On a leafy campus near Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, a group of 50 schoolchildren are benefiting from a bold educational experiment with a dual aim: to turn out youngsters who can improve the country, and to develop a model program that can be replicated internationally.
In 2012 staff from the Liger Learning Center interviewed hundreds of children across Cambodia to find the most promising students. Eventually 25 boys and 25 girls were selected. Each received a scholarship – full board and tuition.
Thirteen-year-old Seiha was one of those chosen. His impoverished parents were thrilled.
“They support me a lot because they wish they could go to this school when they were my age. Because when they were my age, it requires a lot of like money and working to get to school. And this school pay – we pass a scholarship and it’s free,” said Seiha.
Burma remains among the 10 least competitive countries in which to do business, according to the latest rankings of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
The annual Global Competitiveness Index for 2015-16, published Wednesday, scored Burma’s economy 3.3 out of a maximum of 7 overall across a number of fields that the WEF considers to be “factors driving productivity and prosperity.”
The country’s highlight in the ranking was in “labor market efficiency,” where it came in 73rd place out of 140 countries included.
However, Burma’s economy was found particularly lacking in “technological readiness” (138th place), “financial market development” (138th) and “business sophistication” (135th).
While the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is campaigning for next month’s general election on the grounds that it has put the economy on the right track, Burma was ranked 131 out of 140 countries by the WEF this year.
Despite the economic reforms initiated under the government of President Thein Sein, the score suggests the situation is barely different from last year, when Burma placed of 134 out of 144 countries in the WEF rankings.
Most painfully for the government, which has initiated road-building programs across the country and tried to kick-start major economic zone developments, the WEF index ranked the country a poor 137th out of 140 in terms of transport infrastructure, and 131st for electricity and telephone infrastructure.
Burma was only included in the rankings for the first time in 2013-14, when it placed 139 out of 148 countries overall. In that year, the country ranked 141st in terms of transport, energy, and communications infrastructure.
At the time, the WEF gave recommendations to the quasi-civilian government that had just begun its program of reforms.
“Given the extent of the task ahead, and in order to have the biggest impact in creating a more conducive environment for business to flourish, Myanmar needs to focus on the basic determinants of its competitiveness, namely the institutional framework (141st), transport, energy, and communication infrastructures (141st), health and primary education (111th), and the banking sector, as well as access to technology,” it said.
Telenor Says Expansion to Arakan, Chin States Imminent
Norwegian telecommunications firm Telenor has said it will launch its network in Arakan and Chin states “very soon.”
The operator, which this week marked the one-year anniversary of its start of operations in Burma, appears to have raced ahead of Qatari rival Ooredoo in the battle to win subscribers in the underserved market.
It claims it had picked up more than 10 million subscribers by July this year, while Ooredoo said at that time it had reached only 4.3 million subscribers. The incumbent provider, state-run Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), is thought to have reached some 11 million subscribers after teaming up with two Japanese firms.
In a press release this week, Telenor said its 3G network was being transmitted by 3,100 towers across the country.
“Our 100% 3G network now reaches 13 major divisions/states; Mandalay, Yangon, Sagaing, Bago, Magway, Ayeyarwaddy, Tanintharyi, Kayin, Mon, Kachin, Shan, Kayah, and in union territory Nay Pyi Taw,” the release quoted Telenor Myanmar CEO Petter Furberg as saying. “We expect to launch our network in the Rakhine and Chin very soon.”
Australian Bank Opens Office in Rangoon
ANZ Banking Group was set to officially open its first branch in Burma this week, according to a statement.
The company said in a statement on Wednesday that it had received approval to open the branch, after it was named earlier this year among nine foreign banks to be awarded licenses to offer some banking services in the country.
The Australia-based bank will open its first branch in Rangoon, the statement said. ANZ is the last of the nine foreign banks to open a branch, with the International Construction Bank of China, Bangkok Bank and Japan’s Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ among the other eight that have already set up in the former capital.
ANZ claimed in the statement that it was the “only international bank with strong connectivity with the global market” to have entered the Burmese market.
“ANZ will service multinational and joint venture companies with a presence in Myanmar
from the new branch, as well as international companies looking to enter Myanmar from ANZ’s network countries,” the statement said.
“It will offer specialist banking services for natural resources, utilities and infrastructure, telecommunication, consumer goods and other global diversified sectors that are expanding in Myanmar.”
Official Tourist Numbers to Exceed 4.5m: Minister
The Burmese government is expecting its official figure for the number of tourists visiting the country to reach more than 4.5 million this year, according to an official report.
The Global New Light of Myanmar this week quoted Minister for Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung saying that the number of arrivals so far this year had already surpassed last year’s total of 3.08 million.
“If Myanmar continues to keep this momentum going, the number will grow to more than 4.5 million visitors by the end of the year,” he was quoted saying, citing figures from the end of August.
The government’s tourism figures are widely seen as inflated, including business arrivals and border-crossing visitors who barely enter the country. But the minister’s prediction would still fall short of the 5 million visitors the government has targeted for this year.
Singapore-Based Company Enters Jet Fuel Joint Venture
Puma Energy Group Pte. Ltd. will set up a joint venture with Burma’s state-owned petroleum company to sell jet fuel in the country, according to Reuters.
The newswire cited state newspaper Myanmar Alin saying that Puma, which was picked by the government to be its new partner for jet fuel in a tender last year, had signed with the Myanmar Petroleum Products Enterprise last week.
“Under the agreement, the two firms will set up National Energy Puma Aviation Services Co. Ltd. and MPPE will receive $20 million from Puma Energy as a signature bonus,” Reuters reported.
The venture will also see Puma Energy invest $51 million, the report said, while the state-owned enterprise will put in $26 million worth of machinery and equipment.
“Demand for jet fuel at Myanmar’s three international airports in Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw is expected to grow rapidly,” Reuters said.
“The value of jet fuel imports has also risen, totaling $2.44 billion in 2014/2015, up from $2.3 billion in 2013/2014 and $1.92 billion in 2010/2011, according to government data.”
KACHIN STATE — You can crunch the numbers, listen to the pundits and debate the credibility of the historic Nov. 8 general election all you want, but to join Aung San Suu Kyi on a four-day barnstorming campaign across Kachin State is to experience first-hand the political and social phenomenon that is the woman who leads Burma’s largest opposition party.
Flying into the Kachin State capital Myitkyina early on Friday, the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman hit the ground running, with both a morning rally near the city center and an afternoon speech at Waingmaw Township to the southeast, each drawing thousands of NLD members, political acolytes and straight-out admirers.
Early the next day, she began a road trip across a large swathe of the far northern state. Covering hundreds of kilometers over two days, what began as a reasonably modest series of appearances at populated centers snowballed quickly into a rolling cavalcade of vehicles and motorcycles making impromptu stops and visits to towns and villages large and small. Suu Kyi and her entourage returned to Myitkyina on Sunday night in preparation for a flight farther south to Momauk, outside Bhamo, where she is expected to wrap up her whirlwind tour on Monday.
Despite the grueling pace, “The Lady,” as she is widely known, showed stamina, grace and patience on what could only be described as an arduous and somewhat unpredictable schedule.
At the more populous locales, such as Namti, Hopin and Mohnyin, thousands lined the streets and filled outdoor venues to hear her deliver the party’s political message, while along each route, in villages large and small, at junctions, on bridges and under almost every shady tree, residents of Kachin State waited patiently in the blazing heat for even just a glimpse of the woman so many clearly adore.
At times her security detail was hard pressed to protect her from the gathered roadside crowds, as dozens of hands at any given moment reached out to touch her as she passed. Suu Kyi herself waved to the gathered masses and shook hands where possible, even as at times the crowds pressed against her vehicle, blocking the road and bringing it to frequent unscheduled halts. Cries of “Daw Suu, we love you!” and numerous other endearments were almost constant, while others preferred to communicate their messages via placards. Though people of every generation joined in, it was young people who appeared in the greatest numbers on the streets.
Her message was simple and delivered unrelentingly: If you want true change, vote for the NLD, ignoring personalities, ethnicities and religious differences.
The Irrawaddy traveled on this journey with Khin Maung Myint, better known to locals as U Cho, a small business operator running for office under the NLD banner in Hpakant Township, epicenter of Burma’s lucrative jade production in the state.
He described the message delivered by Suu Kyi as straightforward. “The first priority is to amend the Constitution. A vote for NLD is a vote for transparency and the rule of law. Reform of both the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] and the education system to an international standard will then follow.”
When asked by a Kachin man in Nan Moma, near the well-known Indawgyi Lake, what she could do to end the conflict that has ravaged the state for years, she replied that voting the NLD into power meant that both change and peace in the restive state would follow soon after.
Few people here, of course, believe it’s as simple as that, and the road ahead for the NLD remains clouded with questions and formidable obstacles, but one thing became abundantly clear over the length of this particular journey: If the sheer adulation of so many citizens across the country for this leader can translate into votes, the NLD, and Suu Kyi, may still well find themselves on the road to Naypyidaw.
RANGOON — Almost 300 students from a middle school in eastern Burma’s Karen State fell ill on Wednesday after drinking water sourced from a local pond.
Seventy students were admitted to Kawkareik General Hospital and 62 to Kyone Doe General Hospital, a doctor from the former facility confirmed. All of the hospitalized students are expected to return home within 24 hours.
Those taken ill are pupils at Tayattaw Village middle school in Kawkareik Township’s Kyone Doe. The school provided water to the 299 enrolled students that was sourced from a nearby natural pond and taken to each classroom in buckets.
“The students felt dizzy and were vomiting. Some had stomachaches,” a doctor from Kawkareik General Hospital, who did not wished to be named, told The Irrawaddy.
“Now, almost all of them are fine. There are no causalities. The water from the school has been sent to a laboratory in Rangoon through Phann Hospital.”
Some locals speculated that the pond may have been contaminated with chemicals used to kill or stun fish.
“We have not opened a case yet,” Police Inspector Aung Myint Win from Kyone Doe Police Station said. “What we have done is sent the water to a Rangoon laboratory through a state health officer… We have also sent a telegraph to the Ministry of Home Affairs. After the medical records are confirmed, we will proceed according to instructions.”
Ohmar Moe, a grade six student who was admitted to hospital, said her condition was improving.
“When I drank from the drinking pond at school I [soon] felt sick. I was first admitted to Kyone Doe Hospital, then to Kawkariek General Hospital as my situation was worrisome. I am getting better now,” she said.
Nai Soe Myint, secretary-1 of the Mon National Party, was among a group of party officials that visited Kawkareik hospital on Thursday.
“They are to be discharged within 24 hours. It’s said the water was poisoned in an effort to catch fish,” he said.
RANGOON — Burma’s communications ministry has further delayed awarding a fourth and final telecom license until mid-October, according to a ministry official, following a fiercely contested bid for the coveted permit.
The government initially planned to announce the winners by the end of September, after opening the tender in July to domestic firms. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology received letters of interest from 17 companies, a number of which will be selected to be part of a new public company that will partner with a foreign service provider chosen by the government.
Chit Wai, deputy permanent secretary of communications, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the selection process was “not yet complete,” but that the winners will be chosen in the next few weeks.
“We’re trying to select them as soon as possible, but it won’t be done this month,” the secretary said, predicting that the ministry will be able to announce the tender winners by the second week of October.
Applicant criteria requires that interested firms demonstrate possession of at least 3 billion kyats, roughly US$2.3 million—or enough capital reserves to form a new public telecommunications company.
Eligible bidders, such as Lwin Naing Oo of Shwepyi Takon Telecom, have accepted delays in the process because of the scope of the project at stake.
“We need to be patient, as this public company will benefit the people,” Lwin Naing Oo said. “I expect that after [the winning bidders] form a public company, they will be competing with foreign firms in the market, so it is important to take the time to create a long-term plan.”
Two foreign providers—Norway’s Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo—were each recently awarded operating licenses to compete with state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which previously had a monopoly on the country’s direly underdeveloped communications market.
The total number of winning bidders has not yet been determined, Chit Wai said, offering only that the ministry “will select companies which follow the rules.”
Successful bidders will be expected to accept the selection committee’s decision regarding a foreign partner. Domestic stakeholders will be responsible for providing technical services, developing market strategies and contributing to both licensing and consultancy fees for an international firm that will aid in the selection of a foreign partner
Myanmar's election commission has announced its second round of voter lists for the upcoming general elections, the first since decades of military rule ended in 2011.
The voter rolls were distributed in constituencies across the country Monday. Hein Lin Htet, an election official in Mon State, told VOA that citizens who do not find their names on the list must act soon.
"According to the law it allows voters to complain within 14 days to [make a] change," he said.
Baby Maung, a voter in Rangoon, was one of the voters that noticed her name was missing.
"My name is not in the list. They told me to check in the appendix, but still it is not in there. So they told me to fill up in the Form No. 3 to apply again," she said.
The polls will be the first general election since a nominally civilian government was installed in 2011. But with the military still firmly in control of the process, there is widespread speculation over whether the election will be free and fair.
Last week, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for vigorous international monitoring of her country's November general elections.
Her party won 43 seats in parliamentary by-elections in 2012. But the last time the NLD took part in a national election was in 1990, when it scored a landslide victory that was ignored by the country's military rulers.
(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.)
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi voiced concerns Tuesday about the removal of parliament speaker Shwe Mann as chairman of the country's ruling party last week.
Speaking as lawmakers gathered for their final meetings before elections in November, Aung San Suu Kyi described Shwe Mann's purge from leading the Union Solidarity and Development Party as undemocratic.
"As for the happenings in the middle of the night, this is not what you expect from a working democracy," she said.
Shwe Mann remains in place as speaker, but is facing a separate push by some members of parliament that would open him to possible impeachment.
Aung San Suu Kyi said Tuesday that the proposed legislation is "ridiculous." She met on Monday with Shwe Mann, who has supported her bid to reform the country's constitution.
Myanmar is scheduled to hold general elections on November 8, the first such vote since decades of military rule ended in 2011.
President Thein Sein, who ousted Shwe Mann as part of a major political shakeup ahead of the vote, is not running for re-election as a parliamentary candidate but could still be a nominee for president.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy party, is constitutionally barred from running for president.
A court in Myanmar on Friday imposed additional jail terms on two activists imprisoned for protesting the shooting death of an unarmed woman outside a Chinese-owned copper mine in the country’s Sagaing region in December.
The Kyauktada township court in Yangon handed Nay Myo Zin and Naw Ohn Hla four months each for holding an unauthorized demonstration outside of the Chinese Embassy on Dec. 29 against the police killing of villager Khin Win during a protest at the Letpadaung mine site a week earlier.
The pair were convicted under Article 18 of the Act on the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession—one of four charges used by Yangon’s Dagon township court in May to sentence them and four other activists to four years and four months each for the December protest.
Following the sentencing, retired Army-captain Nay Myo Zin told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his total jail term is now five years, while Naw Ohn Hla must serve six years and five months.
“I received an additional four-month jail sentences today … and now have five years in total,” he said.
“Naw Ohn Hla received a four-month jail sentence for protesting against Chinese Embassy with me, as well as another four months for her [Sept. 29, 2014] protest” calling for the release of political prisoners, he said.
In addition to the convictions from Kyauktada and Dagon townships, the two activists have also been sentenced by courts in Alone and Latha townships for their part in the Chinese Embassy protest. They face additional charges related to the incident in Pabedan and Lamdataw townships.
In April, Naw Ohn Hla was handed a four-month sentence for her September 2014 protest calling for the release of political prisoners, while in June she was given six months for conducting a peaceful prayer vigil eight years ago for the release from house arrest of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Nay Myo Zin is facing charges under Article 18 in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township for a protest against a controversial amendment to the National Education Law in November last year.
The two have been held in Yangon’s Insein Prison since their arrest following the December protests calling for the closure of the Chinese Letpadaung mine venture in Sagaing’s Monywa township, whose Chinese operator, Wanbao Co., residents say has orchestrated land grabs and caused environmental damage.
The protests were sparked by the Dec. 22 police killing of Khin Win, a woman who had joined other protesters attempting to prevent Wanbao from fencing off land for the project for which villagers said they had not received adequate compensation. Authorities have yet to charge anyone in her death.
Another violent showdown between villagers and police occurred in November 2012 when officers used smoke bombs containing phosphorus—a highly flammable chemical—to break up protests against the copper mine project. Dozens of anti-mine protesters, including Buddhist monks, were injured in the incident.
In May, following their sentencing by the Dagon township court, Naw Ohn Hla told reporters the lengthy jail terms suggested authorities wanted to keep her, Nay Myo Zin and the other four activists Than Swe, Tin Htut Paing, Sein Htwe and San San Win locked up during national elections scheduled for Nov. 8.
The Switzerland-based Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), strongly condemned the sentencing and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
Friday’s court decision came as a group of monks and activists gathered in Yangon to mark the eighth anniversary of the failed Saffron Revolution against Myanmar’s former military regime, holding a moment of silence for the more than 30 people killed during the ensuing crackdown by authorities.
Following the event, participants released a statement calling on the government to hold free and fair elections in November and to release the country’s remaining political prisoners—in line with the reform goals of the monks who led the democracy movement in 2007.
“We demand the release of political prisoners, detained farmers and workers,” said Ashin Agga, a monk who participated in Saffron Revolution and who was present at Friday’s gathering.
“We also call on the government to hold free and fair elections in November and to cease all fighting with armed ethnic groups,” he said.
According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), there were 108 political prisoners incarcerated in Myanmar as of the end of August, with 459 activists currently awaiting trial for political actions.
Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation democracy movement, expressed gratitude to the monks who led the Saffron Revolution and praised the example they set for those seeking reform in Myanmar, which transitioned to a quasi-civilian government under President Thein Sein following elections in 2011.
“We believe that you all will stand for justice together with us during important turning points in our country,” he said, adding that the 88 Generation pledged to “stay close” to the Buddhist clergy amid any threats to freedom and democracy.
While some say the Saffron Revolution calling for democratic reform has led to positive changes in Myanmar, others contend that the goals of the movement were never met.
Many who took part in the revolution say they are still waiting for an apology from authorities for their actions against protesters during the crackdown, which also saw hundreds of monks arrested.
Reported by Khin Pyae Son, Aung Theinkha and Bhone Myat for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.