RANGOON - Amid calls from
Burma’s ethnic armed groups for the establishment of a “federal army,” the
country’s commander-in-chief has claimed that the current military is already a
federally constituted institution, owing to its inclusion of ethnic minority
members within the ranks.
In remarks made to troops
in Thandwe Township during a visit to Arakan State on Tuesday, Snr-Gen Min Aung
Hlaing appeared to reject ethnic rebels’ proposal for a military that would decentralize
the command structure and see the battalions in certain regions comprised
largely of soldiers from the dominant resident ethnic group.
The Burmese government
has not yet indicated whether it will consider the ethnic armed groups’ pitch
for a future army that is federal in nature, and the issue is expected to be
discussed at upcoming peace talks in Karen State’s Hpa-an. Ahead of that
meeting, which will likely take place sometime after the Christmas and New
Year’s holidays, Min Aung Hlaing seemed to stake out the military’s position on
“Different ethnic groups
are enlisted in our army and our army is the Union Army. This is why our army
needs to build up union spirit. It is the duty of everyone in our army to avoid
misunderstandings between either individuals or battalions,” said Min Aung
Hlaing, who commands a fighting force, known as the Tatmadaw, that is made up
largely of Burmans, the country’s ethnic majority.
During a visit on the
same day to Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, Radio Free Asia’s Burmese
service reported that Min Aung Hlaing told the public that he wanted Burma to
practice “disciplined democracy,” adding that the military would participate in
the realization of this goal.
“We want to have real,
disciplined democracy. This is the first time I’ve told the public,” Min Aung
Hlaing was quoted as saying. “We really want to become a democratic country. We
want to have similar [system of governance] as other countries that have
enjoyed peaceful and stable development. We are working to attain it. We need
to have peace, rule of law and unity.”
Burma has undergone a
series of political reforms since 2011, after nearly 50 years of military rule.
The junta presided over a withering of the country’s economy under the
mismanaged policies of the generals’ “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and a number
of ethnic armed rebel groups waged war against the central government,
demanding greater autonomy or outright independence.
Reformist President Thein
Sein has made peace with the various armed groups a major priority of his
administration since he took power in 2011, signing ceasefire agreements with
more than a dozen of them.
Hkun Htun Oo, a leader of
the ethnically affiliated Shan National League for Democracy, said Min Aung
Hlaing’s authority did not transcend that of the Constitution, adding that only
the Constitution could determine what form a future military in Burma might
“There is a Parliament
and Constitution in the country. He does not have power to decide for it,” Khun
Htun Oo said.
The current Constitution,
drafted by the military and enacted in 2008, gives the military significant
power, but discussions propelled by the ethnic armed groups and Burma’s main
opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have focused on
amending the charter or scrapping it altogether.
Khun Okkar, secretary of
the alliance of 11 ethnic armed groups known as the United Nationalities
Federal Council (UNFC), dismissed Min Aung Hlaing’s comments as merely the
general’s personal opinion. Ethnic armed groups, Khun Okkar said, were not yet
fairly represented within the ranks of Burma’s military.
The UNFC leader said the
comments were likely intended to downplay a growing call for discussions about
the issue among the ethnic armed groups.
“I found that he wanted
to make light of the issue, which we want to talk about,” Khun Okkar said.
Myanmar’s opposition leader has said she believes
the majority of military personnel will support constitutional amendments if
she has the chance to clearly explain to them why it is necessary to change the
During her visit to
Australia on Sunday, Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for
Democracy (NLD), was replying to a question from Radio Australia (Myanmar
Section) on whether she could sum up the military’s stance on constitutional
“It is very difficult to
say about the whole military. There are many ordinary military personnel. There
also officers as well as top officials. I can’t say whether they have the same
stance. But if I have the chance to explain why the constitutional change is
needed, I think they will support it,” said Suu Kyi, also a Lower House MP.
“The military role is
important. The four-way summit (I am talking about) means a meeting between the
executive, the parliamentary legislators, and the military. I also heard it was
not appropriate to meet with only a single political party. What I remember is
that I was denied the same way in 1988 when I offered to meet with the then
government of the State Law and Order Restoration Council. They said it was not
appropriate to meet with one single party because there were more than 200
parties. The meeting that the largest opposition party is calling for now is
something that should be done. By doing so, we understand more about the status
of the military. They will also understand us.”
Asked how genuine
Myanmar’s reform process was, she said it depended on the government’s stance
over the constitution, adding that it could not be said that the government
wants democracy without supporting constitutional amendment.
The government’s response
to her calls for a four-way summit could generate the view that the executive
does not want constitutional change, she commented.
Suu Kyi recently sent a
letter calling for a meeting between President Thein Sein, Union Parliament
Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, Defence Services Commander-in-chief Senior General Min
Aung Hlaing, and herself. The president replied that such a meeting should only
be considered after the parliament’s constitutional review committee has
released its report.
Myanmar’s 88 Generation
Students civil society group on Wednesday backed opposition leader Aung San Suu
Kyi’s proposal for four-way talks with President Thein Sein, the parliamentary
speaker, and the military chief to lay the groundwork for constitutional
But the ruling Union
Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and at least one ethnic-based party,
however, said any talks among top leaders should wait until after a
parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing public proposals for revising the
charter completes its work in January.
Aung San Suu Kyi had late
last month proposed a meeting between Thein Sein, Union Parliament Speaker Shwe
Mann, Armed Forces Commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and
herself to discuss the prospect of amending the constitution.
The charter contains
provisions that bar the 68-year-old Nobel laureate from becoming president and
her National League for Democracy has called for sweeping amendments to be made
ahead of the next national elections in 2015.
Min Ko Naing, leader of
the 88 Generation Students' Group, a prominent prodemocracy activist
organization, said the four-way meeting should be held without delay.
“My opinion is that this
is an important thing to do as soon as possible, though it should be
systematic,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“People who can make
decisions for the country must meet at anytime as needed. We also need to have
talks in which ethnic [leaders] can propose what they need,” he said.
Myanmar’s ruling officials
have mostly expressed support for constitutional amendments, but with elections
two years away, some observers say the process so far has been slow.
In response to Aung San
Suu Kyi’s request to meet, Thein Sein’s spokesman Ye Htut said Tuesday that any
talks about constitutional amendments should include all Myanmar political
parties and ethnic groups and be held after the parliamentary committee’s
The charter, written in
2008 toward the end of decades of military rule, reserves a quarter of seats in
parliament for the military and requires a three-quarters majority for a
national referendum on proposed amendments.
parties in Myanmar and armed rebel groups negotiating cease-fire agreements
with the government after decades of military conflict have called for
amendments that allow ethnic groups and states greater autonomy.
Aung San Suu Kyi has
labelled the constitution fundamentally “undemocratic” and called for extensive
changes, including to the process for making amendments.
In a clause some believe
was written specifically to target Aung San Suu Kyi, whose two sons have
British citizenship, the constitution says anyone whose relatives are foreign
citizens or hold foreign citizenship is not qualified to serve as president or
Call for all-inclusive meeting
USDP Vice Chairman Htay
Oo said the party would be open to amending the article on presidential
qualifications, but that any meeting discussing constitutional reform should be
“It would be good to have
a meeting with all political parties,” he told RFA.
“If amending this article
is not harmful to the whole country and if our country’s sovereignty isn’t
harmed because of amending this article, we have to do it.”
“If it would harm our
country’s sovereignty to amend this article, then we mustn’t,” he said.
parliamentary review committee, formed in June, is currently accepting
proposals from the public and will report on them in January, a month later
than originally scheduled after it extended the deadline last month.
Committee chairman Aye
Mauk, a USDP lawmaker, said discussion about amendments should wait until after
his panel reported on its findings.
“I think it would be
better if these leaders discussed after we received suggestions and opinions
from the people,” he said.
“It would be better for
these leaders to discuss this once they have the information gathered from the
people, rather than having talks without any data.”
Han Shwe, a lawmaker from
the military-linked National Unity Party, backed the USDP proposal to wait for
discussion until after the review committee’s report.
“We agreed to amend the
constitution in parliament. We formed a review committee to amend the
constitution,” he said.
“I think this should only
be dealt with in parliament as on any issue we are working in an all-inclusive
Khun Htun Oo, secretary
of the ethnic-based Shan National League for Democracy, said Myanmar’s many
newly formed political parties as well as ethnic armed groups should be
included in discussions about constitutional reform.
“I think that it would be
good to talk with the over 40 parties that are not in the parliament yet, as
well as with other NGOs and organizations on this issue,” he said.
“The decisions from the
ethnic armed groups are also important.”
Reported by Thin Thiri, Khin Khin Ei, and Kyaw Kyaw
Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by
The government has no
plans to provide special support for veterans who fought for Myanmar’s
independence, Presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut said on December 3.
“Those who fought for
independence receive an allowance as provided for in the law but the government
has no plan to provide them with extra support,” U Ye Htut told Mizzima in a
He was responding to
claims that the government is not doing enough to support former members of the
Burma Independence Army, Burma Defence Army and Patriotic Burmese Forces.
Those who served in all
three organisations are classified as first grade veterans, those who served in
two as second grade veterans and those who served in one as third grade
veterans. Their classification as first, second or third grade veterans
determines the allowances and special monetary awards they receive. First grade
veterans receive a monthly allowance of 750 kyats.
Among those calling on
the government to provide extra support is Daw Tin Ye, the widow of first grade
veteran U Tin, who died in 1991 aged 86.
Daw Tin Ye told Mizzima
that militia members who fought for independence together with General Aung San
had been forgotten by the government and the people.
Only senior officers had
enjoyed luxurious lives and most of the soldiers who fought against the British
and the Japanese had been poor, Daw Tin Ye said, adding that she had never
received the allowance provided by the nation.
She also criticized the
allowances and special monetary awards, saying they did not take inflation into
“We never received any
help from any ex-servicemen’s organization when my husband was alive,” said Daw
Tin Ye. “No one ever came to provide support after my husband was
hospitalized,” she said.
Daw Tin Ye, who does not
have a home of her own and lives with a son, said her husband was 28th on a
list of 220 independence struggle veterans, who received government support.
The late General Ne Win was also on the list, she said.
Her comments follow a
claim last week that the government had not provided enough support for members
of the Thirty Comrades, who were trained by the Japanese to fight the Allied
forces during World War II but later changed sides.
The accusation, denied by
the government, was made by U Kyaw Kyaw, whose father was Bo Ye Htut, the last
surviving member of the Thirty Comrades who died on November 27 – National Day
– at the age of 91.
“The honourable soldiers
who fought for independence were classified as first grade, second grade and
third grade and some of those who had the title ‘thakin’ [lord] were not always
listed as first grade veterans,” U Kyaw Kyaw said.
“The government should
support those honourable soldiers; or at least it should have a program for
supporting those who are too poor to support themselves,” U Kyaw Kyaw said.
In response to a question
in the Amyotha Hluttaw on October 28, President’s Office Minister U Soe Maung
said the government had no plan to raise the allowances paid to veterans of the
independence struggle. U Soe Maung added that since 1993 the allowance paid to
first grade veterans was 750 kyats a month and second grade veterans received
375 kyats a month.
Testimony Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on
Asia and the Pacific
Chairman Chabot, Ranking
Member Faleomavaega, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, thank you
for the opportunity to testify today about U.S. policy toward Burma and the
important transition that is underway in that country. Members of Congress, and
particularly those on this Committee, have been powerful proponents of human
rights and democracy in Burma over the past two decades. I know that we share
the goal of supporting reforms that complete Burma’s transition to become a
democratic, peaceful, prosperous member of the world community. We tackle this
test cheered by the advances that have been made, yet cognizant of the
substantial challenges that remain. Thank you for your past and future
partnership in supporting Burma’s reform process.
Secretary Campbell testified before this Subcommittee on Burma in April 2012,
the historic bi-election had just brought Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 other members
of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) into government. But the
NLD members had not yet taken their seats in parliament. Today, they are active
leaders in the government. Since 2011, the Government of Burma has released
over 1,100 political prisoners. It has substantially eased media censorship.
Burma has signed the International Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol,
which we expect will enter into force for Burma soon. Burma has also taken
steps to fulfil its obligation to implement the UN Security Council resolutions
concerning the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Burma has reformed its
policies and laws to attract foreign investment. The intensified focus by the
government and ethnic armed groups on a process to achieve peace and national
reconciliation has been a particularly significant development. In early
November, as I was visiting Burma, ethnic armed leaders held a historic
gathering that achieved a common platform for a nationwide ceasefire and
political dialogue. In an initial round of negotiations with the government
that followed on November 4-5, the parties forged consensus on a general path
forward and a commitment to continue negotiations.
Nearly four years after
we started down the path of principled engagement, the culture of reform in
Burma is increasingly self-driven and self-perpetuating. In this context, we
are working to bolster the efforts of those sincere about reform. Yet, Burma’s
transition remains fragile. The people’s cautious hope is still matched by
their fear and insecurity. The lifting of the authoritarian regime’s heavy hand
has exposed long-standing challenges, including a struggle to define a common national
identity. Communal conflict and anti-Muslim discrimination has been unleashed
in Rakhine State and now across the country. Burma’s institutions are just
beginning to take on the roles required of a democracy. Rule of law, including
efforts to promote justice and accountability, continues to be inadequate and
the military remains closely tied to politics and the economy. Burma’s
constitution and legal infrastructure is not yet fully consistent with those of
a modern democratic state, including respect for the rights of minorities,
civilian control of the military, and the right of citizens to freely elect the
leaders of their choice. Power and the benefits of Burma’s vast natural
resources remain concentrated in the hands of a few. The country is working to
improve its service delivery, but it remains far behind other countries in the
These challenges will be
neither quickly nor easily remedied. Nevertheless, our surest road to helping
Burma comes through a strategy of engagement that seeks to assist the country
proactively in its transition to democracy and development. This is a unique
opportunity in modern Burmese history. The potential for change is growing by
the day, and the people of the country are calling for enhanced U.S. engagement
in virtually all sectors of the country. We must also work tirelessly alongside
the Burmese people to ensure that reforms generated by the Thein Sein
administration become irreversible, entrenched in the institutions of the
state, civil society, and the expectations of the Burmese people. Their
expectations will guide our engagement during this delicate transition period.
Our mission in Rangoon is in close and regular contact with Burmese leaders and
people throughout the country, including in states that were inaccessible to us
The pillars of our policy
include: promoting national peace and reconciliation; supporting the
development of democratic systems and institutions governed by rule of law and
protecting human rights; helping Burma realize its transition to a transparent,
free-market economy that generates growth for all regions and segments of
society; strengthening livelihoods and local governance; and improving Burma’s
ability to become a contributor to regional and global security. Our continued
engagement to effect positive change in Burma is grounded in our strategic
interest in a successful, politically, and economically progressive
Asia-Pacific region and the fundamental values that are at the core of who we
are as a nation.
Peace and Reconciliation
The quest for nation-wide
peace and reconciliation is the defining challenge of Burma’s transformation.
Burma is one of Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries, with 135 recognized
ethnic nationalities and a history of ethnic conflict that pre-dates
colonialism. Unless the people of Burma can achieve peace and national unity,
based on equal rights and respect for diversity, no other reforms will be
The challenge is
enormous, but we believe the current time offers the best opportunity since
Burma’s independence to make genuine headway. Both the Burmese government and
armed ethnic groups have demonstrated a renewed commitment to negotiating a
nationwide ceasefire and the launching of a formal peace process. Trust remains
fragile. The results of existing ceasefires have been mixed. In some states,
ceasefires have resulted in a decreased government troop presence and a
tangible reduction in human rights abuses. In others, ethnic groups report an
increase in government troop levels and continued clashes. The Unlawful
Association Act (17.1) outlaws contact with ethnic armed groups and exile
groups, complicating political party and civil society efforts to collaborate
with these entities due to fear of arrest. Ethnic groups seek a louder voice
and improved governance to bring an end to land confiscation, forced labour,
environmental destruction, and severe human rights abuses perpetrated on local
populations. At the beginning of November, representatives from 16 armed ethnic
groups convened in Kachin State – the broadest gathering of ethnic leaders in
Burma’s history. They reached consensus on a framework for a nation-wide
ceasefire and political dialogue. A few days later they met with the Burmese
government for an initial round of negotiations. Although they did not conclude
a formal cease-fire agreement, they forged consensus on a general path forward
and agreed to continue talks.
The United States is
supporting the peace process through regular contact with all parties. Our
Embassy, under the strong leadership of Ambassador Derek Mitchell, has
travelled to every ethnic state multiple times, listening, consulting, and
showing that we are interested in their futures and are invested in an
inclusive, transparent peace process. We have advocated for broader and deeper
inclusion in the peace process, particularly of civil society and women. We
have contributed humanitarian assistance and continually pressed all parties to
allow full access to all vulnerable populations. We are supporting local
efforts to improve public information, incorporating messages of peace and
participation in on-going civil society outreach, and training journalists on
peace and conflict reporting. We are supporting efforts to rebuild trust within
communities, for example, empowering former combatants, survivors, and
communities in landmine-affected areas to work together through landmine risk
education and assistance to victims. We will continue to urge full
implementation of agreements between the government and non-state armed groups,
including for all parties to respect the human rights of the civilian
While the initiation of a
path toward national unity between the government and the ethnic groups is
encouraging, a systematic lack of protection for minorities across the country
remains. Communal violence is an historic problem in Burma with waves of
anti-Muslim/anti-Indian violence occurring at least seven times between 1930
and 2001. In March, at least 44 people were killed in Meiktila, Mandalay Division
and more than 6,800 people remain displaced. We continue to make clear to the
Thein Sein government that it has a responsibility to uphold international
human rights commitments to protect the people, including preventing violence
and then responding quickly, responsibly, and effectively when violence breaks
out. While the police have responded more quickly in recent cases of violence,
developing the culture and capabilities needed to protect the people will be a
long-term challenge. We continue to urge the government to improve security for
all vulnerable populations, ensure unimpeded humanitarian access to conflict
areas, and provide for the safe and voluntary return of displaced persons. Our
Mission in Rangoon is also promoting messages of tolerance and diversity
through public outreach including exchanges, speakers, and a year-long civil
One group in particular,
the stateless Rohingya population in Burma’s western Rakhine State, has been
the object of violence, discrimination, and humanitarian crises in Burma and
has little recourse for protection. There is a long history of communal
conflict between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine, but also a long history of
coexistence. Rakhine State is the second poorest state in the country, and along
with other factors, this has generated a sense of insecurity for both
communities, but poverty does not excuse violence.
After tensions spiralled
into violence in June and October 2012, a government-appointed investigation
commission completed a report (released in April 2013) on the roots of conflict
and suggestions to improve the situation. The national government has worked to
address some of those recommendations, but more needs to be done. The violence
killed nearly 200 people, and approximately 140,000 people, mainly Muslims,
remain displaced. Access to livelihoods and basic services remains limited due
to continued high tensions between communities, restrictions on movement for
Rohingya, and segregation of the populations. These conditions have led Rohingya
to flee Burma. Since June 2012, up to 60,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine State by
boat, the largest number in over 20 years.
The U.S. government
coordinates closely with the international community to send unified messages
to the Government of Burma on Rakhine State. Most recently, Ambassador
Mitchell, joined by two Burmese ministers, led a diplomatic mission to Rakhine
State to assess the situation. In accordance with their findings, we will
continue to advocate for an end to violence, protection of the population,
government implementation of a path to citizenship for the Rohingya, and access
to services and equitable returns as well as economic development throughout
Rakhine State. We will also continue to support community- and government-led
efforts to promote dialogue and reintegration.
two-decade-long commitment to humanitarian assistance, in FY 2013, the State
Department and USAID provided over $51.6 million for displaced persons in Burma
and the region through the UN and international non-governmental partners. The
signing of a bilateral assistance agreement between the Government of Burma and
USAID in June 2013 provides the framework for ramping up programs that promote
inclusive economic growth, including through support for agricultural sector
reform. My colleague Greg Beck of USAID will talk in more detail about our
The transition to
democracy remains a centre-piece of Burma’s reforms. The United States has
demonstrated a long-standing commitment to this goal and its components, and
this focus remains central to our current policy approach. We are committed to
working with the government, Aung San Suu Kyi and the political opposition, and
with civil society to fully implement the commitments announced before
President Obama’s visit just over a year ago. In particular, we are watching
closely the commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of this
year. The government-established political prisoner review committee, which
includes former political prisoners, continues its work. An estimated 1,100
political prisoners have been released since the reforms began. We are
committed to assisting the reintegration of these heroic individuals back into
society and ensuring that they are released without condition.
Troubling, though, is the
fact that the government has continued to arrest and convict over 200 activists
under the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Processions Act. We are encouraged that
Burma’s parliament appears serious in working to reform such deficient laws,
including the 2011 Peaceful Assembly and Processions Act, and that it has
recently shown a willingness to accept public input. For example, the
parliament’s draft of a new Association Law that governs the status of NGOs
threatened to reverse the newfound freedoms of civil society. But, with support
from the U.S. Embassy – including a USAID-sponsored workshop on legislative
compliance and international standards for rights of association – parliament
heeded civil society’s call for a consultative process. It is poised to
consider a new draft that includes civil society input. We are also supporting
the Ministry of Information as it drafts several media laws to ensure the
protection of freedom of expression in this new era of media freedom and a
proliferation of media outlets.
humanitarian access to key locations is slowly improving. The International
Committee of the Red Cross is conducting regular prison visits. The government
has lifted restrictions on access to many conflict areas. Working with the
International Labour Organization, the Government of Burma committed to end
forced labour by 2015, and the United States’ engagement on combating all forms
of trafficking in Burma has increased as a result of a joint plan which began
in 2012. The government has entered into an action plan with the UN to end the
recruitment and the use of child soldiers. The government also remains
committed to becoming eligible to join the Open Government Partnership by the
end of 2016 and advancing the principles of transparency, civic engagement,
anti-corruption, and using technology and innovation to make government more
open, effective, and accountable.
A key commitment that
remains unsatisfied is Burma’s commitment to establish a UN Office of the High
Commissioner for Human Rights with a full mandate. Such an office could support
government and civil society actors as they work to advance Burma’s reform
agenda. We continue to raise these priorities to the highest levels of the
government, including through our annual U.S.-Burma Human Rights Dialogue. We
welcome parliament’s process to consider the changes needed for Burma’s
constitution to be consistent with international norms of a modern democratic
state. In our conversations with Burmese authorities and other stakeholders, we
continue to stress the importance of creating a legal infrastructure consistent
with the international norms, including respect for the rights of minorities,
civilian control of the military, and the right of citizens to freely elect the
leaders of their choice. It will be important for constitutional reform to
occur in time to ensure that the people of Burma are able to freely choose
their leadership in the 2015 election.
Security Sector Reform
Strengthening the rule of
law and promoting security sector reform are essential elements of the reform
effort. Voices from across Burmese society – including civil society, ethnic
minority representatives, and members of the government and political
opposition – are urging us to engage with the Burmese military and civilian
police force to teach new models of conduct that help make the security
services a stakeholder in the success of democratic reform. We have seen the
need for police and justice reform clearly from the inadequate response to the
violence that has plagued the country. We plan to support the Government of
Burma’s efforts to improve security through law enforcement capacity-building
activities that address the needs of the criminal justice sector and the country’s
struggle with opium poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking. USAID is
working to support Burma’s overall rule of law capacity, and the State
Department will continue to advance counternarcotics programming and explore
capacity-building activities for law enforcement in Burma.
A military under civilian
control that protects the people, promotes human rights, and respects
international law is a pillar of democracy and essential to the success of
reforms. Our voice must be heard on this critical issue. Even while former
military officers are leading Burma’s reforms, we continue to see military and
security sector abuses, particularly in ethnic areas. There are those within
the military who have a vested interest in a system characterized by military dominance
of Burma’s economy and politics. We believe that carefully calibrated
military-to-military engagement to share lessons on how militaries operate in a
democratic framework will strengthen the hand of reformers. We believe that
articulating a vision and identifying a pathway for the military to uphold
Burma’s international obligations and commitments is one of the best tools for
shaping Burma’s most powerful institution during this critical window.
The participation of
Burmese military officers in the October 2012 bilateral Human Rights Dialogue
helped us launch this discussion on military respect for human rights and
international norms. As a further step, the Defense Department’s Defense
Institute for International Legal Studies has begun limited exchanges to convey
principles of human rights, rule of law, and civilian control of the military
to the Burmese military. But, to be more effective in identifying and
influencing those in the military most committed to reforms, we would like to
use tools such as an Expanded IMET (E-IMET) program for Burma – which would
involve a narrow subset of training with IMET funding limited to areas such as
international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and rule of law
training we seek to undertake. My colleague Vikram Singh will elaborate on the
potential use of this tool and on our priorities with regard to Burma’s
military. And, we look forward to discussing this issue in greater detail in
focused discussions with Congress in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, we maintain
sanctions on areas of the military that concern us, particularly its outsized
role in the economy – U.S. companies remain prohibited from investing in
military-owned companies and from making payments in connection with the
provision of security services to state or non-state armed groups, including
the Burmese military.
Another pillar of our
engagement is supporting Burma’s transition to a transparent, open-market
economy that promotes sustainable growth benefiting all segments of society.
Unless Burma’s communities see tangible improvements, the reform effort will be
difficult to sustain. The Government of Burma has addressed some of the core
structural challenges to the economy, namely by unifying the country’s multiple
exchange rates and passing a new Foreign Investment Law. The government has
also moved to reduce trade restrictions, reform tax policy, and strengthen tax
administration. In July 2013, it enacted a law which provides for the Central
Bank’s autonomy. Burma’s macroeconomic outlook is largely positive. Growth rose
from 5 percent to an estimated 6.5 percent in 2012/13 and is projected to
increase again next year. Inflation rose to 4.7 percent in early 2013, but is
expected to remain contained at 6.5 percent or less.
We are working to build
the government’s capacity to manage its economy in accordance with
international best practices. A notable example is the partnership we launched
with Burma to improve management of its rich energy and natural resources. This
will help the Burmese people reap the benefits of these resources and help
Burma fulfil its commitment to become compliant with the Extractive Industry
The U.S. private sector
also has an important role to play in contributing to positive economic change
in Burma. In recognition of this, we are encouraging responsible U.S.
investment. We believe strongly that American companies set the standard for
environmental, social, and labour best practices, as well as good corporate
citizenship projects that give back to the communities in which they operate.
We wish to see them building local capacity, creating jobs, and contributing to
the country’s economic development. And that investment is beginning. An
American Chamber of Commerce chapter opened at the end of October.
To further reinforce the
need for careful due diligence, when the ban on new investment was eased, we
instituted a new requirement for U.S. persons with aggregate new investment
over $500,000 to report on human rights, labour rights, anti-corruption, local
community consultation, and environmental stewardship. The U.S. companies I
have spoken to have expressed a strong desire to invest conscientiously because
it is the responsible thing to do. Military-owned companies remain off limits
for new U.S. investment, and U.S. persons are not authorized to make payments
to the military or other armed groups for security services. In addition, U.S.
persons generally remain prohibited from dealing with blocked persons,
including those on the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list administered
by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). The SDN
list is not static – potential listings under our Burma authorities will be
pursued as appropriate to meet changing conditions in Burma, including to
sanction individuals or entities that interfere with the democratic transition,
abuse human rights, or perpetuate military trade with North Korea. Conversely,
those on the SDN list may seek to be delisted by submitting to OFAC evidence
that the circumstances resulting in the designation no longer apply. And
although the broad ban on imports of products of Burma into the United States
is no longer in effect, we still prohibit the import of Burmese jadeite and
rubies – industries that are particularly problematic.
economic ties have grown significantly since the start of reforms in Burma.
U.S. exports to Burma grew from $25 million in the first nine months of 2011 to
$118 million for the same period in 2013, while U.S. imports from Burma have
jumped from zero to $17 million in the past year. In May 2013, the United
States and Burma signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement to promote
dialogue and cooperation on trade and investment issues. A key goal of our
trade and investment promotion activities is to contribute to job creation and
improved livelihoods for the people of Burma.
Regional and Global Partnership
Burma lies at a crucial
crossroads between East and South Asia. Its reforms open an important
opportunity for trade and links between India, Bangladesh, Burma, China, and
the rapidly expanding economies of ASEAN. It is also a partner in important
multilateral fora, and for the coming year is donning the leadership mantle of
ASEAN Chair. This highlights the importance of helping Burma become a
responsible member of the world community. In his speech in Washington DC last
May, President Thein Sein acknowledged that a goal of the reform process is to
end the country’s isolation and make contributions to regional and global
security and development. We seek to promote Burma’s reengagement with
international partners, and its understanding that acceptance in the global
community comes with responsibilities. A key focus will continue to be
non-proliferation. We are pleased that, as the government committed to do
before President Obama’s visit in November, it has signed the International
Atomic Energy Agency Additional Protocol; we look forward to its early entry
into force and implementation, and encourage Burma to also modify its Small
Quantities Protocol. These steps will open a new chapter of Burmese cooperation
with the IAEA and commitment to the global non-proliferation regime. We welcome
Burma’s indication that it will adhere to UN Security Council resolutions
prohibiting military trade with North Korea and urge Burma’s continued
vigilance in their full implementation. The ASEAN Chairmanship is perhaps the
most remarkable change in this area. We have provided capacity-building support
to help the Burmese government manage the responsibility of hosting the
multitude of ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit meetings they
are charged with organizing and to achieve concrete outcomes that further
our regional goals.
The United States remains
committed to reinforcing Burma’s progress on reform. We remain hopeful, but
clear-eyed about the challenges. Burma’s road to reform will be a long process.
We should anticipate that along with steps forward there will inevitably be
setbacks. To prevail and keep our focus on the long-term goals we must have a
strategic approach that is steady and carefully considered, but flexible in
implementation and keeps pace with conditions on the ground. We must strengthen
our relationships with all sectors in Burma while promoting our common
interests and values for a peaceful, prosperous, democratic, and reconciled
country. We owe it to the Burmese people, and to ourselves given our
long-standing commitment to the country, to continue to support them as a remarkable
moment of opportunity dawns.
I would like to
acknowledge the tireless efforts of many in Congress who have remained
committed to democratic reform, human rights, and the welfare of the Burmese
people even when the prospects looked bleak. I encourage you to travel to Burma
to see the reforms for yourselves, as I have done, and I look forward to
working together to help the Burmese people inherit the future they deserve. I
look forward to continued consultation and cooperation with you on these important
I would like to
acknowledge the tireless efforts of this Committee and Members of Congress to
advance democratic reform, human rights, and the welfare of the Burmese people
even when the prospects looked bleak. I look forward to continued consultation
and cooperation with you on these important issues.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for inviting me to
testify today on our policy toward Burma. I am happy to answer any questions
you may have.
WASHINGTON - The Obama
administration faced strong bipartisan opposition Wednesday to plans for
limited US engagement with Burma’s powerful military due to concerns over human
rights and its lingering ties with North Korea.
officials called for congressional support for non-lethal assistance to the
military, such as training on human rights. But both Republicans and Democrats
were sceptical about the military’s willingness to reform, saying abuses
against ethnic and religious minorities persist in the country and the military
remains involved in weapons deals with North Korea against UN sanctions.
“I personally don’t
believe that the Burmese military needs to be trained to stop killing and
raping and stealing lands from people within their own country,” Democratic
Rep. Joe Crowley of New York told a hearing of a House panel that oversees US
foreign policy toward East Asia.
chairman, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, also said the administration was being too
hasty to engage with the military, and that the United States risks losing its
remaining leverage to encourage further reforms.
The introduction of
democracy after five decades of repressive military rule has ended Burma’s
diplomatic isolation and seen a rapid easing of sanctions by the United States
and other Western nations. Some 1,100 political prisoners have been freed and
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest, has
been elected to Parliament.
But in the past 18
months, a bloody upsurge in sectarian violence that security forces have failed
to stop against minority Muslims has displaced more than 200,000 people and
cast a shadow over the country’s move toward democracy.
While there is now a
nominally civilian government, the military remains a critical force with an
effective veto on constitutional reforms. Its troops continue to clash with
ethnic armed groups despite nascent peace talks.
Senior US Defense
official Vikram Singh said there have been initial contacts between the United
States and Burmese militaries, including discussions on military law, but
current sanctions prevent a formal training program. He said engagement was an
opportunity to shape the military’s outlook and dilute its reliance on old
partners and arms suppliers, like China.
“Burma is finding itself
having, for the first time in many years, to actually figure out where it wants
to place its bets, where it wants to put its cards, who it wants to deal with,”
Singh said. “We want to shape the kind of choices that Burma makes.”
Judith Cefkin, the State
Department’s senior adviser on Burma, said that some officers have a vested
interest in the military’s continued involvement in the nation’s economy and
politics, but that “carefully calibrated military-to-military engagement to
share lessons on how militaries operate in a democratic framework will
strengthen the hand of reformers.”
Chabot, however, said
Burma’s military leaders have not demonstrated a sincere interest in reforms
and the government of President Thein Sein has not fulfilled promises to
allowing international humanitarian access to conflict areas and end illicit
weapons deals with North Korea.
Republican Rep. Trent
Franks called the Burma military “one of the worst oppressors of human rights
in recent history” and said it should meet clear benchmarks before any
sanctions are lifted.
Singh, who acknowledged
Burma had yet to sever its military ties with North Korea, said a normalization
of US-Burma military relations would require fundamental reforms and was likely
years away. Cefkin said assistance being proposed now for the Burma military
would provide “nothing to enhance their tactical war fighting capability.”
Crowley wasn’t reassured.
He said to begin even a non-lethal US training program would offer the military
a public relations victory.
“I’m concerned our
military-to-military [engagement] is moving too quickly because they feed off
this prestige. I want us, visually and in reality, to slow this down,” he said.
WASHINGTON - The United States has welcomed
India's engagement with Myanmar, saying that it believes the ties with Yangon
on a whole host of issues will be positive. "We really welcome the
engagement of India with Burma (Myanmar). India and the United States have long
had very similar aspirations and goals for Burma, though we've often had very
different policy approaches to it," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
for South and Southeast Asia, Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Vikram
Sing .said yesterday.
During a Congressional hearing, Singh said:
"We believe that overall, India's re-engagement with Burma on a whole host
of issues will be positive. I would say that we will probably have
disagreements about specifics about what that looks like." "So, for
example, moves into arms and other things will be things that we might be
concerned about," he replied in response to a query from Indian-American
Congressman Ami Bera.
"Obviously, Burma sits at a very
critical juncture, you know, between an emerging relationship with India and
offers some critical access to trade routes and so forth. But from a military
perspective, it certainly sits at a critical juncture," Bera said.
"It does look like India is increasing some of its military sales to Burma
as well as offering assistance and so forth at a similar time that China,
obviously, is providing a lot as well. How do you see this playing out in terms
of -- vis-a-vis some of the relationships between India and China as
well," Bera asked.
Singh said it is incredibly important for
Burma to start interacting with militaries other than those that have been
their traditional partners and suppliers, and with governments that have been
other than their traditional partners.
"So we welcome that development,"
he said. "We believe China will try to maintain a relationship with Burma,
and Burma is finding itself having, for the first time in many years, to
actually figure out where it wants to place its bets, where it wants to put its
cards, who it wants to deal with," Singh said. "We'd like to shape
the kinds of choices that Burma makes through how we go through this delicate
process of re-engagement with supporting reform at the centre of how we
approach things," the top Pentagon official said.
MANILA - Philippine
President Benigno Aquino lauded democratic reforms in Myanmar as he signed
several bilateral agreements with his visiting counterpart Thein Sein Thursday.
Thein Sein arrived at
Manila's presidential palace where he was accorded a red carpet welcome for his
first visit to the Philippines.
Aquino said the
Philippines, which also made a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy
in the 1980s, would be helping Myanmar in opening up its society.
Formerly one of the most
vocal critics within ASEAN of Yangon's ruling junta, Aquino praised recent
"historic developments" in Myanmar which include the holding of
elections, release of political prisoners, dialogue with the opposition and
opening up to foreign investment.
"These herald a new
chapter in Myanmar's history. The Philippines supports these initiatives and
offered assistance through capacity building, through technical
cooperation," said Aquino after a meeting with Thein Sein.
The Philippines has
offered to help Myanmar establish its human rights commission and training in
areas like agriculture, entrepreneurship, fisheries, eco-tourism and
"gender issues," Aquino said.
The two presidents also
discussed peace efforts with rebel groups in their respective countries, Aquino
said, adding that the Philippines would be appointing a resident defence
attaché to further cooperation.
The leaders also oversaw
the signing of several agreements including one that will allow Filipinos to
enter Myanmar without a visa and another that will expand cooperation in
Aquino thanked Myanmar
for the aid it provided after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last
month, flattening whole towns and leaving more than 7,500 dead or missing.
Thein Sein, who will be
bringing doctors and relief goods to typhoon-hit areas during his visit, said
the damage suffered by Myanmar during the 2008 cyclone, made the country more
aware of the suffering of the victims of such disasters.
The Myanmar leader, who
is on a three-day state visit, said he asked Aquino to help his country in
areas like "health, education, economy and human resource
development", because it was lagging behind in these areas due to years of
He also said "there
have never been any issues between Myanmar and the Philippines", despite
Aquino's previous criticism of the junta.
Thein Sein arrived in
Manila on Wednesday and will return home on Friday after visiting the
Myanmar and the
Philippines are both members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian
Myanmar has undergone a
series of reforms in recent years, including the release of opposition leader
Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest and her election to parliament in
by-elections held last year.
But the military and its
political allies remain in control of parliament while religious violence and
the continued arrests of activists have tempered optimism about the political
YANGON - More than 80
Myanmar prisoners, most of whom are serving their jail terms for violating
military law and having links with ethnic armed groups, will be assessed on
whether or not they are political prisoners, says a member of the Remaining
Political Prisoners Scrutiny Committee (RPPSC).
The assessment will be
made during a meeting of the committee on Saturday in Yangon.
Committee member Ye Aung
said that 20 of the more than 80 prisoners had been imprisoned under Section 18
of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law and Section 505 of the Penal Code.
“Most are imprisoned
under the sections related to the ethnic armed groups and the Military Act,”
said Ye Aung, adding that some military officials have been imprisoned for
posting emotional writings on the internet. Others received jail terms for
having links with armed groups in foreign countries after they had left the
army and were arrested upon their return to Myanmar, he said.
President Thein Sein has
publicly announced, to both domestic and international audiences, that all
political prisoners will be released by the end of this year. The RPPSC is thus
working harder than ever to scrutinize how many political prisoners remain in
cooperation with government ministries and political parties.
“As the first step, we
are studying case files. For Section 18 and Section 505 (b), we don't need to
study case files,” said Ye Aung.
“Some cases are related
to violating the anti-narcotics law. For example, four ya ba methamphetamine
tablets were seized. As it was related to a certain armed group, the suspect
faced a harsher sentence under the anti-narcotics law. In another case, the
suspect was arrested for carrying a home-made gun. But he also faced a harsher
prison sentence for allegedly being linked to armed insurgents. We will submit
those cases at the upcoming meeting.”
At the meeting, the RPPSC
will scrutinize 82 inmates to determine whether or not they are political prisoners
and report these results to the president. After the report submission, more
political prisoners are likely to released, said the committee members.
YANGON - Myanmar
destroyed 6,027 hectares of illicit poppy plantations across the country during
the 2013-14 poppy cultivation season, Xinhua news agency reported.
Anti-drug officials said
Thursday authorities destroyed 5,019 hectares of poppy plantations in Shan and
Kayah states in October this year.
In 2012, Myanmar
destroyed over 23,770 hectares of poppy and 5,740 offenders were penalised in
4,006 drug-related cases.
The government has
extended its 15-year drug elimination plan from 1999-2014 to 2019.
The government has also
implemented alternative development projects in poppy cultivation areas in
collaboration with the United Nations Office for Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the
governments of Thailand and China.
The use of pesticides for
fishing in Mandalay division’s Thabyaw lake is contaminating the freshwater
supply for local villagers in Sintgu township.
The residents of
Kyauknganwar village rely on the lake for drinking water and domestic use, but
many are becoming ill with hepatitis and diarrhoea.
Village resident, Nyunt
Thu, said hepatitis is now common among the villagers.
“I have it and many other
people do too,” he said. “Doctors warned us that drinking contaminated water
could be the main cause.”
In 2004, the township’s
governing body built a driven-well in the village but it did not produce enough
water for the 800 people who rely on it – due to an underground layer of rock.
Local resident, Ohn Lwin,
said neither the lake water or well-water supply were adequate to accommodate
“The groundwater is not
as good as the lake-water as it tends to get condensation when boiled,” he
said. “It’s not good to drink and it makes the rice turn yellow when cooked.
And when we boil the lake-water, it produces fumes and a bad smell.”
Recently, the charity We
Love Monywa brought a team of medics to the village to provide free healthcare
to the village. The group’s doctor urged the township authorities and health
officials to inspect the lake and help the residents get access to clean
The presiding doctor on
the team, Dr Thiha, said the villagers urgently needed a clean water supply.
“The villagers are
suffering from long-term health problems such as diarrhoea, enlarged liver and
hepatitis, according to specialist doctors. So it is vital to provide the
villagers access to clean water.”
The residents believe the
well can be improved with modern drilling machines that are able to penetrate
the rock layer.
They have called on
sympathisers to help raise funds for the drill but until they make enough
money, they still run the risk of becoming ill from drinking unsafe water.
RANGOON - The campus is
overrun by a tangled web of weeds and vines. Many of the books in the open-air
library are ancient, their pages yellow. Students will have to share a handful
of donated computers and put up with slow-speed Internet, at least at first.
And professors are struggling to catch up with developments in their fields.
This is Rangoon
University, once among Asia’s most prestigious institutions of learning. It
reopens to undergraduates Thursday for the first time in nearly two decades,
finally emerging from a crackdown by military rulers who considered education a
threat to their supremacy.
“It’s a start,” Thaw
Kaung, one of the country’s most respected scholars, said with a smile.
The junta that ruled
Burma for half a century gutted education, which received 1.3 percent of the
budget, compared to 25 percent for defense.
Education spending has
shot up since President Thein Sein was inaugurated to lead a nominally civilian
government, jumping from US $340 million in 2011 to $1 billion this year. But
experts say more needs to be done.
“We need educated people
to run the country,” said Thaw Kaung, an octogenarian in thick, black-rimmed
glasses who long served as the university’s chief librarian. “We can’t just
rely on foreign aid and experts. Without a university producing capable
persons, it will be difficult to sustain development in the long run.”
Foreign investors are
eager to do business in this desperately poor nation of 60 million that only
recently opened up to the rest of the world. They are no longer hindered by
U.S. and European sanctions, but now must figure out how to deal with an
enthusiastic but utterly unprepared work force.
English-speakers for five-star hotels can be a challenge, investors say, let
alone business and information technology professionals, lawyers or
The onslaught on
education in Burma began when Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962. Troops blew up Rangoon
University’s Student Union because of protests and tightened control over
classes. Soldiers stormed the campus again in 1974 to quell protests.
The biggest blow came in
1988, following the failed student uprisings that put a global spotlight on pro-democracy
leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta shut down urban campuses, seen as hotbeds of
political dissent, and restricted what could be taught.
produced many of Burma’s leaders and its most famous dissidents and
intellectuals, including Suu Kyi’s father, independence leader Aung San. The
school closed repeatedly for long stretches under the junta, and up until this
week, only a handful of graduate students could be seen roaming the 200-acre
“It’s a dream come true,”
said 16-year-old May Thin Khaing, clutching the straps of her backpack as she
looked for her name on the board near registration.
“My parents both went
here in the 1980s and often spoke nostalgically about those days,” said the
teenager, who will study chemistry. “I hope I can feel the same sense of pride
that my parents once enjoyed.”
The school once had
60,000 students, but it’s a long way from that now.
Initially, only 300
students — 15 from each of the 20 disciplines — were supposed to head to class
on Thursday. Following criticism from academics and lawmakers, the number was
boosted at the final hour to 1,000 — or 50 for each discipline.
That left professors
scrambling to prepare extra lab equipment and clean up vacant classrooms.
Workers were frantically putting in light bulbs ahead of the reopening and
sweeping away thick, dusty cobwebs.
Dr. Phone Win, a
physician who heads Mingalar Myanmar, a group promoting education, said
enrolment should be even higher: “Why only 50 for each discipline? Who came up
with that number?”
He said that despite
economic and political reforms in the last three years, the government
maintains a top-down approach across almost every sector, including education.
“It’s very hierarchical,”
Win said. The ministry is reluctant to give too much control to the university
rector, and the rector limits professors’ autonomy, he said.
“What these students need
now is academic freedom,” he said.
Students also may be
sceptical that such freedom has arrived. Political science has returned to the
curriculum, but so far only six students have signed up.
With urban campuses
closed, 70 percent of the country’s students have in recent years relied on
distance learning, with graduation depending largely on their memorization
skills. Others made long, daily commutes to newly built sterile institutions on
the outskirts of bustling cities.
Nay Oak, a professor of
English at Rangoon in the 1960s and ’70s, said that as the military closed down
universities, its answer to education was to allow students to take crash
courses. Many walked away with degrees after just six months of study.
“In many cases, they
didn’t have to learn a thing,” Nay Oak said.
Rangoon University is
getting international help to remake itself. Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Oxford
universities and the Gates Foundation are among the groups that have provided
assistance or expressed interest in doing so.
Charles Wiener, a
professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has taken part in several
recent workshops for university faculty. Training intended to draw 25 or 30
participants regularly attracted 70 to 100, he said, and many in the packed
rooms impressed their instructors with their academic rigor.
They knew they had a lot
of catching up to do, he said, but were clearly excited.
“The metaphor of a
starving child,” he said, “is not that distant.”
MAI JA YANG - Even if a
nationwide ceasefire is signed between the Burmese government and armed
opposition groups, people displaced by fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State may
face land tenure problems when they return to their homes, say rights groups.
“In some areas,
army-affiliated economic interests have confiscated the land vacated by IDPs
[internally displaced persons], and the rights of the displaced will have to be
defended in those cases,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify
Rights, a Bangkok-based human rights organization that recently completed a
fact-finding mission in Kachin State.
“We've received reports
from colleagues who’ve travelled to Myitkina [capital of Kachin State], of gold
mining on farms in Nam Sanyang village, where locals fled fighting two years
ago,” said Ah Nan, head of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a
Thailand-based network of Kachin civil society groups and development
organizations documenting illegal natural resource exploitation.
by the KDNG of government troops and private businesses excavating abandoned
farmland for gold mining have added to the uncertainty families face about
returning to their old lives and livelihoods.
Ah Nan said the local
government is telling people that they need property title deeds to prove
ownership, but the concern is that even then there is no guarantee this will be
enough to reclaim land.
The Legal Aid Network, a
non-profit founded by Aung Htoo, is training fellow lawyers and activists in
Mai Ja Yang city, which is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization,
to provide farmers and other landowners with information on their rights.
“The people should have
the right to own their land in terms of private ownership, and the state needs
to formally recognize the rights of local ethnic people in terms of collective
rights [and communal land],” he told IRIN.
A key problem is the
current constitution. Article 37 states that the union, or government, is the “ultimate
owner of all lands and all natural resources above and below the ground, above
and beneath the water and in the atmosphere in the union”, said Aung Htoo. The
state also controls all extraction and use of natural resources.
Many observers stress the
need for new laws regarding land rights, as well as a “fair, transparent and
efficient system” to resolve land disputes. “It seems there is an inadequate
legal framework to ensure the satisfactory protection of land rights of the
displaced Kachin people,” said Simon Young, Legal Aid Network’s advisor and
University of Hong Kong law professor.
The Myanmar parliament
set up the 60-member Farmland Investigation Commission in August 2012 to
oversee land-related investigations nationwide. According to local media, the
commission recently reported that most allegations of military land-grabs have
been made in the central Mandalay Region and Mon State in the south.
The report notes that
around 15 percent of complaints dating back to 2011, when the current government
was elected, are linked to land confiscations for public construction. Despite
several land decisions favouring farmers, critics cited in international media
say these cases represent only a fraction of illegal land-grabs.
Even with a favourable
ruling, many displaced land owners will still be ill-equipped to return.
“Entire communities - tens of thousands - have lost everything,” Smith from
Fortify Rights told IRIN. “Those whose villages haven't been razed by the
Myanmar army face completely overgrown farms, dilapidated homes and paddy
houses, and no animals.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views
of the United Nations]
RANGOON - Before the
Burma government conducts a major census next year, ethnic minority groups are
collecting their own data, saying they are wary of trusting population
statistics from government leaders who in the past allegedly inflated the
percentage of ethnic majority Burman people in the country.
Ethnic Shan and ethnic
Mon organizations, representing two of Burma’s biggest ethnic minority groups,
say they have already started to conduct their own individual census efforts,
with plans to finish early next year before the government census begins in
“The Shan population is 9
percent of the total population, according to official data. We want to know
the true amount,” Sai Kyaut Tint, chairman of the Shan Real Population
Collection Committee, told The Irrawaddy. “We will compare the Shan population
data from the [government] census with the data that we collect.”
The last official census
in Burma was conducted in 1983. Thirty years later, the country’s population
size remains unknown, although government estimates put it at about 61 million
in 2011, compared to an estimation of 50 million people by the World Bank.
The government, which is
dominated by the Burman majority, recognizes eight major ethnic minority groups
in the country and 135 subgroups. An estimated 40 percent of the population is
an ethnic minority, with Shan representing the biggest minority group. Karen
represent the second largest, at 7 percent of the population, followed by
Arakanese at 3.5 percent, Mon at 2 percent, Kachin at 1.5 percent and Kayah at
0.75 percent, according to government figures.
But ethnic minorities
have accused the government of pressuring people in the past to identify as
Burman, including on government-distributed national identity cards, to justify
the dominance of Burman officials in government. Some ethnic minorities say
that in order to secure an identity card, they were forced to officially change
their names to sound more Burman.
The Shan Real Population
Collection Committee plans to conduct its own census in all areas of the
country where Shan people live, including in Rangoon, the country’s commercial
capital. “We can expect an ethnic minister for Rangoon Division if we have 0.1
percent of the total [divisional] population,” Sai Kyaut Tint said.
Mon groups are also
counting the number of Mon residents in Rangoon.
In the government census
next year, census forms will be distributed to rebel-held areas in Mon State
and Karen State, with cooperation from the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the
Karen National Union (KNU), which have signed ceasefires with the government
after decades of civil war.
After a pilot test, some
areas in Shan, Mon and Karen states have asked for local residents to serve as
data collectors in the official census.
“We have translated the
questionnaire in Poe Karen [language], in addition to another 12 languages
including Myanmar [Burmese],” said Win Myint, a program specialist at the
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is working with the government on
the census. He was speaking at a meeting on Tuesday at the Karen Women’s Action
Group office in Rangoon. “You can self-identify on the ethnicity question,
choosing from the official 135 ethnic codes or a special code for all other
groups in Myanmar, regardless of eth ethnicity listed on the national identity
Activists say campaigning
will be required to urge the Ministry of Immigration and Population to correct
the ethnic information on national identity cards. This will likely take a long
time, says Nan Khin Aye Oo, a program adviser for the Karen Women’s Action
But the promise of change
is raising hopes.
“We need exact data for
the census. It is not related with elections or politics,” said Susanna Hla Hla
Soe, a prominent Karen activist who is representing civil society groups as a
member of an advisory committee for the government’s census office.
In addition to their own
population counts, ethnic minority groups are working with the UNFPA on a
campaign to raise awareness about accurately listing their ethnic identities
for the government census, which will be used for development planning.
“We have been holding
community workshops to remind the Mon population in Rangoon to identify as the
correct ethnic race in the coming 2014 census,” said Nai Soe Aung, project
director of the Rangoon-based Mon Population Data Project.
Unlike the government
census three decades ago, the government census next year will be computerized,
with questionnaires produced in the United Kingdom that can be scanned. A
separate questionnaire will be used for people who live with institutions, such
as soldiers in the army, officers in the police force, patients in hospitals
and permanent hotel residents.
The census will begin on
March 29 and is expected to cost an estimated US$60 million. The data
collection will take 12 days, with face-to-face interviews to ensure proper
Internally displaced persons
(IDPs) will be invited to participate. Migrant workers and refugees living
outside the country will not be counted.
“All persons in the
country will be counted, including IDPs,” Petra Righetti, who is working on
census efforts with the UNFPA. “If a refugee is in Thailand, they will not be
counted in the Myanmar [Burma] census. However, there is a census question that
asks how many family members are living outside the country.”
She added that Burmese
refugees in Thailand are counted in the Thai census.
Most refugees in Thailand
and most internally displaced people in Burma are ethnic minorities. Many fled
from the country or were displaced from their homes during decades-long
conflicts between the government and ethnic rebel groups fighting for greater
There are also an
estimated 3 million migrant workers living in Thailand.
The Chinland Guardian is
pleased to present an unofficial translation of the statement by the Chin
National Conference held in Hakha, Chin State last month.
Statement of the Chin National Conference
Hakha, Chin State
15 November 2013
The Chin National
Conference (CNC) was held in Hakha, Chin State from 12 to 15 November 2013 with
571 delegates from the Chin State government, political parties, Chin National
Front (CNF), civil society organizations, women, youth, university students,
and religious leaders, MPs from the Chin National Party (CNP), Chin Progressive
Party (CPP) and Ethnic National Development Party (ENDP), Chin Affairs
Ministers, representatives of tribal groups and townships, and scholars. The following
is a set of common resolutions reached from discussions from the conference.
CNC welcomes President U Thein Sein's initiatives and vows to solve the root
causes of armed conflict through political means in order to achieve
sustainable peace. It calls for immediately holding a national-level political
dialogue following a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
CNC agrees to use the word 'Chin' as the national name and for ethnicity on the
National Registration Card when the nationwide census takes place in 2014. Chin
people have the right to make their own decisions concerning designation of the
Chin tribal groups.
CNC agrees that Chin tribal customary laws be collected, documented, published,
and amended as needed in accordance with current contexts and practices.
CNC agrees to request Burma's government to develop economic and social
infrastructure for Chin State and the people in a systematic and equitable way.
CNC agrees that each constituent State draft a State constitution and the 2008
Constitution be amended toward achieving a federal Union of Burma following the
necessary framework laid for building a genuine federal Union.
CNC welcomes the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women 2013-2022
(NSPAW) and urges for its implementation in Chin State. It agrees that men and
women work shoulder to shoulder to eliminate all forms of discrimination and
violence against women in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of
all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and that up to 30 percent
participation by women be reserved across sectors including politics, peace and
security, and social development processes.
CNC urges that the State government be allowed to play a more important role
when it comes to rights and issues related to land and natural resources; that
priority be given to the consent and involvement of the indigenous people; that
a clear system be defined through which the incomes obtained from the natural
resources projects will be shared equally between the Union and the States; and
that transparency and accountability be ensured when dealing with issues
related to land and natural resources.
CNC urges the making of laws that guarantee the rights to freely think, worship
and believe in order to end ongoing discrimination and persecution against
religious minorities including the Chin, and to replace the Ministry of
Religious Affairs with an independent and impartial commission on religious
affairs in order to ensure equal rights for all religions in the country.
CNC agrees that security for Chin refugees to return home can be
assured/guaranteed only after the root causes including the government's
political mismanagement, discrimination and human rights violations against
indigenous ethnic nationalities are transformed into positive conditions that
ensure peace, freedom and conflict resolution.
CNC urges that the government collaborate with community-based organizations,
scholars and experts in relevant fields to make policies and laws that
guarantee the construction of road communications, support of long-term loans
with lower interest rates, rights of land ownership, development of sustainable
agriculture, and establishment of agricultural and livestock breeding education
centres in order to create and implement a system that will ensure food
security in villages across Chin State.
CNC urges that the constitution make a provision for the State government to be
granted up to 80% of authority to manage its educational issues.
CNC agrees that a 45-member committee comprising delegates from regions, women,
youth, political parties, Chin National Front(CNF), CNC resource persons, Joint
Organizing Committee of CNC, and experts and scholars be formed to implement
the above-mentioned points of agreement.
is declared that the Chin National Conference is a successful unity-building
event in which Chin people from both inside and outside of Chin State, and from
abroad participated and reached common positions for the Chin as a whole.
Communal Violence/Rohingya Crisis/ International Response
A news agency
investigation says Thai officials have been secretly allowing Rohingya Muslim
refugees to be dumped off to human traffickers, who hold them for ransom under
The report by the Reuters
news agency said Thai immigration officials were often complicit in the policy
toward the Rohingya, who are escaping unrest and religious persecution in
It said many of the
refugees were told by officials they were being deported back to Burma. Only
after they were out at sea, did they realize they had been sold to human
The survivors say they
were then sent to camps along Thailand's remote border with Malaysia. Many were
said to be beaten, and some even killed. They were only allowed to leave if
their relatives paid thousands of dollars in ransom.
Thai police officials
told Reuters they have heard about the camps, but say they are doing nothing at
this time to investigate them. They also acknowledged that Thai officials have
in the past benefited from Rohingya smuggling operations.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan
Project, a Rohingya rights group, tells VOA the camps have been around for a
while. But she says conditions there are getting worse, likely because of the
She says her organization
has talked to many refugees at the camps who were beaten in an attempt to
extort about $2,000 from family members.
"They are given a
mobile phone to call relatives in Myanmar, in Malaysia, wherever, to collect
this money. And when they are making that call, they are beaten up so they will
scream and cry so the relatives will feel the urge to collect the money as soon
Lewa says it is not clear
what happens to those whose families cannot afford the ransom.
"The people we have
met had paid (the ransom), so they don't know what happened to those left
behind. We understand that quite a few of them would have been sold, either to
a fishing troller or to plantations."
Thailand has come under
criticism in the past for its policy toward Rohingya. Many have been deported
or turned away at sea. Others are in government detention centres described as
overcrowded and inhumane.
The refugees are fleeing
violence in Burma's western Rakhine, or Arakan, state, where sectarian violence
has killed at least 240 people and displaced 140,000 others, mainly Rohingya,
in recent months.
In addition to the
violence, Rohingya are denied citizenship and other basic rights in Burma,
where they are considered immigrants from Bangladesh. The United Nations
considers them one of the world's most persecuted minority groups.
An Indonesian court on
Wednesday jailed 14 Muslim Rohingya men from Burma for nine months each for
bludgeoning eight Buddhists from their country to death in an Indonesian
The Rohingya asylum-seekers
in April killed the Buddhist men, who had been detained for illegally fishing
in Indonesian waters, as sectarian tensions in their home country flared.
The Rohingyas, aged 18 to
37, accused the fishermen of sexually harassing two Rohingya women and said the
Buddhists started the violence in the detention centre, in the port town of
Belawan near Medan city on Sumatra island.
“The defendants have been
proven legally and convincingly guilty of working together to blatantly carry
out violence, which resulted in the loss of human lives,” chief judge Aksir
told the Medan district court.
“We sentenced them to
nine months in prison,” he said.
The sentence was lighter
than the two-year term sought by prosecutors and the maximum penalty for
violence resulting in death, which is 12 years.
The men, along with 100
Indonesian Muslim supporters, chanted “Allahu Akbar” in the court room after
the light sentences were handed down.
According to court
documents, a fisherman had tried to stab one of the Rohingya men, who retaliated
by hitting him with a broomstick.
Also on trial in
Indonesia, Sigit Indrajid, 23, testified that he led a group of Islamic
extremists that networked over Facebook in a plan to attack the Burmese embassy
in Jakarta in May.
According to local press,
he confessed to being the mastermind on Thursday, saying he was “still at war”
with anyone oppressing Muslims.
The group said it wanted
to avenge the harsh treatment of Rohingya in Burma – an issue that has
resonated widely in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation.
RANGOON - Local
authorities are preparing to resettle hundreds of Muslims displaced by
inter-communal violence in March between local Buddhists and the Muslims in
Meiktila Township, Mandalay Division, according a state-run newspaper.
Muslim neighbourhoods of
Meiktila were razed to the ground during the violence. Authorities say Muslims
made up the majority of the 7,845 people who have since been living in
temporary camps outside the town.
A report in the New Light
of Myanmar on Tuesday said the government will provide plots of land or
apartments to resettle about 400 Muslim victims of the violence.
The report was unclear on
the details of the resettlement plan, but said a coordination meeting was held
at the end of last month among the government authorities to decide what to do
with the displaced people.
The report did say
specifically that those at the meeting—including Mandalay Division’s Planning
and Economic Minister Aung Zan, as well as district and township
officials—agreed that a first round of plots measuring 40 by 30 feet would be
given to 93 people. Another 77 fire victims would later get plots and 193
“victims who have no guarantee” would be provided residential quarters.
Violence between local
Buddhists and Muslims broke out in Meiktila on March 20 following bouts of
violence in Arakan State between Arakanese Buddhists and the stateless Rohingya
Muslim minority last year, which left 192 people dead and 140,000 people
In Meiktila, 1,594 houses
were burned down in Chanayethaya Ward, according to the New Light of Myanmar
report, sending people into five relief camps. About 40 people were killed and
60 injured, and about 30 people, both Buddhist and Muslims, were sentenced by a
court in Meiktila in July for the violence.
Win Htein, a National
League for Democracy (NLD) member of Parliament for Meiktila, said the
displaced people were being resettled in the same area they were displaced
from. He said the resettlement was overdue, and would begin this month.
“I have been telling the
government for a long time to let them return their homeland. I feel it’s late
already as they have had to stay in the camps for a long time,” said Win Htein.
He insisted the
atmosphere in the town was much improved since the violence and that Buddhists
and Muslims would not clash again.
“The current situation is
getting better, it’s a lot better than before,” Win Htein said. “There will be
no problem with their return.”
Maung Maung, a Muslim
from Meiktila, who was displaced by the violence in March and is now in
Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy that all the victims wanted to go back as soon as
“The majority of our
people want to go back to their homeland,” he said, adding that many were
concerned they would be resettled in a new place without being consulted.
“They are still checking
people who have title paper for their own land. So, as far as I know, we will
return to our homeland,” said Maung Maung. “People are saying that they are
happy if they can go back to their homeland, even if they can only build small
hut to stay in.”
Ko Phyo, a Buddhist
resident of Meiktila, said that the Buddhist population of the town was
concerned by the resettlement.
“Our residents are
worried that it is going to cause more violence. They are the people who
started problem first, but when the locals [Buddhists] reacted, events went out
of control,” he said, adding that the deaths of monks during the violence had
“This is big problem. The
local people were outraged and lost control in their reaction,” said Ko Phyo.
He also claimed the
resettlement would be problematic because displaced Muslims had been
opportunistic. “We heard that some families asked for three plot of land, even
though they only had one family home in the past,” he said
However, some Muslim
families have already returned to their land in Meiktila, and visitors report
that the situation is stable.
Hajj Kyaw Khin, a Muslim
has donated to the Muslim victims of the Meiktila violence, said resettlement
would help the area to be return to normal.
“It is good if the people
could return to their homeland because I found there that they express the
feeling that they wanted to return back,” he said. “Many people have no job and
don’t have enough food because they have to stay in the camps.”
nationalists, including a chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development
Party (RNDP), who were detained in connection with the ethno-religious violence
that broke out in October, have been released on bail.
Maung Pu, the Sandoway
[Thandwe] township chairman of the RNDP, said he and the 10 other members of
the nationalist group Organisation to Protect Race and Religion have been
released on bail after being detained for two months in Sandoway and Kyaukphyu
“We were charged under
Article 505(c) *, which allows for release on bail. Since the charges were
brought by the police, it was assumed there was no need to worry about us going
back to harass the [prosecutors]. We were residents actively working in the
interest of the town; it’s not likely we will skip bail, so it was granted,” said
The eleven men are still
awaiting trial for two separate charges. Maung Pu maintained his innocence and
said he will fight the charges but remain within the boundaries of the law.
More than 90 people were
arrested in connection with the riots that broke out in Sandoway in early
October, which left at least five dead and about 120 families homeless.
Pe Than, a Central
Executive Committee member of the RNDP, said Maung Pu and the nationalist group
members were made scapegoats due to “pressure from above”.
The riots broke out
during President Thein Sein’s first visit to restive Arakan state since the
initial outbreak of riots between Muslims and Buddhists erupted in the region
in June 2012.
The ensuing rash of
violence has since spread to several parts of Burma and has overwhelmingly
affected Muslims, particularly the stateless Rohingya community. More than 240
people have died as a result of the ongoing outbreaks of violence, including a
94-year old woman murdered in central Burma.
While foreign heads of
state, human rights groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human
Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, have all issued warnings to the Burmese
government that their failure to contain ethno-religious conflict may threaten
democratic development, the number of prosecutions related to the riots remains
* Burmese penal code
Whoever makes, publishes
or circulates any statement, rumour or report,—
intent to -cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or
airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail
in his duty as such; or
intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to
any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an
offence against the State or against the public tranquillity; or
intent to incite, or which is likely to incite, any class or community of
persons to commit any offence against any other class or community, shall be
punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with
Myanmar will allow some
foreign banks to begin offering limited financial services next year, a senior
central bank official said, as the Southeast Asian country slowly opens up its
banking sector following a series of economic and political reforms.
banks have representative offices in the country, but they have thus far been
forbidden from opening branches or offering services other than advising
clients. According to a decades-old plan, the government will eventually allow
them to form joint ventures with local banks before allowing them to open
The senior official said
the central bank is now formulating a plan to speed up the process by letting a
select number of foreign banks begin operating in 2014 in "certain areas
of banking services", which he did not define.
"Since things have
changed rapidly with the passage of time, we can't afford to stick to something
laid down about 20 years ago if we really want to carry out meaningful
reforms," he said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to
speak to media.
The official said
authorities have yet to decide how they would chose among the foreign banks
with representative offices, which include Standard Chartered STANB.UL, Bangkok
Bank BBL.BK, Siam Commercial Bank SCB.BK and Australia and New Zealand Banking
Foreign involvement would
help reform the antiquated banking system in Myanmar, Asia's second-poorest
country after Afghanistan, which has been looking to attract foreign investment
since a quasi-civilian government took office in 2011 after half a century of
Foreign banks could also
help jumpstart economic development by providing access to much-needed
financing for corporate clients, according to Khwima Nthara, a senior country
economist with the World Bank.
"I do not doubt the
government appreciates the role that foreign banks can play in financing,"
Nthara added that
authorities are right to move slowly in opening up the banking sector.
Strictly limiting the
role of foreign banks could help insulate the economy from any future financial
crisis that could see them withdraw capital, and it would allow the domestic
sector to develop without being swallowed up by the internationals, he said.
"The question is
really how best to have them involved so you increase availability of credit,
of financing, but also the local banks' capacity is strengthened," he
Zaw Lin Htut, deputy
manager of Myanmar's biggest private bank, Kanbawza Bank Ltd, said he had not
yet heard of the plan to allow some foreign banks to begin operating next year,
but he welcomed the idea.
need funding and it's not a small amount to invest in Myanmar," he said.
"As domestic banks, we cannot fund too many corporate customers."
He added that domestic
banks would benefit by learning about corporate investment from the
need local banks as well," said Zaw Lin Htut. "I'm sure we can work
together in the future."
Myanmar's banking sector
was crippled by decades of mismanagement under military regimes and cut off
from much of the global economy due to western sanctions. The European Union,
Australia and other countries have lifted sanctions in response to widespread
political and economic reforms.
The United States has
eased sanctions and the Treasury Department issued a general license to Myanma
Economic Bank, Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, Asia Green Development
Bank and Ayeyarwady Bank.
A general license eases
restrictions and lets the banks deal with U.S. citizens and companies, but
leaves sanctions laws on the books, giving Washington leverage should Myanmar
start to backslide on reforms.
The World Bank is
advising the government on financial reform and country manager Kanthan Shankar
told Reuters in October that a draft of the new banking law would be completed
by the end of this month.
RANGOON - Burma will this
month collect detailed data on the activities of private sector companies for
the first time, in order to give more reliable figures for the output of the
country’s economy, officials said.
Burma has been using the
same approach to measure gross domestic product (GDP) since 1968, a time when
Gen Ne Win’s regime ran a disastrous planned economy.
But the country’s economy
is now under heightened international scrutiny since free market reforms and
the removal of some economic sanctions have fed optimism among investors.
According to International Monetary Fund estimates published in August, based
on Burmese government data, GDP was US$55.3 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal
year, and was expected to grow to $59.4 billion in 2013-14.
To give a more reliable
picture of the economy, the government, with help from the United Nations
Development Program (UNDP), is about to begin collecting up surveys from all
private sector business, according to Aung Myint Than, director of the Ministry
of National Planning and Economic Development’s (MPED) planning department.
Aung Myint Than said the
nationwide survey was the first step toward a System of National Accounts—the
internationally agreed method of measuring economic activity—which will take
into account the activity all businesses, of any size, registered in Burma.
He said the survey this
month would address a severe lack of information on the private sector, which
now accounts for 90 percent of all enterprises in Burma.
“We have to change our
GDP approach from the potential approach to the expenditure approach. So, we
need so a lot of data from private sector,” he said. “As the economic system
changes, the role of private sector will develop more in the near future.”
A pilot survey conducted
in May by the Central Statistical Committee, under MPED, took stock of the
number of private sector businesses in the country. Questionnaires about
economic activity were distributed to businesses and they must submit their
answers to MPED between Dec. 9 and Dec. 20.
“We asked about 100,000
businesses and firms to test our questionnaire,” said Aung Myint Than. “We can
approximate capital information, intermediate consumption and depreciation this
Khin Khin Thu, assistant
director of MPED’s branch office in Rangoon’s Southern District, said training
was underway for local officials on how to collect the data.
But with such a large
amount of data to be collected, the government is relying on companies to
willingly provide their data.
“The willingness to give
actual data is essential, so the challenges ahead for the survey we cannot
estimate,” she said, adding that it would take some time to finalize the data
once it is collected.
Southern Rangoon, which
is the least commercial part of the city, has 500 businesses, while the
northern, western and eastern sectors of the city have at least 8,000
enterprises each, Khin Khin Thu said.
immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold
Ismail, 23, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims to human traffickers, who
then spirited them into brutal jungle camps.
thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters
investigation in three countries has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove
Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centres and deliver
them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a
series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay
thousands of dollars to release them. Reporters located three such camps - two
based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the
site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor.
of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died
there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration
or disease, survivors said in interviews.
Thai authorities say the movement of Rohingya through their country doesn't
amount to human trafficking. But in interviews for this story, the Thai Royal
Police acknowledged, for the first time, a covert policy called "option
two" that relies upon established human-smuggling networks to rid Thailand
of Rohingya detainees.
was one of five Rohingya who said that Thai immigration officials had sold him
outright or aided in their sale to human traffickers. "It seemed so
official at first," said Ismail, a wiry farmer with a long narrow face and
tight curly hair. "They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints.
And then once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had
said he ended up in a camp in southern Thailand. So did Bozor Mohamed, a
Rohingya whose frail body makes him seem younger than his 21 years. The camp
was guarded by men with guns and clubs, said Mohamed, and at least one person
died every day due to dehydration or disease.
used to be a strong man," the former rice farmer said in an interview, as
he massaged his withered legs.
and others say they endured hunger, filth and multiple beatings. Mohamed's
elbow and back are scarred from what he said were beatings administered by his
captors in Thailand while he telephoned his brother-in-law in Malaysia, begging
him to pay the $2,000 (1,220.93 pounds) ransom they demanded. Some men failed
to find a benefactor in Malaysia to pay their ransom. The camp became their
home. "They had long beards and their hair was so long, down to the middle
of their backs, that they looked liked women," said Mohamed.
ultimately happens to Rohingya who can't buy their freedom remains unclear. A
Thai-based smuggler said some are sold to shipping companies and farms as
manual labourers for 5,000 to 50,000 baht each, or $155 to $1,550.
vary according to their skills," said the smuggler, who spoke on condition
Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group based in Thailand, says it has
interviewed scores of Rohingya who have passed through the Thai camps and into
Malaysia. Many Rohingya who can't pay end up as cooks or guards at the camps,
said Chris Lewa, Arakan Project's director.
with the findings of this report, Thailand's second-highest-ranking policeman
made some startling admissions. Thai officials might have profited from
Rohingya smuggling in the past, said Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit,
Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police. He also confirmed the
existence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called "holding
Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's
equivalent of the U.S. FBI, was also asked about the camps Reuters discovered.
"We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand," he said,
"but we are not investigating this issue."
by a political crisis and violent street protests this week, Thailand faces
difficult questions about its future and global status. Among those is whether
it will join North Korea, the Central African Republic and Iran among the
world's worst offenders in fighting human trafficking.
signs are not good.
U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report ranks
countries on their record for combating the crime. For the past four years,
Thailand has sat on the TIP Report's so-called Tier 2 Watch List, the
second-lowest rank. It will be automatically downgraded to Tier 3 next year
unless it makes what the State Department calls "significant efforts"
to eliminate human trafficking.
to Tier 3 status theoretically carries the threat of U.S. sanctions. In
practice, the United States is unlikely to sanction Thailand, one of its oldest
treaty allies in Asia. But to be downgraded would be a major embarrassment to
Thailand, which is now lobbying hard for a non-permanent position on the United
Nations Security Council.
THE ROHINGYA EXODUS
are Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh, where they are usually stateless and
despised as illegal immigrants. In 2012, two eruptions of violence between Rohingyas
and majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in western Myanmar killed at least 192
people and made 140,000 homeless. Most were Rohingya, who live in wretched
camps or under apartheid-like segregation with little access to healthcare,
schools or jobs.
so they have fled Myanmar by sea in unprecedented numbers over the past year.
Ismail and Mohamed joined tens of thousands of Rohingya in one of the biggest
movements of boat people since the end of the Vietnam War.
bias against the Rohingya in the region, however, makes it difficult for them
to find safe haven - and easy to fall into the hands of traffickers. "No
one is there to speak for them," says Phil Robertson, deputy director for
Asia at Human Rights Watch. "They are a lost people."
men, women and children squeeze aboard overloaded fishing boats and cargo ships
to cross the Bay of Bengal. Their desired destination is Malaysia, a
Muslim-majority country where at least 31,000 Rohingya already live. As Reuters
reported in July, many of these refugees were waylaid in Thailand, where the
Thai navy and marine police worked with smugglers to extract money for their
onward trip to Malaysia.
of Rohingyas were arrested in two headline-grabbing raids by the Thai
authorities on January 9 in the towns of Padang Besar and Sadao, both near the
Malaysia border. At the time, Colonel Krissakorn Paleetunyawong, deputy
commander of police in the area, declared the Rohingya would be deported back
to Myanmar. That never happened.
and Mohamed were among the 393 Rohingya that Thai police say were arrested that
day in Padang Besar. So was Ismail's friend Ediris, 22. The three young men all
hailed from Buthedaung, a poor township in northern Rakhine State.
story reveals how Thailand, a rapidly developing country in the heart of
Southeast Asia, shifted from cracking down on human trafficking camps to
A SECRET POLICY
their arrest, Ediris and Ismail were brought to an immigration detention centre
(IDC) in Sadao, where they joined another 300 Rohingya rounded up from a nearby
smuggler's house. The two-story IDC, designed for a few dozen inmates, was
overflowing. Women and children were moved to sheltered housing, while some men
were sent to other IDCs across Thailand.
about 1,700 Rohingya locked up nationwide, the Thai government set a July
deadline to deport them all and opened talks with Myanmar on how to do it. The
talks went nowhere, because the Myanmar government refused to take
responsibility for what it regards as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
and teenage boys languished for months in cramped, cage-like cells, often with
barely enough room to sit or stand, much less walk. In June, Reuters
journalists visited an IDC in Phang Nga, near the tourist Mecca of Phuket.
There were 269 men and boys crammed into a space built for no more than 100. It
reeked of urine and sweat. Some detainees used crutches because their muscles
doctor who inspected Sadao's IDC in July said he found five emaciated Rohingya
clinging to life. Two died on their way to hospital, said the doctor, Anatachai
Thaipratan, an advisor of the Thai Islamic Medical Association.
the plight of Rohingya detainees made world headlines, pressure mounted on
Thailand. But Myanmar wouldn't take them, nor would Malaysia. With thousands
more arriving, the U.N.'s refugee agency issued an urgent appeal for
alternative housing. The government proposed building a "mega camp"
in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, another province in southern Thailand. It was rejected
after an outcry from local people.
early August, 270 Rohingya rioted at the IDC in Phang Nga. Men tore off doors
separating cells, demanding to be let outside to pray at the close of the
Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Over the last three weeks of August, more than
300 Rohingya fled from five detention centres.
this time, Mohamed, the 21-year-old refugee, could no longer walk, let alone
escape. His leg muscles had wasted away from months in detention in a cell
shared by 95 Rohingya men. Ismail and Ediris were shuttled between various
IDCs, ending up in Nong Khai, a city on Thailand's northern border with Laos.
saw its options rapidly dwindling, a senior government official said, speaking
on condition of anonymity. It couldn't protest to Myanmar's government to
improve the lives of Rohingya and stem the exodus, the official said. That
could ruffle diplomatic feathers and even jeopardize the access of Thai
companies hoping to invest in Myanmar, one of the world's hottest frontier markets.
could Thailand arrest, prosecute and jail the Rohingya for breaking Thai
immigration law - there were simply too many of them. "There would be no
room in our prison cells," Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal said.
growing problem gave birth to "option two" in October, a secret
policy to deport the refugees back to Myanmar that led to Rohingyas being sold
to human trafficking networks.
hint of the policy shift came weeks earlier, on September 13, when Police Lt.
Gen. Panu Kerdlarppol, chief of the Immigration Bureau, met with officials from
other agencies on the resort island of Koh Samui to decide what to do with the
Rohingya. Afterwards, Kerdlarppol announced that immigration authorities would
take statements from the Rohingya "to arrange their deportation" and
see if any want to go home. Arrangements would be made for those who did.
early October, 2,058 Rohingya were held in 14 IDCs across Thailand, according
to the Internal Security Operations Command, a national security agency run by
the Thai military. A month later that number stood at about 600, according to
non-governmental organizations and Muslim aid workers. By the first week of
December, it was 154, Thailand's immigration department said.
were fast disappearing from Thailand's IDCs, and nobody knew where they were
"WE NOW BELONGED TO
to the policy was Ranong, a sparsely populated Thai province whose geography
has always made it a smugglers' paradise. Ranong shares a long, ill-policed
land and sea border with Myanmar. Its coastline is blanketed in dense mangrove
forest and dotted with small, often uninhabited islands.
provincial capital, also called Ranong, was built on tin mining but now lives
off fishing and tourism. Rust-streaked trawlers from Thailand and Burma ply the
same waters as dive boats and yachts. So do wooden "long-tail" boats,
named after their extended drive-shafts, which ferry Burmese migrant workers to
the Myanmar port of Kawthaung, only a 30-minute voyage away.
late October, hundreds of Rohingya were being packed onto immigration trucks
and driven to Ranong for processing and deportation. Among them were Ismail and
Ediris, who arrived in the port city after a gruelling, standing room-only
journey of 1,200 km (746 miles) from Nong Khai.
Ranong's IDC, they were photographed and told by Thai immigration officers they
were being sent back to Myanmar. "They said no other countries were
accepting Rohingya, and Myanmar had become peaceful," said Ismail.
they were driven to a Ranong pier and herded onto four long-tail boats, each
with a three-man crew of Thais and Burmese. Once at sea, the Rohingya asked the
boat driver to help them. The Burmese-speaking driver shook his head and told
the Rohingya they had been sold by Thai immigration officials for 11,000 baht
told us we now belonged to them," said Ismail.
about 30 minutes at sea, the boats stopped. It was early afternoon on October
23. The vessels waited until about 6 p.m., when a large fishing boat arrived.
They were loaded aboard and sailed through the night until they reached a
jungle island, separated from the mainland by a narrow river. It was about 4
said he saw about 200 other Rohingya in that camp, mostly sleeping and guarded
by men with guns. The guards shoved Ismail and the others into a muddy
clearing. There was no water or food. He was told he must pay 60,000 Thai baht
($1,850). Did he have family who could send the money? If he did, he could go
wherever he wanted, Ismail said he was told. "If you don't, we'll use
this," one guard said, showing an iron rod.
had some cash but not enough. "We need to escape," he whispered to
Ediris. After an hour at the camp, just before dawn, the two men made their
move. A guard fired shots in the air as they ran through the jungle and waded
through a river to reach the mainland. For the next 24 hours, they survived by
drinking stream-water and eating the bark of banana trees. They emerged onto a
rubber plantation, their feet lacerated from the bare-foot jungle trek, and met
a Burmese man who promised to spirit them into Malaysia for 8,000 baht, or
agreed and were driven to a house in southern Thailand, where Reuters
interviewed them hours before they were smuggled by pick-up across the Malaysian
THE JUNGLE CAMPS
Mohamed, the third young Rohingya from Buthedaung, said he was held for 10 days
at a jungle camp in Padang Besar.
too, said he had been delivered by Thai officials to trafficking boats along
the maritime border with Myanmar. Afterwards, in torrential rain and under
cover of darkness, along with perhaps 200 other Rohingya, Mohamed said he was
ferried back across the strait to Thailand, where a new ordeal began.
men were taken on a two-day journey by van, motor-bike, and foot to a
smuggler's camp on the border with Malaysia. On the final hike, men with canes
beat the young Rohingya and the others, many of them hobbled by months of
detention. They stumbled and dragged themselves up steep forested hills.
the same trek was Mohamed Hassan, a fourth Rohingya to escape Thailand's
trafficking network. Hassan is a baby-faced 19-year-old from the Rakhine
capital of Sittwe.
said he arrived at the camp in September after an overnight journey in a
pick-up truck, followed by a two-hour walk into the hills with dozens of other
Rohingya. Their captors ordered them to carry supplies, he said. Already giddy
with fatigue and hunger after eight days at sea, the 19-year-old shouldered a
sack of rice. "If we stopped, the men beat us with sticks," he said.
camp was partially skirted by a barbed-wire fence, he said, and guarded by
about 25 men with guns, knives and clubs. Hassan reckoned it held about 300
Rohingya. They slept on plastic sheets, unprotected from the sun and rain, and
were allowed only one meal a day, of rice and dried fish. He said he was
night, two Rohingya men tried to escape. The guards tracked them down, bound
their hands and dragged them back to camp. Then, the guards beat the two men
with clubs, rods and lengths of rubber. "Everybody watched," said
Hassan. "We said nothing. Some people were crying."
beating lasted some 30 minutes, he said. Then a guard drew a small knife and
slit the throat of one of the fugitives.
prisoners were ordered to dispose of his corpse in the forest. The other victim
was dumped in a stream. Afterwards, Hassan vomited with fear and exhaustion,
but tried not to cry. "When I cried they beat me. I had already decided
that I would die there."
only hope of release was his older brother, 42, a long-time resident of
Thailand. Hassan said he had his brother's telephone number with him, but at
first his captors wouldn't let him call it. (Traffickers are reluctant to deal
with relatives in Thailand, in case they have contacts with the Thai
authorities that could jeopardize operations.)
Hassan reached his brother, who said he sold his motorbike to help raise the
equivalent of about $3,000 to secure Hassan's freedom, after 20 days in the
were able to trace the location of three trafficking camps, based on the
testimony of Rohingya who previously were held in them.
journalists travelled on motor-bikes and then hiked through rubber plantations
and dense jungle to directly confirm the existence of a major camp near Baan
by a blue tarpaulin tent, the Rohingya were split into groups of men and women.
Some prayed. The encampment was patrolled by armed guards and protected by
villagers and police. The reporters didn't attempt to enter. Villagers who have
visited the camp said the number of people held inside ranged from an estimated
500 to a thousand or more, depending on the number of people arriving,
departing or escaping.
with about a dozen villagers also confirmed two other large camps: one less
than a mile away, and another in Padang Besar, near the Malaysia border.
"THAT RED LINE IN
General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok admitted there was an
unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar. He called this "a
natural way or option two." But he said the Rohingya went voluntarily.
Rohingya in our IDCs can't stand being in limbo, so they ask to return to where
they came from," said Chatchawal. "This means going back to
Myanmar." Rohingya at the IDCs, for instance, sign statements in the
presence of a local Islamic leader, in which they agree they want to return to
statements, however, were at times produced in the absence of a Rohingya
language translator. When reporters visited the Sadao IDC for this story, the
translator was a Muslim from Myanmar who spoke only Thai and Burmese, and thus
unable to explain what the detainees were signing.
was also presented with recent testimony from Rohingya who said they weren't
taken to back to Myanmar. Instead, they were put in boats by Thai immigration
officials, told they had been sold and taken under duress to Thailand's camps.
Reporters interviewed four Rohingya for this story who said they fell prey to
trafficking with official complicity.
the house where Ediris and Ismail were interviewed were two other survivors of
the trafficking camps: Abdul Basser, 24, and Fir Mohamed, 28. They told similar
stories. Both were arrested after arriving in Thailand on January 25, and held
at the overcrowded Phang Nga IDC for about eight months. On October 17, the two
men, along with dozens of other Rohingya, were driven overnight to Ranong.
were told we could go back to Myanmar," said Mohamed.
day, 48 Rohingya and five Buddhist Burmese were loaded into trucks and driven
to a pier. The five Burmese were put on one boat; the Rohingya were put on
another. After about a half hour at sea, the captain cut the engine. "We
thought the engine had stalled or broke down," said Basser. "The
captain told us we could not go back to Myanmar, that we had been sold by the
immigration and police," he added.
and Basser, too, escaped after being brought to an island near mainland
now, the Thai government has denied official complicity in the smuggling or
trafficking of Rohingya. But in a break with that position, Chatchawal said
Thai officials might have received money previously in exchange for Rohingya,
but not anymore. "In the past, and I stress in the past, there may have
been cases of officials taking payments for handing over migrants to
boats," he said. "I am not ruling it out, but I don't know of any
specific cases recently."
said it was possible the Rohingya were intercepted by brokers and never made it
to Myanmar. "Once they've crossed that border, that red line in the sea,
they are Myanmar's responsibility," he said.
also admitted the camps uncovered by Reuters exist in breach of Thai laws. He
referred to them as "temporary shelters" for a people who ultimately
want to reach Malaysia. The smugglers who run the camps "extort money from
Rohingya" but police don't accept bribes from them, he said.
for the trafficking way stations in Padang Besar and Sadao, Chatchawal said:
"I do believe there could be more camps like these. They could be hidden
deep in the jungle."
(Additional reporting by
Jutaret Skulpichetrat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok, and Stuart Grudgings
in Kuala Lumpur.)