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UN envoy says abuses still go on in Myanmar despite reforms.

YANGON (Reuters) – Human rights abuses are still occurring in Myanmar despite reforms by the quasi-civilian government, a U.N. rights envoy said on Saturday, singling out arbitrary arrest and torture of alleged ethnic Kachin rebels.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, was speaking at the end of a five-day mission to the country, where President Thein Sein has pushed through reforms since the end of military rule in 2011.

“While this process of reform is continuing in the right direction, there are significant human rights shortcomings that remain unaddressed,” Quintana told reporters, calling for urgent action before the problems became entrenched.

The quasi-civilian government has agreed ceasefires with most of the ethnic rebel groups fighting for autonomy. But fighting flared up in Kachin State in June 2011 and the conflict escalated late last year when the military used air strikes to thwart what it said was rebel aggression.

Peace talks were held over the border in China this month and Quintana said he was encouraged by this. He also welcomed the government’s decision to allow a U.N. humanitarian convoy access to areas controlled by the rebels.

But he added: “I am concerned about the ongoing practice of arbitrary arrest and torture during interrogation by the military of Kachin men accused of belonging to the Kachin Independence Army.”

Another area, Rakhine State, suffered two bouts of deadly sectarian violence last year between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas.

Around 120,000 people are now living in camps, according to Quintana. Although conditions had improved since his last visit in August, there was still a lack of adequate healthcare in the bigger Muslim camps, he said, adding that harassment of medical staff by Rakhine Buddhists was one of the reasons.

The government needed to address the problem of freedom of movement in the camps, he said, noting that one “felt more like a prison than a camp”.

The government says the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and does not regard them as citizens. Bangladesh also denies them citizenship and the estimated 800,000 in Rakhine State are therefore effectively stateless.

Quintana said the two communities remained divided by fear, distrust, anger and hatred.

“Mutually respectful dialogue cannot be had while discrimination based on grounds of ethnicity and religion remains unaddressed,” he said, recommending that the government amend citizenship laws to end such discrimination.

(Reporting by Min Zayar Oo; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Jason Webb)



Suu Kyi selected to remain Myanmar opposition head.


  • Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the second day session of first ever congress of her National League for Democracy party at Royal Rose restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, March 10, 2013. Suu Kyi has been elected head of the new executive board of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy, as the party has a makeover to adjust itself to the country's new democratic framework. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)View PhotoMyanmar’s opposition leader Aung …
  • Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the second day session of first ever congress of her National League for Democracy party at Royal Rose restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, March 10, 2013. Suu Kyi has been elected head of the new executive board of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy, as the party has a makeover to adjust itself to the country's new democratic framework. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)View PhotoMyanmar’s opposition leader Aung …

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Aung San Suu Kyi was selected Sunday to continue as head of Myanmar’s main opposition party, keeping her leadership post even as the party undergoes a makeover to adjust to the country’s new democratic framework.

The Nobel laureate was named chairwoman of the National League for Democracy’s new executive board on the final day of a landmark three-day party congress attended by 894 delegates from around the country.

The congress also expanded the group’s Central Executive Committee from seven members to 15, in a revitalization and reform effort ahead of Myanmar’s 2015 general election. The party is seeking to infuse its ranks with new faces, expertise and diversity without sidelining long-standing members.

“We have to see how effectively and efficiently the new leaders can perform their duties,” said Suu Kyi, who has led the NLD since its inception in 1988. “We hope they will learn through experience.”

Suu Kyi’s selection had been assured, since she is the party’s main drawing card. But her dominant influence has also drawn criticism that the party may be too reliant on her charisma.

Asked about allegations by critics that her party leans toward an authoritarian structure, she said Sunday that “all our leaders have been elected democratically. So if they feel that they do not like authoritarian leadership, they should not vote for those whom they think are authoritarian.”

Suu Kyi conceded that there has been some friction in the party’s current transformation process, with complaints surfacing about lack of transparency and fairness in the election of local leaders in the run-up to the congress. Four party members who had been elected to attend the congress were suspended just two days before it opened Friday over allegations of illegal lobbying.

Suu Kyi is the sole holdover from the party’s original executive board when it was founded, but the other new members are also mostly long-serving party loyalists, disappointing some who were looking for new blood. A broader Central Committee of 120 members was elected by the delegates and endorsed the executive board, which was given five reserve members.

The party, which came into being as the army was crushing a mass pro-democracy uprising in 1988, won a 1990 general election that was nullified by the then-ruling military. The NLD boycotted a 2010 general election, but after a military-backed elected government took office in 2011 and instituted democratic reforms, it contested by-elections in 2012, winning 43 of 44 seats and putting Suu Kyi into parliament.

Emerging from repression that limited its actions — not least because Suu Kyi and other senior NLD members spent years under detention — Suu Kyi vowed in her opening speech Saturday to inject the party with “new blood” and decentralize decision-making.

She said the NLD would go through an experimental stage with the new leadership and should anticipate some obstacles but “not be discouraged.”

Although the 2012 by-election results showed that the NLD still has broad and deep appeal, the party faces challenges.

The army-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein, besides being well-financed and enjoying the benefits of controlling the bureaucracy, has staked out a position as reformist.

It can boast of freeing the press, releasing most of the country’s political prisoners and convincing foreign nations to lift most economic sanctions they had imposed against the former military regime for its poor human rights record. It hopes that opening up Myanmar, also known as Burma, to foreign investment will kick-start a moribund economy and win it popular appeal.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the NLD’s agreement to play by parliamentary rules — in effect endorsing Thein Sein’s reform efforts — leaves an opening for more hard-core anti-military activists to win over a share of disaffected voters who prefer a quicker pace of change than now allowed under the army-dictated constitution.

Speaking to the party meeting after her selection as chairwoman on Sunday, Suu Kyi said that in choosing executive board members there was an effort to include women, members of ethnic minorities and younger people, in addition to members with a record of continuous party service. Four women and several ethnic minority members are on the new board.

Suu Kyi acknowledged to reporters that younger members were underrepresented on the Central Executive Committee compared to the bigger Central Committee.

“We need experienced members who know the policies, tradition and history of the party and who had been in the party for the last 25 years,” said Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest. “After some time, the younger generation will take over their place. There should be connectivity between the past, present and future.”

Suu Kyi’s colleagues expressed satisfaction with the meeting’s results.

“The new CEC and Central Committee members will enjoy the trust of the majority because we are elected democratically. I believe we will be able to carry out our work more effectively,” May Win Myint, a veteran NLD member jailed many times for her activities, said after being elected to the executive board.

Kyi Phyu Shin, a well-known film director who became an NLD member six months ago and was elected to the Central Committee, said she was “very confident that the NLD will become a tight organization, very active and competitive. The congress helps institute better democratic practices in the NLD.”


By AYE AYE WIN | Associated Press

Myanmar must face up to junta crimes, U.N. envoy says.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar must pursue crimes committed by the former junta but neither the quasi-civilian government nor opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi have any appetite to do so for now, a United Nations investigator said on Friday.

Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said accountability for decades of violations was crucial for healing as well as for solidifying reforms.

The military regime stands accused of having used forced labor, suppressing ethnic minorities and killings and torture by its troops and police.

Ojea Quintana, asked about prospects of a truth commission or prosecutions, said: “The reality is that in Myanmar, this is not on the agenda of any of the stakeholders. It’s not on the government agenda, it’s not on the other political parties agenda and it’s not on the ethnic minority groups agenda.”

The independent U.N. investigator, speaking to a news briefing in Geneva, held talks with senior officials in Myanmar as well as Suu Kyi during his latest visit last month.

Suu Kyi’s inexperienced party began its first congress on Friday aiming to push forward positions that will become increasingly important in the run-up to a 2015 election that could sweep it into government.

On Thursday, Ojea Quintana said in an annual report that the crisis in Rakhine state, where sectarian violence erupted last year, risks spreading and endangering democratic reforms undertaken since military rule ended in 2011.

The government of President Thein Sein, a former junta general, has international obligations to face “serious crimes and systematic human rights abuses“, he said.

“But in Myanmar there is not any possibility at this moment to start even a discussion on this. I think that there is a religious component in the middle as well, in terms of believing in forgiveness and looking to the future and not into the past,” he said, referring to the majority Buddhist country.


Noting that his native Argentina had emerged from a military dictatorship in the 1980s, Ojea Quintana said:

“I really believe that at some point there will be a need for healing of what happened in the past … We need to keep sending the message that this is also very important for any transition to become successful to learn from the past.

“To learn from the past you need to understand what happened and not just to act as if nothing had happened in Myanmar that had a military regime for more than 40 years.”

Ojea Quintana said Myanmar was lobbying member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council to end his mandate, which currently goes to May 2014. He felt continuing scrutiny was needed.

Foreign investors seeking opportunities in mineral-rich Myanmar should ensure their operations have a positive impact, ranging from ensuring workers’ rights to avoiding “land grabs”.

“The international community is now facing a kind of tension between two kinds of interests. There is a strong interest in economics and lots of countries all over the world right now want to start doing business with Myanmar. We welcome that because it might bring development,” he said.

“At the same time, the international community needs to follow U.N principles on human rights, to remember human rights are at the core of any transition, development and economic process.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Sophie Hares)


By Stephanie Nebehay | Reuters

U.S. gives banking green light to Myanmar tycoons.

  • An employee stands behind a MasterCard logo during the launch of the international credit card issuer's first ATM transaction in Myanmar, in Yangon, in this November 15, 2012 file photo. Two banks owned by tycoons associated with Myanmar's former military regime will start to do business with U.S. companies and investors in the latest reward for the Southeast Asian country's rapid political transformation. The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 22, 2013, it would issue a general licence for four of Myanmar's biggest banks - Myanma Economic Bank, Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, Asia Green Development Bank and Ayeyarwady Bank - allowing U.S companies and citizens to deal with them. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/Files

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – An employee stands behind a MasterCard logo during the launch of the international credit card issuer’s first ATM transaction in Myanmar, in Yangon, in this November 15, 2012 file photo. Two …more 

YANGON (Reuters) – Two banks owned by tycoons associated with Myanmar’s former military regime will start to do business with U.S. companies and investors in the latest reward for the Southeast Asian country’s rapid political transformation.

The U.S. Treasury Department said on Friday it would issue a general licence for four of Myanmar’s biggest banks — Myanma Economic Bank, Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank, Asia Green Development Bank and Ayeyarwady Bank — allowing U.S. companies and citizens to deal with them.

The easing of sanctions on Asia Green Development Bank and Ayeyarwady Bank underlines how politically connected capitalists of the old regime — whom the United States once castigated — are re-inventing themselves and retaining a strong foothold as foreign investors race to enter Myanmar.

It helps remove uncertainty among U.S. companies over lingering restrictions on their dealings in Myanmar and is expected to increase the domestic reach of U.S. credit card firms Visa Inc andMasterCard Inc.

The decision was announced ahead of a visit to Myanmar by 50 U.S. executives on Monday to explore opportunities in the resource-rich nation, the latest sign of burgeoning foreign corporate interest in the country of 60 million.

“This announcement will undoubtedly help the further development of the market,” Antonio Corro, MasterCard’s chief representative for IndoChina, said in a statement. “We expect that Myanmar’s tourism sector will continue to grow rapidly and so building card acceptance is key.”

Washington eased sanctions last July to allow U.S. companies to invest in and provide financial services to Myanmar, dropping restrictions on dealing with most Myanmar banks.

Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy at Australia’s Macquarie University, said the latest move was significant because it would normalize the flow of international funds in and out of Myanmar. But he said the inclusion of formerly blacklisted Ayeyarwady Bank and Asia Green Development Bank was a surprise given previous U.S. assurances that they “still had their eye on the worst offenders of the past regime”.

“One of the great anxieties is over the cronyisation of the economy — the fear it will be a fleeting summer and become like Russia,” Turnell said.


Ayeyarwady Bank is owned by Zaw Zaw, who was previously described by the U.S. Treasury as “a regime crony” and blacklisted under targeted U.S. sanctions four years ago.

The tycoon, whose holdings range from timber and gems to luxury resorts and who benefited handsomely from state privatizations three years ago, told Reuters last year his dream was to buildAyeyarwady into an international brand.

Asia Green Development Bank is controlled by Tay Za, Myanmar’s best-known tycoon. He was previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury as a “notorious henchman and arms dealer”.

U.S. firms will still be barred from forming joint ventures with the banks. The other two banks granted a general licence on Friday are controlled by the government.

“It is now time for Myanmar and the U.S. to take the relationship to the next level,” Tami Overby, vice president for Asia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told a meeting of U.S. and Myanmar business officials in Yangon.

Western countries have suspended most sanctions in recognition of Myanmar’s dramatic political and economic opening since the new government took power in March 2011.

Critics say they risk moving too fast, pointing to evidence of human rights abuses in recent months against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group and ethnic Kachin rebels engaged in a conflict with the military.

MetLife, Cargill, Fedex, Chevron, General Motors, General Electric, Target, Honeywell and eBay are among the roughly two dozen U.S. companies visiting Myanmar this week.

Visa and MasterCard have already entered the country, partnering with several banks and gaining access to a nascent ATM network, but only a handful of merchants currently accept payment by card. A central bank official who asked not to be identified told Reuters that only six out of 19 private Myanmar banks can handle MasterCard and Visa cards at the moment.

“I am sure the recent easing of sanctions will enable the remaining banks to use these cards in the very near future,” the official said.

Visa, which marked its first point-of-sale transaction in Myanmar last month at a Yangon restaurant, said in a statement to Reuters that decisions to apply for a Visa licence were “up to individual banks.”

(Additional reporting by Stuart Grudgings in KUALA LUMPUR, Eveline Danubrata in SINGAPORE and David Henry in NEW YORK; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Paul Tait)


By Aung Hla Tun | Reuters

Myanmar protesters want justice for mine crackdown.

  • <p>               Aung Thein, a founding member of Myanmar Lawyers Network, talks during a press conference on the investigation about the Nov. 29 crackdown at Letpadaung copper mine in central Myanmar, Thursday, Feb.14, 2013, at Royal Rose restaurant in Yangon, Myanmar.  Activists in Myanmar are insisting that those responsible for breaking up the peaceful protest with a weapon that caused serious burns be held to account.  Lawyers and others who investigated the crackdown at the copper mine in northwestern Myanmar say President Thein Sein must share responsibility for the incident and ensure justice is done. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

    View PhotoAssociated Press –

    Aung Thein, a founding member of Myanmar Lawyers Network, talks during a press conference on the investigation about the Nov. 29 crackdown at Letpadaung …more 

Supporters of Myanmar mine protest demand punishment for use of incendiary weapon in crackdown

YANGON, Myanmar (AP)Activists in Myanmar demanded punishment Thursday for officials who were responsible for the use of incendiary weapons against peaceful protesters at a copper mine, resulting in serious burns for dozens of people including Buddhist monks.

Lawyers and others who investigated the Nov. 29 crackdown at the Letpadaung copper mine innorthwestern Myanmar told reporters that President Thein Sein must share responsibility and ensure justice is achieved.

Speaking at the launch of a report on the incident, they said police used shells containing white phosphorous, an incendiary munition, to disperse the protesters. White phosphorous can be used legally in some battlefield conditions, but activists say it should not be deployed against civilians.

Authorities have acknowledged using tear gas and smoke grenades.

The incident involved the biggest use of force against protesters in Myanmar since Thein Sein’s reformist government took office in March 2011 after almost five decades of repressive military rule. His administration has been hailed for releasing hundreds of political prisoners and implementing laws allowing public demonstrations and labor strikes.

Protesters say the mine project, a joint venture between China‘s Wan Bao mining company — a subsidiary of NORINCO, a weapons manufacturer — and the military conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd. — a military-owned holding company — causes environmental, social and health problems, and want it halted.

“The use of inherently dangerous military arms to disperse peaceful protesters, apparently by local police during a standard law enforcement procedure, is clearly unlawful and raises issues of liability for those directly involved and for senior responsible levels of command and control in the military and government and for senior executives/military officers at Wan Bao and UMEHL,” the report said.

It was compiled by Lawyers’ Network, an independent association of leading Myanmar lawyers, and Justice Trust, an international group engaged in supporting the rule of law and human rights.

Thwe Thwe Win, an activist from a village near the mine, accused its operators of damaging residents’ land and livelihood.

“Everyone including President Thein Sein, the home minister, UMEHL and the Chinese Wan Bao company are responsible for the crackdown,” she said.

She said the villagers will not take further action until an official commission headed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi issues its own report on the project and the crackdown. If it does not call for ending the project, they will resume protesting, she said.


By Aye Aye Win, Associated Press | Associated Press

Myanmar’s graffiti artists test edges of emerging democracy.

Graffiti artists are on the frontline of an ongoing debate over where freedoms begin and end as Myanmar continues its transition.

When he first got word of President Obama’s historic trip toMyanmar this fall, street artist Arker Kyaw stayed up through the night spray-painting a mural of the US leader smiling against a backdrop of American and Burmese flags.

“It was not political, just a way of showing the public new art,” says the lanky 19-year-old.

But in a nascent democracy experiencing a flush of civil freedoms, self-expression and politics are inseparable. The next day, Mr. Arker Kyaw returned to see his mural scratched out. A week later, the government decreed a nation-wide ban on street art.

After more than five decades of oppressive rule, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is awash in free speech on fronts where none was permitted. Breakneck reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners and an end to direct media censorship have allowed stifled voices to emerge in newspapers, art galleries, and theater houses where plain-clothes security agents used to eavesdrop for signs of dissent.

But the government does not yet have a mechanism that grants artists access to work on public spaces, putting them at the frontline in the ongoing debate over where freedoms begin and end as the country continues its transition.

“It’s certainly a good thing that young artists are testing the limits,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch‘s Asia division. It’s not unlike the tests of democracy that have been seen by graffiti artists across the world. At the same time, he warns, “it seems there is a narrowing of tolerance for expression in some areas … and now the government is going after graffiti artists. One wonders: Is this a backlash, or is this political opening as sincere as [Myanmar’s] leaders would have us believe?”

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The ban has not stopped dozens of artists steeped in the renegade spirit of American hip-hop culture from working in the shadows. Fresh graffiti, spanning flying television to stencils copied from British street legend Banksy, seem to pop up every other morning under bridges and on construction projects that are tearing up entire blocks and intensifying traffic snarls.


“Of course we’re gonna paint anyway; We just have to be more careful,” says Soe Wai Htun, noting that his crew has plans to a do “an even bigger public exhibition” in the wake of the defaced Obama mural.

Smug defiance toward authorities is one standard practice that Burmese street culture has adopted from the United States; tribalism is another.

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When Arker Kyaw heard that his Obama mural had been attacked, he initially suspected the hand of municipal authorities, as had been done before. Only later did he learn that a rival graffiti crew was responsible for the defeatist phrases “We Quit” and “This is Not Message, Do Not Reply.”

While he is affiliated with a larger crew, Arker Kyaw insists that he stands for the individual and paints alone. “I’m interested in expanding the art form, not revenge,” he says. “I want to be the best.”

Others counter that “battling” is fundamental to graffiti culture, wherever it is practiced, and an affront to stale notions of ownership. “We battle each other like real street artists do, in America,” says one rival, who goes by the nickname Marshall.


While the vanguard Yangon’s art scene generally welcome what they’re seeing as an antidote to old taboos and the crass modern development that is cropping up around the city, some say it understandably lacks the technique and conceptual originality that has elevated street art in cities like New York and Tokyo.

“It’s evolving but there’s not yet enough originality, ” says Aung Soe Min, a prominent gallery owner who works with more than 200 artists in Myanmar, just a handful of them graffitists. But, he adds, the quality of public art is “evolving quickly” and “has symbolic value in a country that always thinks of law and order first.”

In these still uncertain times, a growing number of street artists are organizing private exhibitions as a platform to introduce Burmese urban art to new audiences.

In December, curator Moe Satt hosted a festival entitled, “Beyond Pressure,” featuring the works of top graffiti artists from Yangon and Mandalay. “Rendezvous,” a new exhibition that begins this week, includes work from as far away as the UK in a bid to raise Myanmar’s street art profile in Southeast Asia and promote homegrown artists alongside more established talent, according to organizers, who say it’s the largest urban art event ever held here.


Until public art is embraced in the new Myanmar, Arker Kyaw and company say they plan to walk the line between legal and illegal, alternating between spot-lit galleries and sidewalks by night. Then there are those who prefer to work within the spaces that are permitted – and shout as loudly as they can about their grievances with the new government

On a recent afternoon, Lailone, a some-time street artist with an engineering degree, held his first solo exhibition in the lobby of a tattoo parlor across the street from a five-star hotel. A mixed crowd of Burmese and foreigners enjoyed donuts and coffee, while taking in cartoons under the theme “Not For Sale”: a not-so-subtle indictment of the surge of land grabbing being perpetrated by powerful business interests with ties to the military.

One of his pieces depicts a lawyer asking a poor farmer if he’s reading an agricultural guidebook. The farmer replies, “No, I’m studying land laws ahead of the confiscation that’s coming.” Another piece depicts a farmer hanging from the top of a flagpole, singing the national anthem as foreign companies raze all the land beneath him.

“I’m afraid for my culture, for the environment,” says Lailone.

At least he’s no longer afraid of speaking his mind, say analysts. Looking around at his room full of politically charged creations, he adds, with a wide grin: “Now I can drown [the authorities] with my humor.”

* Susie Taylor contributed to this report from Yangon.


By Jason Motlagh | Christian Science Monitor

ADB, World Bank to step up work in Myanmar after arrears paid.

  • Myanmar's President Thein Sein speaks during a meeting with representatives from civil societies at the Yangon Region Parliament Building in Yangon January 20, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

    View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Myanmar‘s President Thein Sein speaks during a meeting with representatives from civil societies at the Yangon Region Parliament Building in Yangon January 20, 2013. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

(Reuters) – The Asian Development Bank (ADB) said on Monday it was resuming operations inMyanmar with a $512 million loan for social and economic projects that would help the country build on reforms since a military government stepped down in 2011.

In a separate statement, the World Bank said its board had approved a $440 million credit for Myanmar and that, as with the ADB, it was now fully able to support the country’s development because debt arrears had been cleared with the help of Japan.

Myanmar President Thein Sein, who heads a quasi-civilian government, has freed political prisoners, unmuzzled the media and begun to reform the economy with a new foreign investment law and an exchange rate determined more by market forces.

In response, Western countries have eased sanctions imposed on the military regime. International financial institutions have offered mostly technical help but have been constrained until now by debt arrears accumulated under the military.

The Manila-based ADB said in a statement that bridge financing provided to Myanmar by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) this month allowed the government to pay off arrears to the ADB of about $500 million.

The World Bank, in its statement from Washington dated January 27, said its loan would be used in part to “help the government meet its foreign exchange needs”, which included repaying the JBIC’s bridge loan.

The World Bank arrears had been put at about $400 million. Japan, whose government and companies have been particularly active in the former Burma since it opened up, had said it would help with the arrears, which were preventing international bodies from offering fresh loans.

The ADB, which reopened an office in Yangon, Myanmar‘s commercial capital, in April 2012, said the clearing of arrears allowed it to provide its first loan to the country in more than 30 years.

Thein Sein’s government has had to start practically from scratch in developing a modern economy. Reflecting that, the ADB said it would focus on “the building blocks for stability and sustainability”.

Among other things, it would look at improving public finances and developing the finance sector.

The loan would be used to “finalize arrears clearance and sustain government efforts to revamp the national budget process and modernize tax administration”, the ADB said.

“In rural areas, where development has been hindered by lack of infrastructure, restrictions on land usage, poorly developed support services and limited access to financial services for farmers, ADB funding will help develop a strategy to make banking services more widely available,” it said.

The World Bank said its credit would support reforms to strengthen macroeconomic stability and to improve public financial management and the investment climate.

It said that, over the past year, it had opened an office in Yangon and brought in technical experts to help the government develop a broad development program. The government put a detailed program to a big aid donors’ conference in the capital, Naypyitaw, on January 19-20.

The World Bank said it had already provided an $80 million grant for improvements to rural infrastructure, including schools, health clinics, roads and irrigation schemes in about 640 villages across Myanmar over six years.

The International Monetary Fund said on January 17 the government had asked for its help to pursue reforms and craft economic policies so that Myanmar could become part of the global economy.

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Paul Tait)



Japan’s rush into Myanmar snags on land ownership issues.

THILAWA, Myanmar (Reuters) – If Japan‘s plans to develop a massive industrial complex in Myanmar push ahead, Win Aung‘s village will be cut in half, his cottage and rice fields razed.

The 39-year-old is one of hundreds of farmers who make their living off rice paddies earmarked for the Thilawa economic zone, a project that has become the centerpiece of Japanese investment in Myanmar.

Win Aung, who supports a family of 12 by farming 30 acres, says he was forced to sell his land at $20 per acre to Myanmar’s military junta in the 1990s. The government did not take over the land, but is now demanding the villagers vacate to make way for the Japanese.

That puts the matter in a grey area – the villagers are asking for extra compensation but the government has refused, although prices around Thilawa are between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre.

“There’s no way we can afford a single acre here now,” Win Aung told Reuters. He and other villagers said they were hoping the quasi-civilian government, which took over almost two years ago, would negotiate.

After decades of military dictatorship, issues like land rights are a minefield for foreign companies looking to take advantage of the opening-up of the Southeast Asian nation. Japan, seeking to fend off Asian rival China from getting entrenched in Myanmar, is one of the biggest investors.

But there are signs that Japan may tread cautiously now, although it is not clear what action it can take in cases like that of Win Aung and the Thilawa villagers.

Land rights matters have become an inflammatory issue in Myanmar after riot police raided residents protesting against expansion of a copper mine onto farm land last year, unleashing nationwide outrage.

“I have never seen anything like Thilawa before,” said Takeharu Kojima, a Myanmar expert at the Japan International Cooperation Agency. “It will be very difficult to resolve, as land issues are always hotly debated when we help build infrastructure abroad.”

Behind the scenes, local officials have pushed Japan to help settle the land rights issue by putting up money for compensation for farmers like Win Aung, but the Japanese have been reluctant to get involved.

“As a private Japanese company, we have nothing to do with it. It’s up to the government of Myanmar to clear the land,” said Takayoshi Nakao, who runs Marubeni Corp’s operations in Yangon.


Less than three years before the planned opening of the Thilawa zone, a fifth of the 2,400 hectares earmarked for Japanese factories is still occupied by farmers like Win Aung, a source familiar with the plans said.

Japanese trading houses Marubeni, Mitsubishi Corp and Sumitomo Corp are completing preparations for the first 440 hectares of development of the Thilawa zone. The Japanese government has pledged to provide cheap loans to pay for the infrastructure around the zone, an investment estimated at more than $11 billion.

Japanese manufacturers who could set up shop in Thilawa include Suzuki Motor  and Honda Motor , which have shown an interest in opening factories in Myanmar.

Thilawa is a 30-minute drive from Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. The military junta tried to build a business park there in the mid-1990s and forced farmers to sell the land at a discounted price, a Myanmar government source and local villagers said.

But after the investment fell through, it left them undisturbed, they said.

“We didn’t hear from anyone for nearly two decades,” said Win Aung, as he rested in his field.

“People didn’t really know what they were signing and even if they had known, they wouldn’t dare to protest because they were talking to the government with guns,” he said, his teeth rust-red from chewing betel nut.

Win Aung and other villagers from Phalan, a settlement of 350 households, sent a letter to the government demanding fair compensation. They say they have not been consulted about the timing of Japan’s investment or informed about when to move out.

“I don’t think they would be this bold under the previous government. It’s because we have democracy now why they were brave enough to write the petition,” said Myint Thu, the Phalan village chief.

Meanwhile, rich Burmese speculators have bought up land around Thilawa, a development that could delay the opening, initially planned for 2015, people involved in the project and local residents say.

Land around Thilawa has been quoted between $10,000 and $20,000 per acre, said a Myanmar government source involved in the development of Thilawa. Japanese officials and business executives worry that will make it more difficult to build roads and bridges and other infrastructure.

The Thilawa project is being coordinated by one of the wealthiest men in the country – also called Win Aung and nicknamed Dagon after the name of his company – who is also on the U.S. sanctions list because of his close ties to the repressive military junta that ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years.

“Dagon” Win Aung, no relation to the Thilawa farmer, made his fortune exporting timber and running construction projects including the development of Myanmar’s capital, Naypyitaw. He said he is confident the Thilawa project will press ahead as planned.

“Thilawa will be a great success. I’ll organize the consortium and make sure that the project is beneficial for the people,” he told Reuters earlier this month in Yangon.

The villagers are hoping they can replicate their life elsewhere, but not too far away from where they live now.

“I understand I have to leave my land here – I only want to be able to buy a similar plot somewhere close.” said Win Aung, the farmer. “Farming is the only thing I know in life.”

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)


By Antoni Slodkowski | Reuters

Tourists flocking to discover a place lost in time: Myanmar.

BAGAN, Myanmar – The rising sun streaked a light blanket of fog with pink and yellow. Suddenly, pagodas popped out from the mist, some grand and intricate, others squat and modest, some crumbling, others glinting with gold — a carousel of Buddhist temples amid fields of sesame, tamarind and scrub.

If not for a monolithic red brick silo in the middle of this scene, you could almost imagine yourself in the 11th century, when the ancient city of Bagan was home to the first kingdom of Burma.

But the silo, with an exclusive restaurant and viewing platform, towers above the temples in the country now called Myanmar. The structure was built in 2003 by a crony of the generals who have run Myanmar for decades. The modern building is a major reason the ancient temples were denied world heritage status by the United Nations.

This is the magic and folly of Myanmar. Closed off for years by a repressive, corrupt military reign, much of the country seems lost in time and truly untouched by signs of globalization like fast food chains. Women here still chalk their faces with thanaka, a paste made from tree bark. Men wear longyi, wraparound skirts gracefully knotted at the waist. Monks carry begging bowls through town in the early morning ritual of seeking food.

But now that the government is opening Myanmar to the outside world, tourists are rushing to experience the country before it changes. While numbers remain small, they are increasing: About 260,000 arrivals from January to October 2012 compared to 175,000 in the same period in 2011. Tours frequently sell out and start-up airlines are sprouting up. Foreign cellphones won’t work here and credit cards are rarely accepted (though tourists can use Visa and MasterCard to change local currency at private banks), but Western attire is now seen in cities and “O’Burma” T-shirts showed up after President Obama’s recent visit.

There’s also a palpable sense of possibility and change, making it an exciting time to visit. The Governor’s Residence hotel in Yangon recently set up a screen on the lawn for guests to watch Luc Besson’s “The Lady,” a film about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and liberation heroine whom the government released in 2010 after 15 years of house arrest. The film screening would have been unheard of two years ago.

Barbed wire still tops the wall around Suu Kyi’s home, a must drive-by in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was Myanmar’s capital until the military built an entirely new capital two hours away.

Yangon is also home to Myanmar’s most sacred temple: the 320-foot tall (97 metres) Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden dome is visible throughout much of the city. Its tiers are plated in gold, studded with diamonds, and capped by an orb bearing 4,500 diamonds, with a single 76-carat diamond on top.

Families and pilgrims spend the day at the pagoda spreading out rugs and meals they’ve packed, alternately worshipping and chatting — the social equivalent of parks and malls in the United States. The temple’s origins are said to date back some 2,500 years, but it has been rebuilt over the centuries, and is encircled by hundreds of smaller temples, shrines and pavilions. Halos on many Buddhas in smaller shrines bear flashing electric lights, which are disliked by traditionalists but appeal to the young.

While the Shwedagon is the star attraction in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake are the two most entrancing areas to visit elsewhere in the country. But Yangon’s colonial architecture is also notable. Crumbling and neglected, the buildings nonetheless recall an era when Rangoon was a bustling port. They also represent one of the largest remaining examples of original British colonial architecture. Advocates are pushing for their restoration but critics fear they’ll be replaced by high-rises.

Downtown Yangon is also home to sidewalk stalls selling tasty street food, fresh-rolled leaves of betel nut to chew (which stains teeth and sidewalks red), books and phone service (not mobile phones, but land lines you can rent to make calls). Pick up local handicrafts, a longyi, or well-priced lacquerware and antiques at the sprawling British-era Scott Market. Ubiquitous teahouses offer multiple choices of strength, sweetness and milkiness. During the most heinous periods of military rule, the teahouses served as the pipeline of communication for activists, journalists and dissidents.

Not many Western tourists venture to Mandalay: It’s flat, dusty and traffic-congested, despite the romance attached to its name. Even Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the poem “On the Road to Mandalay,” never went there. But it’s a vibrant commercial and internal transportation hub. (Suu Kyi was recently spotted at the airport and wildly cheered.)

Mandalay also teems with monasteries and ancient culture, including the Mahamyatmuni pagoda, which shelters the country’s second-most sacred Buddha image, an enormous seated Buddha. Here, you can watch pilgrims applying wisp-thin sheets of gold to the Buddha (something only men are allowed to do). So much is applied that statues at some temples become unrecognizable blobs of gold. As at the most-visited temples, colorful craft and knick-knack stands line the entry halls, their owners calling out “ming-ga-la-ba” (welcome and hello) as you pass by.

At monasteries like Mahagandayone, you can witness the morning meal procession. Access to the monasteries is so wide open throughout the country that visitors can stroll through and see close up how the monks live, from meal preparation to laundry. For shoppers, Mandalay is a centre for traditional crafts, including wood carving, silverware, gold-leafing and tapestries.

Southeast of Mandalay is Inle Lake, where members of the Intha ethnic group use boats to tend their crops on floating gardens. Others fish in small dugout boats, casting nets while using one leg to steer in a Kabuki-like ballet. White egrets and birdsong are a constant, with the occasional kingfisher, flamboyant in green and blue. Intha women, their hair twined in scarves balanced atop their heads, sell produce in roving markets that move among the villages. Hotels, shops and restaurants on stilts dot the lakesides. Getting around requires a launghle, a long motorized canoe.

How the opening up of Myanmar will affect its rich unique culture and traditions is an issue of much discussion, and a major reason for the current tourist stampede. “I had to come see the real Burma before it gets spoiled,” one Australian visitor said over breakfast as his fellow travellers nodded.

Yet experts and local tour guides point out that what little has been done to preserve and restore the ancient temples and sites has been at best amateurish and at worst destructive. Even Suu Kyi has spoken out about the faulty restorations, saying last year: “One cannot just go about restoring the temples using modern material and without adhering to the original styles.”

A case in point: Hundreds of centuries-old, crumbling cone-shape temples called zedi at Inndein, near Inle Lake, lean haphazardly, trees sprouting from some. Local villagers speed their ruin by removing stones for use elsewhere, including building new zedi.

“Every time I come here, there are fewer of them,” said San San Myint, a tour guide with a deep love of her country’s history and traditions. “It makes me so sad. I worry that one day they will be gone.”


If You Go…

MYANMAR TOURS: Many travel companies offer guided tours and can make hotel, visa, flight and other arrangements, which are difficult to manage from outside the country. Options include Destination Asia, and Overseas Adventure Travel, , which is also launching a small cruise tour. Backroads is starting biking and hiking tours, .


—Learn about the military’s role in siphoning off the country’s wealth. Ask tour companies which hotels and airlines are owned by the government or by cronies of the military. Two noteworthy hotels not owned by the government are The Governor’s Residence, in Yangon, a colonial teak masterpiece in the lush embassy area, and the Villa Inle Resort, beautifully furnished lakeside bungalows with a good restaurant. A small chain of restaurants called The Green Elephant serves good Burmese cuisine.

—Dress code for temple visits: No bare arms or shoulders, no shorts or short skirts. Signs warn: “No spaghetti dresses.” You must remove your shoes, so bring sandals or slip-ons.

—Magical dusk and dawn balloon rides over Bagan are worth the $300 cost but usually sell out, so sign up in advance.

—Few places accept credit cards. Those that do charge hefty transaction fees. Best exchange rates are at the airport; for changing U.S. dollars, bring crisp $100 bills. You can often pay locally in dollars instead of kyat (pronounced chaat).

—Foreign cellphones don’t work in Myanmar but you can rent local phones at the airport. Larger hotels have intermittent Internet service.

—Take mosquito repellent.

—Look for indigenous handicrafts such as lacquerware, made from bamboo or from horsehair, in Bagan. At Inle Lake, you can buy scarves made from the silk of lotus blossoms.


By Ellen Hale, The Associated Press | Associated Press

Search for World War II Spitfire in Myanmar turns up water-filled crate; British team hopeful.

YANGON, Myanmar – An excavation team searching for a stash of legendary World War II-era British fighter aircraft in northern Myanmar said Wednesday it had found a wooden crate believed to contain one of the planes, but it was full of muddy water.

It was not immediately clear how much damage the water may have caused, and searchers could not definitively say what was inside the crate.

But British aviation enthusiast David J. Cundall, who is driving the hunt for the rare Spitfire planes, called the results “very encouraging.”

“It will take some time to pump the water out … but I do expect all aircraft to be in very good condition,” Cundall told reporters in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon.

The single-seater Spitfire, which helped Britain beat back waves of German bombers during the war more than six decades ago, remains the most famous British combat aircraft.

Britain built a total of about 20,000 Spitfires, although the dawn of the jet age meant the propeller-driven planes quickly became obsolete.

As many as 140 Spitfires — three to four times the number of airworthy models known to exist — are believed to have been buried in near-pristine condition in Myanmar by American engineers as the war drew to a close.

The wooden crate located in northern Myanmar was found in Myitkyina in Kachin state during a dig that began last month. It is one of several digs planned nationwide, including another near the airport in Yangon.

Cundall said the search team in Kachin state inserted a camera into the crate and found it was full of water. It was unclear what was inside the crate, he said, but the water will be pumped out during an operation that could take weeks, he said.

The go-ahead for excavation came in October when Myanmar’s government signed an agreement with Cundall and his local partner.

Under the deal, Myanmar’s government will get one plane for display at a museum, as well as half of the remaining total. DJC, a private company headed by Cundall, will get 30 per cent of the total and the Myanmar partner company Shwe Taung Paw, headed by Htoo Htoo Zaw, will get 20 per cent.

During the project’s first phase, searchers hope to recover 60 planes: 36 planes in Mingaladon, near Yangon’s international airport; six in Meikthila in central Myanmar; and 18 in Myitkyina. Others are to be recovered in a second phase.

Searchers hope the aircraft are in pristine condition, but others have said it’s possible all they might find is a mass of corroded metal and rusty aircraft parts.

Cundall said the practice of burying aircraft, tanks and jeeps was common after the war.

“Basically nobody had got any orders to take these airplanes back to (the) UK. They were just surplus … (and) one way of disposing them was to bury them,” Cundall said. “The war was over, everybody wanted to go home, nobody wanted anything, so you just buried it and went home. That was it.”

Stanley Coombe, a 91-year-old war veteran from Britain who says he witnessed the aircraft’s burial, travelled to Myanmar to observe the search.

It is “very exciting for me because I never thought I would be allowed to come back and see where Spitfires have been buried,” Coombe said. “It’s been a long time since anybody believed what I said until David Cundall came along.”


By Aye Aye Win, The Associated Press | Associated Press

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