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Myanmar: Vocational Training Comes to Former Conflict Areas in Myanmar

27 January 2015 - 5:55am
Source: International Organization for Migration Country: Myanmar

Myanmar - This week sees the launch of a ground-breaking vocational training project in Myanmar, through the joint efforts of IOM, the Swiss Government, and the Government of Myanmar.

The project targets 3,000 disadvantaged people in conflict-affected regions in Myanmar, and was officially launched in Kayin State yesterday, with a launch in neighbouring Mon State scheduled for tomorrow.

The Local Vocational Training project is one component of a multi-year, multi-phased programme on vocational skills development funded by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) and implemented by the Swiss Foundation for Technical Cooperation (Swisscontact) and Germany’s Institute for Vocational Training, Labour Market and Social Policy (INBAS).

IOM is partnering with these organizations in the implementation of local vocational training in Kayin and Mon States to enable the programme to reach remote areas, long affected by conflict.

The launch ceremony in Kayin State was attended by the Chief Minister for Kayin State U Zaw Min, the Union Deputy Minister for the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security U Htin Aung, and Ambassador of Switzerland to Myanmar Christoph Burgener.

“I am happy that this training will be community-based,” said Chief Minister U Zaw Min at the launch ceremony. “Now those people facing hardship will be given opportunities to improve their economic status while taking care of their families. This project will be very much welcomed by the rural as well as the urban population and we will support the project for the benefit of the region.”

Deputy Minister U Htin Aung noted: “As Myanmar is implementing reforms, upgrading of the skills of our people is critical. Therefore this project supports one of our key national priorities.”

Swiss Ambassador Christoph Burgener described the project as “bringing skills opportunities to the people here in the region and having rural women and men employed or self-employed, not only trained, and using their vocational skills development to make a widespread impact on poverty reduction.”

The first phase of this project will run through January 2018 and will offer 90 town-based courses and 80 village-based courses in high demand labour segments.

For more information please contact

Kieran Gorman-Best

IOM Myanmar

Tel: +95 94317 1025

Email: kgormanbest@iom.int

Myanmar: IOM, Partners React to Trafficking, Gender-Based Violence in Northern Myanmar

27 January 2015 - 5:54am
Source: International Organization for Migration Country: Myanmar

Myanmar - Conflict re-erupted in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State in 2012, and since then close to 100,000 people have been displaced. Recent reports show a worrying upward trend in violence against women in camps for displaced people in the Kachin and northern Shan State, along with trafficking for sexual and labour purposes.

To address this, IOM Myanmar, UNFPA and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) will hold a three-day training workshop from 28 to 30 January to help organizations involved in humanitarian response tackle these issues.

Kachin State NGOs, women’s networks and alliances, faith-based organizations and local foundations will be trained by IOM, UNFPA, and DRC trainers on Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and counter-trafficking awareness. The event will focus on how to reach internally displaced people in the most remote, non-government controlled or conflict-affected areas, which currently receive little or no support from the international community.

IOM Myanmar Chief of Mission Kieran Gorman-Best noted: “Gender-based violence is a serious, life-threatening protection issue which requires the attention and support of the international community. We are pleased to cooperate with so many local civil society and faith-based organizations to integrate human trafficking activities into their work.”

This message was reiterated by Janet Jackson, Myanmar Representative of UNFPA, who said: “This event provides an opportunity for local and international organizations, including UN agencies, to learn, exchange and find solutions collectively.”

The workshop is jointly organized by UNFPA, DRC and IOM, with the support from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund.

For more information, please contact

Kieran Gorman-Best

IOM Myanmar

Tel. +95 94317 1025

Email: kgormanbest@iom.int

Malaysia: Asia Pacific Region: Weekly Regional Humanitarian Snapshot (20 - 26 Jan 2015)

26 January 2015 - 6:31am
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Country: Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines

MALAYSIA

Between mid-Dec and mid-Jan, heavy seasonal rains and strong winds affected large parts of Malaysia causing severe and extensive flooding in Terengganu, Pahang, and Kelantan. In addition to the three most affected states, four other states in Peninsular Malaysia (Perak, Johor,
Selangor and Perlis States) and one state in East Malaysia (Sabah) also experienced floods due to the heavy rainfalls.

At the peak of the flooding, more than 230,000 people were evacuated and at least 17 people were confirmed dead. The Prime Minister of Malaysia put the total number of people affected at 400,000. As of 23 Jan, a few thousand people remain displaced and many more continue to be accommodated by host families or relatives.

8,400 people affected 17 people killed

OCHA continues to monitor flooding in Sabah and Sarawak where over 8,400 people were displaced. Local media reports indicate that while numbers in evacuation centers in Sarawak increased to over 5,700 people, numbers in Sabah dropped to almost 2,700 people.

INDONESIA

Floods have inundated approximately 2,300 houses in eight sub districts in North Kalimantan and East Kalimantan since 21 Jan. Furthermore, floods in Rundeng and Longkip Sub Districts in Aceh Province inundated 300 houses and displaced over 4,230 people since 17 Jan. Also, floods occurred in East Java affecting 214 families in two villages since 19 Jan. Local disaster management authroties and the Indonesian Red Cross are responding to all flooding events.

4,230 people displaced in Aceh

MYANMAR

On 14 Jan, fighting broke out in the Hpakan area of Kachin State between the Government of Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army. More than 1,000 people were displaced from Aung Bar Lay and surrounding villages, north-east of Hpakan. Displaced people and other civilians in the areas are in need of humanitarian assistance but access for humanitarian organisations remains restricted due to the proximity of the conflict area. Local NGOs, with support from UN and international NGOs and the Myanmar Red Cross, have delivered some assistance (food, blankets, mats and other basic items) to nearby areas. Local authorities are reportedly providing some assistance.

1,000 people displaced

PHILIPPINES

Insecurity and armed clashes increased in North Cotabato province, Central Mindanao as well as the province of Maguindanao. On 20 Jan, armed clashes occurred in Tulunan municipality between two groups considered to be Moro and Christian settlers. Over 110 people fled their homes.
Response to the conflict, related to a longstanding clan feud, depleted available resources while insecurity remains a concern, according to local officials.

110 people fled

Tropical Storm Mekkhala, the first typhoon of the year in the western Pacific, hit eastern Philippines on 16 Jan. A fact finding mission was conducted in Eastern Samar province to assess the extent of damage. Local authorities reported that the overall impact was minimal and does not require a humanitarian response. Mekkhala curved back into the sea off eastern Luzon and dissipated on Jan 21.

Myanmar: Burma: “Peaceful Assembly Law” Fails to End Repression

26 January 2015 - 1:16am
Source: Human Rights Watch Country: Myanmar

Cease Arrests of Peaceful Protesters, Amend Laws

(New York, January 25, 2015) – The authorities in Burma should stop arresting peaceful protesters and immediately and unconditionally free those imprisoned, Human Rights Watch said today. Burma’s donors should press for amendments to Burmese law so that it protects the rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression.

“Burmese authorities are escalating arrests of people protesting peacefully over things like land and education,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Many have been sentenced to ridiculous prison sentences, undercutting government claims that it is genuinely reformist.”

Despite the passage of supposed reforms to the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (“the Peaceful Assembly Law”) in June 2014, Human Rights Watch said that Burmese authorities have arrested dozens of people for peaceful protests in recent months. Among those arrested for “unauthorized” assemblies were:

  • On December 31, 2014, Tin Tun Aung, a land rights activist, was sentenced to one month in prison for violating the Peaceful Assembly Law during a protest by thousands of farmers about land takings he organized in Magwe region in September. At sentencing he was given the choice of paying a 10,000 Kyat (US$10) fine or a one-month prison term. He chose the prison term, arguing that paying any fine was an admission of guilt.

  • On December 30, 2014, Naw Ohn Hla, Sein Htwe, Nay Myo Zin, and Ko Tin Htut Paing were arrested outside the Chinese embassy in Rangoon when they were peacefully protesting against the controversial Letpadaung copper mine in Monywa and the killing by police of an unarmed protester at the mine site on December 22. The four were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law and several provisions of the penal code, including rioting, obscenity, preventing a public servant from the discharge of his duty, offenses against public tranquillity, and intimidation. In two court appearances on January 13 and 20, additional section 18 charges were laid by other township authorities. All four have been denied bail. The authorities has since arrested and charged several other individuals involved in the protest.

  • On December 22, 2014, 14 people who participated in a peaceful protest for two weeks outside Rangoon’s Town Hall building land evictions were arrested and charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law and for obstructing the sidewalk (section 341) under the Penal Code. They were released on bail and appeared in court in early January. The case is ongoing.

  • On December 21, 2014, five leaders of a peaceful protest in Rangoon, including prominent former political prisoner Ko Ko Gyi, were charged by South Okkalapa township police under the Peaceful Assembly Law for relocating a demonstration away from the site approved by authorities. The group of about 100 were protesting the acquisition of a sports field by authorities for a construction project.

  • Also in December, more than 30 student protesters, most from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law for a series of protests throughout Burma against the controversial National Education Bill being considered by the national parliament. The protesters were granted bail. The authorities have also used the Peaceful Assembly Law to arrest solo protesters, even though it defines a “peaceful assembly” as one comprised of “more than one person.” For example, Zaw Mying was arrested on International Peace Day and charged under the law for a solo protest in which he held signs with slogans such as, “Please let hate and grudges end in the 20th century,” and “We want to be proud of our country in the international community.”

Burdensome Process and Onerous Terms

Protesters can be charged under the Peaceful Assembly Law for violating one of a variety of limitations that the law places on freedom of speech and assembly. Those wishing to hold an assembly must apply for “consent” to do so five days in advance. The organizer of an assembly held without a permit is criminally liable even if the assembly was peaceful and caused no disruption of public order.

The application process not only requires basic date, time, and place information about the planned assembly, but seeks unnecessarily invasive information about the assembly’s purpose and schedule, as well as names and addresses of organizers and speakers. In a country with a long history of repression of protests under military rule, such provisions can easily intimidate protest organizers and participants.

Recent amendments to the law further specify that the application for consent must include not only the topic of the assembly but “the chants that are allowed.” Those who recite or shout chants “other than the ones approved” may be jailed for up to three months.

The authorities have often consented to protests with onerous terms and then arrested demonstrators for failing to comply with those terms, even if the protests passed off peacefully and there was no reasonable basis for imposing those terms. Consent for protests in Rangoon, for instance, have sometimes limited the protest site to Kyaikkasan Race Track, which is nowhere near the government offices that are often a target of the protests and out of public view. Protesters who have then held their assembly in a more appropriate location have been arrested.

Protesters can also be arrested for violating various vague and broadly phrased limits placed on speech by the statute. They must not “talk or behave in a way to cause any disturbance or obstruction, annoyance, danger or a concern that these might take place.” They “must not say things... .that could affect the country or the Union, race, or religion, human dignity and moral principles.” Finally, they “must not spread rumors or incorrect information.” Violation of any of these restrictions can result in a sentence of up to three months in jail.

Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable an individual to regulate his or her conduct accordingly. People participating in an assembly cannot know what might be considered to cause “annoyance” or affect “human dignity and moral principles,” nor can they know what the police might consider “incorrect” information. Moreover, the vague and subjective terms in the statute facilitate abuse by officials looking for a way to silence government critics or others saying things the government does not like.

The restriction on speech that may “disturb” or “annoy” others is particularly troublesome, Human Rights Watch said. As the European Court of Human Rights concluded in 1976, freedom of expression is applicable not only to information or ideas “that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” The fact that others may be offended by the speech is not a basis on which to restrict what is said at the assembly, but rather a reason to facilitate and protect the assembly.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, has stressed that those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful assembly should not be required to obtain permission to do so. The imposition of criminal penalties on individuals who fail to ask the government for consent to exercise their right to peaceful assembly is an unacceptable interference with their right to freedom of assembly under international law. The government has an obligation to facilitate peaceful assemblies “within sight and sound” of their intended target. When it fails to meet that obligation, arresting and prosecuting those who seek to assemble in a more appropriate venue is a disproportionate and inappropriate response.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Burma to immediately and unconditionally release all those arrested for participating in peaceful protests. The Peaceful Assembly Law and the Penal Code should be amended to:

Require only notification, not prior government approval, for holding peaceful protests;
Eliminate criminal sanctions for unauthorized peaceful protests;
Significantly narrow the overly broad statutory restrictions on free expression, including by removing the ban on “incorrect” information, limits on political speech, and ending requirements to identify chants in advance. “The arrest of peaceful protesters does not augur well as Burma heads towards elections later this year,” Adams said. “Election season will see many protests, which must be permitted and protected if the process is going to be truly democratic. There is no reason parliament can’t promptly amend the laws to allow protests in line with international standards. ”

Myanmar: Listening to Communities – Karen (Kayin) State

25 January 2015 - 10:52pm
Source: Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies Country: Myanmar

Conversations with over 100 people from all walks of life across Karen (Kayin) State in Myanmar took place to better understand different views on the peace process and the current needs of their communities. Employing listening methodology as the primary research method, analysis pulled out common and reoccurring themes in the minds of those who participated. This publication raises their voices and draws upon the insight and wisdom of people directly affected by ongoing conflict and the Myanmar peace process.

Myanmar: More than 400 child soldiers freed from Myanmar army in 2014: UN

24 January 2015 - 12:45am
Source: Agence France-Presse Country: Myanmar

Bangkok, Thailand | AFP | Saturday 1/24/2015 - 05:14 GMT

Myanmar's military freed more than 400 child soldiers last year, the United Nations has confirmed, a record number since the "tatmadaw" army signed a 2012 pact with the UN on the issue.

There are no verifiable figures on how many children are currently serving in Myanmar's huge military, which has faced a slew of accusations over rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of children to work as porters or even human mine detectors.

Since the pact was signed, a total of 595 children have been been freed, with 70 percent of the releases -- 418 -- taking place in the last twelve months, including 42 on Friday, the UN said.

"Within a one year period of time, this is a record number of children coming out of the Armed Forces, reflecting the accelerated efforts of the Government of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw to put an end to the harmful practice of recruiting and using children," Renata Lok-Dessallien, UN resident coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement.

All those released by the military so far were under the age of 18 when the pact with the UN was signed in June 2012.

While human rights groups have welcomed the gradual release of child soldiers, many have decried the fact that Myanmar's military has yet to completely halt their use.

In October, US President Barack Obama decided to keep Myanmar on a list of nations subject to US sanctions over its use of child soldiers.

The law prevents US military assistance to or the sale of licences for commercial military sales to cited nations.

The UN says at least seven rebel groups in Myanmar are also known to recruit child soldiers.

The country's quasi-civilian government is struggling to ink a nationwide ceasefire deal as part of its reform drive since replacing outright military rule in 2011.

But decades under the iron-fisted junta and years of bloody conflict in the country's borderlands have left a legacy of deep distrust of the military, which was long accused of committing abuses with impunity.

Most recently violence has raged in Kachin state, after a 17-year ceasefire between rebels and the government splintered in 2011, driving almost 100,000 civilians from their homes and into displacement camps.

On Friday thousands of mourners gathered for the funerals of two young teachers in Kachin who activists allege were murdered by tatmadaw soldiers during a recent uptick in fighting there.

jta/st

© 1994-2015 Agence France-Presse

Myanmar: Under the radar: Ongoing recruitment and use of children by the Myanmar army

22 January 2015 - 11:28pm
Source: Child Soldiers International Country: Myanmar

Myanmar: Further steps needed to end army’s recruitment and use of children

Measures identified in the UN Joint Action Plan need to be urgently implemented

London, 23 January 2015 – The Myanmar government should promptly implement measures to honour its stated commitment towards ending child recruitment and use, Child Soldiers International said in a report released today. While some important steps have been taken since the government signed the June 2012 Joint Action Plan with the UN, research conducted by Child Soldiers International found that children below 18 years of age continue to be forcibly recruited and used in the Tatmadaw Kyi, the Myanmar army. The report calls on the government to urgently address serious gaps in age verification protocols, recruitment procedures and accountability mechanisms to ensure children are not recruited and used as soldiers in state forces.

The 28-page report Under the radar: Ongoing recruitment and use of children by the Myanmar army found that military officers and civilian ‘brokers’ continue to use deliberate misrepresentation to entice new recruits, including children. Poor and uneducated boys are frequently intimidated and coerced. A commonly deployed tactic is to offer a child a good job with a decent salary (for instance as a driver) and lure them to the nearest recruitment centre or battalion. In 2014, cases of underage recruitment were mostly being reported to the UN Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (UNCTFMR) from the Yangon, Ayeyarwaddy and Mandalay regions.

Since 2013, a total of 723 cases of underage recruitment have been reported to the UNCTFMR, of which 474 either are still children or were under-18 at the time of the signing of the 2012 Action Plan, including 126 children allegedly recruited in 2013 and 2014.

“The Myanmar government should be commended on some steps it has taken to address child recruitment, particularly its launch of a nation-wide awareness raising campaign”, said Charu Lata Hogg, Asia Program Manager, Child Soldiers International. “But if children continue to be recruited and used by the Tatmadaw Kyi, then clearly this is not enough. The revolving door of the recruitment of children has to stop.”

Child Soldiers International’s research found that the practice of falsification of age documents, including National Registration Cards (NRC) – now also called Citizenship Scrutiny Cards (CSC) - and family lists, continues unchecked and no effective measures have been taken to establish accountability for this practice. An unofficial system of incentives to reward military recruiters and punishments for failure to meet recruitment targets still exists at the battalion level. Bonuses in cash or in kind are also known to be provided to recruiters for exceeding recruitment targets and, in some cases, serving soldiers who want to leave the army are told that they will only be discharged if they find new recruits.

While some steps have been taken to strengthen recruitment procedures within the Myanmar army, effective mechanisms to monitor and oversee recruitment have not yet been established. In 2013, the Tatmadaw Kyi set up Scrutiny Boards at each of the 14 Regional Military Commands to review files of recruits entering the military through mobile recruitment units and battalions. However, there is no public information available which shows that Scrutiny Boards have rejected potential recruits on grounds of age. Lacking in operational independence, the Scrutiny Boards are unable to exercise genuine control over the recruitment process.

The Myanmar military has taken some form of disciplinary action in cases of child recruitment brought to their attention: since 2007, 312 perpetrators have been held to account, including 48 officers. Punishments have ranged from warnings, reduction in salary, denial of promotion and imprisonment up to three months. However, only a handful of prosecutions have been initiated against civilians, including brokers, who play an important role in luring children into recruitment. In addition, there are significant legal and political obstacles to holding military personnel criminally accountable for underage recruitment.

“The Myanmar government has declared its commitment to bringing an end to child soldiering,” said Hogg. “Now is the time to take concrete and irreversible steps to ensure that no child remains in the Tatmadaw Kyi.”

The report offers a set of recommendations, which, if implemented, would contribute to ending and preventing the practice of underage recruitment and use within the ranks of the Tatmadaw Kyi. “Those countries, such as the UK, US and Australia, which provide the Myanmar government with technical assistance to professionalise the armed forces should make their assistance dependent on real action to prevent further recruitment and use of children,” said Hogg.

Notes for Editors:

For more information and to arrange an interview with a spokesperson from Child Soldiers International, please contact Charu Lata Hogg, Tel: +44 (0) 2073674112.

Myanmar: Myanmar: Investigate alleged rape and killing of two Kachin women

22 January 2015 - 2:08pm
Source: Amnesty Country: Myanmar

The Myanmar authorities must ensure that a prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigation into the killing and alleged rape of two young Kachin women is carried out.

Failure to investigate these allegations and hold those responsible to account would deny the victims and their families justice and contribute to an ongoing climate of impunity for rape and other crimes of sexual violence, in particular in conflict-affected and ethnic minority areas.

On the morning of 20 January 2015, a local Baptist church leader of Kaunghka village,
Mungbaw Sub-township, Northern Shan State found the bodies of two ethnic Kachin women, aged 19 and 20 years, in their room located in the church compound. Villagers who saw the women’s bodies reported that both women had been partially stripped of their clothes and had been badly beaten. Their room showed signs of a struggle and they appeared to have been raped. According to information obtained by Amnesty International, villagers heard screaming at around 9pm the night before, on 19 January. A credible source interviewed by Amnesty International explained that the village is in a so-called “black area” where the Myanmar Army operates a “shoot on site” policy. As such, villagers did not go out during the night, despite hearing screams. However, villagers strongly suspect that the two young women were raped and killed by Myanmar Army soldiers as soldiers from Battalion 88, Infantry 503 were staying in the village that same night.

Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar authorities to ensure that the investigation is initiated immediately and that it is independent, impartial and effective. The two women’s families should be kept informed of the status of the investigation, and the results should be made public. All those suspected of being responsible, including any persons with command responsibility, must be brought to justice before an independent, civilian court, in proceedings which meet international standards of fairness and which do not impose the death penalty. In the meantime, anyone suspected of such crime should be immediately suspended from frontline duties. The authorities must secure the crime scene and ensure the safety of witnesses. The women’s families should receive effective remedies, including adequate reparations.

Amnesty International has also received credible reports that on the same day – 20 January – at around 12pm, a soldier from Myanmar Army Battalion 77 attempted to rape a 30 year old woman in Hku Maw village, Namtu Township in Northern Shan State. The woman was saved as villagers came to her rescue after hearing her scream. Villagers found her unconscious and took her to the hospital.

These cases take place in a wider context of allegations of human rights violations – including rape and other crimes of sexual violence – by members of the Myanmar Army, in particular in Kachin and Northern Shan States, where the Myanmar armed forces resumed offensive military operations in June 2011. Independent and impartial investigations into such allegations are rare and suspected perpetrators are seldom held to account, contributing to a culture of impunity in the country.

Violence, including sexual violence and killing, of civilians under the control of the army during an armed conflict, such as the one taking place in Kachin and Northern Shan States violates Myanmar’s obligations as High Contracting Party to the 4th Geneva Convention. Should the responsibility of the Myanmar Army for the rape and killing of the two women be established, the acts would constitute war crimes. In addition, rape by officials constitutes torture which Myanmar is obliged, under customary international law, to prohibit, investigate and punish.

On 5 June 2014 Myanmar became the 150th state to sign the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. The Declaration includes a range of actions to be taken by states to “raise awareness of [sexual violence], to challenge the impunity that exists and to hold perpetrators to account, to provide better support to victims, and to support both national and international efforts to build the capacity to prevent and respond to sexual violence in conflict”. The Myanmar authorities are not known to have taken any concrete action to give effect to the commitments outlined in the Declaration.

Amnesty International reiterates calls on the Myanmar authorities to ensure that the Myanmar armed forces adhere to the rules of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Myanmar: Myanmar: IDP Sites in Kachin and northern Shan States (Dec 2014)

22 January 2015 - 1:19pm
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Country: Myanmar

Myanmar: Kachin IDP aid blocked by Burmese army

22 January 2015 - 8:19am
Source: Democratic Voice of Burma Country: Myanmar

By NAW NOREEN

Locals in the Hpakant area of northern Burma who have been displaced by recent fighting between Burmese government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are unable to access relief due to a travel ban imposed by government forces.

Fierce fighting broke out in the Kachin State jade-mining town on 15 January, forcing residents from nearby villages of Aungbarlay, Kansee and Ngatpyawdaw to flee their homes.

Than Naing, a resident from Aungbarlay village, said there are estimated to be over 1,400 displaced locals taking shelter at a Buddhist monastery and a church in Kansee village. He told DVB that they were unable to reach Hpakant as the Burmese army had closed roads in the area.

“We have moved the residents from our village to the makeshift shelters at the monastery and the church in Kansee,” said Than Naing. “They are now unable to go anywhere else as the Burmese army’s 16th Infantry Division has shut down routes to the town.”

He said supporters and relief workers from Hpakant and nearby Lawng Hkang village were unable to reach the displaced villagers.

“Sympathisers from Lawng Hkang could not get to us as the army stopped them at a checkpoint along the way,” he said.

Hpun Hseng of local charity Uru Seng Maw, a member of the Kachin Baptist Convention group of religious and civil society groups, said a collective of civil society workers and local religious leaders had been turned back by the army.

“On 16 January, we tried to travel past the army checkpoints to the villages. There were religious leaders including Buddhist monks and church pastors, as well as civil society workers, in a convoy of about 160 trucks,” he told DVB.

“We thought we might be able to persuade the army to let us past because of our strength in numbers, but they pointed their guns at us, indicating that they would shoot us if we didn’t turn around.”

He said relief workers had tried negotiating with army commanders to allow them passage to the displaced villagers, but to no avail.

“Presumably the army are blocking access to the villages because they don’t want anyone to acknowledge the presence of Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs] in the area. This is most likely due to a fear that it would give political advantage to opposition parties, and also make international headlines about local people who have been displaced by fighting.” said Hpun Hseng.

Burmese Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing on Wednesday rejected media reports about IDPs being trapped in villages in the area, dismissing the reports as erroneous.

Myanmar: IPCS Forecast: Myanmar in 2015

21 January 2015 - 3:33pm
Source: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies Country: India, Myanmar, United States of America

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer, SEARP, IPCS

2014 was a year of ups and downs for Myanmar. Naypyidaw successfully completed its ASEAN chairmanship that enhanced the country’s legitimacy both within the region and internationally. However, in the domestic arena, Myanmar did not fare well. Repeating history, the government failed to both sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement with all the armed ethnic groups or initiating a peace dialogue with these groups. The Rohingya crisis continues to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the country’s journey towards an all-round development. Additionally, the government’s inability to to keep the increasing religious radicalism within the society in check will be detrimental and will have negative implications for the domestic politics in 2015.

It is in this backdrop that Myanmar is preparing for the much-awaited 2015 general elections. Therefore, needless to say, 2015 will be an eventful year for the country.

Political Transition

2014 witnessed a slack in the political transition process in Myanmar. However, the excitement and preparations for the 2015 election – scheduled to be held by the end of the year – has been made evident in the several political rallies and press conferences. After a 31-year hiatus, a national census was conducted in 2014 to facilitate the 2015 elections. According to the new census, Myanmar’s population stands at 51 million. But the census exercise was riddled with many flaws as several Myanmarese living in internally displaced camps were not included in the final counting. Additionally, due to the complexity in Rakhine state, several Arakanese Muslims were excluded from the counting. Thus, unmistakably, the actual population is higher than 51 million and this will also impact the upcoming elections.

2015 General Election

It is likely to be a tough power struggle between the two leading political parties, the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD). The USDP enjoys support from the military and the NLD is favoured by the masses. Nevertheless, neither of these parties can expect much gain from Myanmar’s seven ethnicity-based provinces of where ethnic political parties enjoy greater clout. Therefore, both the NLD and the USDP have the probability to win their seats only in the central and southern Myanmar.

There are four prospective candidates for the presidential office: Incumbent President Thein Sein; incumbent Speaker of the Lower House of the parliament, Shwe Mann; the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, General Min Aung Hlaing; and a candidate representing NLD. The NLD leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been constitutionally barred from candidature as she is married to a foreigner. Thus, the announcement of an NLD candidate for presidency is anxiously awaited.

In 2014, it was noted by both the national and international media that there are two clear groups formed between these four candidates. One group comprises Aung San Suu Kyi and Shwe Mann who are not the military’s preferred candidate for presidency. The other group comprises Thein Sein and General Min Aung Hlaing. This grouping indicates how the alliances will be formed, depending on the result of the 2015 elections.

Constitutional Amendments

Thein Sein, in his March 2014 speech said, “We need to carefully study from all perspectives: the background history, the essence and objective for each of the provisions of the Constitution and it is also important that we amend the Constitution in accordance with the provisions as prescribed in Chapter 12 of the Constitution.” The aforementioned Chapter 12 of the Myanmarese constitution stipulates that for any amendment to be made to the constitution, there needs to be a prior approval of over 75 per cent of the members of parliament. This is problematic as there is lack of consensus on the agenda on which the amendments has to be made in the constitution. Previously, demands by representatives of ethnic groups and as well as the armed ethnic groups, for a federal political structure to be incorporated in the constitution, was vehemently rejected by the military, whose representatives constitute 25 per cent of the union parliament and are appointed by the commander in chief of the Tatmadaw. This also makes evident the tight grip the army has over the politics of the country. This is likely to continue in 2015 and the country is unlikely to witness any initiation of procedure towards amending the constitution this year.

Ethnic Conflicts and the Peace Process

The deadline for signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement and for the initiation of the peace talks has now been postponed to 2015. The government’s chief negotiator Aung Min has stated that he is hopeful to complete the deal this year. In August 2014, representatives of the armed ethnic groups, under the banner of the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), announced the government’s agreeability to include a pledge to adopt a federal political system – one of their key demands – in the draft agreement. This will boost confidence between the two sides. Nevertheless, the ongoing clashes in the Kachin and Karen regions may delay the ceasefire agreement further.

Rohingya Crisis

Last year the government-sponsored new draft plan called the ‘Rakhine State Action Plan’ has aided in the deterioration of the conditions of Rohingya Muslims. The Plan initiated the process of granting citizenship to those Rohingya Muslims who enrol themselves as Bengalis. This Plan has met with resentment not only by the Rohingya Muslims and international organisations such as the United Nations and Human Rights Watch but was also criticised by Rakhine Buddhists. The Rakhine Buddhists criticised this plan on the grounds that awarding citizenship to more Muslims may have implications for the 2015 general elections and this might also ensure the victory of Rohingya ethnicity-based political parties at the state level.

The government has assured that it will revise the Plan this year. However, that does not guarantee betterment of the conditions of the Rohingyas in the 2015 too. Similarly, the growth of the violence perpetrated by the religious radicals may take a back seat with the ongoing preparation for elections; but this should not be seen as the end of the problem because so long as no strong action is taken against such behaviours, the problem will persist.

Economy in 2015

In the 2015-2014 financial year, Myanmar’s economy, augmented by the large investments, especially Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) worth $ 9 billion, recorded a growth of 7.8 per cent. The increase in commodity exports, natural gas production, and tourism present the government’s ambitious structural reform programme. Economic growth seems likely to continue till the end of 2015. However, the economy will witness some change, subject to the results of the general elections.

India-Myanmar Relationship

The New Delhi-Naypyidaw relationship got a boost in 2014, especially via the visits of India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the country. Although there has been enrichment of the relationship at the political level, no such improvement has been evidenced in the economic arena. In 2014, Myanmarese President Thein Sein’s Spokesperson Ye Htut publically expressed Myanmar’s disappointment towards the lack of Indian investors in the country. 2015 is unlikely to witness any remarkable growth in number of Indian investments in Myanmar. Hopeful both the government will come together in 2015 to solve the problem of border infiltration and trafficking in between India’s northeast and north-western Myanmar.

Myanmar-US Bilateral in 2015

The US’s foreign policy towards Myanmar appears to continue on the current trajectory in 2015. Both countries need this alliance to work. Myanmar is important for the US due its geo-strategic location and its significance in Washington’s pivot to Asia strategy. Therefore, the US, along with the rest of the world, will be monitoring Myanmar’s election 2015 elections closely.

Can Japan and South Korean FDI Counter Chinese Investment in 2015? No. In 2014, both Japan and South Korea poured large sums of money into the Myanmarese markets in the form of investments. The Japanese Special and Economic Zone in Thilawa and investments in various sectors of the Myanmarese economy may seem big, but by sheer numbers, Tokyo’s investment insignificant in comparison to Beijing’s investment in Myanmar – which stands at nearly $ 6 billion. Similarly, South Korea too seems far from being able to give Chinese investors any credible competition in 2015. However, all investors will be cautious this year as everyone will base their strategies and decisions towards their economic trajectories in Myanmar depending on the results of the 2015 general election.

Thus, it appears that in 2015, everything in and related to Myanmar is likely to revolve around the the general election, scheduled to be held at the end of this year.

Myanmar: No Ceasefire Without More Talks: Ethnic Leaders

21 January 2015 - 3:09pm
Source: Irrawaddy Country: Myanmar

By NYEIN NYEIN

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) said on Wednesday that a national peace accord is unlikely to be signed next month without further meetings between ethnic army representatives and the government.

Speaking after a meeting between the NCCT, an alliance representing ethnic groups, and the government-backed Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) in Chiang Mai, ethnic representatives said that the discussion had failed to agree on a seventh meeting between the parties, jeopardizing a push to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Feb. 12, the anniversary of Union Day.

“It is impossible until the next meeting is conducted,” said Gen. Gun Maw, the deputy commander in chief of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and head of the NCCT.

Wednesday’s meeting focused on unsettled issues around the draft text for the national ceasefire agreement and arrangements for the transitional period after the agreement is signed, according to Gun Maw.

Speaking to reporters, the General sought to manage expectations about the outcomes of a peace accord, warning that there may be continuing conflict if some armed groups are unable to reach a settlement.

“How could we call it a national ceasefire agreement if one or a few groups are left behind?” he asked. Gun Maw’s army has yet to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government after renewed fighting broke out in mid-2011.

Kwe Htoo Win, the secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), echoed Gun Maw’s comments, noting that the decision to seek an agreement with the government would remain the prerogative of individual ethnic armies.

“As soon as the text of the agreement is settled and everyone in the NCCT accepts the text, we would sign. But it is each armed group’s decision whether to sign or not,” he said.

Hla Maung Shwe, advisor to the MPC, said that the government’s negotiating team are waiting for MCCT members to agree upon the next meeting, and that he would relay Wednesday’s discussion to Minister Aung Min, the chief negotiator and the vice chief of the Union Peace Making Committee.

“We also shared the minister’s message that the government wants to meet for a seventh time,” he said, without elaborating on the details of any future meeting.

The MPC, the government and the Burma Army all appear to be pushing for a nationwide ceasefire agreement to be signed next month. According to Hla Maung Shwe, President Thein Sein is eager to take up a KNU proposal for the peace agreement to be signed on Union Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Panglong Agreement on Feb. 12, 1947, which granted autonomy to ethnic communities within a unified Burmese state. Other parties to the negotiating table have voiced concerns that rushing to an agreement will undermine the durability of any peace accord.

“Everyone wants to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement as soon as possible,” said Gun Maw, “but we cannot hide from the actual situation, we cannot lie to the public and the public should not be given false hope. The future plan is important. It would be a useless accord if its only focus is the signing and not the guarantee of further dialogue.”

Skirmishes between government troops and ethnic armies have strained relations between the two sides in recent months, while the NCCT has blamed deadlocks in negotiations on the Burma Army’s six points proposal, which amongst other conditions requires ceasefire signatories to recognize the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

Earlier this week, in an interview with Channel News Asia, Burma Army Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing made a public intervention in the negotiations, suggesting that ethnic armed groups were not committed to ending the country’s civil war.

Despite recent clashes on the ground in northern Burma, both the NCCT and MPC claimed that negotiations were proceeding well on Wednesday.

Myanmar: Myanmar: Humanitarian Bulletin, Issue 12 | 1 – 31 December 2014 [EN/MY]

21 January 2015 - 2:01am
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Country: Myanmar

HIGHLIGHTS

  • 450 displaced people in need of housing after major fire in Kachin camp

  • Humanitarian Response Plan for 2015 targets over 500,000 people for assistance

  • Government strengthens disaster preparedness with new Emergency Operations Centre

  • Humanitarian appeal for 2014 was 59% funded

Myanmar: Myanmar: Humanitarian Bulletin, Issue 12 | 1 – 31 December 2014

21 January 2015 - 2:01am
Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Country: Myanmar

HIGHLIGHTS

  • 450 displaced people in need of housing after major fire in Kachin camp

  • Humanitarian Response Plan for 2015 targets over 500,000 people for assistance

  • Government strengthens disaster preparedness with new Emergency Operations Centre

  • Humanitarian appeal for 2014 was 59% funded

Myanmar: On Chinese Border, Local Activists Lead Fight Against Drug Crime

21 January 2015 - 1:13am
Source: Irrawaddy Country: China, Myanmar

By LAWI WENG / THE IRRAWADDY

NAMKHAM, Shan State —The back road through Namkham Township, a mountainous cluster of village tracts abutting the border with China and Kachin State, is these days more peaceful than its recent history would suggest. The route has occasionally hosted flashpoints of conflict between the Burma Army and local ethnic armed groups operating in the area, including the Kachin Independence Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). At the moment, however, there are no military checkpoints, and cars taking the six-hour route from Lashio enjoy an uninterrupted passage through a serene landscape of mountain ranges and pastures.

About an hour after the turnoff into Namkham from the highway connecting Lashio to the Chinese border town of Muse, travelers begin to pass through expansive fields of opium poppies, demarcating the 20,000 acres of territory controlled by the Pansay militia. Funding their operations through the taxation of local farmers, locals say the militia is headed by Kyaw Myint, a Shan State Parliament lawmaker for Namkham Township and a member of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Ethnic Palaung anti-drug activists told The Irrawaddy that Kyaw Myint’s empire is involved in the cross-border drug trade between Burma and China, with the Pansay militia’s operations stretching to the border town of Muse, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the northeast, and the regional center of Kutkai further to the south.

The Irrawaddy traveled by motorbike to visit 24 villages located on the mountains around Namkham, part of the sprawling territory under Kyaw Myint’s control. Each house in this area, almost without exception, cultivates between three to five acres of land for opium poppies. The Pansay militia has provided arms to the farmers here to defend themselves from rival armed groups and organizations working to eradicate the opium trade.

Mai Aike Naing, an anti-drug activist from Namkham, said that the Pansay militia asked people to grow poppies on their farmland, while taxing 300,000 kyats (US$292) per household in the villages under their control. His allegation is corroborated by a report from the Ta’ang Student and Youth Organization, which stated that the militia also levies farmers for 20 percent of the income generated from opium sales.

“They taxed everyone 300,000 kyats who stayed on their land. They do not care who grows poppy and who does not,” Mai Aike Naing said.

The Burma Army has a base near the Buddhist monastery of Mang Aung village, from which it is possible to see the poppy fields cultivated by farmers living in Pansay-controlled territory. Thet Tun Oo, commanding officer of the Burma Army’s Namkham-based 88th Infantry Division, has told locals that his troops would burn down opium crops and punish farmers who cultivated poppies, a threat that local anti-drug campaigners said has only been carried out against farmers operating outside of the Pansay-controlled zone.

Unorthodox Methods

Last August, hundreds of ethnic Palaung rallied in Namkham, calling on the Burmese government to take action against the drug trade. Following the protests, one battalion was deployed to destroy poppy crops. While Palaung farmland growing opium poppies was razed, the Pansay farms were untouched, according to locals.

“We informed [the army] about the poppy farming in the area,” said monk and anti-drug campaigner Ashin Dama Linkara of Namkham’s Padae village, “but they told us that the area was restricted. We have questions for them. What does it mean that the area is restricted? I feel sometimes as if Burma has two policies in one country. Why can they destroy poppies grown by Palaung, but not the poppies in the militia’s area?”

Seeking to combat widespread addiction among Namkham’s Palaung community, Mai Aike Naing formed the Mang Aung Anti-Drug Group during last year’s protests. The group, now 180 people strong, has cracked down on heroin and amphetamines usage in the area by developing a methodical campaign of vigilantism, using homemade slingshots as weapons to stop and arrest drug users and dealers in the area. To offset their lack of resources, the group will use sheer weight of numbers to lessen the risk of a target fighting back, sometimes mobilizing 100 people to arrest one person.

“From the beginning, many people questioned whether we were able to arrest drug dealers or users without arms. But we got a lot of support from our people as they learned that we could arrest people and stop drug use in our community,” said Mai Aike Naing.

In a part of the country where amphetamines and heroin can sell for as low as 1,000 kyats (US$0.97), Mang Aung Anti-Drug Group is fighting an uphill battle to eradicate drug addiction. Part of the group’s unorthodox campaign is the forced treatment of detainees at three rehabilitation camps, each equipped to hold up to 30 people, which the group set up late last year with funds collected from its members.

“It was difficult to treat detainees as we do not have enough money,” he said. “We have to cook for them as well if their families could not provide food—though some families do bring food. We give them what medical treatment we can and when we feel that they can stop using drugs, we let them go home.”

Mai Aike Naing told The Irrawaddy that the crackdown had been widely successful in the villages around Namkham, eradicating drug transactions in the area and deterring potential users.

“Many people here do not know how to drive motorbikes,” he said. “They feel too ashamed to walk out of the villages and buy drugs, as the drug dealers don’t dare to come and sell it in the community now. Therefore they have to stop.”

Burmese authorities from Namkham Township were initially wary of Mang Aung’s actions, suspecting a link between the group and the TNLA, the ethnic rebel group representing northern Shan State’s Palaung community. As the benefits to the local community have become apparent, authorities have given Mang Aung Anti-Drug Group a wide berth, according to Ashin Dama Linkara.

A member of another prominent anti-drug group based around Padae village, Ashin Dama Linkara said it was common for anti-drug campaigners in Padae to work in tandem with Maung Aung Anti-Drug Group, given the close proximity of their home villages. Ashin Dama Linkara said that his group operated a two-strikes policy, briefly detaining and warning first-time dealers and users, and sending them to the Burmese police force in Namkham town if they were caught a second time.

Discussing the power of anti-drug campaigners in the region, Ashin Dama Linkara told The Irrawaddy that his group had last August forced the expulsion of Ye Win Lwin, the commander of the 10th Light Infantry Battalion which is itself a subsidiary of Thet Tun Oo’s 88th Infantry Division.

“Our team arrested a boy who went to buy opium. The boy told them that the commander asked him to buy it. We went to arrest the commander, but he tried to claim that he wanted to find out who was selling opium. Our villagers told the commander he had to leave the village, as many people there were angry with him,” he said.

Ashin Dama Linkara said that eliminating drug use in Namkham would be easy if the Burmese authorities ordered the Pansay militia to stop growing opium poppies in the area.

“We often say here that even if we could make a ceasefire agreement, there would be no peace because of the drug problem. They need to stop people from growing poppies for our community to be peaceful,” he said.

TNLA Crackdown

Southwest of Namkham lies the Mantong Township village of Mar Wong, a center of operations for the TNLA and the site of the ethnic army’s recent celebrations for the anniversary of the Palaung insurrection against the Burmese government. Mai Aike Pit, a Mar Wong villager, told The Irrawaddy that until the TNLA’s intervention, the area’s drug problem was so rampant that villagers could not leave clothes or other possessions outside their homes, for fear they would be stolen by addicts.

“Most villagers here were farmers and laborers,” he said. “They worked at poppy farms run by the Chinese, and eventually they became drug addicts. Having poppies on our land did not mean our people got rich. Our people got poorer, only the Chinese got rich.”

In recent times, the TNLA has dispatched a force of more than 500 soldiers in increasingly audacious attempts to destroy nearby poppy farms controlled by the Pansay militia.

“It was difficult sometimes to go on these trips,” said senior TNLA leader Mai Pain Sein. “The militia group would sometimes inform the Burma Army before we were able to reach their areas of control. So we would have to fight a combined force of Burma Army soldiers and the militia group.”

Tar Bone Kyaw, the TNLA general secretary, said that opium had destroyed the livelihoods of the Palaung people, citing a 2009 report by the Palaung Women’s Organization that 85 percent of the area’s male population over the age of 15 were addicted to opium.

“Let me describe to you the poverty of our people,” he said. “Some houses here only have rice to cook for food on some days. And then men who are addicted to drugs take away half the rice to trade for opium to smoke. This is the situation of some of our families.”

The TNLA says that of its claimed fighting force of 4000 soldiers, 500 are past or present drug addicts from the Palaung community—300 have recovered from their addiction, and 200 are still in the process of treatment. Tar Bone Kyaw told The Irrawaddy that the TNLA was working hard to eradicate drugs from the surrounding area, and would continue raids on Pansay-controlled opium crops to protect the livelihoods of Palaung villagers.

The ethnic army’s determination was matched by Mai Aike Naing, who said he had already refused to yield to intimidation from those behind the region’s drug trade.

“Before I said I would lead protests [last year], they told me I was an idiot because some drug dealers could try to kill me,” he said. “I told them I would pay with my life for my people. I am not afraid to die.”

Myanmar: No to dams on Salween River, appeal of the people and NGOs

21 January 2015 - 1:00am
Source: Missionary International Service News Agency Country: Myanmar

The Burma Rivers Network sent open letters to Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power and the Thai and Chinese embassies in Yangon, for an end to controversial plans to construct dams on the Salween or Thanlwin River. Over 60,000 people and 131 NGOs have signed a petition calling for a halt to plans to build dams on the 1,750 mile long river that originates on the Tibetan plateau.

“Our concerns, based on lessons learned from dams built across the country, include the risk of fueling of conflict and threatening the current peace process, the failure to adhere to international dam-building standards, which should ensure transparency and respect for rights of affected communities, and negative impacts on the river ecosystem and biodiversity”, the letters say, expressing concerns over the displacement of villagers, and the effect to the environment, as well as questions over who will benefit from the electricity generated, most of which will reportedly be exported to Thailand and China.

In Myanmar, uncertainty still surrounds the Chinese-supported Myitsone Dam project on the Ayeyarwady River that was halted by President U Thein Sein in 2011. Although some villagers have reportedly returned to the area, after earlier being moved out, it is unclear whether the project will be restarted after U Thein Sein leaves office.

Many dam projects have been built, are underway, or are planned for major rivers in Southeast Asia, East and South Asia. China is involved in dozens of projects that seek to either dam rivers for hydropower or divert them to alleviate the country’s serious water shortages.

[PL/BO]

Myanmar: Myanmar Fighting Traps Kachin Civilians

20 January 2015 - 10:20pm
Source: Voice of America Country: Myanmar

Moe Zaw
January 20, 2015 3:53 PM

WASHINGTON— As heavy fighting continues between Myanmar government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels, nearly 2,000 civilians have become trapped in the crossfire, leading to concerns for their safety.

A local Kachin leader in the Phakent area, who did not want to be named, told VOA's Burmese service hundreds have fled to the village of Kan See.

"We are concerned on the situation and their security since the fighting may happen again anytime. All the ways to the area have been blocked since around 10 days ago. the original population of Kan See village is around one thousands. So 2,000 locals may have difficulties to get basic foods,” said the local Kachin leader.

Kachin peace negotiator La Mai Kun Jar said officials have blocked his group from visiting the area.

“Local authorities did not allow us to visit there because of security reasons. They also said the situation is now stable and we do not need to bring [the civilians] to the safe place. The military commander of the area said they will take care all our concerns,” said La Mai Kun Jar.

VOA's efforts to get a response from the government were unsuccessful. It is not yet clear how many soldiers and rebels have been killed during more than a week of intense fighting.

The Kachin are one of several ethnic groups that have been fighting against the Myanmar government for decades. Most of the groups currently have cease-fire agreements with the Myanmar military.

Meanwhile, China's state-backed Global Times reported that many Chinese nationals are among civilians trapped in the area, which borders southern China. A Chinese spokeswoman said it is not true, however, that a large number of Chinese citizens are trapped in the area.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.

Myanmar: KIA Frees Hostages, Displaced Civilians Still Out of Reach

20 January 2015 - 5:32pm
Source: Irrawaddy Country: Myanmar

By SAW YAN NAING / THE IRRAWADDY| Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rebels in northern Burma have released three police officers held captive for nearly a week, though access to villagers affected by the ensuing conflict remains restricted, according to local peace mediators.

Lamai Gum Ja of the Kachin Peace Creation Group (KPCG), which serves as a mediator between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army, confirmed that the three men had been transferred to civilian hands, but expressed concern about locals who were forced to flee after fighting flared up following the initial detention.

“We received [the officers] from KIA soldiers and then we handed them over to township authorities. They look well, but the KIA didn’t give them their weapons back,” he told the Irrawaddy, adding that the group was unable to access some 2,000 civilians trapped in villages near Hpakant, a jade-rich area about 110 kilometers (68 miles) the state capital Myitkyina.

The three officers and the state’s transportation minister were arrested by the KIA while overseeing construction of a road on Jan. 14. The minister, Kaman Du Naw, was released the same day. The next morning, fighting erupted between the KIA and government troops near two villages around Hpakant. Conflict has continued sporadically and is believed to have led about 2,000 civilians to flee.

The displaced have since sought shelter in several churches of Hpakant Township’s Aung Bar Lay and Hka Si villages, where they are subject to interrogation by authorities and face shortages of food and water.

“We heard that they are in trouble with food and supplies,” said Lamai Gum Ja. “Relief groups and NGOs are not allowed access to the stranded communities for security reasons. When we met with the commander [Brig-Gen Saw Min of the Burma Army], he told us that he would be responsible for providing assistance.”

The commander did not explicitly forbid the KPCG from entering the area, he said, but warned that the Burma Army could not ensure their safety and if they “dare to go” they could do so at their own risk.

Reports have also surfaced that more than 100 Chinese nationals who were involved in the timber and mining industries were among those who fled the fighting, though China’s Foreign Ministry denied the claim.

A Chinese businessman based near the Burma-China border said that about 120 Chinese were believed to be caught up in the troubled zone, while more than 200 others have lost contact with their families. The man said that many foreign businesspeople tried to flee to the border but couldn’t, explaining that trains had been stopped and many vehicles confiscated by the Burma Army.

“We are not illegal loggers, but the victims of a war between the Burma Army and the KIA,” he said, adding that Chinese merchants in the area had acquired necessary permits and had been granted access by Burmese authorities. Cross-border trade of raw timber, however, has been illegal in Burma since April 2014.

Others said that jade mining operations had been temporarily suspended because the Burma Army “blocked the way” from Hpakant to Myitkyina. “There is no way anyone can travel from one place to another, even now,” according to an ethnic Chinese merchant in Hpakant.

The latest outbreak of violence erupted as ethnic leaders and government negotiators scramble to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Feb. 12. The KIA is one of two major ethnic armed groups that have not signed a bilateral agreement with the government.

Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing placed responsibility for achieving peace in the hands of the country’s rebels in statements made during a recent interview with Channel News Asia. The commander said that the government is keen to reach a ceasefire agreement, but questioned whether ethnic armed groups are fully committed to ending Burma’s decades of conflict.

“This depends on the armed ethnic groups. Do they really want peace? If they really want peace, there is no reason why they should not get it,” he said.

Intermittent fighting has taken place in northern Burma since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA broke down in 2011. Prior to last week, the latest episode occurred in November, when the Burma Army shelled a rebel training academy near the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, killing 23 cadets in the deadliest attack on an ethnic armed group in years.

Additional reporting by Echo Hui in Hong Kong.

Myanmar: Myanmar: MSF restarts basic medical activities in parts of Myanmar’s Rakhine State after nine-month absence

20 January 2015 - 3:09pm
Source: Médecins Sans Frontières Country: Myanmar

Tens of thousands of people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are able to access basic healthcare and emergency referral from medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for the first time in over nine months. Following instructions to MSF to stop last February, these primary health clinics restarted on 17th December 2014.

MSF has worked in Rakhine state since 1992 to provide basic healthcare, reproductive care, emergency referrals, and tuberculosis and HIV care. MSF has also treated over 1.2 million malaria patients in the state since 2004. All medical services have been provided based purely on the severity of individuals’ medical need.

“We welcome the progress we have made so far, but stress there is space to do more, space we at MSF are willing and able to fill,” said Martine Flokstra, MSF Myanmar Operational Adviser in Amsterdam. “We hope to continue this dialogue with the authorities to ensure that those who need it most in Rakhine state are able to access the healthcare they need,” Ms. Flokstra added.

Since restarting primary health clinics four weeks ago, MSF has done over 3,480 outpatient consultations, seeing predominately people with watery diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and patients with chronic conditions who used to get the medications they need to manage their disease from MSF Holland before those services were suspended. The organization has also done over 550 consultations with pregnant women in this short period.

Despite being required to suspend activities in Rakhine last February by the authorities, since July 2014 MSF Holland has worked together with the Ministry of Health in Rakhine by providing medicine and personnel to support mobile primary health care teams in Sittwe and Pauktaw Townships, and continued its support of HIV patients in Buthidaung and Maungdaw. Throughout this period MSF also continued to provide direct care and treatment to more than 35,000 HIV/AIDS patients, and more than 3,000 tuberculosis patients, most of whom are also HIV positive, across Myanmar.

MSF has worked in Myanmar since 1992 and currently has medical projects in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, the Tanintharyi region, and in Yangon. MSF offers services including basic healthcare, reproductive care, emergency referrals, and malaria treatment. Since 2004, MSF has treated more than 1.2 million people across Rakhine State for malaria. MSF is also the largest provider of HIV/AIDS care in Myanmar, currently treating over 35,000 HIV patients nationwide, as well as 3,000 people for tuberculosis.