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Business, military, government seize land for rubber in Myanmar: rights group

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Businesses in Myanmar have colluded with military and government officials to seize vast tracts of farmland from ethnic minority villagers in the northeast, using much of the land for rubber plantations, a UK-based rights group said.

Over the past decade, 5.3 million acres (2.1 million hectares) has been leased to investors for commercial agriculture without the consent of landowners, and rubber plantations cover more than a quarter of this area, Global Witness said in a report released on Thursday.

Global Witness's 18-month investigation focused on northeastern Shan state bordering China, and found that the area's regional military command collaborated with district government and private companies to confiscate land, the majority of seizures taking place in 2006.


"The army went in with company representatives to help them confiscate the land... land that farmers had used for generations," the group's land campaigner, Josie Cohen, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Myanmar.

Soldiers showed up in villages with no warning, once even moving into the village chief's house, and marked out the boundaries of the land they wanted with bamboo posts, forcing villagers to clear it, she said.

The main beneficiary of the land seizures in the area Global Witness surveyed was private company Sein Wut Hmon, it said. The owner and director of the company denied all allegations made in the report against him and the company, the report said.

An employee at Sein Wut Hmon, reached by telephone at the company's main office in Yangon, said the company's owner could not be reached for comment.

Global Witness cross-checked government land allocation documents with field investigations and satellite information.

It also interviewed 124 affected residents of 11 villages and more than 20 government officials, retired military officers, journalists and land activists.

The report said Sein Wut Hmon controls the largest amount of land of any rubber company in Shan state with a total of 4,608 acres (1,865 hectares) of plantations.

None of the villagers whose land was seized had land titles, but despite having land tax receipts as proof of ownership, they were not paid for their land, the report said.

"There was very little compensation - 98 percent of the people we interviewed hadn’t received any compensation for the land," Cohen said.

Three villages have sent the government letters of protest but have received no response, while in most cases villagers were scared to take action because of the army's firm control of the area, she said.

The report said the main ethnic minority groups in communities affected by the company's rubber operations were Shan, Palaung and Kachin.

Land grabs are widespread in Myanmar, and some disputes over confiscated land turn violent.

In November 2012, more than 70 people were injured when police raided a camp where people were protesting against the expansion of a copper mine in northern Myanmar. Villagers said the expansion involved the unlawful confiscation of thousands of acres of their land.

Cohen said that as Myanmar drafts its new national land policy, Global Witness is lobbying to ensure it is "backward-looking", with a grievance mechanism and restitution for past land grabs.

She also urged international investors buying rubber from Myanmar to "conduct stringent checks to ensure that the rubber they buy doesn't fuel corruption or drive human rights abuses".

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Tim Pearce)

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Posted by on in Business

Who is fighting in Myanmar, and why

ON MARCH 17th Myanmar’s central government and the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—an umbrella group representing 16 of the country’s ethnic armies—sat down for peace talks in Yangon, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital. This is the seventh round of formal peace talks, though negotiators for both sides have met informally more than 200 times over the past few years. The aim of the talks is a nationwide ceasefire (bilateral ceasefires have already been agreed between the government and most ethnic armies, though these have a nasty habit of falling apart). Negotiators are always keen to tell reporters that just a few points of disagreement remain, and that a national agreement is just around the corner. Yet recent events have made that claim even harder to believe than it usually is. While negotiators talked in Yangon, heavy fighting continued in the country’s remote northeast; since that particular conflict began, on February 9th, it has reportedly claimed nearly 200 lives and displaced tens of thousands. So who is fighting in Myanmar, and why?

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the country’s numerous minority ethnic groups, which comprise more than 30% of the country’s population, have been battling the central government (and sometimes each other) pretty much constantly. At the heart of these conflicts are promises contained in the Panglong Agreement. Signed by Aung San, leader of the country’s independence movement (and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, a parliamentarian and longtime democracy activist), as well as Kachin, Chin and Shan representatives, the Agreement promised broad regional autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities and said that a “separate Kachin State…is desirable”. The country’s government has delivered on neither promise. Some ethnic armies fund themselves through illegal activities (logging, drug production, gun running, “taxation” of locals), but they have their roots in these broken promises. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, says he wants a ceasefire agreed and political talks to determine the country’s future well underway by this November elections, but sticking points remain: mainly concerning the military (the central government wants ethnic armies folded into a single national army), control over natural resources and the amount of autonomy to be granted to ethnic-minority states.

The most recent flare-up began when a long-exiled ethnic-Kokang rebel leader launched surprise attacks on Burmese army positions around Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region in the country’s remote northeast, near the Chinese border. The ethnic-Chinese Kokang are not among the 16 NCCT groups, and may well be fighting for a seat at the negotiating table; the government initially opposed negotiating with the Kokang, but their resistance may be softening. Although the government has portrayed the conflict as isolated and small, it appears to be growing more intense. A stray cross-border bombing killed four farmers in southern China. Perhaps most worrying, it has drawn in other ethnic armies with longstanding grievances against the central government, including the Kachin, Palaung and Arakan. At the same time, government forces have clashed with students campaigning for education in the Burman heartland.

There are two possible conclusions to draw from these skirmishes. The first is that the road to peace is neither straight nor smooth. Myanmar has never had a strong central government, and what we are seeing now in the northeast is the unfinished business of state-building. The process may be ugly, but it is necessary—a strong, functional state must have a monopoly on violence across its territory—and will result in greater and more lasting political stability. The second possibility is that the road to peace is blocked. The process has gone as far as it can on vague promises of future action; breaking the stalemate between the government and the last ethnic-army holdouts will require real concessions that both sides have so far been unwilling to make. If such intransigence continues, then what is happening in Kokang could spread to the rest of the country. Whether this is the storm before the calm or a squall before the storm will become clearer in the coming months.


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The Economist explains: Who is fighting in Myanmar, and why

ON MARCH 17th Myanmar’s central government and the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—an umbrella group representing 16 of the country’s ethnic armies—sat down for peace talks in Yangon, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital. This is the seventh round of formal peace talks, though negotiators for both sides have met informally more than 200 times over the past few years. The aim of the talks is a nationwide ceasefire (bilateral ceasefires have already been agreed between the government and most ethnic armies, though these have a nasty habit of falling apart). Negotiators are always keen to tell reporters that just a few points of disagreement remain, and that a national agreement is just around the corner. Yet recent events have made that claim even harder to believe than it usually is. While negotiators talked in Yangon, heavy fighting continued in the country’s remote northeast; since that particular conflict began, on February 9th, it has reportedly claimed nearly 200 lives and displaced tens of thousands. So who is fighting in Myanmar, and why?

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the country’s numerous minority ethnic groups, which comprise more than 30% of the country’s population, have been battling the central government (and sometimes each other) pretty much constantly. At the heart of these conflicts are promises contained in the Panglong Agreement. Signed by Aung San, leader of the country’s independence movement (and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, a parliamentarian and longtime democracy activist), as well as Kachin, Chin and Shan representatives, the Agreement promised broad regional autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities and said that a “separate Kachin State…is desirable”. The country’s government has delivered on neither promise. Some ethnic armies fund themselves through illegal activities (logging, drug production, gun running, “taxation” of locals), but they have their roots in these broken promises. Thein Sein, Myanmar’s president, says he wants a ceasefire agreed and political talks to determine the country’s future well underway by this November elections, but sticking points remain: mainly concerning the military (the central government wants ethnic armies folded into a single national army), control over natural resources and the amount of autonomy to be granted to ethnic-minority states.

The most recent flare-up began when a long-exiled ethnic-Kokang rebel leader launched surprise attacks on Burmese army positions around Laukkai, the capital of the Kokang region in the country’s remote northeast, near the Chinese border. The ethnic-Chinese Kokang are not among the 16 NCCT groups, and may well be fighting for a seat at the negotiating table; the government initially opposed negotiating with the Kokang, but their resistance may be softening. Although the government has portrayed the conflict as isolated and small, it appears to be growing more intense. A stray cross-border bombing killed four farmers in southern China. Perhaps most worrying, it has drawn in other ethnic armies with longstanding grievances against the central government, including the Kachin, Palaung and Arakan. At the same time, government forces have clashed with students campaigning for education in the Burman heartland.

There are two possible conclusions to draw from these skirmishes. The first is that the road to peace is neither straight nor smooth. Myanmar has never had a strong central government, and what we are seeing now in the northeast is the unfinished business of state-building. The process may be ugly, but it is necessary—a strong, functional state must have a monopoly on violence across its territory—and will result in greater and more lasting political stability. The second possibility is that the road to peace is blocked. The process has gone as far as it can on vague promises of future action; breaking the stalemate between the government and the last ethnic-army holdouts will require real concessions that both sides have so far been unwilling to make. If such intransigence continues, then what is happening in Kokang could spread to the rest of the country. Whether this is the storm before the calm or a squall before the storm will become clearer in the coming months.


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Myanmar court jails three for insulting Buddhism

Myanmar court jails three for insulting Buddhism
Philip Blackwood, left, manager of V Gastro bar, is escorted by Myanmar police officers for his trial at a township court Tuesday, March. 17, 2015, in Yangon, Myanmar. AP

A Myanmar court on Tuesday sentenced a New Zealand bar manager and his business associates to 2 1/2 years in prison for insulting Buddhism in an online advertisement that showed a psychedelic depiction of Buddha wearing headphones.

Philip Blackwood, 32, Tun Thurein and Htut Ko Ko Lwin were given two years of hard labor for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant. After the sentencing, Blackwood told reporters as he was getting into a police van that he would appeal.

About 90 percent of Myanmar's people are Buddhist. Perceived insults to the religion are taken seriously, especially in the context of the religious-based violence in the past few years pitting Buddhists against Muslims.

The sentences drew strong rebukes from human rights groups.

"It is ludicrous that these three men have been jailed simply for posting an image online to promote a bar. They should be immediately and unconditionally released," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's research director for South East Asia and the Pacific, in a press release.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the three men acted in a culturally insensitive way but should not be sent to prison. "What this shows is freedom of expression is under greater threat than ever in Burma (Myanmar) just as the country heads into a pivotal election year," he said in an emailed statement.

 

The trial of V Gastro manager Blackwood, bar owner Tun Thurein and employee Htut Ko Ko Lwin came as Myanmar grapples with a surge of religious nationalism, including violence against Muslims.

About half a dozen monks and hard-line Buddhists gathered outside the Yangon court to hear the verdict.

"The verdict is fair. This punishment will deter others from insulting Buddhism or other religions," said Paw Shwe, a member of a Buddhist organization.

The three were arrested in December after the image was used to promote the tapas bar and lounge, and have been detained in Myanmar's notorious Insein prison. The online ad was removed and an apology was posted.

Blackwood's father Brian Blackwood at his home in Wellington told Fairfax Media that he was devastated and could not believe the sentence his son had received.

"We hoped common sense would prevail and he would be found not guilty because it was not a malicious or intentional act, which it was supposed to be," he said. "We were hoping he would be found not guilty or at the very least deported."

Amnesty International said it was deeply worried about shrinking religious freedom and the growing influence of hard-line Buddhist nationalists. "Authorities should do all they can to reverse this disturbing trend - not seek to inflame the situation further by pursuing cases like this," Abbott said.

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Posted by on in Business

Myanmar bombed Chinese village

A Myanmar government MiG-29 fighter plane on March 8 flew over a Chinese village in the border province of Yunnan and dropped a bomb on a house believed to be a safe haven for the Kokang rebels. No major casualty was announced by either the Chinese or the Burmese side.

Witnesses at the site reported that the MiG-29 fighter jet flew at low altitude over the Chinese village known as Mengding, causing pandemonium among the villagers watching the tense firefight on the other side of the border between Myanmar government forces and the Kokang rebels. A Chinese ground intelligence agent has been cited by official Chinese news media as saying that Myanmar attack helicopters also were involved in the fight against the rebels.

Fighting between Myanmar and the rebels broke out about a month ago. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to China, and many are believed to be defeated rebels in search of a haven to regroup and rearm inside China to stage a counterattack against Myanmar forces.

Myanmar has accused local Chinese governments in the border region of aiding the rebels.

Thousands of Chinese illegal loggers and miners have flooded northern Myanmar in the rebel-controlled areas. The Myanmar government’s robust military campaign in the border region has forced many thousands of these illegal fortune-seekers back to China. The government has arrested up to 200 Chinese illegal business owners and slave labor ring leaders.

Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, protested the Myanmar warplane’s bombing of the village.

“We have expressed our grave concerns to the Myanmar side and demanded the Myanmar side find out the cause of such action as quickly as possible,” said Mr. Hong on March 10 in Beijing. “We also asked the Myanmar side to take effective measures to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

There has been no official explanation for the bombing incident.

PLA ACCUSED OF ORGAN HARVESTING

Dr. Jiang Yanyong, China’s most famous military whistleblower, known for his muckraking to debunk official lies about the 2003 SARS crisis, has alleged that the Chinese military medical establishment has been harvesting patients’ organs to sell for profit.

Dr. Jiang, now in his 80s, is a renowned military surgeon. He has investigated the criminally cruel practice of harvesting patients’ organs to save the lives of Chinese and foreign nationals willing to pay high prices for organ transplants.

In particular, Dr. Jiang accused the PLA’s Beijing Military Region’s General Hospital of operating a commercial organ transplant center since 2005, which would be illegal under Chinese military laws.

China’s military hospitals fall under the command of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, whose deputy chief, Lt. Gen Gu Junshan, was the first “Big Tiger” to fall during Supreme Leader Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign begun last year.

Since his challenge to the Chinese government in the 2003 SARS crisis, Dr. Jiang has been harassed frequently by the Chinese government and the PLA. He is the cousin of Chiang Yan-shih, a high official in Taiwan who once served, among other positions, as foreign minister.

That family connection, perhaps, helps Dr. Jiang from becoming a nonperson in communist China, as Beijing has been eagerly courting the upper crust of the ruling Nationalist Party in the island democracy.

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Friday, March 27, 2015
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