Monday, 7 July 2014

Miss Universe Myanmar 2014 _ Waist No.16(Yun Mhi Mhi Kyaw)

Reporting in Burma

In this gallery

Photos by Diana Markosian

Day partying seemed like a harmless enough subject to report on in Burma. To circumvent parental and societal pressure to spend the evening hours at home, teenagers there held parties in the afternoon instead—a clever cultural workaround. But in this Southeast Asian country only recently released from the grip of a brutal, almost 50-year military junta, it turns out even lighthearted reporting evokes darkness.

My first inkling of trouble was when a would-be party guest in the former capital of Yangon informed me the event had been canceled. It was December 2013, and the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games were in full swing, hosted by Burma for the first time in over 40 years. The former manager of the party venue, "Jack," explained that the police had shut down all parties, worried about the image drunk and disorderly youth would create while foreigners were in town for the event. Jack was in his thirties and as candid as could be—until I asked his real name. Then he informed me he would be in trouble if I quoted him. Although the cancellation of the party had to do with concern over image, the response of Jack and others involved indicated a deeper problem: People were scared of their government, especially in regards to speaking with the media.

This fear was not tied to any direct threat so much as to the unknown power of a government that had yet to earn their trust—a government whose reporting rules, and the punishments for breaking them, were much less clear than during military rule.

For almost half a century, Burma was ruled by an isolationist military regime, and what was and wasn't allowed was relatively clear. But in 2010, elections were held for the first time in two decades, and long-time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. The following year a quasi-civilian government came to power, and in 2012, Western countries eased longstanding economic sanctions.

With these changes came advances in press freedom. Pre-publication censorship banning topics like poverty and oppositional leaders was abolished in 2012, and visas were issued to foreign reporters previously barred from the country. Around the same time, the Associated Press and the BBC opened official bureaus, imprisoned journalists were released, and exiled media groups returned. But restrictive laws from the military regime—like the often-cited act that bans content that would affect the morality of the public in a way that undermines the security of the government—still exist, and no new media law has been put in place.

This coexistence of old and new makes reporting an exercise in uncertainty. In the past, foreigners had trouble getting into Burma. Now they roam more freely, but their interactions with locals are watched. Simply speaking with foreigners made locals suspect, said Jack, explaining that once he had spent a night in jail after talking to a foreign tourist. It was clear that the newly opened Burma was not quite as open as it was often portrayed, and that reporting from the country was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

"A reporter working on a story about pirated movies was imprisoned for 'defamation,' 'using abusive language,' and trespassing"

Indeed, the pace of initial reforms has slowed, said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, project director, Freedom of the Press, Freedom House.

"There were these really big openings in 2011 and 2012, but the pace of opening has definitely slowed and there still are quite a few restrictions," said Karlekar.

In dozens of interviews with reporters and editors, Shawn Crispin, author of the 2013 Committee to Protect Journalists report, "Burma Falters, Backtracks on Press Freedoms," found that access is still restricted and authorities tend to treat the press as adversaries. According to the report, in 2012 a military colonel was demoted for giving unauthorized comments to Radio Free Asia, journalists are routinely restricted from accessing conflict areas, and a website that reported on government bombing of an ethnic group was later hacked. Freedom House also concluded in its 2013 report that Burma remains one of the more repressive countries in Asia in regards to press freedom.

Katya Cengel is a journalist, journalism lecturer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and author of Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life


U.S. wanted Burma to model democratic change, but it’s not turning out that way

Women and children wait for medical care at the makeshift Aung clinic, which serves many Rohingya Muslims with a few staff giving free medical care. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

President Obama recently singled out Burma as a U.S. foreign policy victory — a country that had emerged from decades of military rule and turned toward the West, thanks in part to American diplomacy.

If Burma succeeds, the president told West Point cadets recently, "we will have gained a new partner without having fired a shot." But two years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy.

Burma's government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

The situation is most dire in Burma's western reaches, where more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims are living as virtual prisoners, with little access to health care and food. The fast-deteriorating conditions prompted Tomás Ojéa Quintana, a former United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, to say in April that there is an "element of genocide" in the Rohingyas' plight.

The setbacks have raised the stakes for Obama's scheduled November visit to a regional conference in Burma, during which the administration had hoped to showcase the country's progress as part of its strategic "rebalance" toward Asia. Now even some of Obama's allies on Capitol Hill have begun to question whether the administration has moved too quickly to embrace Burma's leadership.

"We have a moral obligation despite the political benefits" of improving ties, said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who has introduced a bill to link additional U.S. aid to human rights reforms. "We're for having a relationship with Burma, but only if they respect human rights and the rule of law."

A woman holds her son as she waits for rations of rice from the U.N. World Food Program. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

To be sure, Burma is no longer the dictatorship it was five years ago, when it allowed no free elections or public dissent. The government has conditionally released hundreds of political prisoners, abolished censorship and permitted a democratically elected parliament. The president's spokesman, Ye Htut, said critics are not giving the country enough credit for what it has done.

U.S. officials said Obama will make clear to President Thein Sein that his government must address the human rights issues and allow a truly democratic election in 2015 if it expects to maintain good relations with the United States.

"As far as Burma's come in the last three years, they're getting to the really hard stuff now," said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. "That's why there are some acute problems and legitimate fears about prospects for full success."

Burma, also known as Myanmar, sits in a strategic location between China and India. From 1962 onward, it was ruled by secretive, brutal military regimes. The United States imposed stiff economic sanctions after the Burmese military killed thousands during a student uprising in 1988.

But by 2010, the Obama administration began to see signs that Burma's generals were looking to open up the country and move away from their close ties with China and North Korea. The generals released Suu Kyi — who had won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her pro-democracy struggle — from house arrest.

By 2011, "the prospects for progress were better than at any time in a generation," former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her recent memoir, "Hard Choices," which devotes a chapter to Burma. She wrote that "those early days of flickering progress and uncertain hope remain a high point of my time as Secretary."

The State Department began a policy of matching "action for action," rewarding the Burmese government's reforms with a gradual easing of sanctions.

Clinton went to Burma in 2011. The following year, Suu Kyi was elected to parliament, and Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit.

Since then, Burma has changed rapidly. For decades the country retained the aura of a fading colonial outpost, with crumbling buildings and few Western goods available. Now in Rangoon, the country's commercial capital that is also known as Yangon, construction cranes compete for attention on the skyline with the historic gold Shwedagon Pagoda. Restaurants serving Australian tenderloin and sushi are opening, as are Mercedes and Jaguar dealerships.

A monk holds a begging bowl next to a large construction site. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

Commuters head home from work by bus. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

The country of more than 55 million people remains one of the poorest in the world. Chinese investment far outpaces that of the United States — about $14 billion compared with about $243 million. Western companies have been slow to arrive because of infrastructure problems and a lack of qualified workers.

Despite the political opening, the Burmese military still holds extraordinary power under a constitution that guarantees the armed forces a quarter of the seats in parliament and reserves key ministry posts for officers.

Burmese and foreign human rights activists worry that the government has slowed or even reversed its progress toward democracy.

In his 2012 meeting with Obama, Thein Sein made 11 commitments to implement additional democratic reforms and human rights protections. But activists and U.S. congressional leaders say his government has delivered on few of them.

For example, the Burmese president pledged to reach a cease-fire in predominantly Christian Kachin state, one of several areas of this majority-Buddhist country where armed ethnic groups have long clashed with the military.

Since a cease-fire in the state fell apart three years ago, the Burmese military has burned churches and destroyed villages, activists say. The human rights group Fortify Rights recently alleged that the military has tortured more than 60 civilians there in the past three years. The government has denied the torture allegations.

Meanwhile, the country's political situation has become complicated by the rise of a movement of extreme Buddhist nationalists, who are freer to operate in the less repressive environment.

Nationalist monks seeking to protect their religion from the spread of Islam are pushing for laws that would block interfaith marriage and make it more difficult for people to convert. The monks — backed by a petition signed by thousands of citizens — want non-Buddhist men to convert before marrying Buddhist women or face 10 years in prison. The laws are being drafted in parliament with the support of the government, according to Ye Htut.

Then there is the matter of the Rohingya, a long-persecuted Muslim minority who are not considered citizens although many have lived in the country for generations. In 2012, thousands of Ro­hingya were displaced after their villages were torched by Buddhists angry that Muslim men had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman.

Rohingya girls pump drinking water at the Dar Paing camp outside Sittwe. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

Aye Aye sits in the middle of a road selling shrimp at a local market to help her family outside Rangoon. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

Two years later, more than 100,000 Rohingya live in overcrowded camps. Health conditions worsened recently after the government suspended Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups following two more rounds of violence, although some humanitarian workers have begun returning.

Ye Htut said that long-running peace talks continue with ethnic militias, including those in Kachin state, and that the government is trying to ease tensions between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists.

He said Washington should show more appreciation for Burma's reforms, which include opening up the government-dominated economy and allowing private newspapers to operate.

"Some people in Congress have tried to shift the goal posts again and again instead of recognizing our progress," Ye Htut said.

Still, the fragility of the reforms has been underlined in recent months as authorities arrested several local reporters on what rights groups call politically motivated charges that include defamation and revealing state secrets. The government has also instituted tighter press registration laws.

"There are a lot of people in Washington who think there is this great success story" in Burma, said David S. Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch. "But there are a lot of indicators that they're heading south very quickly."

Obama plans to raise concerns about the Rohingya and the government's unfulfilled promises when he visits Burma, a White House official said.

"When we talk about our democratization agenda in Asia, Burma is example number one," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. "It's a big play, but it's a risky play. We know that. And that's why we are continuing to invest in our relationship."

Suu Kyi's party launched a petition drive to remove a part of the constitution that gives the military veto power over constitutional changes that could open the door to broader reforms.

On a sweltering day in downtown Rangoon, volunteers sat outside the party's headquarters collecting signatures, an activity that would have been unheard of in the days of the military junta.

In the impoverished Hliang Thaya area outside Rangoon, home to many factory workers, people sign a petition organized by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy to allow constitutional changes. (Paula Bronstein/for The Washington Post)

Music praising Suu Kyi blasted from loudspeakers. Nobody seemed to be afraid of speaking out, although one man who was wearing a pro-democracy ­T-shirt asked that he not be photographed.

One democracy campaigner, Zin Mar Aung, said she and other activists were harassed with anonymous text messages and death threats after they criticized the proposed interfaith-marriage law. She worries that the petition drive won't work because the military does not want to fully give up power.

"We think their reforms have stagnated," she said. "We think liberalization is over and the regime doesn't want to give power through democratic elections."

Nakamura reported from Washington.
Khine Thurein in Rangoon contributed
to this report.


Burma: Religious conversion law threatens religious freedom

Over 80 organisations from civil society worldwide have called on the government of Burma/Myanmar to scrap proposed legislation that would unlawfully restrict the right to freely choose a religion.

religious conversion law

Burma's Religious Conversion law should be scrapped

If adopted, this law would violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities in the country.

The draft 'Religious Conversion Law', published in state-run media on 27 May 2014, sets out a process for applying for official permission to convert from one religion to another. It grants township-level officials from various government departments sweeping powers to determine whether an applicant has exercised free will in choosing to change religion.

Those found to be applying for conversion "with the intent of insulting or destroying a religion" could be punished by up to two years' imprisonment, raising the prospect of arbitrary arrest and detention for those wishing to convert from Theravada Buddhism – the faith of the majority in Burma/Myanmar – to a minority religion, or no religion at all.

Compelling an individual to convert to another religion through "undue influence or pressure" could carry a one-year jail penalty. The broad wording of this provision may effectively outlaw proselytising in the country.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is widely recognised as having customary international law status.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes the freedom to change his or her religion or beliefs.

The 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief calls on States to rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit discrimination on religious grounds, and to take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion.

Under instruction from President Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament Shwe Mann, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Mora) drafted the law as part of a package of measures related to marriage, religion, polygamy, and family planning, based on proposals by a Buddhist organisation called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.

The draft Religious Conversion Law also includes a provision granting powers to Mora to issue further directives and procedural regulations regarding the implementation of the legislation.

Although Mora lists its first objective on its website as "to allow freedom of faith", its second objective is "for the purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [teachings]".

The Ministry has also been implicated in imposing restrictive and discriminatory measures on minority religions.

This new piece of draft legislation appears to legitimise the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities, and if adopted, will further institutionalise discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.

We urge the Government to scrap the proposed Religious Conversion Law, and to take the following steps:

  • Amend all other legislation to ensure that it incorporates the principles set out in Article 18 of the UDHR, which reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.";

  • Sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), without reservation to Article 18;

  • Sign and ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD);

  • Extend official and unconditional invitations to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to visit the country, and to travel within the country and meet representatives of different communities, political actors and civil society organizations without restriction or hindrance;

  • Study and implement the recommendations of the most recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council, with regard to measures to address collective hate speech;

  • Study and implement the recommendations of the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, which was adopted by experts including the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Rabat, Morocco in October 2012;

  • Abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs and replace it with an independent and impartial religious affairs commission with a mandate to eliminate all forms of religious discrimination;

  • Remove the requirement to list religion on the National Registration Card.

Furthermore, we call on the international community to publicly urge the Government of Burma/Myanmar to immediately scrap the proposed legislation. The international community must make concerted efforts to press the Government to implement the above recommendations as a matter of priority, in order to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief and to prevent further violence against religious minorities.

Signed by:

Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peace

Actions Birmanie Belgium



The Arakan Project

Arunachal Citizens' Rights (ACR)

Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights

Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

Association Suisse-Birmanie

Austrian Burma Centre

The Branch Foundation

Burma Action Ireland

Burma Campaign UK

Burma Centrum Nederland

Burma Partnership

Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK

Burmese Women Delhi

Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association

Canterbury Refugee Council

Center Chin Women Organization

Children and Women Trust

Children on the Edge

Chin Baptist Churches USA

Chin Christian Council in Australia

Chin Christian Fellowship in Denmark

Chin Christian Fellowship of Canada

Chin Community in Denmark

Chin Human Rights Organization

Chin Students' Union, Delhi

Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Coalition for Protection of Refugees

COERR of Caritas Thailand

Delhi Burmese Christian Fellowship

Dignity International

Equal Rights Trust

Fahamu Refugee Programme Dr. Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, OBE

FIDH / International Federation for Human Rights

Fidi Group

Fortify Rights

Free Burma Campaign (South Africa)

Global Chin Christian Fellowship

Human Rights Alliance Pakistan

Health Equity Initiatives

Human Rights Ambassador for, UK

Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART)

HRWG (Indonesia's NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy)

Indigenous Women League Nepal

Info Birmanie

INHURED International

Institute for Asian Democracy

International State Crime Initiative, King's College London


Kachin National Organization

Kachin Peace Network

Kachin Women Peace Network

KAMP – National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in the Philippines


Kirat Youth Society (KYS)

Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)

Naga Women's Union

Naiker Associates (Australia)

Norwegian Burma Committee


Partners Relief Development UK

Pax Romana ICMICA

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign


Physicians for Human Rights

Refugee Council of Australia

Research and Translation Consultancy Cluster

RightsNow Pakistan

Rohingya Human Rights Monitoring Network – Myanmar

SANRIM Sri Lanka

Stefanus Alliance International

Suaka: Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection

Swedish Burma Committee

Tangguyub People Center


Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation

US Campaign for Burma

Victoria Chin Baptist Church – Australia

Zomi Women Union


Suu Kyi advises NLD youth members to be true to the party

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi launched her party's first Youth Congress over the weekend in Rangoon by appealing to prospective youth members to be true to the party's values, but advised them to leave the National League for Democracy (NLD) if they had joined up for opportunistic reasons.

Held over the weekend in Rangoon's Royal Rose Hall, the NLD Youth Congress was convened with more than 150 youth representatives from across the country – the first time in 20 years that the NLD has held such an event. During the conference, the NLD appointed members aged between 16 to 35 into youth leadership positions throughout the country, with about 4,500 youth leaders at a township level, some 700 at a district level, and more than 200 at an administrative or regional level.

Despite these large numbers of youth support, Suu Kyi urged the party's youth members to be true and examine their intentions for joining the party.

"Some are not very clear about why they joined the NLD — whether if it is because they are interested in politics and believe in our policies, or if it is just for fun, or if they were persuaded by their friends. Perhaps it's because they think they can use the NLD as a stepping stone for their political career," the opposition leader said during a speech.

"Some of you may have joined the NLD with the best of intentions and some of you, maybe not. But if you know yourself that you have jointed the party out of personal interests, I would like to frankly suggest to you that it would be best if you quit early," she said.

Related Stories

  • Fake document (left); original NLD document (right). Suu Kyi condemns fake NLD statement, calls for violence in Mandalay to be contained
  • Bullet Points
  • DVB English Headlines 30/06/14

Maung Maung Ohn, a chairperson of the NLD Youth Congress organising committee, said that the youth members will be key in spreading the party's message and policies.

"We convened the NLD Youth Congress with the objective of creating future leaders to work for the implementation of NLD's policies, for future work and regional development to proceed with more momentum," he said.

While the NLD enjoys broad popular support – having won the 1990 elections with an overwhelming majority – the party is often plagued with problems of infighting. Former members who have been expelled from the party have alleged that the party falls victim to the same problems of nepotism as the ruling junta does with its relationships with cronies.


Pensioners fuel silver travel boom by flocking to backpacker hangouts like ...

Financial Mail On Sunday Reporter


The over-55s are fuelling a boom in travel to far-off destinations more usually linked with students and backpackers, says travel agent Trailfinders.

Managing director Tony Russell said retirees were eschewing traditional destinations and jetting to places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma.

'It's a huge part of our market now,' Russell said. 'People used to think of us as just for students, but those days are long gone. It's the older generation who are really fuelling the boom in long-haul travel.'

An aerial shot of the luxury Song Saa resort in Cambodia: The over-55s are jetting to places such as Cambodia

An aerial shot of the luxury Song Saa resort in Cambodia: The over-55s are jetting to places such as Cambodia

Russell said Trailfinders' latest results, in which turnover grew from £531 million to £566 million in the year to February 28, 2014, as 'excellent'. Profits jumped from £19.3 million to £30 million.

Russell added: 'Judging by the first four months of the current financial year we're on track to for another record this year.'

He put the performance down to increased levels of customer care at its call centres and 27 high street stores, and said while it had to be competitive on price, Trailfinders' focus was on helping people plan complex itineraries.

'The more complex a trip, the less effective the web becomes,' he said. 'We took the decision years ago not to sell online and everything since then tells us that was right.'

Popular areas include South America, Indochina and Burma, as well as fly-drive holidays in the US.
Owner Mike Gooley, who set up Trailfinders in 1970, received £2.5 million in dividends.

Comments (0)

Share what you think

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts,
or debate this issue live on our message boards.


Student massacre remembered at Rangoon University

On 7 July 1962, students at Rangoon University staged a peaceful demonstration to protest the institution's lackluster education standards and unfair university regulations imposed by President Ne Win.

The protest was violently suppressed by the newly installed military junta, resulting in the deaths of more than 100 students.

The next day the army blew up the Students Union building, where students were taking refugee. The day would go down in history as the 7 July Students Massacre.

On Monday, the All Burma Federation of Students Unions (ABSFU) organised a march of around 100 people through the university campus to commemorate the tragedy.

The group carried flags, banners and laid wreaths of flowers, remembering those who had lost their lives 52 years ago.

Former political prisoner Khin Win remembers trying to commemorate the massacre from behind bars.

"In prison, when they knew we were planning to mark 7th July, the prison officers would nab us and throw us in dog cages ahead of time so that we couldn't do anything the next day," he said.

"Now all of us, including the old students, are gathering here together."

Related Stories

  • gus 7 july Bullet Points
  • Myitsone marchers on the home straight
  • NUP elects Than Tin, 88, as chairman

Speaking to DVB last year, veteran journalist and eye-witness Khin Maung Lay recounted what he saw. "The army came roaring in with tanks and soldiers in trucks," he said. "The students had lookouts deployed and we heard them shouting: 'The army is here! The army is here!' I couldn't believe what was happening and headed to the girls' dorms to see what was going on there. The gate was shut and it was totally dark.

"The female students let me in the dorm. One sharp and smart activist, Ma Kyi Aye, told me: 'Let the soldiers come in with their guns. We have done nothing. We will remain here until they drag us out'. But when the soldiers came, we all ran."

The following day, after the massacre, Khin Maung Lay said he went to Kamayut police station. "I saw them dragging students – females first – into trucks," he said. "My friend Ma Kyi Aye was among them. And then she was gone."