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Tuesday:  November 25, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Entries in Burma (10)

Monday
Jun112012

In Northern Myanmar, Kachin Refugees Are Victims of the New Asia (PERSPECTIVE) 

(Video: Irrawaddy News, August, 2011)

By Rowan Jacobsen

LAIZA, Myanmar—Jangma Pri Seng was in the paddy fields, harvesting rice far from her house, when she heard the artillery shells exploding in the distance. Though her stomach always sunk at the sound of explosions, at first she didn’t panic. It was November 2011, five months since the Burmese army had broken a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and invaded Kachin State, the jagged northern tip of Myanmar that is home to ethnic Kachin like Jangma. For five months, the residents of Nangkyu, Jangma’s village, had been listening to explosions in the hills as the KIO fought desperately to keep the army out of its territory. Several times they had fled into the jungle as the fighting neared, but always Nangkyu had been left alone.

Still, as the only Kachin village in an area dominated by ethnic Shan villages, they knew they were a target. The Burmese authorities, convinced the village was harboring KIO soldiers, had ordered them not to leave the village without permission, and had made a list of all members of the village. No outsiders were allowed to enter. One man caught on the road between villages was arrested and beaten. It was a grim way to live, but as long as they obeyed, they survived.

(PHOTO: Je Yang Refugee Camp/Mizzima)Yet that November evening, when Jangma and her fellow villagers returned exhausted from the fields, they walked into a nightmare. More than twenty artillery shells had struck Nangkyu. Many houses were burning or obliterated. The oldest and youngest citizens of Nangkyu were hiding terrified in the remaining houses. Jangma found her four young children, who were unharmed. Miraculously, no one in the village had been killed, but the animals had not been so lucky. A pigsty had been ripped apart by a direct hit, scattering pig remains across the smoking ground.

And the army was very near.

Jangma and the rest of the villagers immediately grabbed whatever things they could carry and ran into the jungle. They had heard what had happened to other villages that didn’t. “If we had stayed any longer, we’d be dead now,” she says. They hid in the jungle for the next three days, trying to figure out what to do. “It was terrifying. Most people hadn’t brought anything but the clothes they were wearing. We didn’t have enough food. And we could hear troops everywhere. We couldn’t make a sound. We couldn’t even let the kids cry.” Eventually, they made some calls on cell phones to relatives and some friendly Shan neighbors, and a motor-scooter convoy came to the rescue, slipping around the army positions.

They loaded three to four people on each scooter. Jangma helped her 108-year-old grandmother onto a scooter with another villager behind her, holding her tight. In that position, they made the tortuous eight-hour journey over rutted dirt roads to Laiza, capital of the KIO, where they finally collapsed in one of the bursting refugee camps filling the Laiza countryside.

A UNIQUE CULTURE CAUGHT BETWEEN MYANMAR AND CHINA

(PHOTO: A young girl walks the corridor at N Hkawng Pa camp in Kachin State/Francis Wade) Walk through any of the refugee camps in KIO territory, and you will find endless stories like Jangma’s. For nearly a year now, Myanmar’s notorious military, which has kept a stranglehold on its citizens since it seized power in a 1962 coup, has been trying to squeeze the life out of the KIO, which has controlled much of Kachin State during those same 50 years.

Though unrecognized by any nation, the KIO has functioned as an independent micro-state. It collects taxes and generates additional income through government-owned mining and logging businesses. It operates immigration departments, police departments, fire departments, drug treatment centers, hydropower plants, bottled-water plants, free schools, free hospitals, Kachin cultural programs, and, of course, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

It has been a lifeline for the Kachin people, who originated in the mountains of Tibet, before migrating centuries ago across the border to Northeast India and eventually occupying the rugged borderlands between India, Myanmar, and China. Despite the lines on the map, the two million Kachin of the region are united by their unique language, religion, and culture. That culture was allowed to flourish in Kachin State, the northernmost region of Myanmar, where the terrain was so rugged and difficult to cultivate that it held no interest for the Burmese, who live in the fertile tropical river plains of southern Myanmar.

(PHOTO: Je Yang Camp/Rowan Jacobsen)Yet now, even as Myanmar opens up to the world and tries to parlay its democratization into an easing of international sanctions and an increase in financial support, it has decided to exterminate the KIO and take brutal control over Kachin State. The timing seems strange, until one understands that Kachin State has transformed from worthless backwater to one of the key geopolitical spots on the planet. The Burmese regime plans to fuel its metamorphosis into a Southeast Asian powerhouse with a series of highways, oil and gas pipelines, and some of the largest hydroelectric dams the world has ever seen, all built in Kachin State. When completed, they will link landlocked sections of India and China with Myanmar’s ports on the Bay of Bengal, and create a new energy-rich nexus for the New Asia, centered right in northern Myanmar. The only thing standing in the way is the Kachin people.

Across Kachin State, villages like Nangkyu are being emptied as the KIA is driven back to its core territory, a 100-mile strip of land along the border with China. As the NGO Human Rights Watch documented in a March 20 report, the army has murdered civilians, tortured men suspected of being KIA members, and raped women. It has ransacked churches, burned entire villages to the ground, killed livestock, and pillaged food supplies. With resupply routes along Myanmar’s crumbling roads difficult at best, the 146 Burmese battalions in the region must feed themselves. It’s no coincidence that the wave of attacks intensified right around harvest time in November. And then there is the most insidious part of the army’s plan: What better way to paralyze your enemy than by sending wave after wave of its own people, hungry and penniless, onto its doorstep?

(PHOTO: A UN convoy on its way to Kachin State in April/UN)Of the 75,000 refugees, mostly Kachin, who have fled the Burmese army since its June invasion, about 40,000 are sheltering in KIO-operated camps. Another 20,000 are living in camps run by the government. The other 15,000 are off the map, likely hiding somewhere in China. Other than two minor exceptions, the government has prevented United Nations relief convoys from reaching the refugees in KIO territory. Some speculate that this is because the government fears the KIO being seen as a caretaker of the refugees, rather than the “insurgents” it labels them. Others believe that the goal is to stress the KIO’s limited resources to the breaking point.

CAMP LIFE

For all the trauma suffered by its residents, Je Yang Camp, the largest of the refugee camps, is a surprisingly pleasant place. 5,764 people, about half under the age of sixteen, live along the banks of the Je Yang River in peace and security, if not exactly comfort. This is a testament to the KIO, which has been anticipating a Burmese offensive for years. A refugee committee was already in place, emergency supplies stockpiled, and land for the main camp had already been chosen, so when the refugees began pouring out of the jungle into Laiza last summer, they were ready.

The KIO had previously donated a large tract of land along the Je Yang River to the Roman Catholic Church to be a wildlife sanctuary - badly needed in this state, whose fabulous hardwood forests are being cut and shipped to supply China’s building boom. Now the church turned around and donated the land back to the KIO, which went to work building bamboo huts, outhouses, and wells. When the first refugees arrived on June 27, two weeks after the fighting had started, they were assigned huts and broken up into village blocks, delineated by a grid of dirt footpaths. Block leaders were chosen. People volunteered for administrative, health, and religious committees. The new people began building huts for the next arrivals.

(PHOTO: Lazing Lu, is a 108-year-old refugee in Laiza/Rowan Jacobsen) Today, Je Yang Camp is a case study in how order can arise from chaos, a living embodiment of the Gilligan’s Island fantasy that an entire society can be built if you have enough bamboo. There are bamboo houses, restaurants, marketplaces, clinics, schools, administrative centers, and weaving centers. There is bamboo furniture and bamboo pigsties. The bamboo Baptist church holds 600 people. Now there is also a concrete stage, a concrete well, and a concrete micro-hydro installation in the river that generates enough power to light the Christmas lights in the church and to power a handful of computers. Acres of gardens line a terraced hillside.

Gaggles of boys splash in the river all day.

Jangma Pri Seng spends her days cooking food, cleaning their shack, which, like most shakcs in the camp, houses three families, each squeezed into a ten-foot square room, and caring for her four children and her grandmother, Lazing Lu, who is an unexpected source of comic relief.

“DID YOU LIKE RIDING ON THE SCOOTER?” Jangma shouts in the deaf woman’s ear.

“I don’t remember,” she responds. “Was that the thing with all the shaking?”

“DO YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO OUR VILLAGE?”

“No! I can’t walk that far.”

“DO YOU LIKE IT HERE IN THE CAMP?”

“I have nothing to do,” the old woman responds, pausing with perfect timing before breaking into a toothless grin. “It’s so relaxing!”

Part of the reason the camp is so peaceful, says camp director Hting Nam Ja, is because drugs and alcohol are banned. The main evening entertainment is at the churches, which hold a service every night. And every night, people pack into them, sing a few hymns in the Kachin language, and then 5,764 people settle down for an amazingly early and quiet night.

(PHOTO: Camps on hillsides in Kachin State, April/UN)Yet the pleasantness is misleading, says Hting. Just around the corner are the monsoons, the endless rains and winds that last all summer. “What we have won’t survive the rainy season,” he says. The blue tarps tacked to roofs with bamboo strips will be shredded by the winds. “We need corrugated tin. But most of all, we need food and medicine. We have plenty of rice that people have donated, but we have almost no protein. Soon, there will be malnutrition. And when the rains come, so do the waterborne infectious diseases.” The charming, dusty footpaths will become mudpits. The firewood will smolder. And, over everything, looms the constant threat of the Burmese. “Yes, I worry that the army will come,” says Hting. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The refugees also have little choice. They know that, if the army comes, there will be nowhere to run this time. Even if there is a ceasefire, they couldn’t easily return to their villages; having missed the harvest and lost their livestock, they would have no food. Many of them from outlying villages, having been harassed by Burmese soldiers for years, have begun to savor the safety and freedom of living in KIO territory. A few have begun murmuring that—if the KIO survives—it would be nice to see Je Yang take that final step and transform into a permanent town.

Jangma, too, has no illusions about returning to her village anytime soon. “I have no idea how long we’ll stay,” she says, fighting back tears. “I miss my home, I miss being self-sufficient, and I really miss my animals. It’s not perfect here. But we’re out of the rain, we’re not starving, and we’re safe. That’s such a relief. For so long, I had to worry all the time.” When asked if she’d like to send a message to the outside world, she pauses, trying to think of something good, then finally gives up with a shake of her head. “Just have pity on us,” she says.

-- Rowan Jacobsen is the author of five books, including Fruitless Fall, American Terror, and Shadows on the Gulf. His Outside Magazine story "Heart of Dark Chocolate" received the 2011 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for Best Adventure Travel Story of the Year, and his Outside piece "Spill Seekers" appears in the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing collection. He lives in Vermont.  He is currently a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation  studying in Northeast India and Northern Myanmar during 2012. His commentary originally appeared HERE.

Friday
Apr132012

Too soon to lift sanctions on Burma? (PERSPECTIVE)

By Tom Andrews

(Video BBC)

Just over a week ago, international election monitors and media outlets reported a remarkable event in Burma. Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi who spent years under house arrest, and sometimes in prison, fighting for democracy and justice - was elected to parliament, and calls have grown for all economic sanctions and international pressure on the regime to be lifted.

Heeding these calls would be a serious mistake.

I and a colleague spent election day in Kachin state, in the northernmost part of Burma. Bullets, not ballots, are the currency there. International observers and reporters are not welcome. After crossing the border from China under cloak of darkness, and making our way over bone-crushing roads, we saw why.

Tens of thousands of Kachins, a long-repressed ethnic minority in Burma, have been forced from their homes into crowded makeshift camps as more and more troops march into an area rich in natural resources. Despite President Thein Sein's promise in December to pull back the military, the opposite is happening in Kachin, where the escalation of troops, weapons and brutality continues unabated.

I met several dozen Kachin who had just escaped from their village, leaving behind their homes, crops and livestock. Some had walked for four days with only enough food for their children, carrying all that remained of their belongings on their backs.

They fled to makeshift camps that lack adequate food, sanitation and healthcare. We saw children with obvious respiratory illness and skin disease. The government's unwillingness to allow food or humanitarian aid into these areas recently gave way to international pressure. We saw five United Nations trucks delivering food. Still, relief workers told us it was only a small fraction of what was needed. A child coming down with what would otherwise be a highly treatable illness can die under these conditions. We attended the funeral of one such child, an 11-month-old who died after contracting diarrhea. The family asked that we stay as honored guests so that we, and the outside world, would know.

A farmer described being apprehended when he, his wife and father-in-law were harvesting corn. They were forced to carry the corn to a military encampment but attempted to escape. His wife was caught and he has not seen her since. A Baptist minister, father of seven, was apprehended after he tried to sneak back to his village. His wife, speaking with a toddler afoot and an infant on her back, sobbed as she said she had no idea what had become of him.

We made our way to an outpost of Kachin Independence Army soldiers, just beyond the range of the Burmese military's mortars. If we went further, we were told, our car would almost certainly become a target. As we spoke, a pick-up truck appeared carrying two elderly women.

They had abandoned their homes and village that morning. Their crops had been destroyed, they told us, and their cattle killed. They escaped carrying what they could on their backs.

(PHOTO: Aung San Suu Kyi/Telegraph) Without question, Suu Kyi's election to Burma's parliament is a remarkable achievement. But what I have seen reminds me that it is only part of the story. The other part, hidden in the mountains and valleys of Kachin state and in villages of other ethnic minorities, is vastly different. It is one that Burma's military-dominated government does not want you to see.

It is reasonable for the United States and the international community to recognize what progress has been made in Burma with measured, prudent (and reversible) rewards. But relaxing all sanctions and international pressure on this regime would be a serious mistake.

Progress did not occur in Burma because military leaders suddenly realized that they had erred. It came about precisely because of international pressure. To remove this pressure at a time when the government escalates its brutality against a long-suffering people would be unconscionable and should be unacceptable to the United States.

The Obama administration and US Congress should recognize the progress in Burma. But they should not do so by condemning tens of thousands of innocent people to the mercy of a military government entirely freed from the pressure of sanctions.

--- Tom Andrews is a former US congressman from Maine and president of United to End Genocide. This editorial originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Monday
Mar052012

In Myanmar, Sanctions Have Had Their Day (COMMENTARY) 

By Louise Arbour

Ancient city of Bagan, Myanamar (photo: Javier Martin Espartosa) 

As Myanmar moves ahead with its ambitious reforms and abandons old ways of thinking, Western countries need to change their own mind-set and adopt a more subtle approach.

After decades of sanctions and self-imposed isolation, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is undergoing a remarkable and, so far, peaceful transition away from authoritarian rule. It is heading in the direction that its people and the international community both want.

The dramatic changes led by President Thein Sein have been endorsed by the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has said that the president is sincerely motivated.

Key political freedoms such as the right to organize, assemble, speak out and run for political office are being exercised in a way that was unthinkable even a year ago.

The government has abandoned policies of confrontation with the country’s ethnic minorities for a new peace initiative that has seen 11 cease-fire agreements signed with armed groups, leaving out only the resistant Kachin. These deals are an encouraging first step in what needs to be a larger effort to rethink the way the country sees itself after 60 years of civil war.

(Video: Philippines TV, Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi)

Aung San Suu Kyi is campaigning for a seat in Parliament in by-elections on April 1. The National League for Democracy is registered, not banned; her once forbidden image is ubiquitous on the streets of the capital.

Thousands turn out to see her campaigning and the media are free to report on her activities.

The elections for 48 of the 656 seats in the legislature will not be perfect, but they are expected to be much more free and fair than the controversial November 2010 poll.

(PHOTO: Downtown Yangon in the evening/Wikipedia) There is still much to be changed. Decades without a legislature have left Myanmar over-reliant on British colonial laws. “You name it, we need to reform it,” a government adviser told me in Yangon last week. Backward agriculture, antiquated infrastructure, an ossified civil service, and mind-sets cultivated by decades of isolation will not be changed easily or overnight.

The good news is that most senior officials understand this and are open to outside help. From the president down, they realize isolation has left the country weakened.

Capital, know-how and new ideas at all levels may be rushed in, not all well designed or well intentioned. The challenge for the West, which has contributed to the country’s seclusion, is to recalibrate its response to the reform initiatives.

Whether or not the existing sanctions contributed to change, they will not support the momentum for reform; removing them will. Major changes have been set in motion in response to increasing demands from the people of Myanmar, as well as in preparation for the country to act as host to the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 and to assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. In a new democratic mind-set, the government also has its eye on its own re-election in 2015.

Neither threats nor promises are necessary to set the agenda.

Skepticism and undue prudence will only slow down the reform process and risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Rather, it is time for encouragement and support to achieve the mutual goal of opening up Myanmar and improving the plight of its mostly impoverished people. This will require subtlety in policy making by Western governments, and a political effort commensurate to the one being made by the Burmese authorities themselves.

First, finding new reasons to keep restrictions in place is the wrong approach. Using sanctions to force a solution to the outstanding ethnic conflict involving the Kachin armed group is a clumsy tactic that puts pressure only on the government and encourages the other side to fight on for a better deal.

Secondly, blanket prohibitions on trade, financial transactions, or development aid should no longer be used to address single-issue bilateral agendas such as people smuggling.

Finally, exclusively taking the lead from the National League for Democracy’s Aung San Suu Kyi on when to end sanctions and restrictions will no longer be appropriate once she takes up a new role as the leader of a minority party in Parliament.

The international community is now pushing on an open door in Myanmar; the real difficulty is in crossing the threshold effectively to achieve an agreed-upon objective. Neither sanctions nor a stampede of offers of assistance will help.

It is time for a more nuanced approach of engagement that understands and respects the domestic agenda and sets aside years of built-in suspicions and stereotypes. Support is needed to accelerate political and economic reforms and, most importantly for the sake of all the country’s long-suffering citizens, to meet understandable but not always realistic expectations.

--- Louise Arbour is President of the International Crisis Group. This article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune

Friday
Dec092011

Is Burma Really Changing? (PERSPECTIVE) 

By Iqbal Ahmed

The notoriously powerful military junta of Burma is loosening its grip. In an uncharacteristic move, former army general Thein Sein, who came to power in March, thwarted the Chinese-funded $3.6-billion Myitsone dam project in the state of Kachin, relenting to continuous pressure from the Burmese citizens in that region. The Burmese government has recently released more than 6,000 political prisoners. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently paying a historic visit to a country that has been closed to outside world for more than 50 years.

These events indicate that Burma may be inching toward democratic reform.

But much more needs to be accomplished, tested, and proved. Burma’s political structure is still ruled unilaterally by the military, which also controls its economy. Its opposition parties are weak. Although the opposition parties are strengthening their voices with chief opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest, it is still too early to predict the impact of the opposition on Burma’s current political structure.

The Junta

For the last 50 years, the military junta has ruled Burma with an iron fist. Despite economic sanctions, the outside world has had little impact on the sovereignty of the regime. Burma is rich in natural resources like hydropower, natural gas, petroleum, and precious stones.

The United States renewed its financial and travel sanctions against Burma in 2007. Earlier this year, the European Union (EU) also extended its own economic sanctions. But the military junta strategically circumvented these sanctions by exploiting the country’s natural resources. According to a report, in 2010 the Burmese junta netted an estimated 1 billion euro from the sale of precious stones. Showcasing its resources at trade fairs, the junta generated as much as 400-500 million euro the same year.

The human rights violations of the military junta are beyond question. To cite but one example, instead of helping the victims of cyclone Nargis, the military government continued to spend money generated from the proceeds of the sale of natural resources to build up its military power.

Regional Alliances

India’s relationship with Burma is complicated by geographical proximity, Chinese influence, and a tension between mistrust and collaboration. Despite political and philosophical differences, India has shown its support for democratic changes in Burma. According to one report, India openly criticized Burma’s autocratic suppression when a massive anti-government rally broke out in 2007 to protest an increase in fuel prices.

But India has also attempted to engage with Burma politically and has pressured the United States and other Western nations to ease the economic sanctions against Burma. The economic ties between India and Burma, after all, are very close. According to the South Asia Analysis Group, in 2007 and 2008 bilateral trade between the two countries reached nearly $1 billion, while exports from Burma to India reached $810 million. This economic relationship has extended to building infrastructure projects, establishing border trade, and brokering energy deals.  

The prospects of Burma assuming the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014 look promising. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently commentedthat this opportunity would be a testament to the country’s path to democratic reform. The ASEAN chairmanship is important to Burma for securing international recognition and validating the country's new democratic credentials. With rising human capital, savings rates, foreign investment, and GDP growth, the ASEAN nations continue to assert their economic and political strengths in global markets. For Burma, this would be a big opportunity to translate its political changes into economic investments.

Because of the economic sanctions from the West and “disassociation” with the ASEAN countries, China has remained a reliable trading ally for Burma. A sustained political and diplomatic relationship between Burma and China is essential to economic growth in Burma, but it may not be easy to achieve. Although China’s relationship with ASEAN countries has improved over the last decades, its growing military power poses a concern for its Southeast Asian neighbors, including Burma.

The Reforms

Even before her house arrest in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi had been actively advocating for democratic reform in Burma. Today she is preparing to run for a seat in the Senate. She met Secretary of State Clinton on her trip to the country and endorsed closer ties between the United States and Burma.

Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has registered to run in the upcoming elections. The party has pressed for a variety of political changes, including a constitutional amendment that would allow prisoners to vote. There have been other positive signs in terms of human rights. Zargana, a famous comedian in Burma, was jailed for speaking out against the government’s inaction for the victims of Hurricane Nargis in 2008. Sentenced to 59 years in prison, Zargana is free now. His release, along with the unbanning of public protests, points to the possibility of a new climate of free speech.

The Burmese government has also reversed a labor law so that unions can now strike under certain conditions, a practice that had been banned since 1962. The new legislation will likely improve transparency in Burmese labor practices.

The cancellation of the Myitsone dam project is another indication that the reforms are serious. For one thing, it acknowledges the government response to the plight of the villagers who have been displaced to make way for the project. It reflects years of public discontent against the military regime in the Kachin region. And it also underscores Burma’s firmness against China’s manipulation of its natural resources.

These changes illustrate how far the Burmese government has come in terms of democratic reform after more than 50 years of military rule. Burma’s road to reform has many potential obstacles. The government continues to persecute opposition party members, and the junta’s treatment of insurgents in states like Kachin remains objectionable. Despite these indications of a government reluctant to give up its political control, Burma is clearly on a different path. Where that path leads, however, is still not certain.

Iqbal Ahmed is a public policy graduate student at George Mason University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He has written for Foreign Policy Journal, Journal of Foreign Relations, Global Politician, and NPR’s “This I Believe.”

Originally published by the Institute for Policy Studies licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Monday
Sep262011

The Annual Clinton Lovefest: A Disconnect Between Rich and Poor? (PERSPECTIVE)

by Themrise Khan

CGI 2011 Plenary Session: Redefining Business As Usual

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton at CGI 2011. CREDIT: CGI/Paul Morse

(HN, September 26, 2011) - It was three days of self-praise, self-glorification and self-affirmation. The outlying message at the end was, “we are good people doing good for others, but we need more money to do it”.


This was the seventh annual Clinton Global Initiative, aka CGI, in New York -  a collection of many men in suits and some women in heels. A globally respected event, which has also recognized Pakistani social entrepreneurs in the past, the theme of this years gathering was, “The World at Seven Billion”.

It was an astonishingly busy week in New York, with the CGI sharing limited Manhattan space with the opening of the UN General Assembly, where Palestinian statehood took a rude beating, as expected. Mid-town Manhattan was in lock-down and gridlock as heads of state moved between one glorified political event to another, followed by a slew of black SUV’s containing a frightening number of some very mean looking people. For five days, the apocalypse had come to visit New York City. Manhattan looked like a showroom for GMC Suburban SUVs.

And an apocalypse of sorts it was, as political royalty rubbed shoulders with aristocratic royalty. There were strategically placed Saudi princes and princesses, talking about ending violence against women and global poverty. The Arab presence was not complete without a fleeting appearance by the stately Queen Rania of Jordan, at the special session on Change in the Middle-East and North Africa.

One of the highlights of the forum this year, was Burma’s very own Aung San Suu Kyi speaking live via satellite from Rangoon, to a completely smitten Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. We suspect Clinton must have pulled some strings to convince the Burmese generals to allow Suu Kyi to go live on air.

Gridlock in Manhattan during the opening of the UNGA. CREDIT: HUMNEWSPresident Barack Obama dropped by as well, to embrace his dear friend President Bill Clinton on stage, while subtly trying to woe the uber-rich audience towards his looming but not so booming election campaign. Speaking about America’s creaking infrastructure, including the ageing LaGuardia Airport in New York City, Obama said that the chief of the discount carrier, Southwest Airlines, told him that fuel bills could be cut drastically if only modern GPS were installed at US airports. “Maybe they will start serving peanuts on flights again.”.

There were also other presidents, former and current, prime ministers, ministers, corporate CEO’s, media moguls, New York’s rich and famous who realistically came to life off the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue, fashion statements, furs and all. However, it seemed that the hotel lobby and bar were the real action was though, as deals were made, partnerships discovered and just plain old people watching gave the likes of the mere mortals like myself, an adrenaline high.

But despite the heady attendance of global heavy weights, it was hard to put a finger on exactly what this year’s conference had set out to achieve. For one, the sessions had nothing to do with the title. It was supposedly an ode to improving the lives of women and girls in the developing world, as a laudable initiative on eliminating child-brides was launched. But there was also a hint of the prevention of non-communicable diseases, a smattering of climate change and food security and a very, very, heavy dose of the connection of corporate philanthropy as a solution to all of this and more.

Members of organizations working with the help of CGI funds, such as the Desert Research Foundation in Namibia, shared the stage with the CEOs of PepsiCo and Unilever, who strenuously explained how their companies were helping the impoverished with food security issues around the developing world.  PepsiCo, for example, explained how it was sharing excess food products, such as high-protein chickpeas, with the World Food Programme (WFP).

In another session, the Dreamers for Tomorrow Association in Egypt, the poster-child nation of the Arab Spring, who laid bare their hope for peace in the Arab world, alongside a the diamond encrusted Princess Ameerah of the Al-Waleed Foundation and the CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, who are apparently the ones to watch out for where ‘doing good” is concerned.

Clinton himself, freshly trim from a non-meat diet, showed some very visible signs of a disconnect with his supposed “target audience”, was the most baffling outcome of this forum.

Case in point. In allowing young girls to access education and schools, what attempts can be a made to prevent their harassment and sexual molestation as they walk the long distances to schools in Africa. Clinton’s response; more law-enforcement along those paths and more street lights to that fewer girls are raped in the evening hours. A surprising declaration from a man who makes it his business to spend as much time as possible in the field.

It didn’t help that this year, the press (of which this scribe was a member), were kept sequestered in a basement with no access to any of the small group discussions or breakout sessions, save a few “by permission only” sessions. Frankly, one may as well have stayed home and watched it all on YouTube.

To me, CGI 2011 was a stark reminder to most of us from the marginalized world that we are still - and will be for many decades to come - mere pawns in the games of the rich and famous for greater wealth and power (CGI members and corporate participants pay up to US$20,000 to attend the event). The solutions to global poverty and security are mostly the result of political and corporate misgivings. As such, might the CGI is simply a way to absolve any pangs of guilt the well heeled in the western world may have about it?

The Clinton Global Initiative is an annual conference that brings together philanthropists and world leaders to inspire, connect and forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Since it was established in 2005, nearly 150 current and former heads of state, 18 Nobel Prize laureates, and hundreds of CEOs, heads of foundations, nonprofits and major philanthropists have made nearly 2,000 commitments impacting over 180 countries, the lives of over 300 million people, and commitments upwards of $60 billion.

Wednesday
Sep212011

Aung San Suu Kyi: "The World Needs to Know What is Going on in Burma" (NEWS BRIEF)

By Themrise Khan in New York

CGI 2011 Plenary Session Conversations on Courage(

Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy, Addresses the Clinton Global Initiative in New York today, live via satellite from Yangon. CREDIT: CGI

(HN, September 21, 2011) - Two of the world's famous freedom fighters sat face-to-face this morning in New York City - or as was as close as possible under the circumstances.

Live on stage in New York,  in front of a packed plenary on the second day of the Clinton Global Summit, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

A world away, via satellite and sitting comfortably in her home on the banks of Inya Lake in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) was the renowned opposition leader in Myanmar (formerly Burma), Aung San Suu Kyi.

The fact that technology could link these two Nobel Peace Prize winners is, in these times, unremarkable. What was astonishing was that the Burmese military regime allowed Suu Kyi's conversation to take place, uncensored.

It's not clear what type of diplomatic handywork or meaneuvering went on behind closed doors by former US President Clinton, the host of the meeting, to get the Burmese generals to agree to the broadcast. But for a man who has rescued stranded celebrity journalists from North Korea, and has accomplished other seemingly impossible feats, this may have been received as just another challenge.

The broadcast was billed as Suu Kyi's first live conversation since her release in 2009.

Little wonder the atmosphere in the hall was nothing less than euphoric. Tutu, who made no secret of his admiration for his colleague a world away, appeared smitten and almost child-like at her elegant and articulate responses.

It was a rare site.

As moderator Charlie Rose pointed out more than once, audience members were witness to “something going on here, mutual admiration society and more”.

But the humorous banter did not hide the seriousness of the issue at hand. At issues was the struggle for freedom of a nation, a topic which very few around the world seem to know very little about.

Despite her long and painful incarceration, Suu Kyi sounded very optimistic about Myanmar’s future, especially that of its youth. She was confident of the possibility of change, citing that when she was freed in 2009, there were many, many more youth out to greet her than at any of the previous times, she had seen. “That showed me that some change was going on within the people”, she said.

To Suu Kyi, awareness of the situation for the Myanmar people, and for the whole world, was one of the most important elements of bringing change. “If the world wants to help Burma, the world needs to know what is going on in Burma”, she said. “ We would like the world to keep an eye on what is happening here”.

Responding to a question on whether neighbours, India and China. can do more to help the political situation in Myanmar, Suu Kyi was adamant that people must first listen to the voices of ordinary Burmese, to what the people want. Then they can help Burma.

“We have always been good neighbors, but times have changed and to continue to be good neighbors certain policies will have to change”, she said.

Unfortunately, Myanmar is still far away from uprisings like the Arab Spring. In answering Rose’s question about the use of social media, Suu Kyi pointed out that Myanmar has no where near the media access that participants in the Arab Spring had. Young people in Myanmar need to be better prepared to face the modern world starting with education.

“I could never have been speaking to you like this seven years ago”, she said. Not letting fear sap her energy all these years, Suu Kyi has remained a controlled and passionate fighter for the cause. A fighter, that fellow fighter Tutu, looks forward to seeing inaugurated as head of the government, when he visits Myanmar in the future.

When you stand out in a crowd it is only because you are standing on the shoulders of others," said Tutu.

CGI 2011 Plenary Session Conversations on Courage

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chairman of The Elders, could hardly hide his excitement sharing the stage today with Aung San Suu Kyi. CREDIT: CGI

Friday
Mar252011

Death Toll Rising in Myanmar (aka Burma) After 6.8 Magnitude Earthquake (News Brief) 

(HN, March 25, 2011) --- Burmese officials say the death toll from Thursday's 6.8 magnitude earthquake is now up to at least 74, with at least 111 injured.

The U.N. reports six aftershocks have been felt since the earthquake first struck and the risk of landslides remains high.

The quake struck in northeastern Myanmar (aka Burma) near the border with Thailand.  The epicenter was about 90 kilometers north of the Thai city of Chaing Rai, which sustained minor damage.  U.S. experts say the quake was just 10 kilometers deep.

State-run radio broadcasts quote Burmese officials as saying at least 390 homes, 14 monasteries and nine government buildings were destroyed in the areas near the epicenter of the quake.

One woman in Thailand was killed when a wall of her house collapsed on her.

Aid agency World Vision says it is working closely with Myanmar's government to provide emergency assistance to those affected by the 6.8 magnitude earthquake near the Golden Triangle. 

Chris Herink, World Vision country director for Myanmar, told Radio Australia's Asia Pacific it had received immediate cooperation from authorities within the military-led regime when it offered assistance.

Tuesday
Dec072010

Weakness in Developed Economies Poses Risks for Emerging Asian Tigers - ADB (News Brief)

(HN, December 7, 2010) The emerging "tiger economies" of Asia will see moderate growth at best in the coming year due to continuing slow demand in the USA and Europe.Many Asian economies, such as Laos, are benefitting from increased tourism receipts. CREDIT: Michael Bociurkiw/HUMNEWS

According to the Asian Development Bank's just-released Asian Economic Monitor, the Asian economies saw a robust recovery in the past year due to higher domestic demand, stimulus interventions and low financial vulnerability.

While many of the economies received high marks for good economic house-keeping - many are export-dependent and cannot escape the economic contagion from the USA and Europe.

"The external economic environment for emerging East Asia has weakened as the US economy continues to struggle and doubts remain over the sustainability of the eurozone recovery," said the ADB. "Many emerging East Asian economies now face the challenge of managing strong growth and capital flows amid a weaker external environment."

Small economies, which just a few months ago appeared on the brink of collapse, are clawing their way back. Laos, for instance, benefitted from construction related to the Southeast Asian games and higher mineral production.

Myanmar (also known as Burma), which has been battered by severe weather events and political unrest, saw economic growth improve to 4.4% in 2009 from 3.6% the previous year boosted by large inflows of foreign direct investment, the ADB said.

However, GDP in both Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia contracted.

One of the extraordinary developments has been the surge in stock market growth in the emerging economies of East Asia.

The ADB reports increases in bourses such as: Indonesia (44.3%), Thailand (38.3%), Philippines (35.7%) and Malaysia (17.5%) posting record highs.

- HUMNEWS staff, ADB

Saturday
Nov132010

(REPORT) Myanmar (aka Burma) opposition leader freed 

Aung San Suu Kyi outside her home moments after release (PHOTO: Mizzima)(HN, November 13, 2010) -- This morning the ruling military junta in Myanmar (aka, Burma) released opposition leader, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Elder member, Aung San Suu Kyi fifteen years after she was placed under house arrest when her party the National League for Democracy won 58 percent of the voting in parliamentary elections in 1990. The results were annulled by the government in power and Suu Kyi has been imprisoned where she’s been since.

Her house arrest was due to end in May 2009, but was extended for eighteen months after she was convicted for violating the terms of her house arrest and until the NLD showed to be strong in last Sunday's elections in Myanmar. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for more than 15 of the last 21 years.

The release comes less than a week after the ruling military government held parliamentary elections for the first time in two decades. The poll was seen as not free and fair by independent observers and harshly criticized by countries like the United States.

It is not clear what forced the government's hand to free Suu Kyi. It may be trying to project a more positive image to the outside world, or it may have been pressured into doing so by neighbouring China, Thailand or fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan said on Saturday he was "very, very relieved" and that he hoped she will not be detained again.

"I'm very, very relieved and hope that this will contribute to true national reconciliation in Myanmar and that Aung San Suu Kyi will be able to play a role in bringing national reconciliation," Surin told news agencies. "Let's hope that there will not be any relapse and that other political prisoners will also benefit from this gesture of national reconciliation."

A UN spokesman said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Suu Kyi "an inspiration" to the world. 

"The secretary general expects that no further restrictions will be placed on her, and he urges the Myanmar authorities to build on today's action by releasing all remaining political prisoners," said the spokesman.

The Philippines, the most outspoken ASEAN member in calling for Suu Kyi's release, also welcomed her freedom but said more needed to be done.

"This is a positive step toward the right path for Myanmar. But the question remains -- will all of her political rights be restored, will they take more substantive steps toward democratisation?" said Ricky Carandang, spokesman for President Benigno Aquino.

"We hope that this meaningful action will be followed by more substantive action. We welcome it, but more needs to be done," Carandang was quoted as saying.

Desmond Tutu, chair of the group of retired senior statesmen known as The Elders, called Suu Kyi "a global symbol of moral courage" and her release "offers hope to the people of Burma." 

The Elders said the government must respect her political rights and not place any conditions on her release. They also called for the freeing of all Myanmar's political prisoners. 

---HUMNEWS staff.

Thursday
Nov042010

(REPORT) Myanmar (aka Burma): Election look ahead to Sunday 

(HN, November 4, 2010 ) -- After months of preparation and the promise of “free and fair” elections, the polls in Myanmar (also known as Burma) will be open for the first time in 20 years on November 7th.   The general election forms the fifth step of the seven-step "road map to democracy" proposed by the ruling junta in Myanmar, the `State Peace and Development Council’ (SPDC) in 2003. The sixth and seventh steps being the gathering of elected representatives and the building of a modern, democratic nation, consecutively.

Although the  international consensus is that there will be no such thing as a “free and fair” election this Sunday there is support of the generals from India, China, Thailand and others; and the world’s top diplomat, Ban Ki-moon is keeping optimistic.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is expected to emerge as the new “civilian leaders” backed by millions of Burmese who have been enticed or coerced into joining the proxy party.

The USDP, led by current Prime Minister Thein Sein, began on a populist platform, offering low-interest loans to Burma’s poorest. The cash-for-vote ploy may prove to be too hard to refuse for the average Burmese citizen to refuse as approximately 33 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.  After decades of military rule, Burma has the lowest per capita GDP in South East Asia.

The wealth of the USDP has meant that it can promote a candidate in 1,112 of the 1,158 districts around the country, while most other parties struggle with high registration fees. In 52 of those districts, USDP faces no competition at all and in fact has actually been canceling balloting in at least 12 villages in six districts in Kayah state "as conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election," according to an official notice seen on November 2nd.  The announcement in the states official newspaper gave no further explanation for the action, but in September, the election commission canceled voting in about 300 villages in 33 townships where ethnic minorities are dominant.

Funding for the USDP comes from the disbanded Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), the so-called "social welfare" wing of the junta, which also boasts the country's most powerful political and business figures. Most of the 26 million USDA members are now with the USDP.

Since 1990, world attention has focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 58 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in 1990, only to see the results annulled and Suu Kyi put under house arrest, imprisoned where she’s been since. Her house arrest was due to end in May 2009, but was extended for eighteen months after she was convicted for violating the terms of her house arrest.

From her house arrest she has called for an election boycott and supporters of the (NLD) are holding "lightning" protests telling the public that a vote on Sunday will legitimize military rule.

Currently the strongest opposition party, the National Democratic Force, formed by former members of the NLD, is fielding 163 candidates against the USDP’s 1,100 and faces added competition from the boycott lobby. What opposition exists faces little hope of winning any clout in the new parliament as 25% of those seats are already reserved for the military.

"You cannot hope the election to be free and fair by world standards," said Dr Than Nyein, the chairman of the NDF. "But at least we can have a civilian government in place of a military one and I think this is a great step forward.”

(VIA: DVB.NO)

In addition to this on October 22nd the country’s West Coast state of Rakhine was hit by Cyclone Giri which devastated the area, leaving 71,000 people homeless and affecting over 200,000 according to government estimates who, according to the UN will require food aid over the next three months following the Cyclone's destruction of rice fields. Although petitions have been filed asking for a delay in elections to take place in the affected areas, the government has not replied and elections will take place on Sunday as scheduled. This is not the first time the government has proceeded with voting after a natural disaster. In the 2008 referendum, which set the ball rolling for these elections, the junta claimed a 98% voter turnout, with 92% approval, despite 15% of the country having been left crippled by cyclone Nargis.

Compounding matters are reports that there has been an increase in fighting in border areas where there has been a long-running war between ethnic groups and the Burmese military; and stories of villages being attacked due to assumed affiliation with border rebels are also increasing.

Added to all of this are the 2,200 political prisoners, more than half a million internally displaced persons, 400,000 monks and hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad – all of whom would likely vote opposition in a democratic election; but all of whom cannot vote in Sunday’s election.

How the election will be reported to the rest of the world is also an issue. The ban on foreign journalists and election monitors is intended to lock the country's physical and virtual borders; a campaign that has already seen aggressive aggressive cyber attacks on independent media, the slowing of the country's internet, and a ban on domestic journalists going near the polls.

The international NGO Human Rights Watch along with other world leaders have already issued their view on the upcoming election saying "The international community doesn't need to wait until November 7 to know these elections are rigged from top to bottom," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 

The group is urging the new government for real change in Burma and calling on the global community to take various steps, including calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, while pressing the new government to respect human rights, commit to an inclusive political process that includes increased access for humanitarian agencies and the media, and increasing the role of civil society and development groups.

The SPDC announced the elections on August 13th and results are expected to take several days to weeks to return. 

- HUMNews Staff