Mar 19th, 2012
Reuters – 1 hour 17 minutes ago
YANGON (Reuters) – Myanmar’s president ordered on Monday the release from jail of a top ethnic rebel leader to allow him to join peace talks, his lawyer said, just six days after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for high treason.
Phado Man Nyein Maung, a senior political figure in the Karen National Union (KNU), was freed from the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon and taken to the new capital, Naypyitaw, to meet senior government officials.
“I heard the peace talks between the KNU and the government will resume in the first week of April and Phado Man Nyein Maung is expected to take part in it,” Kyi Myint, his lawyer, told Reuters.
Phado Man Nyein Maung, 70, was convicted on March 13 under Myanmar’s Illegal Association Act for his involvement in a long-running rebellion and was expected to serve at least 20 years in prison.
His release comes amid dialogue between Myanmar’s civilian government and more than a dozen separatist groups in pursuit of “everlasting peace” after decades of fighting in the ethnically diverse, resource-rich country.
Western nations have made a successful peace process with separatists one of their main demands for lifting sanctions that have denied the impoverished country billions of dollars worth of aid and investment.
The KNU has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948 and alongside its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), it agreed a truce with state negotiators on January 12.
Preliminary ceasefires have been agreed with 12 of the 16 armed ethnic groups or political organisations that have responded to President Thein Sein’s appeal last August for all sides to start dialogue.
Thein Sein has outlined a three-step plan towards peace with the rebel groups, starting with ceasefires, resettlement of refugees and political talks, then parliamentary procedures to formalise the deals.
The KNU is expected to be the first group to reach the second stage of the process and political talks, which could involve some form of decentralisation, are expected to start in April. Parliamentary by-elections will also be held in April.
Phado Man Nyein Maung has been jailed at least two occasions under former military regimes. The new government has released more than 600 political prisoners since last May.
AFP News – 1 hour 3 minutes ago
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party on Monday decried what it described as “unfair treatment” by the authorities ahead of April 1 by-elections.
The National League for Democracy (NLD) said in a statement that people in one village in northwest Sagaing were forced by the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to attend one of its meetings.
It said the army-backed USDP had also donated about $440 for a local school and promised the same amount again if the party wins in next month’s polls, without saying whether it was USDP or government funds.
“This is unacceptable and against the election laws,” the statement said.
The party also said that in the constituency of Kawhmu near Yangon, where Suu Kyi is standing for a seat in parliament, the names of 413 dead people were found on the voter list.
It said 1,387 other names of valid voters in the same constituency were left off the electoral roll and 259 names were listed more than once.
With its top ranks filled with former generals, the USDP claimed an overwhelming victory in a 2010 election that was marred by widespread complaints of intimidation and fraud.
Suu Kyi and her NLD party boycotted that vote, largely because of rules that would have required it to expel political prisoners from the party.
The pro-democracy leader herself was excluded from the 2010 polls because she was under house arrest at the time. She was released just days afterwards, having spent most of the past two decades in detention.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is standing for a seat in parliament for the first time in the April vote, where 48 seats are at stake, which is not enough to threaten the ruling party’s majority.
The NLD also expressed concern about media reports that advance votes were already being collected ahead of the period set by the election commission.
It is not the first time the NLD has cried foul.
Last month the party complained that it was being denied the use of big enough venues to hold rallies ahead of the polls, but just hours afterwards it announced that the restrictions had been lifted.
Suu Kyi’s decision to stand for a seat in parliament is the latest sign of dramatic change taking place in the country formerly known as Burma after nearly half a century of outright military rule ended last year.
The regime has surprised observers with reforms including welcoming the NLD back into mainstream politics, signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
Observers believe the regime wants Suu Kyi to win a seat in the polls to give its reformist programme legitimacy and spur the West into easing sanctions against the country.
Asia Times Online – Myanmar lures Singapore Inc
By Megawati Wijaya SINGAPORE – Singapore Inc is in hot pursuit of business opportunities in Myanmar, where a recent reform drive aims to lure more foreign direct investment. A long time ally to Myanmar’s former military regime, Singapore is well placed to reap first-mover advantages vis-a-vis Western countries that maintain but are slowly lifting economic sanctions against the country.
Last month, a delegation representing 74 Singapore-based companies traveled to Myanmar for networking and business matching with Myanmar counterparts in construction, education, finance, infrastructure and logistics.
Organized by the trade promotion groups Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, the trip featured site visits, the signing of a memorandum of understanding to promote economic relations and trade ties, and courtesy calls on reformist President Thein Sein and many of his ministers.
The Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), a national level group that promotes the business interests of Myanmar’s private sector and coordinated the Singaporean delegation’s visit, said the group was the largest to explore new business opportunities in the country.
The military has dominated and mismanaged Myanmar’s economy since a wave of nationalization of assets that began in the 1960s. The country’s recent ambitious pace of change, abundance of natural resources, strategic geographic location and sizeable workforce positions it for rapid growth over the next few years, SBF chairman Tony Chew said during the trip.
Participants in the delegation have sounded similarly optimistic notes, while at least one Singaporean property and construction company, Yoma Strategic Holdings, saw its share price surge on expectations of yet-to-be-announced new Myanmar-related ventures.
James Aw, business development director at Singaporean building construction group Hor Kew Corporation who last visited the country in 1996, said he saw some potential for housing projects.
“In 1996, things were still very raw. There were no roads or other infrastructure; the locals also didn’t have much money to spend.” he said, while noting that property prices in the former capital of Yangon have risen quickly in the past two to three years.
“People have spending power now. We couldn’t build mass housing of 30,000-40,000 units at one go yet, as we are doing in Singapore. But at least we could do 15-20 unit project types now.” His business group is also looking into building a 100-room hotel in Yangon with newly found local partners.
Jimmy Neo, managing director at Filtec, a logistics and heavy equipment provider, said Myanmar’s more open environment makes it easier to do business compared with the more heavily restricted 1990s and 2000s.
“Things have certainly changed in the past one to two years. In the past you would need connections with high-ranking military generals if you wanted to do business in Myanmar,” said Neo, who has conducted business in Myanmar for the past 15 years. “Now it is easier to navigate. There is less red tape and the business climate is more conducive now.”
Neo has noticed a growing number of Singaporean businesses in Myanmar, which he suggests is a reflection of Singapore government policy. “The recent trip organized by SBF-IE shows that there is obviously some attention [from the government and trade boards] on Myanmar being touted as the next developing market with business opportunities for Singapore-based businesses,” he said.
Singapore is Myanmar’s fourth-largest export partner and second-largest import partner, with bilateral trade amounting to S$1.6 billion (US$1.3 billion) in 2011.
As of October 2011, Singapore was the sixth-largest source of foreign direct investment in Myanmar, with 74 Singaporean companies contributing a total of US$1.8 billion, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Around 70% of Singaporean companies invested in Myanmar are involved in hotel construction, tourism and real estate. The rest are involved in agricultural, energy, mining and manufacturing ventures.
Singaporean businesses started to enter Myanmar, then known as Burma, in 1988 when the then ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ended General Ne Win’s dictatorial rule and started tentatively to open the hermit country to more international trade.
While Western legislators, including in the United States and European Union, imposed economic sanctions over the military’s lethal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, use of forced labor and government-linked narcotics trafficking, Singaporean companies continued to pour money into the country throughout the 1990s.
“While the other countries are ignoring Myanmar, it’s a good time for us to go in,” said Tay Thiam Peng, director of foreign operations at Singapore’s Trade Development Board, in a revealing 1996 media interview. “You get better deals, and you’re more appreciated… Singapore’s position is not to judge them and take a judgmental moral high ground.”
Singapore’s pro-engagement stance mirrors that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined under a cloud of controversy in 1997. Since then, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand have consistently been among Myanmar’s top sources of FDI, along with neighboring China and India. Those ties, however, have sometimes put Singapore at loggerheads with the US.
Asia World, one Myanmar’s largest business conglomerates with diversified interests in trading, manufacturing, real estate, construction, and transportation, has strong ties to Singapore and is also on a US Treasury blacklist of sanctioned companies. Lo Hsing Han and his son Steven Law, respectively the company’s founder and current chairman, have been on a US visa blacklist since 1996 for suspected drug trafficking activities.
In February 2008, they were both put on a US Treasury Department sanctions list, along with Asia World Company and subsidiaries Asia World Co Ltd, Asia World Port Management, Asia World Industries Ltd and Asia World Light Ltd, for their financial connections to the then ruling military junta. Law’s wife, Cecilia Ng, owns 10 more companies under the group’s banner which are situated in Singapore.
US officials have also criticized Singapore for allowing senior regime members to maintain questionable bank accounts in Singapore. Senior junta members, including former junta leader Senior General Than Shwe, frequently visit Singapore for health care. Former junta leaders’ and their business associates’ children are known to attend some of Singapore’s top private schools.
Despite recent foreign investments, particularly in export-oriented oil and gas ventures, Myanmar remains one of the poorest countries on most development measures. There are widespread perceptions among Myanmar’s citizens that the benefits of FDI have accrued mostly to a narrow and historically unaccountable military elite.
Since Thein Sein took office last year, however, the pace of reforms has taken many international observers by surprise. “During the president’s inauguration speech last March, there was the acknowledgement that the country is poor,” said Tin Maung Maung Than, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. “It has also been realized that other countries have moved forward, and more things should be done in Myanmar to bring the country forward.”
In that direction, Myanmar’s government is drafting new foreign investment rules that could bring an end to protectionist requirements such as foreigners having to take on local partners when establishing businesses in the country and products produced by foreign firms having to be exported. Foreign investment may also be granted a five-year tax holiday from the start of commercial operations, according to a draft of the new investment law obtained by Reuters.
Other reforms, including plans to harmonize the official and black-market rates of the local currency, the kyat, are also in the pipeline. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, recent reforms are expected to boost Myanmar’s gross domestic product growth to 5.5% this fiscal year 2011-12 and 6% in 2012-13. The latter figure could rise higher if Western countries, as some have signaled, start to remove their economic and financial sanctions in reward for recent reforms.
Singapore arguably has a head start on its Western competitors. Singapore’s Foreign Minister K Shanmugam reaffirmed the two countries’ “good and longstanding” bilateral relationship during Thein Sein’s official visit to the island state in January.
At that meeting, the two sides signed a Technical Cooperation Program bilateral agreement where Singapore agreed to offer courses in investment promotion, infrastructure building, trade, tourism development and central banking, as well as training in English language, technical and vocational skills for Myanmar’s workers. On the private sector side, business promotion groups SBF and IE say they plan a second major business mission to Myanmar in May.
Many Singaporean businesspeople say there are still hurdles to making money in Myanmar, including a lack of modern banking and financial facilities as well as foreign exchange risks related to holding or transacting in the country’s still highly distorted kyat currency.
Others are taking a wait-and-see approach due to political uncertainties, including prospects for stability before and after April 1 by-elections, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party will contest 45 of 46 vacant parliamentary seats. The military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party dominates Myanmar’s newly created legislatures.
“The by-elections do not hold any political significance in the sense that it will not influence the power balance in Myanmar. The election is a symbolic one, to illustrate openness and stability in Myanmar,” said ISEAS’s Tin Maung Maung Than. “This [in turn] can show foreign investors that the country is moving forward.”
To Singapore’s outward looking businesses, who wins and whether Myanmar’s fledgling democracy is more representative is of secondary importance.
Businessman Aw said, “The most important thing is that the elected government should be able to create an open, conducive business environment and implement pro-business policies.”
Megawati Wijaya is a Singapore-based journalist. She may be contacted at email@example.com
By Zin Linn Mar 19, 2012 6:54PM UTC
The first national press award presentation, jointly organized by Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association (MWJA) and National Press Award Committee (NPAC) was held at National Theatre in Dagon Township on 18 March. Union Minister for Information and for Culture Kyaw Hsan and Yangon Region Chief Minister Myint Swe attended The ceremony, the state owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar said today.
Also present on the occasion were Yangon Region Minister for Finance and Revenue Daw San San Nwe, departmental heads of the Information Ministry and Culture Ministry, chairpersons and executives of the MWJA, Myanmar Motion Picture Association, Myanmar Music Association, and Myanmar Artistes Association, the patron, chairperson and CEC members of the National Press Award Committee, members of the national press awards selection board, senior journalists, the literati, writers, award winners and their families, donors, personnel from private journals and guests.
In his opening speech, Union Minister Kyaw Hsan said that today’s occasion is the first ever kind of ceremony to present National Press Awards in honour of the Myanmar news media. He said that Burma’s literati and the fourth estate have worked in the interests of their own nation, people, language and religion with the strength of pen.
Kyaw Hsan said that the military rule was softly changed into a democratic system on 30 March 2011. He continued that on 31 March 2011, President Thein Sein revealed the government’s objectives and stances on the news media. Quoting President’s speech, Kyaw Hsan said that the nation’s fourth estate has freedom and accountability and freedom and rationality in line with the media ethics.
Kyaw Hsan underlined the Section 354 Sub-section (a) of the constitution of of Myanmar (Burma) which says every citizen shall have the right to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions if it is not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality.
He also said that journalists have the right to freedom of expression, but they also need to follow journalistic code of ethics faithfully. Freedom must be promoted by following and maintaining the ethics, he added.
“Studying the journalistic code of ethics, we need to follow a point ‘Respect for the truth and for the right of public to the truth.’ A piece of wrong information can sometimes cause a big problem. Incorrect information can harm the emotional feelings and image of others. It can also affect the right of the people to the truth. So, it is important for every journalist to constantly try to produce correct information. It is especially important for the journalists not to spread their information if they are unsure about its authenticity. Correct information must be produced based on reliable sources and careful all-round consideration,” Union Minister Kyaw Hsan said.
Next, Chairman of the NPAC Maung Wuntha gave a speech, followed by presentation of national press award, The New Light of Myanmar said.
Patron of the NPAC writer Phoe Thuakkyar presented best news award to Nan Lwin, Aye Thiri Win , Hnin Yadana Zaw and Wint Yadi from the Kumadra Journal by“Initiating for the future of the nation”.
Chairman Maung Wuntha presented best article award to Nyein Nyein Naing from 7 days News Journal by “ Are armed conflicts put on the table?”.
Chairman of Myanma Motion Picture Association Myint Thein Pe presented best news photo award to Aung Naing Soe from the Popular News Journal by “retired age pension and political pension move or clouds glowing with reflected light at sunset”.
Member of the National Press Award Selection Board Shwe Min Tha presented best cartoon award to Thiha (Sakhanthit) from the True News Journal by “Like the story”.
MWJA Chairman Tin Hlaing (Ledwintha Saw Chit) presented the most special national news photo award to senior reporter (photo) Maung Maung Than (Kawhmu) of Myanma News Agency by “President U Thein Sein’s call on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi”.
However, according to one journalist who wishes to remain anonymous, there are scores of media personnel who have stayed away from this ceremony since it has been exploited by MWJA backed by the information minister. Due to lack of freedom, some journalists quietly boycott the national press award ceremony.
Bangkok Post – Thai firms urged to tap Myanmar rise
Published: 19/03/2012 at 02:56 AM
Writer: Phusadee Arunmas, Position: Business Reporter
Newspaper section: Business YANGON : Thai businesses are being urged to change their mindset about Myanmar, as most still see the country as closed to foreign investment, full of obstacles and languishing under a military government.
“Such an understanding is not correct, as Myanmar is now moving very quickly to better political sentiment as indicated by the byelection to be held in early April,” said Prajuab Supinee, director of the Thai Trade Office in Yangon.
“Thai businessmen should look at Myanmar as a country of opportunity, although it still lacks efficient investment-related rules and regulations. They should take the first step though business matching with local operators.”
For those Thai executives who are enthusiastic about Myanmar but have only the vaguest idea of how to do business, Mr Prajuab’s advice is to trust the Myanmar people, as they are not cheaters by nature and want sincere friends to work with in business.
He predicts a quick change in Myanmar over the next few years on rising demand for imported products, particularly from Thailand, as the people’s economic situation improves.
Myanmar used to get 200,000 to 300,000 tourists a year, but the number rose to 1 million last year, with each tourist spending 20,000 to 30,000 baht. Hotel rooms and flights are insufficient, resulting in rising expenses for visitors.
Mr Prajuab said firms in Myanmar are controlled largely by five conglomerates _ the Htoo Group for airlines, construction and agriculture; the Yusana Group for integrated agriculture; the Asian World Group for construction and infrastructure; the Max Group for road construction (partnering with Italian-Thai Development Plc); and the KBZ Group for airlines and retail.
Ukrit Archapairoj of Kasikornbank’s corporate business division said Myanmar people and Thais have similar tastes, so Thai companies able to supply similar products will have an opportunity to expand their market.
Business in Myanmar is done mostly by cash. The government must improve exchange by reducing the gap between the official and the black-market rates to create stability and generate more trade.
Mr Ukrit said Thailand is falling behind other foreign investors in Myanmar such as the Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans and Singaporeans despite being right next door.
Maung Maung Lay, a vice-president of Myanmar’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the US is expected to lift economic sanctions either partly or wholly after that country’s November elections.
“Several Democratic and Republican representatives have visited Myanmar, and they were satisfied with the improvement,” he said.
“Myanmar will move faster and try hard to develop human resources. We can’t live alone. In 2014, Myanmar will lead the Asean meeting. Investment in Myanmar will be challenges and opportunities.”
Maung Maung Lay said the Myanmar government’s new rules and laws promoting investment and financial services will be unveiled next month.
“Thailand is closely connected with the Myanmar people, and people of the two countries share the same goal and common faith in Buddhism,” he said.
“Nothing is much different, so we can stay together and work together.”
Given lingering concerns about whether Myanmar will have a real opening, Maung Maung Lay said Myanmar has no way to move but forward, as the government realised the country has lagged behind the region by 50-60 years.
Myanmar Holds Conference On Media Development Amid Reform YANGON, March 19 (Bernama) — A media conference aimed at developing the country’s media sector organised by Myanmar Ministry of Information and UNESCO began here Monday, Xinhua news agency reported.
The two-day media conference, attended by scholars, journalists and resource personnel from across the world, is held amid Myanmar’s media reform.
The conference’s outcome, which expects to help draft a new print media law that ensures press freedom, will be submitted to Mynamar’s next session of union parliament, Minister of Information U Kyaw Hsan said during the conference’s opening ceremony.
According to Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar is making a three-step media reform beginning with the first step by relaxing press restrictions to be carried out in phases.
This step has paved the way for domestic periodicals to practice press freedom with responsibility and accountability, making it possible for 173 journals and 124 magazines to be able to publish without prior approval by the Press Scrutiny Board.
In the second step, a new print media law which ensures press freedom is being drafted to replace the existing Registration of Printers and Publishers Law-1962.
The third step deals with the ministry’s role in supporting private media sector for exercising freedom, accountability and rationality under the new print media law, said Kyaw Hsan.
Kyaw Hsan indicated a new broadcast media law will also to be drafted in light of changing media environment to help state-owned media to become public service media.
SHAH ALAM, March 19 (Bernama) — A 14-year-old girl who was reported missing from home by her family in Seksyen 18 recently, has been rescued by Thai police at a train station in Bangkok.
Selangor CID chief SAC Mohd Adnan Abdullah said the Malaysian Embassy in Bangkok was currently liaising with the Thai authorities to send the teenager back to Malaysia.
In a statement here, he said the girl had called her mother at the family home in Seksyen 18 here on March 12 at 4.57pm. Following this, a report was lodged at the Seksyen 11 police station on the same day.
Mohd Adnan said, in the telephone call, the girl informed her mother that she and several Myanmar nationals were abducted by a group of people and sent to Thailand.
“However, they managed to escape and were rescued by the Thai police at the Hua Lampong train station in Bangkok,” he said, adding that the case was investigated under kidnapping with the intention of prostitution.
Posted: Mar 18, 2012 6:06 PM by David Jay
Updated: Mar 18, 2012 6:10 PM
BILLINGS – The organization Vision Beyond Borders has been helping orphans in Burma or Myanmar for about 15 years.
A Cyclone and Tsumami four years ago along with on-going genocide has left many children homeless and without parents.
Millions from Burma have relocated to other countries…and 500-thousand have been killed by the government, according to the group Free Burma Rangers.
A recent visit shows conditions may be improving in parts of the country.
“We actually got to see some of the changes in the government that there is an opening up that is occurring there,” said Dyann Romeijn who handles public relations for Vision Beyond Borders in Bozeman.
Still, Romeijn says there is still genocide happening in the jungles.
Romeijn and her daughter Ella returned last week from a three week trip.
Dyann is with the group Vision Beyond Borders…which has helped build four orphanages and helps take care of hundreds of children.
“Many of them have seen their parents killed,” Romeijn said. “Many of them have witnessed terrible atrocities, and yet they get up at 4 in the morning, they read their bible, they worship the Lord and they’re just gentle and kind and show the fruit of the spirt. It just kind of leaves no doubt your happiness is not dependent on your circumstances but on a relationship with Jesus.”
The Christian based Vision Beyond Borders also passes out Bibles.
Rather than relying on the Burmese government, Vision Beyond Borders delivers food, clothing and medical supplies.
“It’s amazing what a difference you can make for these people and it’s just a small amount,” Romeijn said.
Dyann and Ella gave a special meal to the kids in one of the villages.
“Ella was able to pass out chicken to these kids and they only receive meat two times a year,” Romeijn said. “So they were just so thankful to receive simple things like meat.”
Sometimes the challenges can appear monumental, but the people in Burma keep the volunteers from America inspired.
“when you actually get to interact with the people you see how much it means to them to do what you can, you just want to keep doing more.”
Vision Beyond Borders takes about one trip every month to Southeast Asia and gets to Burma about three times a year.
Deutsche Welle – MTV and Burmese pop stars campaign to end human trafficking
R Zarni is one of Myanmar’s most successful pop stars. Normally busy turning the heads of young girls, he is now busy creating awareness about human trafficking.
At the beginning of March, R Zarni presented a documentary film in Yangon about human trafficking. He recounted stories of victims, young girls, who are sold for a little bit of money, and of their traffickers who sell them as prostitutes or slaves.
The documentary film was part of the “MTV Exit” campaign to promote awareness, especially among young populations around the world, against human trafficking and exploitation.
The music TV station has already produced short films on the topic in a number of Southeast Asian languages.
To reach as many people as possible, the films are presented by stars of their regions.
MTV started the campaign in 2004. It now receives support from ASEAN, the US, Australia, various NGOs and the United Nations. There is a Facebook page for the project which already has over 90,000 fans. It also has its own Twitter channel.
The hub of human trafficking
Myanmar is an Asian hub for human trafficking. In line with the country’s democratization, it has become easier to talk about the subject openly. Myanmar’s most prominent figure, Aung San Suu Kyi has brought up the issue of trafficked women and children in public speeches. Julia Marip of the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand told Deutsche Welle this is an important step in the country’s development.
The country that was ruled by a repressive military regime for the past five decades plays a prominent role for traffickers and the victims of their trade. A 2011 report by the US State Department found Myanmar to be a country of origin and a transit country for sex slaves. Burmese victims are trafficked to Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, South Korea and Macau. And victims from Bangladesh meant for the Thai and Chinese markets are usually sent through Myanmar. The struggle to fight trafficking goes on, according to Marip, because of corruption.
“Officials are involved in trafficking. They receive bribes. Bribes, corruption and inadequate laws are the main obstacles.”
People of ethnic minority groups are trafficked to various parts of the country and are forced to work on government infrastructure and farming projects. The wide-spread use and deployment of child soldiers in Myanmar is rampant and is virtually unmatched by any other country in the world.
Exploitation in Thailand
In Thailand alone there are currently around 100,000 Burmese domestic workers. The conditions in which they work are often extremely poor, according to Awatsaya Panam of Mahidol University’s Institute for Population and Social.
A recent study conducted by the institute examined the conditions under which people from Myanmar work in Thai factories. They are paid extremely low wages, are not allowed to leave the factory premises, live in over-crowded, windowless shacks and often become victims of sexual abuse.
In recent years, the Burmese government has undertaken steps to stop the export of sex slaves in the bordering areas near Thailand. Yet it has done nothing to stop forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers.
“You can’t say the situation is better or getting worse. Currently, the Burmese government has tried to press reforms as a democratic country. But the root causes of human trafficking are of economic nature. Poverty and high unemployment are big factors,” Marip explains.
MTV’s new Exit campaign is taking advantage of Myanmar’s new reforms to spread awareness about human trafficking.
“The worst part of human trafficking is that seemingly strong people take advantage of people’s weaknesses,” says R Zarni.
Other stars are also working on the MTV project. Burmese female singer Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein, who is active in UNICEF, has been supporting MTV’s Exit since 2009.
Marip hopes the project will be a big success. “If it is done well, it will be very good for the people.” With the government focusing on legislation to curb trafficking and organizations creating awareness, Marip believes the battle is sure to be won.
Monday 19th March, 2012 (IANS)
Public sector United Bank of India (UBI) will soon come out with a proposal to boost trade between India and Myanmar, a top official said Monday.
“UBI has taken the initiative of providing help to traders of India and Myanmar,” UBI chairman and managing director Bhaskar Sen said here.
“Our proposal will help traders of both India and Myanmar,” he added.
Sen spoke on ‘Enhancing Indo-Myanmar Business Relation” at an event organised by the Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BNCCI) here.
“Currently, trade (with Myanmar) in US dollar is very difficult. Official trade between the two countries now takes place through Euro and Singapore dollar, which is very expensive,” he said.
Trade between India and Myanmar stood at $1.3 billion is expected to clock $3 billion by 2015.
Financial Times – Myanmar pushes reform to woo investors
By Gwen Robinson in Yangon
A new draft of Myanmar’s proposed foreign investment law would offer overseas investors a five-year tax break, guarantees against nationalisation, and the ability to set up in the country without a local partner, as the government seeks to end decades of economic isolation.
Myanmar has also announced it will begin a managed float of the currency, the kyat, from April 1, a step seen as vital to cushion the country from the adverse effects of any rapid inflows of capital.
The moves represent a strong statement of intent amid a push to woo investors after years of harsh economic sanctions . They also reflect intense domestic debate over proposals to overhaul its outdated foreign investment code, introduced in 1988 by the then-military junta.
Among proposed reforms in the bill, which could be passed by parliament within the next two weeks, are provisions for foreign businesses to set up in Myanmar without local partners, as previously required; government guarantees against nationalisation; easing of restrictions on private land use and repatriation of profits; and a five-year tax exemption for foreign companies.
The draft investment bill has already been revised after an earlier version in January met strong opposition from local business groups, who said some measures were too favourable to foreign companies, such as a proposed eight-year tax exemption.
The government, meanwhile, is proceeding with currency reform, another area seen as vital for rebuilding investor confidence.
Under a plan to be overseen by Myanmar’s central bank, the government will begin a managed float of the kyat on April 1, the start of its fiscal year, and develop an interbank money market, under guidance from the International Monetary Fund.
The aim is to unify up to seven different rates used by business, government and consumers, although initially the focus will be on keeping the kyat near the informal market rate of Kt800 to the dollar. The official rate is more than 120 times higher, at about Kt6.4 to the dollar, based on a 35-year peg to IMF special drawing rights.
The IMF, which is formulating a comprehensive financial reform plan for Myanmar, has emphasised the urgency of exchange-rate reform, saying after an exhaustive technical mission in January that abolishing the multiple-rate system would unleash Myanmar’s potential to become Asia’s “next economic frontier”.
A managed float would enable the government to intervene to influence exchange rates – a fact that US economist Joseph Stiglitz recently argued would help cushion Myanmar from “serious risks” of financial instability due to large inflows of foreign aid and investment.
The draft investment law is “certainly a step in the right direction”, said Sean Turnell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney and a Myanmar specialist.
“Of course, the broader business climate matters more, but even here, things are better. For instance, the new law seems to contain an assurance that no foreign operation would ever be nationalised; under past regimes this just seemed to draw attention to Burma’s unfortunate history in this context, now it seems a promise of some substance.”
If the bill is passed by parliament before its session ends on March 31, as expected, president Thein Sein has 14 days to either approve it or send it back to parliament, according to the constitution.
Wall Street Journal (blog) – Film Explores Myanmar’s Press
By Shibani Mahtani
In 2010, when foreign journalists were still largely exiled from Myanmar, two Australian filmmakers set out to document the country’s first general elections in two decades through the experiences of reporters working at the Myanmar Times, the country’s only local newspaper with foreign investment.
What followed was a series of bizarre and unexpected difficulties, even for Myanmar, including the deportation of filmmakers Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow. Having made a film about the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, the pair initially planned to revisit the country in light of the recent Khmer Rouge tribunal trials there, but they soon grew even more interested in the paper’s Myanmar cousin, which is also partly owned by Australian Ross Dunkley.
Switching gears, the filmmakers were somewhat surprised when Mr. Dunkley, also the paper’s editor-in-chief, invited them inside his newsroom in the lead-up to the country’s 2010 elections. The train went off the rails, though, when Mr. Dunkley was arrested on charges of assault, which he denied, and the filmmakers themselves were kicked out of Myanmar for concealing the purpose of their visit to authorities. (Mr. Dunkley was held for more than 40 days, but later released, and continues as the paper’s editor-in-chief).
Much has happened since the 2010 elections – which were widely decried as fraudulent – and Mr. Piper and Ms. Barrow’s film. The country now boasts a nominally-civilian government and has kick-started a series of celebrated – though still largely untested – reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, ceasefires with some of the country’s long-persecuted ethnic groups, and even talk of new censorship-free media laws.
But some dissidents remain doubtful of the government’s sincerity, and the documentary’s release – it was screened for the first time in Southeast Asia during the Southeast Asian Film Festival in Singapore in early March – might be a reminder of why. When the filmmakers were deported, they had 40 hours of film, enough for a movie, but decided to follow the Dunkley trial because they thought it was newsworthy. From that point on they continued to receive new footage from a cameraman inside the country, though the decision also forced the filmmakers to postpone the documentary’s preview during the Sydney Film Festival in June last year.
The filmmakers were afraid that Mr. Dunkley’s comments in the film would affect his legal case, which his supporters said was politically motivated to run him out of the country. Myanmar officials denied those charges.
The filmmakers had the permission of Mr. Dunkley (but not the government), and often shadowed reporters from the Myanmar Times as they tried to get material from military-backed candidates campaigning for election. Authorities within the country soon found out, and after a month working within the country, the filmmakers were deported.
“The dramatic changes in Burma since we made the film are very exciting, but it is still very much a question of whether those changes are real and long term, or simply cosmetic to get rid of the sanctions,” said Hugh Piper, the film’s writer and director, in an email interview.
“In this context, the ongoing value of the film is that it keeps a spotlight on how mindlessly repressive things used to be,” he added, saying that it could serve “as a warning” for investors excitedly considering future investment in fast-changing Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Myanmar officials have repeatedly insisted their latest reforms are irreversible and that the country is embarked on a path towards full, open democracy.
The paper followed by the documentarians has long been a subject of controversy. Some dissidents say they believe the paper pulls punches when writing about the government in order to stay open and protect its backers’ business interests, but Mr. Dunkley – and many readers – have dismissed those concerns, saying the Myanmar Times has done everything it can do to write hard-hitting reports given Myanmar’s strict censorship rules. Among other things, reporters have been forced to submit their stories to censors before publication, with material deemed offensive to the government removed, though journalists say the restrictions have eased somewhat over the past year.
In the documentary, draft versions of the paper are seen coming back with angry red cross marks after being sent to military censors up to the general elections in 2010; in other cases, editors had to pull entire articles. The film also shows Mr. Dunkley criticizing his business partner, Dr. Tin Tun Oo, who ran for election under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s ticket in 2010, and lost.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the risk of operating within Myanmar’s media industry was the unwillingness of many of the paper’s local journalists to get involved in the making of the documentary. Most Burmese journalists were reluctant to go on camera – with the exception of Myo Myo, a 30-year old journalist who contributed to both the English and Myanmar language editions of the paper, who allowed filmmakers to come to her home and interview her mother. She also helped the filmmakers get footage of the 2010 general elections and managed to escape military police officers who wanted to get the names of Mr. Piper and Ms. Barrow.
This, she says, was driven not out of fearlessness or bravado, but simply because she wanted to help the directors.
“I was just happy to have a chance to help them tell the story they wanted to tell,” said Ms. Myo in an interview after the film’s screening in Singapore. A journalist for the last five years, she is now on a three month journalism fellowship program at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in partnership with the Temasek Foundation. This training, she says, is a luxury — without journalism schools within her country and with limited media freedoms, she had to teach herself how to write news by simply reading all the news she could get her hands on.
“Since I came of age, I wanted to tell the story of Myanmar to people outside,” she said, noting that as a local journalist she often had “less chance” to cover stories given censorship rules and a higher chance of arrest.
Unlike the documentary’s filmmakers, Ms. Myo remains a little more optimistic about the media future within her country, and is convinced that despite years of repression and controls on the press, many more young Burmese people are itching to join the news industry. Government officials have said repeatedly in recent months that they intend to strip away much if not all of their censorship, though many dissidents remain unsure.
“There are positive developments in many sectors. I believe that press laws will start emerging which will help the freedoms [we have as journalists],” she said. “I am very excited.”
The film is screening on ABC television later this month.
The Daily Star, Bangladesh – Dipu hopes for better relations with Myanmar
Staff Correspondent Foreign Minister Dipu Moni hoped that bilateral relation with Myanmar would be more positive and constructive after the landmark verdict on maritime boundary issue, as the row between the two countries settled in a peaceful way.
She was speaking yesterday in parliament informing the people about the country’s victory in the maritime boundary dispute with Myanmar.
Bangladesh on March 14 won a landmark verdict at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which sustained its claim to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic and territorial rights in the Bay of Bengal rejecting the claims of Myanmar.
During her speech, Dipu said the government will not hesitate to take any “brave decision” in future to protect the country’s interest.
Hideki Tsujita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
(Mar. 18, 2012) OKAYAMA–Okayama University recently announced plans to build a medical academy in Myanmar to train doctors and raise the level of medical care within the country.
Currently, the university provides medical assistance to the Southeast Asian nation, which has few medical training institutions and suffers from a chronic shortage of medical personnel.
The university will consult with Myanmar’s Health Ministry about where to locate the academy, to be named Rinsho (clinical) Academy, and examination fees. The academy is expected to become the nation’s medical treatment headquarters. The university aims to begin construction in a few years.
Okayama University began providing medical assistance to Myanmar in 2002, after concluding an agreement with the ministry with the help of Shigeru Okada, 72, who at the time, was a professor at the university’s medical school.Okada and his subordinates visited the capital city of Naypyidaw and Yangon, the largest city in the country, to hold a training seminar for doctors and offer guidance regarding treatment.
Okada said he felt an affinity with the local residents, as he heard his father was secretly given food by locals after being captured by British troops while serving in the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II.
After Okada retired from the university in 2005, Yoshihiro Kimata, a professor at the Okayama University Graduate School of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmaceutical Sciences’ plastic and reconstructive surgery department, took over the project. The university started providing surgical assistance to Myanmar in 2010 and has treated about 160 patients, mainly for the plastic surgery.
Meanwhile, Okada remained active in his efforts to improve medicine in Myanmar as the director of an Okayama-based nonprofit organization, the Myanmar-Japan Collaboration Project for Fostering Human Medical Resources.
According to Kimata, who has frequently visited Myanmar with the NPO’s members, there are only about 30 doctors per 100,000 people, one-seventh that of Japan.
Only four universities in Myanmar have medical schools, and the shortage of doctors has become a chronic problem. In rural areas, many residents suffering from burns on their bodies cannot receive adequate treatment. As a result, many Myanmar locals have died from burns.
While Kimata has become more determined to save locals from medical hardship, he said, “If we only continue medical support to Myanmar, our efforts will eventually dwindle. The first priority should be to foster human resources in the medical sector.”
To do so, the university decided to establish the clinical academy to emphasize training doctors as a step to improve medical care in the country. The NPO plans to recruit companies to finance the project.
“We want to establish a system to periodically send doctors to Myanmar and save many patients there. We also aim to deepen exchanges with Myanmar and promote the university’s internationalization,” Kimata said.
The story of Albina du Boisrouvray’s 20-year campaign to improve the lives of the country’s 100,000 Aids sufferers can now be told
The Observer, Saturday 17 March 2012 We are sitting in the office of Burma’s chief of police in Nay Pyi Taw, the national capital of what, until a few months ago, was one of the most closed societies on Earth. Carved out of jungle and scrubland in 2005 at a reported cost of £2bn, Nay Pyi Taw is the ultimate socialist vanity project, a testament to the vaulting ambitions of the secretive military junta that has ruled Burma for more than four decades. To obtain this rare audience, we have had to negotiate numerous roadblocks and armed checkpoints. Despite the recent installation of a western-friendly civilian government, I am half-expecting to be escorted to the border. Instead, we are sitting in high-backed teak chairs sipping tea with the chief of police and discussing how the countess’s development agency, Association François Xavier-Bagnoud, can help the government address the problem of human trafficking and the diseases, such as Aids, that come in its wake. I should say straight away that Albina du Boisrouvray, as she is more usually known, hates being called “Countess”, though clearly her title must have come in useful when dealing with the generals.
For today’s meeting, she is wearing a lightweight summer dress with a floral print, high heels, and large spiral earrings studded with what look like small diamonds. The jewellery appears expensive but, as Du Boisrouvray reveals later when we return to our hotel, the earrings are vintage and the “diamonds” are glass. The dress, meanwhile, was designed by an acquaintance. Nevertheless, Du Boisrouvray exudes Rive Gauche glamour and I am fairly sure that the chief of police and his colleagues dressed, like him, in regulation-issue blue uniforms have never seen anything quite like her.
But appearances can be deceptive and none more so than in the case of Du Boisrouvray, a regular visitor to Burma who has been sharing uncomfortable truths with the junta for 20 years. Pleasantries and the ritual exchange of business cards over, it is no surprise when she launches into her spiel, about how FXB is no fly-by-night development agency but is passionately committed to fighting Burma’s burgeoning Aids epidemic and working for the long-term betterment of the country and its people.
FXB’s philosophy, she explains, quoting the words of her intellectual mentor, Jonathan Mann, the former head of the World Health Organisation’s Aids programme, is that you cannot hope to defeat an epidemic disease such as Aids without also addressing fundamental political and social issues. “As Jonathan used to put it: health and human rights are inextricably linked,” says Du Boisrouvray. “They go hand in hand.”
If the chief of police is surprised by her reference to human rights in a country notorious for summary detentions and the torture of political prisoners he doesn’t show it. Instead, he smiles and tells her that he has heard many good things about FXB’s Burma programmes and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate on human trafficking issues, something the Ministry of Interior recently decided should be made a political priority. “But tell me,” he asks, momentarily departing from the official script, “what is it that first brought you to Burma?”
Du Boisrouvray hesitates, considering how best to respond. FXB’s motto is “Forgotten people, forgotten issues, in forgotten places”. But in the case of Burma, that is only the beginning of the story. To understand how Du Boisrouvray came to be involved in Burma and how she has managed to keep FXB’s programmes afloat during the darkest days of the junta, one has to return to Mali and the 1986 Paris-Dakar rally. It was during that race that her only son, François, plunged to his death while flying a rescue helicopter over the desert.
Aged 24, François had been flying helicopters for his father Bruno Bagnoud’s alpine rescue company, Air-Glaciers, since the age of 11 and was a highly experienced pilot, which is why Thierry Sabine, the rally organiser, had picked him to man his dual-control Ecureuil helicopter.
No one knows exactly what happened, but it appears that after being forced to land in a sandstorm in Mali at night, Bagnoud took off again, only to crash into a dune some 20 miles short of his destination. By the time Du Boisrouvray reached the crash site, it had been thoroughly picked over by Tuareg nomads, but from the skid marks she and her husband guessed the helicopter must have suddenly lost power and flipped over as François attempted a soft landing. Besides Bagnoud and Sabine, there were three other passengers, including the singer-songwriter Daniel Balavoine. No one survived.
Du Boisrouvray, then a film producer with little interest in health and development issues, was devastated. Her response was to abandon film – in a career spanning 17 years she produced 16 features, including the 1984 desert war romance, Fort Saganne, starring Gérard Depardieu – and set up a foundation in her son’s name. In 1989, she auctioned her jewellery and art collection, as well as a substantial slice of her father’s real estate business, at Sotheby’s in New York and put $100m into FXB.
One of her first acts was to join forces with Médecins du Monde and lobby the United Nations to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To persuade countries to ratify the convention, Du Boisrouvray joined 15 destitute children on a voyage retracing the routes of African slavers. The voyage opened her eyes to the plight of vulnerable children, an issue close to her son’s heart. It also coincided with growing concerns about the worldwide spread of HIV and Jonathan Mann’s warning that the Aids epidemic was creating thousands of orphans, many of them infected with HIV.
“That was something no one had thought very much about at the time,” says Du Boisrouvray. “I thought, this is where FXB can really make a difference.”
To make the best of FXB’s limited resources, she decided to channel aid specifically to children already infected with HIV. At the same time, she began supporting the extended families and communities caring for those children by setting up “FXB villages” offering everything from medical and psychosocial care to educational training and microfinance initiatives. The result is a network of more than 100 programmes in 15 countries, including South Africa, Uganda, Colombia and Thailand, with 450 employees and more than 1,000 volunteers.
While bigger NGOs such as Save the Children may be better funded, FXB aims to punch above its weight by fostering deep relationships in the countries where it operates and committing to women and children for the long term. Du Boisrouvray is also fearless when it comes to making the connection between health and human rights. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of her story is that it was her concern for the plight of sex workers who were being trafficked across the Burmese border to Thailand and her determination to repatriate the survivors, many of whom had been infected with HIV, that first forced the generals to confront the truth about the Aids epidemic in Burma and their responsibility for the ravages it was inflicting.
“When I came here in 1992 the generals knew nothing about Aids,” she explains when I first meet her in Rangoon on a sweltering night in February. “In the beginning, I think their primary concern was for the military and for their own families. But bit by bit they have opened up.”
Du Boisrouvray is sitting on the veranda of the Governor’s Residence, a luxury hotel in the embassy district modelled on a 1920s colonial-style British mansion. The fan-cooled verandas and verdant gardens are awash with returning expats and businessmen hungry to ink deals before the expected lifting of western sanctions in April. You can tell how much Burma has changed in the last year simply by the number of laptops and iPads open at adjoining tables.
Prior to the installation of a civilian-led government in March 2011, access to the internet was strictly controlled and dissidents faced arrest and detention for posting blogs critical of the regime. Now former “enemies of the state”, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest in Rangoon, are allowed to campaign openly for parliament and foreign journalists are increasingly free to ask uncomfortable questions, though the Burmese press is still subject to close censorship.
“I never thought this day would come,” says Du Boisrouvray. “It’s wonderful to see this opening up. Let’s just hope Burma doesn’t go the way of its neighbours and surrender to consumerism.”
In the autumn of 1992, when Du Boisrouvray arrived in Rangoon for the first time, it was a different world: “No taxis, no street lights, everything plunged in darkness.” There had been parliamentary elections two years earlier but, although the NLD had won a resounding majority, the military had not allowed parliament to convene. Instead, General Ne Win, the leader of the 1962 coup d’etat, ruled Burma as a nominally socialist republic, pursuing a ruinous policy of economic isolation while rigging the constitution to ensure the military would always command a parliamentary majority.
It had taken several months for Du Boisrouvray to arrange a visa. Her representations were not helped by the fact that earlier that summer, at the 1992 international Aids conference in Amsterdam, she had accused the junta of complicity in the murder of eight prostitutes. The previous year, with the help of a group of activist Thai lawyers, FXB and Médecins du Monde had rescued eight underage Burmese sex workers, as well as girls of other nationalities, from a brothel in Chiang Mai in Thailand.
But while the Chinese and Laotians had been repatriated, the Burmese girls never made it home. Instead, Du Boisrouvray was told their bodies had been seen floating in a river on the Thai-Burmese border. Her assumption was that they had been murdered by Burmese border guards. “I was screaming, ‘I’ve got to know what happened to these girls because it’s rumoured they’ve been killed because they were HIV positive.’ I told the delegates, ‘You’re talking about the prostitution of underage children but I’ve got a precise case; won’t you help me to do something about it?’”
By now, Du Boisrouvray had also discovered other girls being trafficked to brothels in Ranong in western Thailand near the south tip of Burma. Incensed, she informed her friend Saisuree Chutikul, a Thai cabinet minister, who in turn instructed the Thai police to raid the brothels. They rounded up 270 women, including 95 Burmese, half of whom were HIV positive. It was Du Boisrouvray’s determination to make sure they did not suffer the same fate as the other women and that they would receive access to medicines and psychosocial support in their home country that convinced her to go to Burma.
Not surprisingly, at first the generals were unwelcoming and refused to grant her a visa. But eventually, after she called on her contacts at the French embassy and Burmese medics sympathetic to her cause, the regime relented. To this day, Du Boisrouvray does not know precisely what prompted their change of heart but, given her later discovery that the girls were most likely murdered by Thais, not the Burmese, she has a theory.
“I think it was because I was accusing them of a crime they hadn’t committed and they wanted to prove they were the good guys. Also, at the time they knew next to nothing about Aids and were worried what the epidemic could mean for their families, so I was a kind of safe way for them to get information from the wider world.” It was the beginning of a 20-year relationship with Burma that would see Du Boisrouvray forge close ties with some of the most senior members of the regime and found programmes that continue to pay dividends to this day.
To get an idea of how FXB has made a difference to the lives of women and children in Burma infected with HIV, I journeyed with Du Boisrouvray and her Burma country director, Kathy Shein, to an FXB vocational training centre in Shwepyitha, a sprawling township north of Rangoon. There, on a tropical Sunday afternoon as the mercury nudged 40C, I was shown around workshops equipped with spindles and looms where women are trained in weaving fabrics and manufacturing bags and soft toys for local shops and markets. The centre also has a medical centre, where patients can get regular check-ups and advice on taking antiretroviral medications, as well as a kindergarten where orphans are taught the rudiments of reading and writing. However, the heart of the centre is its Sunday Empowerment Group where women and men gather to support one another while FXB staffers distribute condoms and reinforce messages about safe sex.
Living with HIV is never easy, Du Boisrouvray explains, but in Burma where stigmatisation is widespread and people still believe the virus can be transmitted by touch, it is doubly hard. These challenges are brought home to me by one of the 95 sex workers repatriated to Burma 20 years ago by Du Boisrouvray. Toe Toe, now aged 44 and the centre’s head seamstress, says she never intended to become a sex worker but was sold into slavery by a “friend” of the family who had told her he would arrange safe passage to Bangkok where she would work in a fruit market. Instead, after enduring a four-day journey in an open boat in the Andaman Sea, she was taken to Charlie’s Inn, a seedy fisherman’s bar and brothel in Ranong. There, she was beaten repeatedly until she agreed to have sex with clients. It was only when the Thai police raided the brothel several months later that Toe Toe realised she had not been in Bangkok after all. But by then, of course, it was too late: she had contracted HIV.
Even today, Toe Toe is reluctant to speak about her ordeal. She explains that when neighbours discovered she was taking medications for Aids they shunned her, driving her from her village. It is only when Du Boisrouvray arrives, prompting a flood of tears followed by much hugging, that Toe Toe agrees to tell me her story. She is not the only victim. Sitting beside her are Marwei, 48, who was also sold to a sex ring by “friends” and ended up in another brothel in Ranong, and Zar Ni, the only woman who admits trading sex for money willingly. Caught up in the same Thai police raid, all three were taken to a women’s shelter in Bangkok. To this day, they will never forget the moment Du Boisrouvray walked in and shared a meal with them.
“You were so beautiful, so young,” Toe Toe tells her. “We thought you were an angel. Do you remember how at the end we all stood up and applauded you?”
It is a testament to FXB’s advocacy – among its other duties, FXB helps secure antiretroviral medications for women and children enrolled in its programmes – that of the 50 who tested positive for HIV in 1992, half are still alive. One of those who did not make it is the mother of Kyaw Shan. Now aged 13, he lives with his father in a monastery and has a permanent air of sadness. Like many orphans of the epidemic, he is himself HIV positive. The only moment he smiles is when he is embraced by an 18-year-old volunteer called Yie Tone. Yie Tone, I notice, wears her hair short and dresses like a boy. It is only later that I learn her mother died of HIV when she was 12 and that soon after her stepsister tried to sell her to a sex ring. Luckily, she was able to seek sanctuary with FXB. Her dream now is to become a human rights lawyer.
If it was Toe Toe and her co-workers who first brought Du Boisrouvray to Burma, it is for Kyaw Shan, Yie Tone and all the other invisible victims of the epidemic that she has continued working with the regime. It hasn’t been easy. In 1996, for instance, she was banned from entering the country after writing a critical article in the New York Times. In 2003, with the accession to the prime minister’s office of Khin Nyunt, who despite being the then chief of military intelligence was considered a moderate, she was allowed to return, but a year later Khin Nyunt was deposed by conservative elements in the junta and access again became difficult. Despite whoever has been in power, however, Du Boisrouvray says she has always been able to find people sympathetic to her cause and to this day she is on first-name terms with two former health ministers.
In the past, she would never have visited Nay Pyi Taw, not because the trip would have been hard to arrange but, she says, because in those days she did not want to be seen to be supporting the regime. Now that things appear to be opening up, she feels the generals deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt
“This is not a time to criticise the junta,” she says. “Instead, let’s support them and see how far they are prepared to take the reforms.”
Although the press is still subject to censorship, more and more stories are being passed and those who can afford internet charges no longer find access to the BBC and dissident news sites blocked. The next test is the parliamentary elections in two weeks. While there are 48 seats up for grabs on 1 April the vote is not expected to alter the balance of power because under the constitution the military is entitled to a quarter of the seats in the lower house and the remainder are dominated by the main pro-military party. That is why veteran Burma watchers believe the real test will come later this year when the NLD and other independent parties begin to flex their muscles and demand changes to the constitution.
No matter who takes power the country faces big challenges. Although the incidence of HIV in Burma is lower than in many parts of Africa, the UN estimates there are currently some 120,000 Burmese living with HIV, of whom only a third are receiving antiretroviral drugs, leaving some 80,000 without access to vital medications. To make matters worse, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is rampant, greatly complicating treatment protocols. The crisis can be clearly seen at the Médecins sans Frontières drop-in clinic in northern Rangoon where doctors only have the capacity to treat the most critical cases. Everyone else is simply turned away. “It’s very demoralising,” says Peter Paul de Groote, MSF Burma’s head of mission. “In some cases, we are talking about people with full-blown Aids. It’s like the 1980s all over again.”
The tragedy is that with annual spending on health at the equivalent of 50 cents per person – one of the lowest in the world – Burma does not have the capacity to close the treatment gap, and with the next funding round of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria currently suspended there seems little prospect of western donors making up the shortfall in the near future. All the more reason, says Du Boisrouvray, why she is determined to remain in Burma and continue working with the regime.
“Toe Toe knows that theoretically she should have died a long time ago in that brothel. The tragedy is she is still dependent on us for medicines and support and the same is true for many of the other women. FXB is their family. To abandon them now would be the biggest crime of all.”
If you wish to make a donation or support FXB’s work please go to www.fxb.org
By NYEIN NYEIN / THE IRRAWADDY Monday, March 19, 2012
A group of prominent ex-political prisoners has called for more to be done to help former inmates adjust to their new lives outside of jail.
Renowned journalist Win Tin, human rights activist Bo Kyi and 88 Generation Students leader Ko Ko Gyi were among those voicing their concerns at the lack of support political prisoners receive after their release.
“People sometimes forget about political prisoners whose lives were destroyed,” said Win Tin, a former political prisoner and leading member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). “We want them not to be ‘forgotten political prisoners.’ It is not enough only to provide support in cash, but support so they are able to recreate their lives is also needed.”
“I think even one political prison detained is too much,” he added. “So we will keep trying for the release of the remaining political prisoners.”
Bo Kyi, co-founder of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said that there is a desperate need for former political prisoners to have access to
rehabilitation programs. “As many were in prison for decades, they need to catch up with the social changes in society,” he said.
AAPP Secretary Tate Naing said that it is important for democratic transition that victims have justice, and suggested that the government should initiate this process. He added that the real need now is healing and rehabilitation for ex-political prisoners in term of education, health and social support.
“While the country is on the road to change, there should not be any political prisoners detained,” said Ko Ko Gyi. “The issue of freeing political prisoners is still significant for Burma moving towards the democratic path.”
Monday, March 12, was Win Tin’s 82nd birthday and also marked the launch of the Hanthawati U Win Tin Foundation to provide health, financial and moral support to political prisoners and their families.
Kyaw Aung, the coordinator of the Hanthawati U Win Tin Foundation, told The Irrawaddy that, “[The Foundation] provides financial support to five ex-political prisoners who are in bad health and three family members who cannot afford to go and see their loved ones.”
Meanwhile, The List Verification Committee of the Rangoon-based Formers Political Prisoners Group presented a list of 619 remaining political prisoners’ names to US Special Envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell during his sixth visit to the military-dominated Southeast Asian nation last week.
Hnin Hnin Hmway told The Irrawaddy that they took the list of persons still detained in 41 prisons across Burma from figures obtained from the AAPP and the NLD. There have reportedly been more than one hundred thousand political prisoners detained in Burma since pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in 1988.
Apart from the horrific treatment political prisoners receive during their detention, many have found it impossible to get a job or return to normal life after their release. Lawyers are not allowed to return to practice and many companies are afraid of losing lucrative contracts or facing penalties for hiring ex-political prisoners.
Although there are a handful of ex-political prisoners who are in the political arena, “it is not easy for most of them to go back to their political lives and be productive members of their communities after being in prison for many years,” said Aung Zaw Htun, who is coordinator of the Network for Family Members of Political Prisoners in Rangoon.
Some may get involves in politics, those from rural areas usually return to their families, while young people sometimes return to their studies or take part in work for NGOs or as journalists. However, “the proportion is relatively low at around 30 percent of the total,” he said.
By SAW YAN NAING/ THE IRRAWADDY Monday, March 19, 2012
Several supporters of Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were attacked by rival supporters in Naypyidaw, according to a party statement on Monday.
The NLD said that their supporters were physically assaulted during a rally on Sunday for candidate Min Thu in the Burmese capital, and that a female security guard employed by the NLD was seriously injured after being attacked with sharpened sticks.
The attack allegedly occurred during a speech by Min Thu who is representing the NLD in the April 1 by-election for the Ottarathiri constituency seat in Naypyidaw.
“The NLD always opposes such violence,” said the statement.
Condemning the attack, the NLD said it had reported the incident to the respective police officials, and that such acts can damage the integrity of a free and fair election.
According to the NLD statement, there exists a policy of vote-buying in Min Kin Township in Sagaing Division. The NLD also condemned Dr. San Win, the candidate representing the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Min Kin, saying that he had criticized NLD chairman Aung San Suu Kyi.
The NLD statement said all of these incidents are illegal and that they violate existing election laws.
The NLD also accused USDP members of forcefully ordering local residents in some villages in Sagaing to attend the USDP campaign gathering on Mar. 16.
USDP supporters also told local Chinese—who are Burmese citizens living in Lashio, northern Shan State—that they should not vote for the NLD as it is pro-Western, according to Soe Myint Maung, the NLD candidate for the city.
In a party rally at Lashio on Saturday, Suu Kyi reached out to ethnic Chinese and minority voters, and denied all the allegations made by the USDP supporters.
“I heard that Chinese businessmen and merchants were threatened,” Suu Kyi was quoted by AFP as saying. “They were told that their businesses would be harmed if the NLD wins the election, because Suu Kyi’s party enjoys close relations with Western countries.”
Suu Kyi continued: “I would like to request people to pass along the word that these things are not true.”
She told the assembled gathering, which included many Chinese and ethnic minorities, that her party was not out to destroy Chinese businesses.
Meanwhile, teachers and college students from Tenasserim Division in southern Burma claimed that they cannot cast their votes freely during the period of advance voting.
More than 70 teachers from Laung Lon in Tavoy District were allegedly called in front of the township educational administration office on March 17 and told that a training program would begin on March 23 and last until April 1, and that they would therefore have to vote in advance.
“They said that as we will not able to vote on April 1, we must vote now,” said one of the teachers. “Since we have to vote in front of the administrators and they have our names and addresses written on the envelopes, we wouldn’t dare vote for the NLD, only the USDP.”
At Educational College in Tavoy, about 50 students from Laung Lon and Kyun Su townships said they were also urged to vote in advance in the presence of the rector and other college heads.
“The rector called us to the library and told us to tick a ballot and seal the envelope with glue,” said a student. “There was nothing on the envelope, not even the seal of the Election Commission or the name of the polling center or the signature of the polling officer.”
By HPYO WAI THA / THE IRRAWADDY Monday, March 19, 2012
RANGOON — A media conference jointly organized by Burma’s Ministry of Information and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in partnership with International Media Support and Canal France International was held in Rangoon today to discuss media development in the country.
The event, dubbed the “Conference on Media Development in Myanmar,” is a two-day workshop joined by 19 local and international speakers from the media industry. Also in attendance are government officers, embassy representatives, donors and journalists.
According to a UNESCO statement released on March 15, the media is central to upholding and supporting new democratic developments in Burma. Thus the aim of the conference is to share international best practices in media development with local media practitioners, policy makers and civil society, looking at options for future media development in the country.
“We have made a resolve for the success of our ongoing media reforms, and international cooperation is very much important,” said Minister for Information and Culture Kyaw Hsan in his opening speech at the conference.
“We are currently in the process of drafting the new media law, and [will] include the outcome from this conference in the second draft. The outcome of this conference is to promote free and responsible media in Myanmar,” said the minister.
Ye Htut, the ministry’s director-general, serves as one of the co-moderators along with journalists and media trainers.
The UNESCO press release said the conference is viewed as a symbol of new times ahead in Burma and sets the foundation for new partnerships that will work to create an enabling environment for media in Burma.
The main sessions of the workshop include Media as a Platform for Democratic Discourse; Media Legislation and Regulation; Media Pluralism and Business Sustainability; Professionalism and Capacity Building; Media Associations and Collective Responsibilities; and Media in Peace Building and National Reconciliation.
On Monday, the first session of the conference, the key speakers were Kavi Chongkittavorn, the chairman of Southeast Asian Press Alliance; Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice weekly and Living Color Magazine; and Steve Buckley, the former president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters.
In another attempt to make media reform, Burma held the National Press Award for the first time on Sunday to honor journalists. In his opening speech, Kyaw Hsan said journalists have to strictly follow the journalistic code of ethics.
The award categories included the best news story; the best feature; the best news photo; the best news cartoon; and the most significant national news photo of the year.
The winner in the final category was a photograph of President Thein Sein meeting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi last August. The photo, which appeared in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, prominently featured a portrait of Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father and the founder of Burma’s armed forces.
Monday, 19 March 2012 21:13 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – Aung San Suu Kyi cited more voter registration problems and campaign abuses in the Burmese election on Monday, saying campaign abuses threaten the fairness of the election. She said nearly 1,387 potential voters were left off the rolls in the constituency she is campaigning in.
“At this point, the voter lists in some constituencies were found to be incomplete and full of errors,” the National League for Democracy (NLD) party said in a statement. “It is hereby announced that these incidents can affect the emergence of a free and fair election.”
The NLD party, which will contest for 47 seats in the April 1 by-election, cited other instances of voter rolls having the names of dead persons, the insane and people who have moved from the district listed as potential voters. The statement said campaign irregularities in Sagaing, Tanintharyi and Mandalay regions threaten to jeopardize a fair election.
The statement cited the specific actions of government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate Dr. San Win, who it said ordered villagers in Samyin village, Mingin Township, Sagaing Region, to send one family member to his party meeting on March 16. San Win also slandered Suu Kyi, according to the statement.
In Launglon Township in Tanintharyi Region, advance ballots were already being collected, the NLD said, although the Union Election Commission has said advanced ballots should be collected only after March 30-31.
Also large NLD campaign posters (6 x 4 feet) in Shanyaykyaw village in Myaungmya Township in Irrawaddy Region were defaced on March 16, it said.
“Pictures of [candidate] Mann Johnny were cut,” Win Shwe, a member of the Myaungmya Township NLD electoral campaign committee, told Mizzima. He said a lawsuit was filed in Myaungmya Township on Sunday and police are investigating.
The NLD said similar incidents occurred in Maungyan village in Ottara Thiri Township in Naypyitaw on March 12; and in Chanmyathazi and Pyigyitagun townships in Mandalay Region. Other incidents have involved people distributing leaflets that personally attack Suu Kyi, said NLD officials.
Earlier, Suu Kyi told voters that the government was preventing the NLD from acquiring proper venues to hold campaign rallies.
The NLD’s evaluation of the fairness of the election is critical for the ruling government if it is to be declared free, fair and transparent, a requirement of western governments for the removal of further sanctions. This is only the second election in the country in the past two decades.
Suu Kyi, who is seeking a seat in Parliament, and the other 46 NLD candidates, have lent the by-election an aura of credibility, which appears to be threatened by recent abuses and campaign incidents.
The NLD said 54 villages in Suu Kyi’s constituency of Kawhmu, a poor area south of Rangoon, had a total of 413 dead people on the voter rolls. The government has not made available the voter lists for the capital, Naypyitaw, a stronghold of the USDP, it said.
Despite calls to allow international election observers to monitor the voting process, the newly elected government has so far rejected the pleas. The last election was widely criticized as badly flawed amid accusations of ballot stuffing and other irregularities.
Monday, 19 March 2012 16:40 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – Because Burma imports cement, Indonesia’s largest cement producer is looking at building a cement plant in the country, the Jakarta Post reported on Monday.
“We see opportunities as Myanmar is in an infrastructure development process after recent political changes,” Semen Gresik’s Director for Business Development and Strategy Erizal Bakar told the newspaper.
Burma’s cement consumption has reached 6 million tons per year, he said. “However, that country’s production capacity is only about 3 million tons. It imports cement from China, Thailand and India. Therefore, we see big opportunities to grow there.”
He said other foreign companies are planning to enter the cement market and will also construct new cement plants. “In the beginning, Semen Gresik plans to build one plant there,” Erizal said.
Monday, 19 March 2012 16:28 Mizzima News
(Mizzima) – Burma presented its first national journalism awards to journalists on Sunday, in an effort to develop the media which is underdoing a reform process after years of repression and censorship.
The four awards and one special award were presented by the National Press Award Committee at the National Theater.
The Best News Award, covering U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma, was awarded to four journalists with the Kumudra Journal – Nan Lwin, Nin Yadana Zaw, Aye Thiri Win and Wint Wathi. The Best News Feature Award, on internal peace, was won by Nyein Nyein Naing of the 7-Day News Journal.
The Most Significant National News Photo Award, which showed a meeting between President Thein Sein and National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi with a background of Burma’s Independence Hero General Aung San, was won by Maung Maung Than of the Myanmar News Agency.
At the awards ceremony, Minister of Information and Culture Kyaw Hsan the country’s new media law that is currently being drafted will be equal to Asean standards is being drafted with the cooperation of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the existing Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association. The National Press Award Committee was formed on Aug. 18, 2011.
The government has offered 15 national-level literary awards and 13 Sarpay Beikman (Literature House) manuscript awards every year to encourage preservation and promotion of literary and cultural heritage. In addition, a number of private foundations in offer literary awards to honor successful writers and journalists as an encouragement to the development of the sector.
Since the new government was formed in March 2011, it has eased some restrictions on media among its reform measures, but there is still prior censorship of the news media.
Published: 19 March 2012
Burma opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reached out to ethnic Chinese and minority voters Saturday on the campaign trail in the north of the country ahead of 1 April by-elections.
Addressing a crowd of about 20,000 people in the town of Lashio, which is near the border with China, Suu Kyi said some people were trying to stir up the Chinese community
against her National League for Democracy (NLD).
“I heard that Chinese businessmen and merchants were threatened. They were threatened that their business could be harmed if our NLD won as we have very close relations with Western countries,” she said.
“I would like to request the people to pass along the word that these things are not true,” she told the crowd, who were holding banners reading: “People for Suu, Suu for the people” and even one in Chinese.
Many people in Lashio and the northern Shan state area are of Chinese origin, though holding Burma citizenship.
In her speech to the crowd, which included many Chinese and other ethnic minorities, she stressed that the NLD was not out to destroy Chinese businesses.
“We had good relations [between Burma and China] when we had democratic governments,” she said, without specifying the period she was referring to. ”Problems were very few among us,” she said.
“Both sides must have understanding to have fewer problems. What we want is mutual understanding. We will try to establish this kind of relationship [with China],” she said.
Lashio is a trading hub for Chinese goods such as clothes and electronics and many shops and houses have Chinese signs.
Burma’s giant neighbour is its second-largest trading partner and biggest foreign investor and has helped shield it from international opprobrium and the impact of Western sanctions.
“We understand that investing and doing business in other countries is for our benefit,” the Nobel laureate told the crowd.
“However the people in the host country should have benefited from it. The benefit should be for both sides,” she said. ”We will work with this kind of spirit of equality.”
Wearing a traditional Shan costume, she said the NLD was for all ethnic groups, not just the Burman majority. Suu Kyi also warned the crowd to be on the lookout for vote rigging with just two weeks to go before polling.
“Frankly, we are seeing more irregularities are happening around the country. We have to be more careful at this juncture,” said Suu Kyi, who has alleged that dead people are on the voter rolls. She told people to inform the party of any cheating or threats so it could take legal action.
The NLD is contesting 47 seats out of 48 available in the by-elections.
The polls, which will see Suu Kyi stand for a seat in parliament for the first time in a constituency near Rangoon, are viewed as a key test of the new government’s commitment to reform.
The regime has so far impressed even sceptics with its reform process, which has included signing ceasefire deals with ethnic minority rebels and welcoming the NLD back into the
By AYE NAI
Published: 19 March 2012 US special envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell paid an official visit to Mandalay last Friday during a fact finding mission to ensure that April’s by-elections will be free and fair, amid reports that voting has been scrapped in 10 villages in Kachin state.
Mitchell’s delegation met with officials from the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Mandalay including the party’s election campaign coordinator. The delegation was investigating the current political situation prior to elections, said NLD official Myo Naing.
Two NLD by-election candidates, Dr Zaw Myint Maung and U Paul Khin, told the envoy that problems and unfair practices had been instituted prior to the elections.
“Dr Zaw Myint Maung explained [to Mitchell] about the problems regarding the voters list,” said Myo Naing. “They still haven’t finished copying the list as of [15 March]. And there were a lot of errors including [the existence of] duplicated names on the list and it would be difficult to deal with all these within the given time frame.”
The run up to the April by-elections have been marred with several reports of fraud, intimidation and foul play. Political parties and their candidates have complained several times during the past two weeks of government tampering amid reports of the existence of fraudulent voter lists.
After meeting with candidates and state election officials Mitchell stressed that only free and fair elections would be deemed acceptable during a press conference in Rangoon on 14 March.
“The delegation met with the Union Election Commission and [said they saw] positive signs in the body unlike back in 2010,” said Myo Naing. “However, there have been [inconsistences] with the election commission branches at the lower administrative levels.” said Myo Naing.
Dubious actions taken by state election bodies have already been reported in the country’s far north.
Select ballot stations in Kachin State’s Hpakant township have been closed by the state’s election body amid ‘security concerns’, reported a party candidate from the area.
Bauk Ja, Hpakant by-election candidate for National Democratic Force (NDF), said Kachin’s State Election Commission recently sent out an order to shut down ballot stations in about 10 villages in Hpakant.
She said the commission’s decision to close these poll stations due to security concerns is irrelevant. According to Bauk Ja, tens of thousands of locals’ right to vote in the constituency has been voided in the decision’s wake.
“There is nothing there [to worry about]. It seemed like they did this intentionally,” said Bauk Ja.“It is the government’s job to deal with instability, but that doesn’t justify taking away the people’s right to vote.”
The candidate said she would file a complaint with the government and the Union Election Commission (UEC) to investigate the matter.
Bauk Ja competed for the same seat in 2010, but lost to Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) candidate Ohn Myint, a former general. Ohn Myint was then appointed Minister of Cooperatives, leaving his vacant seat up for grabs during the by-election.
Bauk Ja initially contested his election victory with the UEC, but then went into hiding after a warrant was issued for her arrest.
There were several reports of polling states being closed in the 2010 general elections due to security concerns in the country’s ethnic regions, including Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan states. The election was largely regarded as a sham and designed to cement the military’s continual rule over the country by international observers.
The US and the European Union have said free and fair by-elections will play a key role in deciding whether to remove the web of sanctions that have been placed on the country.
By LARS BIRGEGARD
Published: 19 March 2012
The reform process initiated by the Burmese government has been met with general acclaim by the international community. The removal of sanctions is under consideration and the willingness of governments and multinational institutions to assist Burma in the transformation to a democratic state and in enhancing its economic development has been proclaimed by a string of visiting dignitaries. This is indeed welcome. However, paradoxical as it may sound, this development is not without problems that need to be recognised.
Historically Burma receives very limited overseas development assistance (ODA). In 2010 the figure was a dismal $US7 per capita compared to, for instance, $US50 per capita to Cambodia and $US33 to Vietnam. Accumulated over several decades the differences in support received are very considerable.
Hopefully this is now about to change. For different reasons governments and multilateral institutions are eager to engage with Burma. In addition the general level of development in the country and the prevalence of undisputable widespread poverty are strong reasons for engagement. This is likely to be reflected in a rapid and steady increase in the allocation of development assistance funds for Burma by governments and boards of multilateral development institutions such as the UNDP and its specialised agencies. New bilateral and multilateral donor agencies such as the World Bank will enter the scene.
This development is indeed welcome. Burma, and particularly the many poor in the country, deserves a significantly higher level of support than in the past. But experiences around the world decidedly suggest that this development will not be without risks and problems that need to be recognised and as far as possible addressed. The responsibility to do so rests as much, and perhaps even more so, with the donors as with the Burmese government.
One profound problem is the difficulty to direct donor interest and funds in a manner that supports a development strategy. This is a problem that most governments in recipient countries face and it has two sides. On the donor side one finds differences in aid policies, including the priorities and preferences. Not only do these preferences diverge and point in a multitude of directions in terms of what should be priority development activities, but they are also found to differ in terms of how different development priorities should be addressed (with subsidies of an activity or without, for instance). While this would probably be denied at policy level, anyone familiar with field operations knows that there are such differences. There are also differences in terms of the importance that should be assigned to crosscutting issues such as gender equity, poverty focus, sustainability, and so on. Despite efforts to the contrary donors do pull in different directions from time to time.
Furthermore, the boards and parliaments allocating funds for Burma will measure the level and success of engagement in the transformation of Burma first and foremost by amounts of funds dispersed. The task to make that happen is passed on to development technocrats and administrators who find themselves under disbursement pressure.
In the best of circumstances the recipient country should have a sufficiently comprehensive and prioritised development strategy to direct government and donor efforts. Too often such strategies are either lacking or formulated in such a general manner that almost any donor preference eventually can be accommodated.
Burma is in a particularly difficult position in this regard. While an impressive process of analysis and discussion has taken place in the recent past resulting in positions on a number of important development issues, it would hardly be true to say that there is a comprehensive, prioritised development strategy. Furthermore, the pace at which this process has been pursued is commendable but it brings the risk of not being thorough enough.
This risk is further enhanced by the isolation of Burma from international experiences in the field of development for decades. Hence, without a clear development strategy and with limited international experience it is often difficult for government representatives at any level to judge the relevance and the potential of different donor proposals that are likely to be forthcoming.
Donors may be genuinely committed to the principle of local ownership, although their often rather specific priorities seem to set limits to local ownership. In the spirit of local ownership proposals for donors to consider should come from the government. In the circumstances suggested above this is not likely to happen at a pace required by donors who are under pressure to disburse. Experience from other countries clearly suggests that donors will take initiatives to identify and formulate proposals for discussion with government agencies. This brings two risks: first, donors come to set the development agenda to an extent that is in contradiction with the letter and spirit of the Paris Declaration which prescribes local ownership; second, the sum of such development efforts becomes ‘the strategy’. When added up in terms of investments, it more often than not is clear that the resulting pattern is questionable and out of balance.
Another concern is that the inflow of considerable funds to be transformed into activities tends to direct focus to funds rather than to policies. There is just that much government capacity, and donor initiatives and donor funds will demand attention. There may well also be an understandable push on the part of the government leadership to make concrete things happen that are made possible by donor funds. Furthermore, there are likely to be both legitimate and less legitimate incentives to be close to activities where money flows.
Yet, policies are more critical than funds. The effectiveness of investments is generally decisively dependent upon the policy framework. In the best of circumstances policy reform should precede many investments. Often this will not happen but at least policy reform should not be permitted to fall in oblivion.
A rapid and significant increase in funds for development will meet constraints in terms of absorption implementation capacity. While there is an untapped technical and administrative capacity in Burmese government departments due to severe underfunding in the past, there are still likely to be notable capacity constraints. When donors experience these constraints, they will suggest technical assistance. The argument will be that they cannot approve funding if there is insufficient capacity for effective implementation. This argument is likely to come soon and the government needs to revisit its policy position on such assistance.
In doing so it may be worth noting the risk that donors rather prop up their programmes and projects with technical assistance than take a comprehensive look at human resource development needs for the country. As an example at one point in time the donor community spent more than $US300 million on technical assistance in Laos in a year and no more than $US25 million on the education sector.
Obviously none of this is an argument for declining development assistance that may be offered. However, there may be reasons to recognise that issues of this nature will arise and to initiate a dialogue within the government but also a dialogue with donors on how they may be addressed to avoid being overtaken by events.
Lars Birgegard was member and team leader of the UNDP annual independent assessment mission for the Human Development Initiative in Burma from 2006 to 2010, and has more than 40 years professional experience in development and development assistance.