Some thoughts on Arakan State’s bloodshed

Translation: Do not support Burma’s 786 [expletive] Indian stores and oppose the Rohingya Indians.

This past week, my Facebook newsfeed has been bombarded by photos, pictures, slogans and status updates all centered around the Buddhist-Muslim killings in Burma’s Arakan State. To be sure, I’ve been caught off guard by the openly racist remarks espoused by family and friends. It’s no secret that the community viewed most suspiciously by the Burmese are the Muslims, even though they’re deeply woven in the country’s social fabric (for instance, some Burmese spirits were Muslims or of Muslim descent, explaining the pork taboo). Also, I believe that Burma’s religious composition figures are inaccurate. I wouldn’t be surprised if upwards of 10% of the country are Muslims.

Considering that Arakan State is in Burma’s periphery, far from the country’s heartland, it’s not surprising that accurate news accounts have been especially hard to come by. I hate reading Burmese language media on situations like this because it is so openly intent on portraying one side of the story, just as exile media is. And English language media is no better. Different accounts have made their rounds throughout the Burmese community.

Basically, the rape and murder of a woman by 3 men (presumably Muslim) triggered the onset of the violence. (Also, I think it’s despicable that images of dead victims have been making their rounds in the Burmese community to further their case. It’s low.) Vigilantes from the Arakanese community then attacked a tour bus of (mostly) Muslim passengers from Pegu (raping and killing a woman as well. Tit for tat?). This set off intense violence in districts especially near the Burmese-Bangladeshi border, between Muslims and Buddhists. I won’t delve into the identity of Rohingyas (also called Bengali migrants by Burmese media), because it’s a complicated issue. But it’s sure stoked up the tensions in the country. There’s a comprehensive write up on New Mandala. (The comments are worth a look as well.)

Some arguments have portrayed this issue as one of immigration (illegal squatters wreaking havoc in Burma), but there’s certainly a streak of racism and Islamophobia written all over netizens’ comments. Many simply don’t distinguish race and religion. A lot of arguments defending the violence have been centered around “protecting” the indigenous womenfolk from Muslims. The rape and murder case produced tremendous backlash, even though systematic rapes and murders frequently occur in Burma’s war-ravished areas. That Burmese (and ethnic) soldiers have been documented to rape and murder ethnic women (Shan, Karen and Kachin women and girls, among others) has not been condemned in the scale we see today. The Burmese have never expressed such outrage against these war crimes. It’s obvious that a double standard exists. Indeed, last year, when a Japanese tourist was raped and murdered by a Burmese man, many Burmese blamed the victim for compromising herself (by travelling alone). Comments like these make me want to facepalm myself.

I can’t help but imagine that there’s more to the violence than what we see. Perhaps the military is taking advantage of this situation, to conjure up the idea of a Burmese state in perpetual need of a iron-fisted military presence. As the “civilian” government consolidates power, the military needs to remain relevant to survive. Some Burmese have pointed out that the Muslims in Arakan State may have been provoked by the government (maybe plainclothes vigilantes, who knows).

P.S. Some Burmese of South Asian descent protested the usage of the Burmese word kala (ကုလား) in state newspapers, on the argument that it’s a racial slur used to refer to South Asians (and perhaps its similarity to the the word “black” in some Indian languages and/or that it sounds similar to Burmese “cross over”, emphasizing South Asians’ non-native origins).

However, I think much of this is hullabaloo. Up to the 1800s, kala encompassed most Indo-European peoples west of Burma (including Europeans and South Asians), the same way Tayoke or Chinese referred to peoples north of Burma. Kala has been used in a neutral context for centuries. The fact that we Burmese still call Thais yodaya (a reference to the Ayutthaya kingdom, destroyed by the Burmese in the 1600s) makes kala seem innocuous by comparison. (Not that I’m saying the Burmese use yodaya as a slur or a reminder of the past. It’s just a descriptive word, nothing else.) Interestingly enough, in Cambodia, Kula refers to refers to Burmese settlers, particularly descendants of the Shan peoples, who settled in Pailin province to mine gems (definition from the Cambodian-English Dictionary).

There’s a pretty solid argument for the etymology of kala (“(Mis)interpretations of the Burmese word kala”), replete with references and footnotes, that essentially argues that kala comes from one of these sources:

  1. Pali kulaputta (ကုလပုတ္တ, noble race)
  2. Mon gla (ဂလာ, noble race), perhaps borrowed from Pali
  3. cola/chola (a historical name for the Tamil/Telegu people)

101 East program on Burma’s recent changes

25 minutes long, titled “Myanmar’s reforms.” More info on Al Jazeera’s website.

The program basically reiterates what’s been said in the news these days. But it features a rare short interview with Zaw Zaw, one of the country’s richest businessman (called a regime crony in US diplomatic cables) and managing director of Max Myanmar, a conglomerate that operates a smorgasbord of businesses (from hotels to mining).

Burma’s by-elections are overhyped

First off, it’s really breathtaking to see so many enthused Burmese, so many people anticipating a future of opportunity. It fills me with emotion, too. This sense of yearning, reconstruction of a totally damaged country. Maybe I could be a part of this recovery? But these are just far-off dreams. My dad would return to Burma in a heartbeat, if the country allowed dual citizenship. My family has spent hours gathered around the television, watching Youtube clips and news programs about the by-elections.

This interview of Kawhmu Township residents gives a pretty interesting and sincere look at voters’ aspirations. I found the 70-year-old voter who calls herself “daughter” (သမီး) charming.

But this is all just hype. The elections didn’t change the scheme or the pace of reforms. Perhaps the most important outcome was that the NLD and Suu Kyi were specifically accommodated so they would contest the elections (laws were amended so they would participate). I also thought the speed with which the Union Election Commission announced results was surprisingly fast. Results for most constituencies were available within a day.

Than Shwe and his brothers-in-arm must all be pleased at how well the so-called reforms have been humming along. There’s a Burmese proverb: asa kaung hma, ahnaung thaycha (အစကောင်းမှ အနှောင်းသေချာ), that the certainty of the future is contingent on a good start. They have laid out a sophisticated plan to ensure their survival. Simple as that.

As my mom put it, Thein Sein appears to be a puppet worked by shadowy figures, maneuvering these plays to gain credibility in the international arena. Thein Sein has already said he plans to retire in 2015, and even his indirect election (by other MPs) was planned from the start. He was deliberately chosen because he had the cleanest record of the bunch. “A king among lepers” or anu taw lu chaw (အနူတော လူချော).

There’s no doubt the roadmap to a disciplined democracy, emphasis on disciplined, is well underway. The country’s new commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, recently said that the military was prepared to defend the Constitution, to ensure the military’s role in politics. I don’t foresee the NLD’s ambitions to dismantle the present Constitution’s clauses on guaranteed military presence in parliament, to go away anytime soon.

It’s difficult to read the exact behind-the-scenes mechanisms driving the exact decisions being made. Like the Burmese proverb goes, politics is as hard to read as a parrot in a tree (ပြည်ထဲအရေး ပေါက်နဲ့ကျေး). But this has been cleverly orchestrated for years, not just the result of a sudden epiphany by Thein Sein or his advisers. And everything is falling into place as the planners predicted. Make no mistake, there isn’t a Burmese Spring or a glasnost happening here. Hah, the Economist called this opening “Yangon spring.”

State TV broadcasts announcements of all the seats NLD won.

Suu Kyi’s party won 43 out of 45 seats, including 4 in the Upper House and 37 in the Lower House. But these numbers are just a drop in the water. The fact that by-elections went to smoothly was simply because so much rides on this particular election, especially the coveted prize of abolished sanctions from the West. If the NLD had won any less, it would have cried foul and unleashed a storm of criticism. It is obviously in the government’s best interests to ensure NLD’s victory.

Campaign movie for the NLD, starring Burmese celebrities like Htun Eindra Bo and Lu Min. It’s fascinating to see how many celebrities have publicly endorsed this party.

The feeling of many in the overseas Burmese community is that Suu Kyi is being used as a pawn to legitimize the authority of the current government, plain and simple. No wonder Suu Kyi has been very careful in saying that NLD participated in these elections because it was the people’s will, and has practically praised nobody in the government except for Thein Sein.

Burma’s government has clearly shown signals to have sanctions lifted (since the 90s), so they are eager get business up and running without any impediments stat. Burmese officials seem to have studied Western sanctions well, including those of America and move away from their alliance with China. There’s an interview with a government adviser, where he remarks that US sanctions will be hard to lift quickly, because most require legislative approval.

I thought this article was really informative, in how other military-run countries like Brazil have transitioned to democracy. But Burma’s circumstances are very unusual–the military occupation of 50 years has wiped out the last class of decent civil servants and Western-educated professionals (think Hla Myint, father of modern development economics), so there’s not much know-how left in the country. Think of all those substandard roads being constructed by Lo Hsing Han’s Asia World and the like. Ever wonder why car accidents on long-distance roads are so common in the country? They lack construction know-how.

Investors expecting Myanmar to be another Vietnam are likely to be disappointed. Instead, they are likely to find a market more akin to Angola: a shattered nation with minimal human capital. Myanmar has a large labour force, but unlike Asian exporting powerhouses which focused government resources on education, the quality of its labour is extremely low. […] Today there are only a handful of well-educated younger Burmese skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.
Financial Times‘ “Beware talk of business-friendly Myanmar”

And all the talk of censorship reform seems over-exaggerated. I’ve read articles calling them the “most liberal press laws in Asia.” Laws in Burma are meaningless when “rule of law” is nothing but a phrase. Even politicians seem confused by the byzantine rules they’re supposed to abide by.

But I earnestly hope that I’m proven wrong. That in 10 years, that the Burma  the world has known for the past half century will be history.

Image from source.

News Roundup – Week 11, 2012

An interesting observation on the negative correlation between a country’s natural resources and the educational achievement of its students. The countries that performed best on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams were the same countries with the fewest natural resources (calculated as the % of GDP).

By, contrast, says Schleicher, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. … Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.”

Burmese policymakers would do well to take a look at seriously reforming the country’s damaged education system, instead of simply pumping more money into a corrupt system (63% increase in the coming year’s budget). Just look at America: we spend more money per student than most other countries, yet have little to show for it.

Burma studies scholar David Steinberg make a very good point about making scholarly works on Burmese affairs accessible to the Burmese people, through translation efforts.

Many years ago, the U Nu government established Sarpay Beikman, a program to translated self-help works into Burmese for the undereducated population. A noble effort, but it had many problems. A Burma OBOR, however, would be quite different—addressed to the educated and socially aware population that can only get such works if they are smuggled in and often surreptitiously read.

If, as President Thein Sein has instructed, education must be improved, and as plans progress for reforming higher education, the materials produced by a Burma OBOR could be instrumental in improving education on Burmese society and Burma’s foreign relations.

The ministries singled out by the [parliamentary] report were the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Co-operatives, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministries of Industry No (1) and No (2).

Little surprise there. Pointing out the obvious, but it’s a start. Seems to me, like a way to shift the blame and attention to certain cliques. Now the government’s Ministry of Mines is suing The Voice, which first published the story. Given that the country’s court system is not independent, I wonder how this story will turn out.

Burma’s multiple exchange rates are on a plan to be unified, the first major effort in 35 years (not counting the failure of FECs). It’s official.

That would be followed over the next 12 months by a managed currency float of the kyat and the introduction of an interbank currency market, which would allow authorities to intervene and influence the rate.

From 2013/14 onwards, Myanmar would aim to “entirely eliminate” the “informal” currency market, the documents said.

I wonder how top government and military officials will change the way they’ve gamed the system for years, by keeping billions of dollars worth of money off the books by using the ‘official rate’  for accounting purposes.

A pretty optimistic take on Burma’s reforms. It’s worth a read even though I think it’s far too early to come to conclusions like lifting sanctions immediately. US and Europe still need leverage, but I do think that increased competition from the West will destroy the monopolistic grip that the country’s few major companies (like the drug-linked Asia World, which builds almost every major road, owns sea ports, operates airports, distributes fuel, etc.) have. But it’s endearing to read that some of the best minds from Burma have returned home.

My Columbia University colleague Ronald Findlay pointed out that one of them, 91-year-old Hla Myint, who had held a professorship at the London School of Economics, was the father of the most successful development strategy ever devised, that of an open economy and export-led growth. That blueprint has been used throughout Asia in recent decades, most notably in China. Now, perhaps, it has finally come home.

This assessment is far more realistic, and probably a view shared by most overseas Burmese.

She added that the reforms had yet to touch upon the military, as the armed forces retain their “extraordinary” status and continue to wield the actual decision-making power. “The reform is in fact a military-led reform without the people’s participation,” she said. Institutions and legislation remained unchanged, she said. “The regime just made some changes to protect its interests.”

I don’t quite agree with the conclusions this man comes to, but I do believe that what he said about Aung San Suu Kyi’s grip on US policymakers is correct. Someone has to say it.

That influence has been felt most dramatically in the U.S. — where Suu Kyi’s voice has singularly and uncritically driven American foreign policy toward Myanmar for two decades. […] When asked if the U.S. would lift sanctions after the upcoming parliamentary by-elections on April 1, McConnell replied, “I think the best arbiter of whether one or more of the sanctions ought to be lifted is Suu Kyi herself. How she feels about the direction of reform will have a lot of influence on us.” In other words: as Suu Kyi goes, so goes American policy.

State of the Union Thein Sein

Word choice in Thein Sein’s 2012 State of the Union

Thein Sein made his annual address to the Union Parliament on Peasants’ Day, March 1 (official English translation here), a speech that has been praised by many. The Irrawaddy points out a change in language, as Burmese citizens were referred to as the the parents (မိဘပြည်သူ,miba pyithu) to which the government is accountable to. Thein Sein also made extensive use of the opposition’s language, incorporating English words like “all-inclusive political process” and “rule of law.” This, coming from the same man who was close to drug lords in Shan State during his tenure at the Golden Triangle’s military command.

Another interesting highlight pointed out by the Irrawaddy:

We are all working together for our minority children who wielded guns, ought to wield laptops instead and stand proud.*
သေနတ်ကိုင်ခဲ့တဲ့ကျနော်တို့တိုင်းရင်းသားလူငယ်တွေ လက်တော့ကိုင်ပြီး ထည်ထည်ဝါဝါ ရပ်တည်နေနိုင်ဖို့ကျနော်တို့အားလုံး ဝိုင်းဝန်းကြိုးပမ်းသွားကြရမှာဖြစ်ပါတယ်။
I am really saddened by this. I have pledged a vow with all my heart. During the term of my administration, we will work to make these kinds of unbelievably dreadful incidents disappear. This is also a resolution of our government.
ကျနော်တကယ့်ကိုပဲ စိတ်မကောင်းဖြစ်ရပါတယ်။ ကျနော်အခိုင်အမာ အဓိဌာန်ချထားပါတယ်။ ကျနော်တို့အစိုးရ လက်ထက်မှာ ဒီလိုမယုံမရဲဖြစ်နေတဲ့စိုးရွံ့မှုတွေ ပပျောက်ပျောက်အောင် ဖျောက်ပစ်ရပါမယ်။ ဒါ ကျနော်တို့အစိုးရရဲ့ ခံယူချက်လည်း ဖြစ်ပါတယ်။

A la New York Times, I decided to do my own word analysis of his speech, using a transcript provided by Mizzima News. It’s a fairly rudimentary way of analyzing the whole speech, but it’s a a good way to understand his word choice.

I used WordCloud to generate the data I had compiled on Excel. I compiled the counts by searching keywords in the Burmese transcript of the speech. I tried to omit monosyllables like aung (အောင်), which means ‘succeed’ and is also a grammar particle, and instead used the bisyllable forms, like aung-myin (အောင်မြင်), also ‘succeed’. I also combined similar keywords, like နိုင်ငံတကာ/နိုင်ငံခြား (foreign) or ရပ်စဲ/တိုက်ခိုက် (ceasefire/attack).

Here’s what I found.

နိုင်ငံ - nation (75), ဆောင်ရွက် - carry out (71), အစိုးရ - government (64), ပြည်သူ - citizens (62), ပြောင်း - change (54), စီးပွားရေး - economy (35), ခိုင်မာ - strong (34), လုပ်ငန်း - work (30), တိုင်းရင်းသား - minorities (29), ဖွံ့ဖြိုး/တိုးတက် - development (29), တိုးတက် - develop (28), စနစ် - system (28), ကြိုးပမ်း/ကြိုးစား - work hard (27), မိဘ - parents (26), ဒီမိုကရေစီ - democracy (25), လမ်း - road (24), သစ် - new (24), ဥပဒေ - law (23), မြန်မာ - Burma (23), အခြေခံ - situation (23), စိတ် - mind (23), နိုင်ငံတကာ/နိုင်ငံခြား - foreign (22), ပြောင်းလဲ - change (21), ကူးပြောင်း - transform (21), နိုင်ငံရေး - politics (20), တာဝန် - responsibility (19), တရား - justice (17), ပညာ - education (16), ဆက်လက် - continue (16), အမျိုးသား - national (15), ပြုပြင် - reform (15), လွှတ်တော် - parliament (15), အချိန် - time (15), ကူညီ - help (15), ဆက်ဆံ - relations (15), ရပ်စဲ/တိုက်ခိုက် - ceasefire/attack (13), ငြိမ်းချမ်း - peace (12), ဆန္ဒ - desire (12), အခြေအနေ - situation (12), ငွေ - money (12), ရင်းနှီး - close (12), ဖွင့် ပွင့် - open (12), rule of law - rule of law (11), ပူးပေါင်း - join together (11), ထာဝရ - eternal (10), ပုဂ္ဂလိက - private (10), မဏ္ဍိုင် - pillar (10), ညီညွတ် - equal (10), သမိုင်း - history (9), ယန္တရား - machine (9), ဆွေးနွေး - dialogue (9), ထူထောင် - establish (9), တက္ကသိုလ်/ကောလိပ် - university (9), ကိုယ်စားလှယ် - MP (8), ခံစား - experience (8), နာယက - patron (8), အခွင့်အရေး - rights (8), ကျန်းမာ - health (8), ကျောင်း - school (8), တပ်မတော် - military (8), ထောက်ပံ့ - support (8), တန်ဖိုး - value (7), အောင်မြင် - succeed (7), ခေတ်သစ် - new era (7), အာဏာ - power (7), လုပ်ကိုင် - making a living (7), လိုအပ် - need (7), ကတိ/အာမခံ - promise/pledge (7), ကမ္ဘာ - world (6), ဆင်းရဲ - poor (6), ဝန်ထမ်း - civil servant (6), မျှော်မှန်း - hope (6), လွတ်လပ် - free (6), လူထု - the people (6).

I did a similar one with the official English translation provided by the New Light of Myanmar:

2012 State of the Union English translation word cloud

I’m still not convinced by his speech. “Actions speak louder than words.” I’ve been following ALTSEAN’s Parliament Watch, which is a nice way of sorting through what’s actually being done in Parliament (without going through the messy PDF newspapers and articles on ALTSEAN’s November 2011 report concluded that not much of substance had been done, especially at the state/region level:

On the legislative front, [among all regional 14 parliaments] only four bills (two in the Irrawaddy Division Parliament and two in the Rangoon Division Parliament) were introduced.

Simply astonishing. A newly published article titled “Burma’s Constitution: Straitjacket or red-herring?” says the following, words that I couldn’t have put better myself:

By contrast, Burma’s military remains powerful enough to demand a veto over any reforms. Thus, the 2008 Constitution does not create the underlying power imbalance, but merely ratifies it.

But the author does note the following:

Moreover, the 2008 Constitution lacks the ingredients for a long-lived constitutional recipe – an inclusive drafting process, detailed provisions, and a flexible amendment procedure. The question is not if Burma’s democratic opposition will be able to change the constitution, but rather when.

Some food for thought.

*Official translation: We all must try our hardest to see national races youths, who had brandished guns, using laptops.

Yangon subway map (ရန်ကုန် မြေအောက်ရထား စီမံကိန်း မြေပုံ)

Plans for a Yangon subway system?

Yangon subway map (ရန်ကုန် မြေအောက်ရထား စီမံကိန်း မြေပုံ)

The online community has been abuzz about potential plans for a Yangon subway system, when a map showing different lines connecting Yangon emerged late last last year.

On February 15 this year, Reuters made this report:

“We are now talking with international companies for the construction of both a skytrain and underground train system for the commercial capital Yangon,” the minister, Aung Min, told Reuters in an interview.

“There is no such project planned for Naypyitaw,” he said, referring to the small, newly built capital.

Aung Min said the train systems in Bangkok and Beijing were models for the planned Yangon system.

“The (interested) companies are Singaporean, Japanese and Germany and American … We are now talking with them.” Asked how long it might take to build the system, he said: “We will implement this on a build, operate and transfer policy, so it depends on the terms.”

The Irrawaddy added that Siemens (which built Bangkok’s SkyTrain system) may be among the prospective contractors.

Earlier in February, local media, such as The Voice, reported that a Ministry of Rail Transport said this:

The online map has nothing to do with the Ministry. An outsider drew this plan.
အွန်လိုင်းမြေပုံက ဝန်ကြီးဌာနနဲ့ မသက်ဆိုင်ပါဘူး။ ပြင်ပက တစ်ယောက် ဆွဲတာပါ ” ဟု ၎င်းက ထပ်လောင်း ပြောကြားသည်။

This [map] may just be part of a scheme by businessmen to speculate and manipulate the market prices of Yangon’s real estate nowadays.
မြေပုံသည် ယခုရက်ပိုင်း ရန်ကုန်မြို့တော် အိမ်၊ ခြံ၊ မြေဈေးကို စီမံကိန်းများ မက်လုံးပြ၍ ဆွဲတင်နေသည့် စီးပွားရေး သမားများ၏ လုပ်ကြံ ဈေးကစားမှု ဖြစ်နိုင်ကြောင်း မီးရထား ဝန်ကြီးဌာနမှ တာဝန်ရှိသူ တစ်ဦးက သုံးသပ် ပြောကြားသည်။

The article also notes that plans for a subway system are in special economic zone proposals for Yangon city’s economic plan (perhaps referring to the 30-year Yangon Concept Plan). Minister Aung Min also confirmed these plans at a recent parliamentary hearing. And the quoted ministry official did say this:

“The plan must be done. […] We’ve started to negotiate with the Japanese and Norwegians. But we’re only in the stage of stage of preliminary discussions.”
” စီမံကိန်းက လုပ်ရမယ်၊ […] ဂျပန်တို့၊ နော်ဝေတို့ စသဖြင့် ကမ်းလှမ်းထားတယ်။ ပြောဆို ဆွေးနွေးဆဲ အဆင့်ပဲ ရှိပါတယ်။

Purported plans for Naypyidaw's subway

But, in August of last year, Russian media reported that Russian contractors were in plans to construct a 50 kilometer subway line in Naypyidaw. A month later, the Ministry of Rail Transportation shelved such plans, considering them economically unfeasible and unnecessary for the enormous 7,000 square kilometer city (the size of Delaware, an American state and almost 7× the size of Yangon). And yet building Naypyidaw, at an estimated cost of $4-5 billion USD was a necessary expense.

There’s even a Facebook page ‘Yangon Subway Project‘, with already 1,074 fans. Its about page says this:

Officials of the Railway Transport Ministry have said that there are Yangon Subway plans. This FB page intends to relay news relating to the Burmese railways, news on Yangon’s developments, stories about international subways as well as imaginary plans, as seen fit.

Yangon Subway စီမံကိန်းရှိသည်ဟု မြန်မာ့မီးရထားမှ တာ၀န်ရှိသူများ ပြောကြားထားပါသည်။ ဒီ Fan Page မှာတော့ မြန်မာ့မီးရထားနှင့်ပတ်သက်သော သတင်းများ၊ ရန်ကုန်မြို့ဖွံ့ဖြိုးရေးနှင့်ဆိုင်သော သတင်းများ၊ နိုင်ငံတကာမှ Subway များအကြောင်း၊ Yangon Subway နှင့်ပတ်သက်သော စိတ်ကူးယာဉ်ပုံများ စသည်တို့ကို အလျဉ်းသင့်သလို တင်ပေးသွားပါမည်။

Videos by optimistic fans also posted (the earliest upload I could find was dated to July 2011) on Facebook and Youtube:

Some of the commenters were more or less skeptical. One wrote:

When a blackout happens, people underground will be in trouble. 🙂
မီးပျက်သွားမှဖြင့် .. မြေအောက်မှာ. ဒုက္ခရောက်နေဦးမယ် … 🙂

It’ll be interesting to see how this development shapes up and who wins the bid to the Build-Operate-Transfer agreement.

Burma's celebrating the 2600th anniversary of Shwedagon Pagoda at its annual pagoda festival.

News Roundup

Just a compilation of some interesting articles I’ve come across this past weekend.

Interesting campaign going on in Yangon’s streets to combat sexual harassment on public transportation. I know from firsthand accounts that there are plenty of pervs on public buses in Yangon, with guys indiscriminately groping women in jam-packed buses. The campaign convinced the Parami and Adipati bus lines to offer female-only services during rush hours.

Under the “whistle for help” campaign, about 150 volunteers have been distributing whistles and pamphlets to women at eight busy bus stops in Yangon each Tuesday morning in February. The group plans to continue the weekly program for another nine months.

The pamphlet instructs women to blow the whistle when they experience sexual harassment on the bus.

Little surprise that the Burmese government has been pretty unresponsive to migrant worker abuses. But Burmese migrant workers make up upwards of 7% of Thailand’s labor force, numbering between 1-2 million, so it’s definitely not a light issue to brush over.

Exactly how many workers are trapped in bondage inside shrimp factories or lured and forced to work on deep-sea fishing trawlers is unknown. But, Sompong, who worked in this area for eight years, estimates about 30 per cent of the 400,000-plus Burmese workers in the province are exploited beyond Thai laws.

Bosses confiscate work permits, temporary passports and identity cards so that Burmese in fish-processing factories cannot seek employment elsewhere. Worse still, some are held in small factories and not allowed to leave the compound and forced to work like slaves.

Burma’s government said in January that it planned to offer eight-year tax exemptions to foreign investors…

A recent report by the British risk analysis group Maplecroft said Burma has the world’s worst legal system for doing business, retaining a position it has held for the past five years despite recent reforms.

The 2012 Maplecroft report in question lists 5 primary risks to doing business in the country:

  1. Lack of democracy and continuing human rights abuse
  2. Lack of regulatory and legal protections
  3. Child labor
  4. Forced labor
  5. Environmental risks

Just last week, as Maplecroft released its global risks report, Burma was ranked as the 9th most vulnerable country to global risks, wedged in between Iraq and Yemen.

Apparently the Pyidaungzu Hluttaw took a sudden recess today, while waiting for Shwe Mann, speaker of the Lower House, to return on a visit to China. Seems to me like a clever power play, alternating between China and the West. The New Light of Myanmar had articles espousing China’s commitment to Burma’s sovereignty. One of the headlines literally says: “There are many differences among nations so that there will be external interference if the country adopts democratic system of other countries.” Yes, like China has Burma’s best interests in mind.

Even though MPs were told that the session would continue as usual on Feb. 24, they were given a sudden notice by phone call on Feb. 26 that Parliament would be in recess for the 27th.

“Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann is coming back (from China) today. (We’ll) work on submitting a rough draft budget legislation when he comes back, with regard to the issue of civil servant salary increases, if the Union Parliament agrees. Parliament only has the mandate to lower the budget, not increase it,” said a member of the Union Parliament’s Rough Draft Legislation Committee.

” ပြည်သူ့လွှတ်တော် ဥက္ကဋ္ဌ သူရဦးရွှေမန်းက (တရုတ်နိုင်ငံကနေ) ဒီနေ့မှ ပြန်ရောက်လာမှာပါ။ သူရောက်ပြီးတော့မှပဲ လစာတိုးရေးနဲ့ ဆိုင်တဲ့အဆိုကို မူအဖြစ် ပြည်ထောင်စုလွှတ်တော်က သဘောတူရင် ဘတ်ဂျက်ဥပဒေကြမ်းကို ပြန်ဆွဲတင်ရတော့မှာပါ။ လွှတ်တော်ရဲ့ လုပ်ပိုင်ခွင့်က ဘတ်ဂျတ်ကို တိုးပေးလို့မရဘူး လျှော့ချလို့ပဲ ရပါတယ် ” ဟု ပြည်ထောင်စုလွှတ်တော် ဥပဒေကြမ်း ပူးပေါင်း ကော်မတီဝင် တစ်ဦးက ပြောကြားသည်။

Thailand’s The Nation published an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday. Her reply to what was said in her private meeting with Thein Sein was fascinating, for what she chose not to say:

Q: What were the promises or pledges that you got from them that made you think …?
A: There were no promises and pledges but I believe that the president genuinely wants reform, and he said very simply that he wanted to support and help along the process of democratisation, and we discussed the matter and took certain steps that made it possible for us to take part in the election.
Q: But certainly you must have asked the president: Does the military really support this reform?
A: No, I didn’t ask him. I’m not going to discuss my private conversation.
Q: But at least I’d like to know whether…?
A: As I said, I’m not going to discuss my private conversation, either what we talked about or what we didn’t talk about.

Fanciful predictions

I stumbled across a few predictions that U Kyaw Thet, who wrote in the February 1958 issue of The Atlantic (“Continuity in Burma: The survival of historic forces”) made about the Burmese military:

That is the position and growing strength of the armed forces. The army has acquitted itself well and contributes significantly to national morale. Its work does not stop with military operations against the insurgents. It is helping to integrate the frontier regions into the Union, and after the rebels are driven out of any given locality, the army sets in to rehabilitate it, organizing schools and building roads, bridges and hospitals. It has become the most disciplined and dedicated arm of the Union Government.
Is there a danger that the army, realizing its strength and prestige, might try to control the Government? Could Burma follow the familiar pattern of other small states where the military, in the name of the people, or efficiency, or national honor, have taken over complete control? I think this is most unlikely. In fact, there have been moments of crisis in the past decade when this could have happened and it has not. Today the armed forces of Burma work in complete harmony and partnership with the civilian leaders. The army chiefs feel themselves part of the team which has worked and fought together for thirty years to secure independence. None of them have displayed the egomania that would drive them to use the army as a tool for personal ambition. They are determined that the new Burmese army should be thoroughly democratic and imbued with the idea of service to the needs of the people.

That is the position and growing strength of the armed forces. The army has acquitted itself well and contributes significantly to national morale. Its work does not stop with military operations against the insurgents. It is helping to integrate the frontier regions into the Union, and after the rebels are driven out of any given locality, the army sets in to rehabilitate it, organizing schools and building roads, bridges and hospitals. It has become the most disciplined and dedicated arm of the Union Government.

Is there a danger that the army, realizing its strength and prestige, might try to control the Government? Could Burma follow the familiar pattern of other small states where the military, in the name of the people, or efficiency, or national honor, have taken over complete control? I think this is most unlikely. In fact, there have been moments of crisis in the past decade when this could have happened and it has not. Today the armed forces of Burma work in complete harmony and partnership with the civilian leaders. The army chiefs feel themselves part of the team which has worked and fought together for thirty years to secure independence. None of them have displayed the egomania that would drive them to use the army as a tool for personal ambition. They are determined that the new Burmese army should be thoroughly democratic and imbued with the idea of service to the needs of the people.

Sadly, we all know how the course of history played out in the years following 1958.

Letting one slip through

In a rare moment of candid and unfiltered news, The Myanmar Times published a AFP wire story on the deadliest natural disasters in 2008. It includes the following:

In both Myanmar and China many lives could have been saved if authorities there had been better prepared, he added.

“Sadly, these losses could have been substantially reduced if buildings in China, particularly schools and hospitals, had been built to be more earthquake-resilient,” Briceno said.

“An effective early warning system with good community preparedness could have also saved many lives in Myanmar if it had been implemented before cyclone Nargis.”
-“Nargis dominates disaster toll: UN” (link)

I wonder how that one got through.

Double standards

The Economist had an interesting point to make on how governments react differently to different countries. In Thailand, an Australian journalist was charged and detained with lese majeste, that is, offending the Thai monarchy, in a book that sold a few copies. The Australian government is now seeking a “royal pardon” to set the journalist free. The article then concludes:

If this were Myanmar, governments like Australia’s would line up to denounce the arbitrary use of archaic laws and defend the rights of dissidents. Instead, it is meekly waiting for a royal pardon so it can spirit its citizen back home.
-“The trouble with Harry” (link), The Economist

Reviving Burma’s Stilwell Road

The LA Times has an interesting article “Burma’s Stilwell Road: A backbreaking WWII project is revived” out, about the 1,000 mile Stilwell Road, built during World War II by African American soldiers to connect India and China by a land route. The article also touches on China and India’s current interest in resurrecting “it as the first major overland trade route since World War II with India.” It’s worth a read.

On the eve of the so-called Saffron Revolution

According to Mizzima News, three prominent Burmese news websites (The Irrawaddy, Khit Pyaing and Democratic Voice of Burma) have been disabled by distributed denial of service attacks, which overload the servers used to load webpages with information. Reminds me of how Russian hackers disabled Estonian websites using the same method in 2007.

I don’t know what to say. I guess the Burmese hacker community is alive and well.

With each breathing moment, I lose more and more hope for the nation of Burma. Bomb attacks in Pegu, famine in Chin State, and countless failed attempts by UN envoys to bring reform to Burma. What more is there to say? It’s depressing.

“Twenty painful years”

Once supported as the rightful government, after its ignored election victory in 1990, the League is increasingly seen as ineffective and irrelevant, with policies that do more harm than good. A guesthouse owner says economic sanctions, which the League supports, are “killing us”. The League, he says, are “just another bunch of politicians”. A few even grumble about Miss Suu Kyi herself. One critic says she “has lost touch with the suffering of the people”. Even some who helped found the party are disillusioned. A veteran of the 1988 movement admits that the League has “not met the expectation of the people”.
–“Twenty painful years,” The Economist (link)

Why I disagree with America’s Burma policy

‘National Tribes of Burma’

Is the Burma of yesterday bound to become the Burma of tomorrow?

The United States, in the past few years, has developed a bad habit of failing to consider all the avenues when it comes to troubled countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Burma. One of the primary reasons I disagree with pro-democracy organizations like US Campaign for Burma and Burma Campaign UK are their strong pro-sanctions stance. I remember reading a paper somewhere about how sanctions let a nation not put its hands in another country’s affairs while allowing it to take the moral high road, essentially that in this case, the U.S. can ignore theproblem of Burma but act like it’s doing beneficial for the country.

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