China’s objection has led to the removal of the
participation of the United States and the United Kingdom as observers in a
peace talk between the government and the Kachin Independence Organization
(KIO), San Aung of Peace Coordinating Group (PCG) said.
In spite of the
representatives of the US and UK being unable to participate in the peace talk,
Vijay Nambiar, UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser to Myanmar, and Chinese
delegates will attend the peace talk, San Aung said.
The KIO can guarantee
that strong pledges will be achieved if the US and the UK participate in the
peace talk. We can also do that. We have to monitor how much improvement we
will see in the participation of the UN and China in the peace talk, San Aung
The KIO invited the US
and the UK to participate in the peace talk in April, but as soon as China had
known about that, it objected to it. Despite the US and the UK do not
participate in the peace talk, the KIO accepted for organizing the peace talk
in case it would fail, San Aung said.
All nine ethnic armed
groups have been already invited to attend the peace talk. It is not known yet
whether they will do or not.
The government and the
KIO already agreed in principle to go on the peace talk in Myitkyina, Dr Min
Zaw Oo, Director of ceasefire of Myanmar Peace Centre said.
The already invited
ethnic armed groups are the KNU, the KNPP, the CNF, the PNLO, the NMSP, the
SSPP, the UWSP, the RCSS and the NDAA.
The two-month long peace
talk was earlier planned in Myitkyina on April 6, but it had to be postponed as
China objected to the participation of the UK and the US. The peace talk was
due to resume in Myitkyina on May 28.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
flies to Myanmar Friday bearing almost $1 billion in development aid and a plan
for a nationwide electricity grid as Japan tries to grab the box seats in the country's
Abe follows in the
footsteps of other world leaders who have flocked to the former pariah state
since it was welcomed back to the international community after a nominally
civilian government was installed.
In the first visit by a
Japanese premier since 1977, Abe will be playing the role of salesman-in-chief
for Japan Inc. as part of an attempt to treble the value of infrastructure
exports to help revive his country's slumbering economy.
Diplomatic niceties were
being observed ahead of the trip, with a foreign ministry official saying Tokyo
wanted to help at a time of rapid change in Myanmar.
The visit will "show
that both the public and private sectors of Japan will provide full-fledged
support to Myanmar's efforts toward democratisation, enhancement of the rule of
law, marketisation and national reconciliation," he said.
Abe, whose approval
ratings at home are sky-high on the back of encouraging economic figures and
healthy stock market gains, will spend three days in Myanmar, the official
A report by the business
daily Nikkei on Thursday said he would be announcing 100 billion yen ($980
million) in development aid.
Abe will be accompanied
by a 40-strong business delegation including chief executive officers of some
of Japan's top companies, including trading houses Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Marubeni
and Sumitomo, and infrastructure firms Taisei and JGC, the official said.
During Abe's visit, Japan
will lay out a basic plan for the development of electric power infrastructure
in Myanmar by 2030, including a proposal to use green technologies in which
Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hitachi and Toshiba
have an edge, the Nikkei report said.
The premier said last
week he wanted Japan to sell infrastructure worth 30 trillion yen by 2020 and
pledged to travel around the world to make sales pitches.
Myanmar is an obvious destination for Abe; it needs investment to spur growth
and replace its dilapidated infrastructure, while export-reliant Japan is
hunting new opportunities in the resource-rich nation to offset sluggish
Outside the economic
agenda, Abe is expected to raise the issue of Myanmar's ethnic minorities,
following episodes of communal bloodshed in recent months, the official said.
"The next two to
three years are important not only for the ASEAN countries but also for our
bilateral relations," he said, noting that Myanmar will assume the chair
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year and that "there are
many things to be done" in Myanmar's political reform.
"The biggest message
to Myanmar... is that the Abe administration thinks that the ASEAN countries
are very important to Japan and Myanmar is the only country that neither the
foreign minister nor the prime minister has yet visited," he said.
As well as a Sunday
summit with President Thein Sein, Abe will on Saturday meet democracy icon and
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in Japan last month.
Unlike its Western
allies, Japan maintained trade ties and dialogue with Myanmar during years of
junta rule which ended in 2011, saying a hard line could push it closer to key
needs concrete assistance from Japan," an official from the Myanmar
presidential office, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
"Japan will be able
to help in technology, banking, currency markets, human resource development,
trade, investment, agriculture, factories, debt relief, increasing assistance
and infrastructure," he said.
The two countries in
December agreed to start work this year on a huge industrial zone near Yangon.
In January Japanese
finance minister Taro Aso said Japan will stand by pledges to waive Myanmar's
debt and extend new loans.
government announced in April 2012 that it would forgive 300 billion yen ($3.4
billion) of the 500 billion yen owed by Myanmar, following a string of dramatic
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should make improving the human rights situation in
Burma a top priority during his visit to the country this week, Human Rights
Watch said today. Abe’s three-day visit, which begins May 24, 2013, will be the
first by a Japanese leader to Burma in 36 years. Dozens of major Japanese
corporations will accompany the prime minister.
important changes in Burma, key human rights pledges by Burmese leaders remain
unrealized. These include granting full humanitarian access to ethnic conflict
areas, releasing all remaining political prisoners, amending abusive laws, and
allowing the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish
offices in the country.
Burma’s biggest aid donor and a major investor, Japan can play a critical role
by pressing harder for human rights reforms and protections,” said Brad Adams,
Asia director. “Aid and investment in Burma should not ignore needed reforms in
the rule of law, transparency, and accountability.”
is the largest aid donor to Burma, having extended US$500 million in the last
year for concessional loans, and US$200 million in grant aid and technical
assistance for agricultural development, health, and disaster preparedness. Abe
is expected to announce a 50 percent increase in Overseas Development
Assistance (ODA) during his visit, and a major program to revamp Burma’s postal
system. Under the 1991 “Four Principles of ODA” and the ODA Charter of 1992,
Japan has pledged to pay full attention to democracy, basic human rights, and
freedoms in its aid decisions.
Japanese government should ensure that investments and development projects do
not contribute to land seizures and forced displacement throughout Burma. For
instance, international telecommunications companies risk being linked to human
rights abuses if they enter the Burmese market before adequate protections are
in place. The Burmese government has not yet created a legal framework for the
telecommunications sector that respects basic human rights, including the
rights to freedom of expression and privacy. Two Japanese companies are
participating in the tender process for two nationwide telecommunications
licenses that Burma’s government will award in June.
has significant leverage to push the Burmese government in the right direction
and pursue rights-respecting development that places public participation at
its core,” Adams said. “Japan’s leaders should make sure that implementation of
their aid projects match the rights rhetoric around them.”
Rights Watch called on Japan to ensure that its companies invest responsibly
and transparently to avoid contributing to human rights abuses. Japanese
companies should be required to respect human rights and take concrete steps –
known as “human rights due diligence” – to prevent and address any rights
abuses. The Japanese government should also mandate public reporting on
investment in Burma, in line with United States requirements that were
finalized on May 23.
should frontload human rights concerns during the political and economic
transition in Burma,” Adams said. “Development projects in Burma have
frequently been synonymous with abuses such as forced labour, land evictions,
and denial of basic rights, and Japan should use its leverage to ensure these
Swiss Upper House Speaker Fillippo Lombardi met with
Myanmar’s Vice President Nyan Tun at the President’s Office in capital Nay Pyi
Taw yesterday to discuss possible Swiss investments in Myanmar, according to
the reports from President’s Office.
President of the Council of States (Switzerland), talked about the progress of
political and economic reforms in Myanmar, and pledged to strengthen bilateral
ties between the two countries.
The two leaders discussed
the investments Swiss businessmen can contribute to Myanmar, which has
potential to become an emerging country in the region as it has re-engaged with
the global communities after several decades of isolation.
The leaders also
discussed the peace process, food security, education, employment opportunities
and healthcare sectors of Myanmar, which are fundamental to the economic
stability of a country.
Zin Yaw, Deputy Minister
for Foreign Affairs, and Aye Kyu, Deputy Minister for Education, and respective
senior officials participated in the meeting.
Australia will increase its assistance to Myanmar by
almost 30 percent this year, the embassy in Yangon announced last week.
assistance will rise from AU$64.2 million (US$62.13 million) to AU$82.8 million
($80.13 million) in 2013-14, Michael Hassett, head of development assistance at
the embassy, said in a statement on May 23.
committed to assisting Myanmar to implement reforms and overcome poverty.This is demonstrated by the increase in our
funding of AU$18.6 million ($18 million) compared with last year,” Mr Hassett
The statement said
Australian assistance to Myanmar, which is managed by the Australian Agency for
International Development (AusAID), will focus on improving education and
health services, while also helping to strengthen governance and institutions.
This is part of the
Australian Government’s overall commitment to increase the size of the
Australian aid program to $5.7 billion – up from $5.2 billion in 2012-13.This will increase Australia’s Official
Development Assistance to 0.37 per cent of its Gross National Income.
Over the next three
years, Australia’s funding will help avert more than 25,000 deaths of children
under five and more than 3000 maternal deaths, the statement said. It will also
see learning kits provided to 1.3 million primary students and 31,000 teachers
It will also support
increased agricultural productivity, food availability and household income for
up to two million people.
Australia will also
continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected by disasters and
conflict, the statement said.
A spokesman for the
political wing of the Shan State Army-South has denied allegations that its
soldiers killed two government employees at a Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise in
northern Shan State earlier this month.
The clash, which took
place on May 13 near the Chinese border, was first reported by the state-run
New Light of Myanmar on May 15. The report said that members of the Restoration
Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) opened fire on the compound
near Naungmata village in Namkham township.
U Yawd Murng, secretary general
of the RCSS Department of Foreign Affairs, said he was “100 percent” sure it
was not Shan State Army-South soldiers.
“It was not us. We are
not responsible,” he told The Myanmar Times on May 22.
He said that the
accusations were part of an ongoing government campaign to blame the group for
unrest in the region.
U Yawd Murng, who was in
Yangon for meetings with officials from the Myanmar Peace Centre, said he did
not know which group carried out the attack, which came at a time of increased
tension in Shan State.
He said the large number
of armed ethnic groups operating in the area makes it difficult to verify which
one was responsible.
U Yawd Murng’s talks with
chief government peace negotiator U Aung Min at the Myanmar Peace Centre come
following fierce fighting between the Tatmadaw and Shan State Army-South in
recent months, with fresh clashes reportedly taking place between May 17 and
The RCSS said the
deadliest day of fighting was May 17, when two battles in the southern Shan
State townships of Hopong and His Hseng claimed the lives of nine Tatmadaw
soldiers and two Shan State Army-South soldiers.
Neither officials from
the Tatmadaw nor presidential spokesman and Deputy Minister for Information U
Ye Htut could not be reached for comment or to confirm the casualty figures.
Lieutenant General Yawd Serk met U Aung Min on February 19 in Chiang Mai,
Thailand for informal talks.
They have not met since
but U Yawd Murng confirmed that U Aung Min had invited Lt Gen Yawd Serk to
visit Nay Pyi Taw. A date for the meeting has not yet been agreed.
Saw Albert, the field
director of the Karen Human Rights Group, in an exclusive interview with Karen
News, said that since Burma’s 2010 election, changes in the government’s
administration has allowed a lot of business and development projects to come
into the country that are stealing land from ethnic villagers’.
“Many people think that
Burma has opened up and the situation has improved. When we hear the word
‘development’, it sounds positive and beneficial, but it is not the case. The
way development projects are being implemented in our areas, they are not
beneficial to our local communities or villagers.”
Saw Albert says that “as
more investments and economic developments come in, local villagers are losing
their land to hydro-power dam projects, special economic zones (SEZ’s) or to
other construction projects.”
Saw Albert points out
that the 2012 cease-fire agreements reached between the government and “ethnic
armed groups, including the KNU [Karen National Union]…is a positive change as
it is a relief for local villagers to be able to live more peacefully since
there is little fighting.”
Saw Albert says that
despite the ‘positives’ from the ceasefire agreements villagers are still being
abused and their lands stolen.
“Previously, we’ve seen
that most cases of land confiscation took place when the Burma Army took
villagers’ land to build military camps or to use it for military purposes.
After the ceasefire agreement land confiscation is now because of business or
Saw Albert explains that
KHRG field research has found that if “human right violations are compared
before the ceasefire and after the ceasefire periods, we find that human right
violations on local communities are still the same. In the past, villagers were
displaced due to fighting – now villagers lose their farmlands or have their
villages destroyed by flooding from construction or dams [projects].”
Saw Albert says KHRG
field researchers documented testimonies from “some villagers who told us that
in the past, during armed conflict they could at times sneak back to [collect
products] from their betel nut or durian plantations, but now all their
plantations and houses are under water and they can’t get anything. The impacts
are still as serious now as the human right violations were during [periods] of
Saw Albert claims that,
“most of the land-grabbing incidents taking place now are being done with the
involvement of people in authority. I mean government officials who have
granted permission and allow [development] activities to be carried out.”
Saw Albert explains that
many groups with ‘authority’ are involved in ‘profiting’ by taking land from
“Other groups such as
local government or ethnic armed groups are also involved in land grabbing.
This includes authorities from within the KNU in Karen areas although the level
of involvement varies between direct or indirect.”
Saw Albert says it is not
easy for developers to just turn up and start construction or rip out trees
without ‘official permission’ from a wide range of local authorities.
“For example, those who
come into Karen areas to do business or development projects can’t just come in
and do it with official government permission. They also have to get permission
from local authorities. In Karen State, authorities are not just the government
and the KNU, there are also other [armed militia] groups such as the Border
Guard Force and DKBA -business people also need to get their permission.”
Following a series of
attack on Shan State Army (SSA) Task Force 701 base on Sino-Burma border by the
Burma Army two weeks ago, which sent thousands of refugees to China, although
the fight was over, people are still fearful to return home as they distrust
the army, said local news sources from Namkham.
“People return to their homes in day time, but
dare not spend the night, so in the evening they cross back to China for rest.
Let alone the people who live on the other side of the Mao (Shwe) River, even
for people in the town of Namkham, it is a nightmare at night. Bomb blasts and
gun fires would occur here and there. Moreover, Burma Army is also reinforcing
its troops in the area with troops from Mandalay. This impact on the people’s
life and they are suffering mentally,” said Sai Ai Mon, a member of Shan
Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP) Namkham branch.
It has been reported that
the commander of Burma Army’s area command met with the refugees and
unsuccessfully persuaded them to return home.
Meanwhile, the Burma Army
is also reinforcing its troops in the Loi Hohso area bordering between Namkham
Township and Kachin State, which has sent people from Wan Sawn, Kunkeng, Kawng
Nawng, Samtan, Wanmai, Hinlong further 6 villages to Xiao Yun Pan village in
China, added local sources.
Related to the above news
sources, SHAN has reached out to the SSA Task Force 701 commander Lt-Col Zawm
Mong who said, “As we are relocated between east and west of Kachin
Independence Army, if the Burma Army decides to use force, they [Burma Army]
will first encounter the KIA troops either from east or west. It is not yet
clear if the Burma Army will attack any time soon. On the other hand, KIO and
Burma Army are preparing for a peace talk. The army may not want to put the
peace talk at risk.”
Meanwhile Sai Ai Mon said
2 Shan political parties from Namkham are actively joining hands to get support
and relief aid to the refugees for their daily survival.
Democratic Party (SNDP) and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) are
collecting rice, cooking oil, salt, medicine, clothing and other utensils in
the town. Those supplies will be delivered to the refugees on 24 May. Burma
Army is also said to have distributed rice 5 pey (16 litters) per family to
some villages, which were seized from SSA Task Force base. And 1 bag (60 litters)
of rice per household are also being distributed through the Border and Rural
Development Program. The government even has promised to repair the houses
which were destroyed during the fighting. People say, many of the houses were
destroyed after the attacks. However, whatever the government is trying to
amend and heal the wounds by this kind of support, people will not believe
Similarly, young people
from Muse also have been collecting donations from the town, said a young man
“Since 13 May, we have
been visiting door-to-door toke-su (fundraising) for the refugees in Muse.
People are generously offering donations. Within 5 days, we have raised 2
million Kyat ($2,200). We have already delivered 12 bags of rice to the
refugees. Now we are collecting the funds. Although the army has told the
refugees that now they can return home, people will do so only if there is a
certain organization that can give them a guarantee for their safety. Some
houses have been looted in which they lost between $ 2,000–$ 3,000. Some also
said to have lost national identification (ID) cards. Some people complain the
loss of ID cards in tears,” said a Muse native Ai Sai.
Due to the attack on SSA
Task Force base 701 in Namkham Township on Sino-Burma border by a 400-strong
force under the control of Military Operations Command #16, people from Nawng
Ma and other villages in the region have fled to China for their safety at the
time of reporting.
The clause of “the President’s direct appointment to
the Chief Justice” prescribed in the Constitution must be amended because it
enables disruption to rule of law, MP Aung San Suu Kyi said at the media
conference held at parliament building on May 21.
“The clause means that the
executive power influences over judicial power. Only if this clause is amended,
the judicial power will be independent. If the judicial power is not
independent, rule of law is just a dream. The judicial power must be clean. The
inappropriate clauses in the Constitution must be amended,” Aung San Suu Kyi
The reviewing committee
for the Constitution needs to pave the right way for changes in the
Constitution through goodwill. There are many inappropriate clauses prescribed
in the Constitution. These facts must be amended, Aung San Suu Kyi added.
Regarding the problems
facing in the judicial sector, Aung San Suu Kyi explained that the first
problem was under the influence of the executive power and the second was money
The amendment to the 2008
Constitution is up to everyone in favour of democracy. If we want genuine
democracy, the Constitution must be amended. The defence service personnel are
also responsible for the amendment to the Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi said.
Myanmar government has allegedly stopped a
hydropower dam project with Italian-Thai Company in Taninthayi region of lower
Myanmar due to concern of possible environmental and social impacts.
project located near Myeik township will generate about 800 mega watt (MW)
electricity upon completion, but it will pose flood risks to the thousands of
acres of farms and lands in the area.
The environmental and
social impact analysis reports suggest that the dam project should not
continue. It has been informed to the President’s Office which has given
approval to stop the project, sources said.
“We are glad to hear the
news. We welcome this action which considers the welfare of the local people,”
a local from Dawei township said.
Plc, which is undertaking the Dawei Deep Sea Port and Special Economic Zone
Project in Taninthayi, has planned to export generated electricity from the dam
to Thailand, and to use some electricity in Dawei Deep Sea Port Project.
The Thai construction
giant took a feasibility survey for the project in March 2011. They proposed
the Ministry of Electrical Power to install the dam of 600MW capacity on
Taninthayi River and signed a contract with the authorities.
The firm later planned to
increase the capacity of the dam nearly twice. In other words, the dam was
planned to generate about 1040MW electricity. Studies showed that the dam can
cause floods in the area and about 61,000 acres of farmlands are exposed to the
“The project is situated
at Aungthawara area near Myeik township. The area is rich in gold resources.
The company has completed preliminary studies. The project hasn’t started. But
roads have been built,” a person who has insight about the project said.
With ample business
opportunities arising from the upcoming Asean Economic Community (AEC), Thai
businesses are urged to set up a foothold in neighbouring Southeast Asian
nations despite unclear investment regulations in Myanmar.
Thailand's commercial counsellor in Myanmar, called on Thai companies including
small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to develop a presence in Myanmar to
understand the market and find partners.
"If you are actually
in the market, you will know the market potential. SMEs in particular will
never know what's happening there if they don't invest," he said on
Thursday at an AEC seminar hosted by KPMG Thailand.
happening quickly in Myanmar. After opening the Mandalay checkpoint for foreign
access, it opened two more checkpoints last month including one at Ban Phu Nam
Ron in Kanchanaburi."
sector does not have enough capacity to serve domestic demand, providing
opportunities for Thai companies to set up production or distribution there. Of
a population of 48 million people, 80% are in favour of imported products,
especially Thai products, because they believe the goods are better quality
than those locally made, said Mr Prachuab.
"I don't see any
major obstacles for doing business in Myanmar," he said.
Visitkitchakarn, Kasikornbank's chief representative in Yangon, said some
issues remain unclear.
For example, it remains
murky when foreign banks will be allowed to open branches. At present, 30
representative offices of foreign banks operate in Myanmar, and it is likely
the country will allow joint ventures with local banks next year, said Mr
Nuttaphong, adding that it will take two more years for insurance businesses to
set up there.
recommend investing in a plant in Myanmar right now, but if you start a trading
business, there is nothing to worry about," he added.
The Commerce Ministry
reported Asean is the largest export market for Thailand, with shipment value
doubling the size of markets such as the US, Japan, and the EU. Exports to
Asean are worth US$56 billion annually.
Burma’s currency has
plunged more than 7 percent over the past month to the lowest since it was floated
last year, raising concern about economic stability in Asia’s newest democracy.
The drop coincides with a
construction boom in Burma’s commercial capital, Rangoon, which is fuelling
demand for dollars as builders import equipment and materials, part of a
scramble by investors to tap one of the world’s last frontier markets after an
easing of sanctions by Western countries.
Money changers such as
Kyaw Naing say people are hoarding dollars, expecting further rises, in the
first major bout of currency speculation since Burma emerged from military rule
in March 2011 and introduced political and economic reforms.
“We are getting fewer
customers now because people don’t want to sell their dollars, because they
know the value will rise even higher,” Kyaw Naing said, holding a fistful of
the kyat currency in his hole-in-the-wall stall in Rangoon.
The sliding kyat is
welcome relief for rice farmers and other exporters but has prompted concern
over the stability of Burma’s tiny, long-isolated economy, posing one of the
biggest challenges yet for policy makers who introduced a managed float of the
currency in April 2012.
“It’s quite clear that
the plunging kyat has already had a strong impact on the import industry and it
will affect consumers,” said a senior official from the Ministry of Commerce,
noting Burma’s average April-May import bill of $30 million a day was about 17
percent higher than last year.
A disastrous “Burmese Way
to Socialism” introduced after a 1962 coup followed by sweeping nationalization
and decades of military mismanagement have left Burma heavily dependent on
imports for basic needs, from edible oils to condensed milk and medicine,
official data shows.
“The plunging kyat has
had a strong negative impact on importers of all goods – medicines, electronic
appliances, computers, edible oil, diesel, you name it,” said Soe Tun, a
director of several businesses including Farmer, the country’s biggest car
Western academics and
economists advising the government, however, say the currency has been
overvalued and needs to fall to help farmers, the vast majority of whom have
yet to benefit from the country’s reforms. Seventy percent of Burma’s 60
million people live on farms.
Monetary Fund said in a report in May last year that the kyat was overvalued by
as much as 40 percent.
But bankers and importers
caution against such a large swing in a fragile economy emerging from decades
of misrule and isolation.
“Stability of the
exchange rate is critical to confidence in the economy,” said Hal Bosher, chief
executive of Yoma Bank, a private lender with branches across Burma.
“NO NEED TO INTERVENE”
Currency reform is a
delicate task in Burma. In 1987, the sudden cancellation of certain banknote
denominations by late dictator General Ne Win wiped out many people’s savings
and helped trigger a pro-democracy uprising the following year that was crushed
by the military, killing thousands.
For 35 years until last
year, the kyat was pegged to the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing
rights at 6.4 kyat per US dollar, a rate about 125 times stronger than the
black-market rate of 800 to 820 kyat used for most transactions.
On April 2 last year, a
new reference rate was set, initially 818 per dollar, as the first phase of a
plan to create a market rate, simplifying foreign trade and investment.
The kyat gradually
weakened, losing about 8 percent to 890 per dollar by May 8 this year. The next
day, it dropped to 900 and kept falling, hitting 946 to the dollar on Thursday.
A senior central bank official
said a stronger dollar and currency speculation were behind the weaker kyat,
which she said the authorities were monitoring. “I don’t think we need to
intervene at this point,” she said, asking for anonymity since she was not
authorized to speak to media.
Authorities are working
closely with the IMF which concluded an annual review of Burma’s economy on
“Volumes traded in the
daily central bank auctions are increasing. The Central Bank of Burma is
smoothing exchange rate fluctuations without targeting a specific rate,” IMF
team leader Matt Davies said in a statement.
The central bank still
falls under the Finance Ministry but a new central bank law expected in the
middle of the year will give it operational autonomy.
Davies said foreign direct
investment inflows should outweigh a widening current-account deficit,
suggesting the dollar shortage could correct itself over time.
Bosher at Yoma Bank said
the current central bank arrangement meant there was a risk monetary
decision-making could be influenced by political concerns, a possible factor in
the recent kyat trend.
He said the government
was aware a weaker kyat would help farmers who would benefit from better prices
for dollar-denominated rice exports. They make up a sizable portion of Burma’s
70 percent rural population. Exporters of other commodities such as teak would
Kyi Myint, an economist
and independent member of parliament, said the government’s withdrawal of
foreign exchange certificates (FECs) may have also contributed to a sudden
increase in demand for dollars. The FECs were first issued by the former junta
in 1993 as a surrogate for US dollars.
After 50 years of brutal
military rule, Myanmar’s democratic opening has been swift and startling, says
Richard Cockett. Now the country needs to move fast to heal its ethnic
WALK AROUND battered, ramshackle Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and former
capital, quickly makes it clear how far the country has fallen behind the rest
of Asia over the past half-century. In large part the place is but a ghostly
reminder of former glories. Under British colonial rule, before independence in
1948, Rangoon (as it was then) was a thriving, cosmopolitan entrepot, the
capital of Burma, one of the region’s wealthiest countries. All that came to an
abrupt end in 1962 after a junta of army officers, led by the brutal General Ne
Win, seized power and launched the country on the quasi-Marxist “Burmese Way to
Socialism”. Private foreign-owned businesses were nationalised, prompting the
exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, many of Indian origin. The country’s
tenuous attachment to democracy was broken. Myanmar, as Burma was later renamed
by its ruling generals, retreated into itself. Comprehensive Western sanctions
hit home from the mid-1990s onwards, only slightly alleviated by an injection
of Asian money.
with its old cars and bookshops selling textbooks from the 1950s, attests to
this seclusion. The colonial-era banks, law courts and department stores, once
as imposing as any in Kolkata or Shanghai, have all but crumbled away. Except
for the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, lovingly regilded to welcome the crowds
of pilgrims and tourists, most of the city seems to have remained untouched for
decades. Even youthful rebellion is stuck in a time-warp. Boys are still gamely
attempting to flout authority by dressing up as punk-rockers.
now the country has seen another about-turn, almost as abrupt as that in 1962.
Over the past two years dramatic reforms introduced by a new president, Thein
Sein, prompted by the country’s increasingly desperate economic straits, have
started a rapid transition from secretive isolation to an open democracy of
sorts. The mere fact of such a change taking place has surprised the world; its
speed and breadth have caused widespread bewilderment.
in careworn Yangon the signs are everywhere. The pavements are cluttered with
traders selling an array of newspapers, newly licensed and privately owned,
carrying pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for
Democracy (NLD). Less than two years ago the image of the defiant Nobel
peace-prize laureate was banned; under a strict censorship system her name
could not even be mentioned in the press. Now all censorship before publication
has been lifted; any paper, such as the NLD’s own newspaper D Wave, can apply
to publish daily; and Miss Suu Kyi’s photo festoons T-shirts, mugs and biros
for sale on almost every street corner. People are still excited about being
able to speak freely, even about politics, without constantly having to look
over their shoulders. Some of those interviewed for this special report had
never before talked to a foreigner, let alone a foreign journalist.
greater political freedom has come economic change. Almost all Western sanctions
against the country have been lifted, and the country is swiftly reconnecting
with the international financial system. Visitors no longer have to wander
around with so many wads of dirty old kyat, the local currency, in their
pockets: the first international ATM in Yangon has recently started disgorging
fresh banknotes. Some outlets are now accepting credit cards. Real Western
brands, rather than pirated versions, are about to appear in a few shops. An
influx of relatively wealthy foreigners and returned natives will need new
offices and apartments. Prime parts of Yangon are rapidly being flattened to
cater for the expected demand.
transformation is the most significant event to have taken place in South-East
Asia in the past decade, and this special report will argue that it will have
important consequences for the rest of Asia as well. In the space of just a few
years almost every aspect of life has been touched by the reform programme. Not
only was Miss Suu Kyi released from house arrest in November 2010, but the vast
majority of the country’s thousands of political prisoners have been freed. The
NLD, harassed for decades and then declared illegal for refusing to participate
in rigged elections in 2010, is legitimate once more. In April 2012 it won 43
out of 44 seats it contested in by-elections, the country’s first free and fair
polls since the 1950s: its MPs, led by Miss Suu Kyi, now sit in parliament.
blacklists barring former political opponents of the regime and “hostile”
journalists have been put away. A new labour law covering private industry has
encouraged the formation of new trade unions. Once a byword for bleak
authoritarianism, Myanmar is now doing better than some of its Asian peers on
civil and political rights.
financial institutions such as the World Bank have returned, often after
writing off the country’s old debts. Thein Sein now tours the world’s capitals
much like any other leader, even if he does not get the rapturous welcome given
to Miss Suu Kyi wherever she goes. And this December Myanmar celebrates its
return to regional respectability by hosting the South-East Asian Games for the
first time since the 1960s.
governments and multinationals have converged on a country that occupies a
unique geostrategic position between the new Asian superpowers of India to the
west and China to the east. Private companies are jostling to capture a share
of an almost virginal consumer market of some 60m people. This special report
will weigh the pros and cons of rushing into what investors are calling “the
Don’t cheer too soon
new sense of optimism and confidence among Myanmar’s own people is still tinged
with caution. Hopes in the past have been raised by modest doses of
liberalisation, only to be dashed again. It is also clear that in easing
military control, Myanmar’s reformers have provided an opening for dark forces
that authoritarian rule had kept in check. Since June 2012, starting in the
city of Sittwe in western Rakhine state, Buddhist mobs have killed hundreds of
Muslims and razed their mosques and homes to the ground. It was not what the
reformers had intended, but the effects of relaxing restrictions can be
first two months of 2013 also saw the heaviest fighting yet between the Myanmar
army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed militia of the Kachin
people. Like many of the other ethnic minorities that make up about 40% of
Myanmar’s population, the Kachin, in the far north of the country, have been
battling for decades for autonomy and against majority Burman rule. For all the
past two years’ economic and political progress in the Burman heartlands in the
centre of the country, much of the periphery remains largely cut off and in a
state of, at best, suspended hostilities.
Sein’s government has signed ceasefire agreements with most of the armed
groups, but a lasting political solution still seems a long way off. It will
require proper citizens’ rights to be granted to the country’s entire
population, including marginalised people like the Rohingya Muslims, which all
of Myanmar’s rulers since independence have neglected to do. This special
report will argue that the current period of upheaval is the best possible
opportunity to resolve these ethnic disputes.
Its commitment to reform
has been impressive, but stern tests lie ahead for Myanmar
Thein Sein was picked by his fellow generals to lead Myanmar a little over two
years ago, the country was a pariah state, ostracised by the West, shut off
from the mainstream of Asian prosperity and ground down after decades of
brutal, corrupt and inept military rule. Yet this week Mr Thein Sein was
welcomed to the White House, chatting with Barack Obama and soaking up the
American president’s praise for Myanmar’s bold and fast-moving reforms.
our special report this week shows, Myanmar has undergone a remarkable
transformation. Ruled by the generals, the country, which many know as Burma,
was a blank space. Now it is finding its place again at a nexus between China,
the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. The neighbours are pouring in with
road- and port-building projects to reconnect Myanmar to its region. And now
that they have lifted nearly all sanctions, Europeans and Americans are also excited,
sizing up a country of 64m people that is rich in resources and market
potential. Empty rooms in the rundown hotels of the commercial capital, Yangon,
are suddenly as rare as hen’s teeth.
precursor to this was a profound change in Myanmar’s politics under Mr Thein
Sein. In late 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Thousands
of other political prisoners are also free. Dozens from Miss Suu Kyi’s National
League for Democracy, once persecuted, now sit in a parliament that people thought
would be a poodle but which has shown real bite. A once-stifled press has found
its voice and politics, a topic that was long taboo, is part of common
conversation. At last, ordinary Burmese can aspire to share a better
future—quite possibly with Miss Suu Kyi as president in 2015.
is a top-down revolution and many of its motives are unclear. But at the least
Mr Thein Sein and his allies lamented the dead end into which their country was
driven, first by military-led socialism and then, under Mr Thein Sein’s
pitiless predecessor, Than Shwe, by army cronies plundering the country’s
wealth. In regional meetings with prosperous neighbours, Myanmar’s backwardness
was a mounting humiliation. Above all, isolation had allowed the Chinese, much
resented, to gain economic dominance.
Thein Sein’s bravest act was to face up to the fact that Mr Than Shwe’s notions
of a “disciplined democracy” and strictly rationed freedoms would lead nowhere.
They could never bring round Miss Suu Kyi, with her huge moral force at home
and abroad. And without her approval the West would never drop its crippling
sanctions. So, in a famous meeting about which both are tight-lipped, Mr Thein
Sein and Miss Suu Kyi talked in August 2011 and found that they trusted each
other. The pace of change accelerated from that point. Both deserve credit. So,
too, does American diplomacy, for using calibrated concessions to draw the
rulers out of their seclusion, culminating in Mr Thein Sein’s visit to
Washington this week.
Mr Thein Sein and Miss Suu Kyi both have much more to do. Army assaults on
ethnic groups and communal unrest—in particular violence by Buddhist mobs
against the Muslim Rohingya—underscore how far Myanmar is from achieving peace
and democracy. So far change has come largely to the Burman-dominated centre.
Around the periphery, home to ethnic groups that make up two-fifths of the
population, little has changed. Now Myanmar must find peaceful ways to end
long-running civil conflicts. A new constitution creating a federal state and
guaranteeing equal rights to all, Rohingya included, is essential. Until it is
in force, everything so far achieved will remain in jeopardy.
Myanmar's leaders push a series of political and economic changes, they are
also having to deal with between the majority Buddhists and minority Muslims,
countries making the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy have faced
similar ethnic and sectarian conflicts, from Iraq to the former Yugoslavia.
for Myanmar, perhaps the most compelling case study is also the closest.
years ago this week, a deepening economic crisis and weeks of political unrest
in Indonesia forced military dictator Suharto to resign after 30 years in
the months and years that followed, sectarian and ethnic violence raged across
the Muslim-majority Indonesian archipelago. Race riots against ethnic Chinese
erupted in Jakarta. Ethnic Dayaks fought with Madurese settlers on the island
of Borneo. And Muslim jihadis battled Christians in the Maluku Islands. Some
feared the country would disintegrate.
now, Indonesia is widely seen as a vibrant democracy that also has . It seems
as if the country got some things right that may also provide lessons for
Myanmar as it attempts its own transformation.
started off on the right foot by uniting the country's diverse peoples in its
anti-colonial revolution against the Netherlands, according to University of
Toronto political scientist Jacques Bertrand.
Indonesian nationalist movement, or the fight against the Dutch, really rallied
groups from all the archipelago," Bertrand says. "Whoever was within
the territory of the [former] Dutch Indies ... they sort of hopped on the
bandwagon of the idea of creating a new state."
Myanmar, or what was then known as Burma, the independence movement against the
Japanese, and later the British, was mostly an enterprise of the Burman
majority. The British had used divide-and-rule tactics successfully and
cultivated Christian minorities such as the Karen as a hedge against the
not only lacks an inclusive narrative of nation building, Bertrand says, but it
has yet to come up with a formula — such as federalism — under which minorities
could join the union. As a result, large parts of Myanmar's border regions
remain under rebel control.
Military And State
was also successful in getting military men to relinquish their posts in
government. It shut down military businesses and separated the police force
from the military.
growth of democratic institutions accelerated the military's "return to
the barracks." A freer press amplified public demands for better
governance and accountability. The government lifted restrictions on political
parties, and 48 parties contested elections in 1999, the year after Suharto
stepped down. Election turnout has been high at about 80 percent, and instances
of violence and vote-rigging have been low.
process remains unfinished, according to some. . Notably, both Myanmar's and
Indonesia's presidents are former army officers.
military retains sweeping emergency powers and extensive control over state
budgets. The constitution reserves one-quarter of parliamentary seats for the
military, which retains control over vital sectors of the economy, such as
energy and international trade.
. Burma's military has also continued offensives against ethnic Kachin
insurgents despite President Thein Sein's unilateral declaration of a
cease-fire. The president's ministers say he is fully in control of the
military. But Myanmar's commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, says the
military intends to hang on to its leading role in national politics.
the time of Suharto's fall, an Asian financial crisis hit, triggered by the
collapse of neighbouring Thailand's currency. This also hit Indonesia, which
was faced by demands for local autonomy, Jakarta responded by devolving
authority over nearly half of government spending to local governments.
a quarter-century-long insurgency in westernmost Aceh province, Jakarta made it
a special administrative region with the power to legislate Shariah, or Islamic
law. It has had less success with West Papua province, where a low-level
insurgency still simmers.
must address the autonomy issue to end ongoing insurgencies, which are being
fought in part for control of resources, including jade, timber and hydropower,
and foreign investment in these resources.
economic issues are often overlooked when ethnic or sectarian violence flares.
The University of Toronto's Bertrand points out that the crumbling of
authoritarian regimes commonly produces a sense of uncertainty about the
future, in which different groups tend to jockey, often violently, for a
stronger relative position under the new order.
Religion In The State
its independence, Indonesia faced a choice of whether to become an Islamic or
secular state. It chose secular nationalism, and suppressed radical Islamists
who resisted by force. Indonesia's Islamist political parties' share of the
vote in two elections over the past decade has dropped from 38 percent to 25
percent. Of course, , notably Sunni extremist groups' persecution of Shiite and
Ahmadiyya minority sects.
on the other hand, has used than the Indonesian regime has used Islam, says
Melissa Crouch, a legal scholar at the National University of Singapore.
junta followed in the footsteps of its pre-colonial predecessors, awarding
monastic titles, building temples and publicly lavishing money on monks to get
their karmic seal of approval. Crouch says there is now talk in Myanmar of
amending the constitution to include references to "the special
position" of Buddhism in Myanmar.
hardly a shock that Myanmar is seen as lagging behind Indonesia. After all, it
began its democratic reforms just over two years ago.
most lacking to many observers is a clear commitment by Myanmar's government to
full civilian rule, equality for minorities and democratic rights for the
majority. Without these, the reforms will continue to appear tentative and
the Ministry of Information’s director general visited Ye Htet Oo’s library in
2010, it could have been disastrous. Ye Htet Oo, then a recent college
graduate, was running his new library in downtown Rangoon on the sly, without
approval from the former military regime, and was told he could face three
months in jail for every book he lent without permission from the censorship
board. Unable to get a library license from the government, which saw libraries
as a way to spread subversive ideas, he fronted his operation as a bookshop but
kept a collection of unapproved library books hidden in a back room. Then one
day, unknown to the young bibliophile, the ministry’s director general—who has
since become the deputy minister of information and President Thein Sein’s
spokesman—entered the “bookshop” and walked straight into the secret room.
before Burma would begin its transition from military rule, that incident could
have been the end of the library, but in an unexpected turn of events, the
ministry agreed to not only allow Ye Htet Oo’s operation to continue, but to
actually let it expand. From two shelves and about 500 books, his collection
has grown to about 18,000 books in circulation today in the Rangoon area. “My
journey was quite lucky,” the 27-year-old told The Irrawaddy recently at his
nonprofit Tharapa Library, now based in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township. In addition
to the main branch, Ye Htet Oo has launched four “mobile libraries” around Rangoon,
sending his books to monasteries and other religious centres for students who
otherwise lack access. He has also sent about 10,000 books to west Burma’s
Arakan State and north Burma’s Kachin State.
book donations from the American Center in Rangoon and the Asia Foundation, the
US-educated librarian funds his book network by teaching SAT prep and TOEFL
language lessons to local students. In this interview, he tells The Irrawaddy
how Cyclone Nargis helped inspire his library; how the end of censorship has—or
hasn’t—changed Burmese literature; why libraries at government schools are in a
sad state of affairs; and what happened in the secret room that fateful day
that changed his life.
Question: What was it
like running a library under the former military regime?
I started [my library] in 2009, but until 2010 my library was not registered
with the government. The township government wouldn’t allow us to submit an
application [for library registration] because I was trying to start my library
on 28th Street [in downtown Rangoon], and the [pro-democracy] Saffron
Revolution happened in 2007, so they didn’t want people to gather in one place
and share ideas. I was quite upset, because the township leader said that if I
had books without approval from the censorship board, I could face three months
in jail for each book, whether they were about politics or anything else.
Q: So you weren’t getting
approval from the censorship board before lending your books?
It was a risk. But I have to say, in the development of this library, I met a
lot of good people. Despite what the township government said, an official at
the lower level of government was a good guy, so I talked to him. After his
boss said no, he said he could help. He recommended that I apply for a
bookstore license from the municipality, which was kind of legal, and he said
that if I wanted to have English books, I should hide them in a room and keep
the Burmese books outside.
Q: The government didn’t
want you to lend English-language books?
Because they couldn’t manage those books, so they didn’t want to take the risk.
Q: Did many other
libraries also pretend to be bookstores?
At that time, there weren’t many libraries yet [besides government-owned
libraries], especially in townships. Most libraries were attached to
monasteries, but there weren’t many libraries like mine—outside, renting a room
and operating like that, although now there are a lot.
[opening the library] I asked people at the Ministry of Information what I
should do to have a library. I kept talking with them, and after a year, I
still didn’t have a license. But I was lucky—one day the Information Ministry
called me and said I could submit my application, they would allow me to
register as a library. I went to their office, I couldn’t believe it, and I
asked what made them change their minds. They said the [ministry’s] director
general had visited my library—I didn’t know—and he was in the English room as
well. You know who he is now? He’s the presidential spokesman, Ye Htut. He was
director general at that time. He visited my library without telling anyone,
but I never saw him, I never knew. I had a chance to talk with him three months
ago, and I asked how he heard about me. One of his kids attended English class
upstairs and told him my library was good, so he decided to visit and saw I was
very systematic with my stuff. He asked [the ministry] if the library was
registered and they said I had a problem, so he decided to issue a library
registration. At the time, the information minister was strict, so I was
thankful for what he did with his authority. My journey was quite lucky.
Q: Is it easier to start
libraries now, under the new government?
Yes, I’m sure it is easy to register, very easy right now.
Q: You went to a
university in the United States. When did you get back to Rangoon?
In 2008, May, just before Nargis. That was part of my inspiration, or one
reason why I wanted to make the library. Because I could see and feel that we
had been destroyed, that we were unprepared, because we lacked knowledge. And I
saw a lot of things I shouldn’t see—the mindset of people was upsetting. People
would get on a boat, and the boatman would try to steal their stuff; people
were exploiting each other, even though we were in troubled times. That’s
because we lacked ethics, knowledge. So I felt we should do something to help
give knowledge. I know I’m not going to fulfil the whole country’s needs, but
who knows, maybe we’ll get more people to join our cause.
Q: What is a mobile
library and why did you create them?
I call them mobile libraries because my books were moving. I chose to open my
libraries at religious centres so I wouldn’t lose books, and also because the
religious leaders like monks and bishops knew the local people better than we
did. I started talking with the religious leaders, asking if we could come put
our books in their corner. Right now I have four mobile libraries—two in
Thanlyin, one in Shwepyitha and another in Insein [townships].
Q: How is Burma’s reading
culture changing now that the censorship board has been disbanded?
Censorship is gone, but even so, with literature, not many good books are
coming out. Books that weren’t allowed under the military government are being
reprinted, that’s it. … Censorship is gone so people can write more, but all
the books are about politics. Most books are about the past experience of
political prisoners, how they spent their lives in jail, how they were
arrested. This is good to know, but doesn’t give much knowledge to improve your
life. Maybe if they could try to explain why they decided to devote their lives
to their country, I think that would be better.
Q: Was fiction more
I’ll say yes, but before we focused on jokes, like funny stories, because daily
life was very difficult and nobody wanted to read heavy stuff when they were
trying to relax. That’s understandable. And the military government affected
the reading culture by systematically destroying critical thinking skills and
ethics. I think the country will improve, but right now most libraries are
struggling, including mine, because we need to promote reading. We’re trying
but it’s very hard.
you seen the book corners near the train stations? They’re supported by the
Ministry of Information, because in Myanmar [Burma] you don’t have train
schedules, you just have to wait, so the idea is to promote reading while
you’re waiting. The books are free. Tharapa Library is cooperating with this
effort, but we’re running into budget problems. The government doesn’t want
people to keep the books, so normally they assign two of their staff to a book
corner—right now there are 77 book corners around the country. Two people at 77
book corners is a lot of officials. Also there are budget issues: One book
corner costs 70,000 kyats ($75) per month.
Q: Are certain Western
authors really popular here?
Among Burmese students who study internationally, Agatha Christie is a favourite.
They also like the Twilight series and teen magazines. Students from government
schools, like myself, often prefer older books like Sherlock Holmes.
Q: In Burma’s
government-run schools, are there literature classes?
In government schools, no. The teachers focus on science, math, biology,
chemistry. I went to State High School No. 1 Dagon, one of the good schools in
Myanmar, and even though we had a lot of funding with a big computer room, we
didn’t have a library. Well, we had a library, but it was only filled with old
journals and computer magazines that nobody read. The government is giving
funds for libraries, that’s for sure, but the libraries aren’t getting better.
The library at my old school, it’s the same now as it was when I was in second
Q: How does the reading
culture in Burma compare to reading culture the United States?
In Myanmar, I think we have a more active reading culture. Many places here are
not developed yet—even if you drive two hours from Yangon [Rangoon], you will
reach a place where there’s no electricity, so in those places the only outlet
people have is books. But, as I said, they like to read humour books. But the
reading culture in Myanmar is really promising. Reading habits are better [here
than in the States], and people give high respect to writers. People go listen
to their favourite writers give literary talks.
news that comes out of Burma generally doesn’t fall in the optimistic category.
Anti-Muslim violence, flare-ups between the Burmese government and ethnic
armies and reports of activists and dissidents being jailed paint a grim
picture of the political and human rights situation.
piece of encouraging news, however, is that Burma’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is
on the decline. But this, like so many other promising stories coming out of
the country, is tainted by deeper, related, concerns. HIV/AIDS is still the
number one disease of concern in the country, followed by malaria and
tuberculosis. Burma has one of the highest HIV rates in Asia, and a scarcity of
medicine means this continues to be a very real problem in the country.
who have HIV struggle to access treatment and medication, often until their
condition is quite advanced. A lack of anti-retroviral (ART) drugs in the
country means that people must wait until they are so sick their quality of
life begins to deteriorate before they might even have a chance at getting medicine.
guide at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand, which provides free health
services to Burmese migrants in Thailand and those who cross the border simply
for medical care, said that while clinic staff can test for HIV/AIDS and
tuberculosis, they do not have the resources to treat those infected. In many
cases, she said, those who are diagnosed with these diseases are sent back to
Burma. However, the number of medications there are so limited that only those
in advanced stages can access treatment.
to the Myanmar National Strategic Plan 2011-2015, only 28 percent of those
infected with HIV were receiving treatment as of 2009. The report stated that a
large number of those infected were sex workers, which highlights the risk of
having such a low treatment rate, as these sex workers are likely to be
sleeping with high numbers of clients and potentially passing on the infection.
The other two major at-risk groups are men who have sex with men and
intravenous drug users.
Global Post reported in 2012 that in addition to the scarcity of ARTs, gaining
access to those medicines is further complicated because only two hospitals in
the country distribute them. The Global Post writer also noted that ART
distribution is limited to people living in certain townships, making it even
more difficult for those in need to get them.
estimated that in 220,000 people in Burma were infected with HIV/AIDS, that
16,000 died from the disease and 74,000 were orphaned because of it.
a small segment of the population is infected, the problems are serious. The
fact that so little medication is available is a veritable death sentence for
thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS. Because they don’t get treatment
before the disease advances, they have an increased likelihood of transmitting
the virus, perpetuating the problem.
in 2012, the Burmese government declared that it aims to have an HIV-free
generation of children by 2015. This can be achieved through providing early
treatment to pregnant mothers who have the virus; getting them anti-retroviral
treatment early in the pregnancy can reduce the risk of passing the virus on to
the child to five percent, according to UNAIDS. The organization reported that
in 2011, “84% of the estimated 3700 pregnant women living with HIV received
antiretroviral prophylaxis to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies.”
They went on to note, however, that less than one third of pregnant women in
the country are tested for HIV, which means large swaths of those preparing to
give birth could be at risk of passing it on.
part of its plan to eliminate HIV in children, the government plans to broaden
its reach with testing services to more women.
Minister of Health, Professor Dr Pe Thet Khin, has been quoted as saying that
his department believes that by 2015 children in Burma can be born free of HIV
and their mothers can remain healthy to raise them, according to UNAIDS.
there is reason for scepticism with these goals. A lack of funding has been a
consistent problem when it comes to getting HIV/AIDS patients the medicines
they need, and a lack of information also contributes to its spread. If the
Burmese government wants to rid their country of AIDS, these things will need
to be addressed as fundamentals in the fight against this disease.
as is the case for HIV/AIDS patients around the world, there is also the issue
of social stigma that comes with the virus.
reported last year on the loneliness and abandonment many face when their
conditions become known.
little over a week ago, a young Myanmar friend of mine, let's call him Myo,
found himself hiding in some farm fields, avoiding the Thai police while being
smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok.Unlike
many other undocumented migrants who get smuggled—and sometimes arrested—in
this way, Myo had applied for a passport and work permit through Thailand's
legal registration process.Myo's
situation thus speaks to the dysfunction of Thailand's current migrant
registration system.But this needs some
the past two decades, the district of Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border has
seen a rapid development boom.This
growth has been based on a huge reserve of mostly undocumented migrants from
neighbouring Myanmar.A lack of
documentation for legal residence and work, combined with lax enforcement of
labour law, has constrained the abilities of migrants in Mae Sot to claim their
legal rights.As a result, working
conditions in the area remain dreadful, with wages typically one quarter to one
half the legal minimum.
few years ago, however, it seemed things might begin to change.In 2009, the Thai and Myanmar governments
collaborated to introduce “temporary passports” with official work permits for
migrants in Thailand.Those holding these
documents were to be granted legal freedom of movement and the right to seek
employment across the country.In Mae
Sot, the process only really picked up in late 2011, when the number of private
passport companies and independent brokers exploded.
that time, large numbers of migrants in Mae Sot took the opportunity to legally
leave the border area for higher paying jobs in Bangkok and its surrounding
provinces.The result was a sudden drop
in workforce numbers at many Mae Sot factories.If the trend had continued, the decline in the local migrant population
would have presumably driven up wages for those who remained.
of an impending labour shortage, the Federation of Thai Industries (Tak
Chapter) appealed to the Government of Tak Province to stem the outward flow of
migrants.In response, Tak officials
issued instructions to Mae Sot police in June 2012, barring migrants holding
passports but not (or not yet) registered for work outside Mae Sot from freely
travelling past the checkpoints on the main road out of town.
restrictions were in violation of the Thai government's policy on the migrant
passports.To date, however, the
restrictions remain in place.To get
around them, some migrants have been able to pay a 500 baht bribe to the police
operating the affected checkpoints.For
the most part, however, these restrictions continue to frustrate the efforts of
Mae Sot-based migrants hoping to legally seek higher paying work in Bangkok, or
elsewhere in Thailand.
case of my friend Myo is illustrative.Earlier this year, Myo left his home town in Karen State to join the
legions of Myanmar migrants working in Thailand.His port of entry was Mae Sot.His younger sister (who already works in
Bangkok) had lined him up a retail job paying 300 baht per day near her own
place of employment.
was February 2013, during an extension period for migrant registration, which
the Thai government had granted due to the large number of those yet to
apply.The Thai and Myanmar governments
had also reduced their respective charges, bringing the official cost of the
passport and work permit down to less than 5,000 baht.
policy at this time was for the Mae Sot Department of Employment to receive and
process the applications.However, many
migrants who tried to apply through this office were told their applications
lacked certain documents or pieces of information, and they were strongly
encouraged to apply with a private passport company.
like most migrants in Mae Sot, Myo submitted his application through a private
company.He was charged 11,000
baht.That's more than twice the
official cost, but still not as much as what less scrupulous brokers are
waiting over two months, the passport company informed Myo that Mae Sot
authorities would not allow the distribution within Mae Sot of work permits
registered with employers elsewhere in Thailand.The company assured Myo that they had
arranged safe travel for him and the other applicants to collect their
documents in Bangkok.However, since
they would be travelling undocumented, they all needed to pay an additional 500
baht “police fee” along with travel expenses.
seemed odd to both of us.After all, if
Myo had applied through the legal process, why did he need to be illegally
smuggled to collect documentation for legal residence and work in Thailand.
any case, Myo soon left for Bangkok.But
he didn't get very far.The passport
company drove him and 60 or so other migrants to a village outside Mae Sot
where they were put in an empty house and told to wait, as it was not yet
conducive to travel.After waiting two
days, these migrants were taken down a back road, stopped by police and ordered
back to town.The “police fee” was
few days later, they tried again.This
time, while waiting at the same village as before, the migrants were suddenly
told the police had been tipped off and they (the migrants) needed to
immediately flee and hide in the nearby fields, which they did.When things settled, they all returned to Mae
Sot, where, for the moment, my friend Myo remains stuck.The passport company is now saying they may
no longer be able to arrange work permits registered for employment outside Mae
these restrictions on the travel of migrants out of Mae Sot remain in place,
there are several implications that deserve consideration.The first is that thousands of migrants who
want to legally leave Mae Sot continue to be denied freedom of movement to
access higher paying work elsewhere in Thailand.Second, these restrictions serve as an
important means of suppressing wages in Mae Sot, by maintaining the area's pool
of reserve labour.Many of those
planning to stay in Mae Sot have thus opted not to apply for passports,
remaining instead in a precarious situation as undocumented migrants, since
they can either not afford this documentation or else they see little benefit
to it in terms of higher wages.Third,
human smuggling from Mae Sot to Bangkok continues despite the formal existence
of legal alternatives.The going rate
for undocumented migrants to get smuggled from Mae Sot to Bangkok is 15,000
baht (or 8,000 baht if you're willing to walk the first three days).The smuggling business (to say nothing of
trafficking) is only viable because of barriers to above ground alternatives.
the moment, it remains unclear how the situation will develop.Employers in Mae Sot do not appear keen to
pay the legal minimum wage or to follow Thailand's labour law more
generally.At the same time, there are
employment opportunities for migrants in Central Thailand paying the legal
minimum, or at least closer to it than what is offered in Mae Sot.Migrants will therefore continue to seek ways
out of Mae Sot, regardless of the restrictions in place.What these restrictions do, however, is
increase the viability of far more precarious alternatives.The resulting situation is a far cry from the
goal of regularising migration, which these passports were meant to achieve.
Stephen Campbell is a PhD
student at the University of Toronto, currently based in Mae Sot.
and India declared during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's recent visit to India
that they have jointly proposed developing an economic corridor joining
Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar, thus promoting a closer relationship
between the two largest Asian markets.
Sino-Indian relationship seems to be obstructed. Many have attributed this to
the unresolved border issue. Indeed, a clear demarcation of the border is
important, but only time will tell when the issue can be solved. Before that,
strengthening bilateral communication is equally important.
roads and rails linking China and Southeast Asia with India will play an
will be drawn into the wave of economic development in China and Southeast
Asian countries like Thailand. Impelled by its powerful competitors, India will
finally open its own markets more. Competition will also enhance India's own
confidence and accelerate its "Look East" agenda.
long ago, I drove to Sukhothai, a famous city in northern Thailand. To its
east, the hub links Laos and Vietnam, and to its west are Myanmar, Bangladesh
and India. It also crosses the road linking China's Kunming, Yunnan Province,
with the Thai capital of Bangkok.
kilometres west of this crossing point is the town of Mae Sot of Thailand,
which shares a border with Myanmar. On the trip, I saw many trucks loaded with
heavy goods crawling along the road and construction work busily being carried
is a crucial gateway from Thailand and China to Myanmar. In Southeast Asia's
border trade, the trade volume of the Mae Sot port is ranked second, next only
to the Muse port on the border shared by China and Myanmar.
from Mae Sot to Myanmar's Moulmein port, the rugged and rough path is more than
100 kilometres long and some sections have space enough for only one vehicle.
The road from Moulmein to Yangon is dilapidated as well.
roads and railways are like this within Myanmar. Blocked by the sluggish
transportation of Myanmar, India hasn't directly experienced the economic
vitality of China and Southeast Asian countries or enjoyed the economic
benefits in the region.
north is next to Nepal and China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, which are
dominated by undulating mountains.
used to travel along the road linking China and Nepal, but discovered the road
condition was so bad that even medium-sized trucks needed to go gingerly.
complex ethnic issues also make it difficult to link China and India from
India's northernmost regions.
is therefore much easier to connect the two via Myanmar from India's east,
which can also promote the integration of economies of China, ASEAN and South
is situated between China and India, the world's largest two developing
countries. Its geopolitical advantages are notable.
its northeast lies China's Yunnan Province where the road and railways are
quite developed. To its east is Thailand, whose transportation infrastructure
is well-developed. Recently, the Thai government decided to invest $76 billion
to build high-speed rail, which is expected to connect Laos, Malaysia and
Myanmar is opened up, India will be directly linked with ASEAN and China. Goods
from China, Thailand and Vietnam will be transported straight to India. Of
course India will feel some pressure. But India at the moment perhaps really
needs to be pushed.
Indian economy has encountered some storms in recent years. There are many
obstacles for the country to open up its markets. Its "Look East"
agenda is also restrained. An outside economic push may promote India's
La, one of the open trading border posts between China and India, hasn't been
fully developed due to a lack of outside pressure.
Myanmar gets involved, India will feel the heat. India doesn't lack the
potential for development, but it needs outside force to activate such
The author is a senior
editor with People's Daily. He's now stationed in Bangkok.