less guarantee egalitarian development outcomes.
Burma faces a slew of development and human rights challenges that will require a strong civil society, as well as corporate accountability and constructive dialogue with the government to address. Problems arising from natural resource development are impossible to disentangle from ethnic conflict and militarisation, as most projects have had a disproportionately negative effect on minority communities. Accountability for rights abuses, community-level consultations and grievance mechanisms are all essential parts of the puzzle, along with macroeconomic reform and responsible fiscal management. Recent indications that the dual exchange rate might be abolished are positive, as it would end decades of market distortion that enabled the regime to conceal billions of dollars in foreign investment. But it is still far too early to rely on the sincerity of the regime’s reformist agenda.
Further significant anti-corruption efforts are needed at the country level. The world’s leading transparency drive – the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) – is local and consensus-driven but largely voluntary. Both Total and Chevron are supporters, but it makes no practical difference since the Burmese government is not. EITI has itself been criticised as both “toothless” and “slow” and to date Thein Sein has given no indication that Burma is considering joining the initiative, despite some rumoured grassroots support. Capacity-building for local advocacy groups may play a role, but will ultimately have limited influence without sustained global pressure.
The international community has an unprecedented opportunity to take action as the isolated regime hopes to convince Western governments to drop sanctions. This gives them substantial leverage – both directly and indirectly – to push for greater accountability of its revenue flows, whether in a voluntary or regulatory form. Indeed for sanctions against natural resource investment to be lifted without any transparency provisions whatsoever seems inherently misguided. Whether its current omission from the sanctions dialogue is intended to “encourage further reform” or implement a more cynical agenda remains debatable. In any case, natural resource management will serve as a crucial test not only for Thein Sein’s government, but also for the west’s commitment to democratic change in Burma.
DVB News – Lawsuit looms as media exposes graft
By AYE NAI Published: 15 March 2012
Burma’s mining ministry is weighing up the possibility of filing a lawsuit against a local news journal over an article it published concerning the ministry’s alleged misappropriation of budgets.
Officials have denied the accusation made by the Voice Weekly, according to the state-run Kyemon newspaper, and may press charges against the publisher and author of the article, headlined ‘Audit finds billions of Kyat misappropriation by some ministries’.
The article cites a report submitted to the Public Accounts Committee by the Union Auditor General’s Office saying that 50 percent of the shares for a copper mine in Sagaing division owned by an enterprise under the mining ministry were sold to the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings for US$100 million.
The payment was made by a ‘foreign company’, which is rumoured to have been Chinese owned.
A member of staff at the Voice Weekly told DVB that the publication has substantial evidence to back its claims. The report also claimed the Ministry of Information had pocketed more than two billion kyat ($US2.5 million) after selling off the government’s newspapers, and mentioned the Ministry of Industry-1’s siphoning of more than 200,000 gallons of oil from Chauk Oil Refinery in Magwe division.
Parliamentary representative Dr Aye Maung, of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, said the UAGO’s report that was distributed in parliament showed the state’s mining arm had embezzled more than $US3 million from the copper mine in Monywa.
Thet Zin, chief editor of Rangoon-based Myanmar Tribune, said state-run newspapers’ announcement of the lawsuit could be taken as a veiled threat aimed at all media outlets in the country.
Following Kyemon’s article, other well-known media outlets, the Weekly Eleven and Messenger News, published op-eds criticising the newspaper’s report as a one-sided threat on the country’s ‘fourth estate’, referring to media.
“I think it is inappropriate for the state-run media to publish something like this,” said Thet Zin. “This is a matter that concerns the mining ministry, but the state-owned newspapers published the ‘report’ [about the lawsuit] and I can actually sense some [anger] in it.”
The chief editor said that reporting on a verdict once a trial had been carried out would have been the better move.