RANGOON — Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann addressed wounded soldiers in Shan State’s Lashio on Saturday, making a public appeal for rebels in northeastern Burma to immediately disarm.
The Speaker warned that the fighting in Kokang Special Region—a small ethnically Chinese area along the Sino-Burmese border—was costing lives and government funds, claiming it could only be stopped if rebel soldiers stood down.
Though the Speaker was addressing wounded Burma Army soldiers in a military hospital, he appealed to the Kokang armed forces, known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), to avoid more government casualties.
“If fighting continues, there will be more lives sacrificed for the protection of our country, and more finances that we will have to spend on it,” Shwe Mann said. “We want to ask the [MNDAA] armed group to disarm and make peace, because our country is going to have an election soon.”
The speaker urged Burma Army soldiers to uphold their support for the war, adding that “the current fight in Kokang is a fight for justice, and the people in Burma support the Tatmadaw [Burma’s Armed Forces] in this fight.”
Conflict between the Burma Army and the MNDAA broke out on Feb. 9 in Kokang’s administrative capital Laukkai, the former rebel headquarters until the group’s aging leader, Peng Jiasheng, was ousted by the Burmese government in 2009.
The ensuing conflict—during which the MNDAA attempted to reclaim its former headquarters and surrounding hilltops—was the fiercest seen in Burma for years. Some independent reports claim that it has been the deadliest and most expensive conflict in the country since its independence in 1948.
Government figures account for at least 200 deaths—which include Burmese and rebel soldiers—though independent figures have offered much higher estimates.
A government-issued media gag order on rebel-affiliated sources has made casualties impossible to independently verify, though military journal Jane’s Defense Weekly recently claimed that as many as 800 Burmese soldiers may have died in the conflict since early February.
Tens of thousands of civilians were also displaced by the conflict, though small groups of civil servants have since begun to return to Laukkai.
The ongoing conflict disrupted efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire accord, which negotiators from the government and the country’s myriad ethnic armed groups had been working toward over the past three years.
Cross-border blasts also aggravated tensions with Burma’s giant neighbor; five people died when artillery shells landed in a Chinese village near the border in March, and a similar incident left five others injured earlier this month. The Burma Army has denied responsibility for both incidents.
RANGOON — After giving its approval for local lenders to issue quasi-credit cards, the Central Bank of Myanmar has set a maximum withdrawal limit of 5 million kyats (US$4,500), according to Win Thaw, the bank’s deputy director general.
The Central Bank on May 8 allowed domestic banks to issue so-called “secure credit cards,” a financial product that in fact acts more like a debit card, as a bridge to eventually permitting full-fledged credit cards in Burma.
“We won’t fix the minimum amount, but the maximum amount is 5 million kyats, because this is an amount that the Central Bank can manage if something happens in the market,” Win Thaw told The Irrawaddy on Monday.
“This is the beginning, and local banks can decide who should be allowed to use credit cards and who shouldn’t, that is their decision, but the [withdrawal] amount can’t be over the fixed amount,” he said.
Unlike a true credit card, users of the “secure credit card” must have the funds they charge or withdraw from an ATM in their bank account, as is the case for debit card use. The secure credit card distinguishes itself in that users continue to benefit from interest payments on the money—in the case of savings accounts, 8 percent—as long as they repay the amount deducted within 45 days. Late repayment will be penalized with a 13 percent interest charge on the outstanding amount.
Since early May, local banks have been preparing to issue the pseudo-credit cards. Among them, Kanbawza (KBZ) Bank introduced its secure credit card to users on Monday, the lender’s spokesperson said.
“It’s a so-called secure credit card; users will have to have money first,” said Thet Ko Ko Myo, general manager of KBZ Bank’s sales and service department.
“We will allow credit card users to withdraw money from 500,000 kyats to 5 million kyats,” he said, adding that KBZ Bank would wait for the establishment of a credit bureau before considering issuance of full-fledged credit cards.
A credit bureau, which Burma currently lacks, collects information to provide consumer credit information on individuals, which is used for a variety of purposes including determining loan eligibility. Credit information, such as a person’s previous loan performance and bill-paying habits, is used to predict future behavior and gauge credit worthiness.
“We dare not issue real, unsecure credit cards without a credit bureau here,” Thet Ko Ko Myo said.
In the absence of a credit bureau in 2003, credit cards were invalidated by Burma’s former military regime, which pinned a portion of the blame on credit card users for a financial crisis that saw the collapse of the country’s largest lender at the time, Asia Wealth Bank.
“The Central Bank said this is the beginning stage, that we don’t have the experience to use real credit cards. After this stage, I hope that we can issue real credit cards to users,” the KBZ Bank spokesman said.
Similar to KBZ Bank, Cooperative Bank plans to issue its own “secure credit cards.”
“Since three months ago, we’ve proposed issuing a new product called secure credit cards. It is not like credit cards that are used in other countries, it is safe and good for users too,” said Pe Myint, managing director of Cooperative Bank.
“We’ve been planning, but we will issue in the next one or two months, not now,” he said.
According to banking industry sources, other large domestic banks are also preparing to issue credit cards within two or three months.
The former military regime stopped the local issuance of credit cards in response to a surge in bad debts after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Burma’s banking system still lacks a credit bureau to gauge the suitability of loan applicants, leading bank managers and the Central Bank to take a cautious approach to financial reforms, including making credit available to consumers and businesses.
Efforts to set up a credit bureau are reportedly ongoing.
This is an exclusive video of Thai-Myanmar Friendship Basketball Match was organized at Aung San Indoor Stadium in Yangon on May 17, 2015. Myanmar Media 7 Team, organized with Myanmar Model Boys & Actors, played against Thai Yanhee Hospital Team as the opening match.
RANGOON — American retailer Gap Inc. has nearly tripled the output of its two Rangoon factories within its first year, a company spokeswoman told reporters on Thursday.
Gap announced in June last year that it would begin sourcing garments produced in Burma, making it the first US-based clothing manufacturer to enter the country since economic sanctions were eased in 2012.
The South Korea-owned factories produce vests, jackets and pants for Gap’s Old Navy and Banana Republic Factory labels for export to the United States, the European Union and Asia.
“We’re approaching three times as much outerwear [production]… since last year,” Gap’s director of government and public affairs, Debbie Mesloh, told reporters following a US Trade Representative Labor Initiative stakeholder forum.
Mesloh said Gap is trying to “raise the bar” for labor standards at its facilities by ensuring safety and sustainability for its workers.
“We wanted to start small, but do it really well,” Mesloh said.
Last August, the company voluntarily submitted an internal audit to the US Embassy identifying a number of “compliance issues” that needed to be resolved, including excessive work hours and verbal abuse by superiors.
Both of Gap’s Rangoon factories are South Korean-owned and operated, but are expected to satisfy the company’s quality and labor standards.
Mesloh said Gap is working closely with the governments of Burma and the United States, as well as the International Labor Organization (ILO) to eliminate child labor, ensure adequate pay and implement worker education programs, but did not specifically address the issues highlighted in last year’s report.
“There are concrete steps [local stakeholders] need to take, and we feel like we’re playing our part,” Mesloh said, adding that Gap and other Western companies new to Burma’s garment industry have recommended that the government quickly implement a minimum wage.
“When we came in a year ago, the minimum wage law had been enacted but they still hadn’t set a figure, but we were hopeful that it would happen soon,” Mesloh said, adding that Gap is working with partners in a seven-member Business for Social Responsibility stakeholder group, which includes European retailer H&M, to set the wage as soon as possible.
A minimum wage law was passed in March 2013, but setting a wage has been deferred because the Ministry of Labor has yet to conclude a study on workforce size, living standards and household expenses, which begin in late January after a two-year delay.
The Myanmar Trade Union Federation (MTUF), an influential local labor alliance, independently conducted a similar survey in July 2013, recommending that the national minimum wage be set at 7,000 kyats (US$6.30) per day for a household of three people.
A company fact sheet said Gap’s sourcing agreement in Burma has created nearly 700 new jobs, and supports the employment of more than 4,000 people.
Ninety percent of those employees are women, earning roughly $120 per month for 60 hour workweeks, according to the deputy general manager of one of the factories, which have been independently identified as Yangon Pan Pacific International and Myanmar Glogon.
RANGOON — Prominent monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations have joined the chorus of voices to question developments planned for nearly 72 acres of land near Shwedagon Pagoda, days after experts warned the projects could affect the sacred site’s structural integrity.
On the weekend, an assembly of engineers and urban planning experts at the “Save our Shwedagon” forum claimed that excavation works for the five developments risked upsetting the water table underneath Singuttara Hill and potentially damaging the pagoda. The forum, hosted by the Association of Myanmar Architects, called for the adoption of a conservation management plan for the site.
In the days since, Buddhist leaders have gone public with their opposition to the developments. U Parmauka, abbot of Rangoon’s Magwe Priyati Monastery, told The Irrawaddy that monks believed the projects were “disrespectful” to the country’s most revered religious icon.
“Shwedagon Pagoda is for all locals and foreigners of Buddhist faith,” he said. “For the endurance of our religion… I would sacrifice my life to take care of the pagoda. I do not know why the authorities gave away the land near Shwedagon despite how highly it was sought, and I doubt that the authorities have real faith in Buddhism.”
Aung Myaing, a central committee member of the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (also known as Ma Ba Tha), said that members of his group had urged an investigation into the developments.
“Our organization is worried that if the projects resume, it will affect the foundation of Shwedagon Pagoda,” he said. “They should not proceed and [threats to the pagoda] should be investigated carefully.”
An April 30 statement from Ma Ba Tha also warned that Rangoon’s increasingly crowded skyline risked blocking views of Shwedagon, and excavation work around the pagoda could threaten the strength of the structure.
“Because of overpopulation, exploitative business and unaccountable authorities, people in Rangoon and Bagan are losing their cultural heritage,” the statement read. “In particular, Shwedagon Pagoda faces the risk of losing its cultural heritage. If the culture disappears, the country and the nationality will disappear too.”
The statement said that Rangoon’s Sule Pagoda, which has been overshadowed in recent years by large commercial developments, was an instructive example of overdevelopment, and said that Shwedagon should be spared the same mistake.
The abbot of the Shwe Nya Wah Monastery in Rangoon’s Hmawbi Township told The Irrawaddy that all citizens of Burma should oppose the project, saying that President Thein Sein’s 2011 cancelation of the controversial Myitsone Dam project demonstrated that politicians would respond to sustained public pressure.
“All people who have the Buddhist faith in their hearts should defend Shwedagon,” said Ashin Pyinna Thiha, commonly referred to as Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw. “The beautiful pagoda is an object of glory and has a long history, so we should oppose any threats to it.”
Marga Landmark, developers of the 22-acre Dagon City 1 mixed-use development near Shwedagon’s southern entrance, said in a May 9 statement that it had reassured the Myanmar Investment Commission that work on the project “will be carried out with the utmost care and due diligence without affecting the foundations of Singuttara Hill and underground water.”
RANGOON — Fully legal trading with Thailand will begin “soon” at an additional border station in southeastern Burma following a boom in overland trade between the two countries, according to a Ministry of Commerce official.
The Mao Tao border trading post in Tenasserim Division has already been operating in a partial capacity, Yan Naing Tun, the ministry’s deputy director general, told The Irrawaddy on Monday. Mao Tao has been accepting imports from Thailand since 2013, but Burmese exports have not been permitted on the Thai side.
Ministry of Commerce officials are in talks with their Thai counterparts to legalize two-way formal trade at the border crossing.
“Actually, we opened that station two years ago, but the Thai side is still working to legalize it, as there are many procedures working with other departments. Both sides’ authorities need to discuss the process further,” he said.
“We’ll announce [the Mao Tao opening] soon publically, after we have had further discussions,” Yan Naing Tun said.
Tenasserim Division already hosts two of Burma’s four formal trading points with Thailand, at Htee Khee and Kawthaung. The other two stations are at Myawaddy and Tachileik in Karen and Shan states, respectively.
Three Pagodas Pass is also viewed as a border crossing with high trade potential, though currently no official commerce between the two countries is transacted there.
Among the operational trade stations, Myawaddy-Mae Sot is the biggest trading point for the two countries, with Burma largely exporting marine products and importing foodstuffs, home appliances, construction materials, automobile parts and agricultural equipment.
Dr. Maung Maung Lay, vice chairman of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), said he welcomed more trade linkages with Burma’s two biggest overland trading partners, Thailand and China, but he added that more should be done to curb the rampant black market trading that takes place between the countries.
“For example, there is going to be a lot of informal trading along these borders, because when we’ve checked data from the Myanmar side and Thailand side, they are largely different,” he said.
“What we’re concerned about is that there are many unsuitable food and drink products coming through the borders, and also uncertified home appliances. That’s why more effort should be made to prevent illegal trading along there,” he said.
Though legal overland trade with Thailand has surged in recent years, China remains Burma’s largest trading partner. At Muse in Shan State alone, traded goods totaled more than US$5.1 billion in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
According to Ministry of Commerce data, the border trade between Thailand and Burma has increased nearly 18-fold since 2011-12, when it stood at $24.5 million. Trade rose to $144.8 million in 2012-13, $271.5 million the following year and $432.6 million in 2014-15.
WASHINGTON — The United States says legislation on population control approved by Burma’s Parliament is dangerous and could undermine the democratic hopes of minority groups.
State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke voiced deep concern Tuesday over the bill. He said it could provide a legal basis for discrimination through coercive and uneven application of birth control policies.
Human Rights Watch says the bill directs authorities to impose “birth spacing” restrictions. It would require a 36-month interval between each child and could allow forced contraception, the group said.
The bill is the first of four government-backed bills to “protect race and religion.” Human Rights Watch says the legislation has been championed by activists with a racist and anti-Muslim agenda.
Rathke said women who have spoken out against the bills faced sexual harassment and death threats, demonstrating the “dangerous impact.”
Myanmar is facing international criticism over its treatment of minority Rohingya Muslims who have fled the predominantly Buddhist country, causing a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.
SITTWE, Arakan State — The boy was shoved onto the wooden vessel with hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims. For days, the 14-year-old sat with his knees bent into his chest, pressed up against sweaty bodies in the cabin’s rancid heat.
Women cradled coughing babies. The crew paced back and forth with belts and iron rods, striking anyone who dared to speak, stand up or even those who vomited from the nauseating stench and rolling waves.
Rohingya have been fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Burma for years, but that was not the central reason Mohammad Tayub ended up on the ship anchored off the coast of western Arakan State two weeks ago.
He said he was simply tricked by brokers, now capitalizing on poverty and a growing sense of desperation.
Two men approached him while he was tending cattle, he said, offering him a job in Malaysia and saying that if he wanted to help earn money for his family, this was his best chance.
They took him to the shore on the back of their motorbike, offering assurances he wouldn’t have to pay for the boat ride. He hoped at least to go home, pack a bag and say goodbye, but by that time, it was already too late.
“I’m never going to see my mother again,” he thought when inside the ship, his body pressed up tightly against strangers on all sides. “I wanted to cry, but I knew I’d be beaten again if I did.”
Tayub had no way of knowing there is little chance of an exit for thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded in the sea since a crackdown on human trafficking networks in Thailand earlier this month left the region grappling with a monumental humanitarian crisis. They are growing weaker each day as the navies of three Southeast Asian nations have pushed crowded rickety boats out of their respective waters, each nation fearing that any sign of acceptance could trigger a mass exodus that would swamp its shores.
Survivors say dozens have died and an increasingly alarmed United Nations has warned that the boats could turn into “floating coffins.”
But that has not stopped brokers like the ones who approached Tayub in Burma. All are still eager to earn the US$100 they receive from the ship’s captain for each body delivered regardless of what happens after they leave, according to Maung Maung, a community leader who has researched trafficking in camps in and around Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State.
The captains know they can earn more money — thousands of dollars per person from family members — once they leave the country’s terrestrial waters.
For those trapped inside the vessels until the crew is given the go-ahead to leave, the shore is tantalizingly close, a few hours away by boat.
“I wanted to jump in the water and swim back home,” Tayub said, “but the crew were all armed. I knew they’d shoot me.”
The government claims Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago. Denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless and have faced violence and state-sponsored discrimination for decades.
After the country of 50 million started moving from dictatorship to democracy in 2011, newfound freedoms of expression lifted the lid off deep-seated hatred of the dark-skinned religious minority, making them even more vulnerable. Up to 280 Rohingya have been killed since mid-2012, and some 140,000 were chased from their homes by machete-wielding extremist Buddhist mobs. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in camps where they can’t work, get an adequate education or receive medical care.
They have been told there’s little chance they will be allowed to vote in upcoming general elections and that those who cannot prove their families have been in the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948 could face deportation or indefinite detention in camps.
As result, more than 100,000 Rohingya and neighboring Bangladeshis have fled by boat in the last three years, the biggest exodus of boat people in the region since the Vietnam War, says Chris Lewa of the non-profit advocacy group Arakan Project.
Now it is not just religious and ethnic persecution but abject poverty, desperation and greed within their own communities that have torn the social fabric and driven Rohingya to leave.
Though police, navy and other government officials profit, the brokers themselves are almost all Rohingya.
The Associated Press interviewed nine families whose children have been taken by traffickers. It also interviewed six young victims, several community leaders and a smuggler in Sittwe.
Maung Maung, one of the community leaders, rattled off names of more than a dozen men and women working full time to fill ships with human cargo. Residents were quick to confirm them, saying it’s no longer a secret. The giant wooden vessel that carried Tayub was among five migrant ships bobbing last week in the Bay of Bengal that separates Burma and Bangladesh.
The brokers promise men jobs and offer pretty young girls the prospect of marriage if they agree to board the ships. It may cost them nothing to board, but the migrants are unaware that they will be held hostage in jungle camps or at sea until their poor families somehow come up with enough money to pay their ransom. Activists also say some women end up being sold into prostitution.
Until recently, the first stop for boats leaving the Bay of Bengal was Thailand, long considered a regional trafficking hub. Men, women and children were often held until brokers could collect up to $2,000 from relatives.
Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia, because the Muslim country faces a shortage of unskilled workers. Those who couldn’t come up with the money were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die. At suspected migrant camps in the mountains of southern Thailand, authorities have unearthed dozens of bodies from shallow graves since May 1. They have also arrested dozens of people, including police, politicians and a suspected trafficking kingpin.
The crackdown, however, had the unintended consequence of spooking agents and brokers, who started holding the migrants offshore in overloaded boats. Fearing arrest, captains abandoned vessels, leaving thousands of men, women and children to fend for themselves on the open ocean.
Off the Burma coast, Tayub and everyone else on the wooden boat seemed destined to meet the even more uncertain fate once the vessel left, though it was unclear to those on board what they were waiting for.
As the number of passengers climbed to about 300, they were convinced the ship would soon set sail and their families would never know what had happened.
Some were able to leave, but only if they could somehow pay the brokers anywhere from $100 to $300 to disembark.
On Tayub’s 12th night on board, he heard a boat pull up and loud voices. He was shocked to hear someone call, “Come out people from the Sittwe area!” He rushed to the deck with 13 other boys and girls, tripping between the bodies and legs of the other tightly packed passengers.
The kids didn’t know it then, but their parents had learned what had happened and paid a local community leader to rescue them. They argued, negotiated, and eventually, after handing over hundreds of dollars, the ship’s broker let them disembark. When they arrived at shore hours later, eyes red from crying and their stomachs concave after days of eating nothing but a few handfuls of rice and slices of potato, they rushed to their parents’ arms.
Some said they knew when their children disappeared that there was only one place they could be: the ships. Every village and camp in the area had stories about missing children or relatives and friends.
“When we left from the ship, the rest of the people were crying and shouting,” Tayub said. “They wanted to go home, too.” Instead, he said, the crew beat them, and shot their guns in the air to shut them up.