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[ReadingRoom] News on Burma - 2/4/08

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    1.. Myanmar draft constitution backs the status quo 2.. Burma draft constitution bars Suu Kyi 3.. Constitutional power in the hands of Commander in Chief 4..
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 2, 2008
      1. Myanmar draft constitution backs the status quo
      2. Burma draft constitution bars Suu Kyi
      3. Constitutional power in the hands of Commander in Chief
      4. Commentary: Yes or no?
      5. Pro-constitution leaflets circulating in Rangoon
      6. Buddhists who stand up
      7. At least 40 protesters convicted in secret Myanmar trials
      8. Engage, don't isolate
      9. Construction of GMS sectional highway begins in Myanmar
      10. Rice price increase hits Burma

      Myanmar draft constitution backs the status quo
      CNN via AP: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Myanmar's draft constitution perpetuates military domination of politics and protects junta members from prosecution for past actions, according to a copy of the document obtained Monday.

      Myanmar has been under mounting pressure over its crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

      The draft was completed in February and will go before voters in a May referendum. It has not yet been made public, but a copy of the 194-page text was obtained by The Associated Press.

      The draft charter allots 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament to the military.

      It also effectively bars pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president or a lawmaker because she was married to a foreigner, maintaining a controversial clause from guidelines used to draft the charter. Her late husband, Michael Aris, was British.

      Another clause in the draft protects members of the current junta, which has been in power since 1988, from legal prosecution for any acts carried out as part of their official duties.

      In September a deadly government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and monks drew worldwide attention to the repressive regime, which has been under international pressure to make democratic reforms. The U.N. estimates at least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained in the crackdown.

      The ruling junta has also long been under global criticism for its detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for more than 12 of the past 18 years.

      After it was criticized for the crackdown, the junta announced it would hold a referendum in May on the new constitution, followed by long-awaited general elections in 2010. The junta calls the process its "roadmap to democracy."

      Critics have denounced the roadmap as a sham designed to perpetuate military rule, noting that the drafting process did not include Suu Kyi or members of her opposition National League for Democracy party.

      The country's last election was held in 1990. The military refused to hand over power after Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide.

      The draft constitution would legitimize a military takeover in the event of an emergency. It would empower the president to transfer legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military's commander in chief for a year if a state of emergency arises.

      It also stipulates that the text cannot be amended without the consent of more than 75 percent of lawmakers - making proposed changes unlikely without support from military representatives in parliament.

      The new constitution is supposed to replace the one scrapped when the current junta took power in 1988

      Burma draft constitution bars Suu Kyi - Ian MacKinnon
      Guardian UK: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Burma's proposed new constitution, due to be put to a referendum next month, bars the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from making a political comeback.

      The 62-year-old Nobel laureate, who has been jailed or under house arrest for 12 years, will be excluded from elections planned for 2010 because she was married to a foreigner. The stipulation is the most controversial element of the 194-page document. It was finalised in February but its provisions were not fully published and its scope only became known yesterday when copies were leaked.

      The draft, part of the military regime's seven-point "road map to democracy", states that a "person who is entitled to rights and privileges of a foreign government, or a citizen of a foreign country" cannot run for office. Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris, a Briton, died in 1999.

      Burma's last constitution was scrapped in 1988 after a huge student uprising, matched by last September's pro-democracy protests led by monks in which at least 31 people were killed when the army opened fire.

      The proposed constitution, 14 years in the making, excluded Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy from the drafting process, fuelling critics' claims that it is window dressing to consolidate the military's 45-year hold on power.

      The document reserves a quarter of seats in both houses of parliament for the military, which has yet to reveal the date of the referendum.

      It says the constitution can only be amended with the support of three-quarters of the parliament, making any changes impossible without the backing of the military's faction.

      The president will be given powers to transfer legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military's commander-in-chief for "not less than a year" if there is "sufficient reason" to declare a state of emergency. But it also unexpectedly enshrines rights absent for years since the military ignored the results of the 1990 election when Suu Kyi and her party won by a landslide.

      People would be allowed to form political parties and trades unions, and freedom of the press would be guaranteed.

      Burma's ethnic groups, many of whom have waged insurgencies since independence from Britain in 1948, would also win the right to promote their own languages and cultures.

      The prospect of a constitution has left many in a quandary over the referendum vote. Some judge an imperfect constitution is preferable to the current vacuum.

      "We can't expect it to be perfect at the initial state and we should not delay till it is perfect," one lawyer told Reuters.

      "There will be freedom of expression, press, association, procession and so on that we haven't got now."

      Constitutional power in the hands of Commander in Chief - Kyaw Zwa Moe
      Irrawaddy: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Is something always better than nothing? If that's the case, the Burmese people might be better off soon. The draft constitution for the military-ruled country that has had no constitution for 20 years surfaced last week.

      The draft surfaced unofficially, and still has yet to be made public. The exact date and details of the May referendum haven't yet been announced either.

      Though the draft constitution stipulates that the president is the head of state, the first analyses of the draft constitution show that the real power to run the country is given to the military commander in chief, instead of vesting it in the people under the basic tenets of a democratic system.

      The commander in chief, according to the draft constitution, is given the power to appoint 25 percent of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament with handpicked military officials.

      To be specific, 110 members of the 440-seat lower house, called People's Parliament, and 56 members of the 224-seat upper house, called National Parliament, will be filled by military officials chosen by the commander in chief.

      In essence, that means the appointed members are above the law. Their loyalty is to the commander in chief. With that clause alone, the constitution is undemocratic, but that's not all.

      Three vice president positions would be filled by a presidential electoral college comprised of members selected by the People's Parliament, the National Parliament and the group of military officials in both houses of parliament who were appointed by the commander in chief. The electoral college would then elect a president from among the three vice presidents.

      Thus, at least one military appointee will definitely become a vice president. That vice president could even be elected president because a clause in Chapter 3 of the draft constitution requires the president to be acquainted with not only political, administrative, economic but also military affairs of state.

      The draft constitution says the commander in chief will also occupy a position on the same level as that of the two vice presidents.

      The draft constitution clearly differs from Burma's previous constitutions, in 1947 and 1974, when it states in Chapter 1, titled "State Fundamental Principles," that the state is constituted to enable the armed forces to "participate in the national political leadership role of the State." The draft constitution also has a chapter titled "Tatmadaw" (armed forces) which is new in Burma's constitutional history.

      In that chapter, it's stated that parliament has no right to oversee military affairs, including defense spending.

      Under the draft constitution, "The Tatmadaw has the right to independently administer all affairs concerning the armed forces." The commander in chief is also given full control over military justice.

      In Chapter 12, "Amendment of the Constitution," it's stated that a proposed amendment must be sponsored by at least 20 percent of parliament members, to be followed by a parliamentary vote that would require more than 75 percent support before the proposed amendment could be put to a national referendum.

      More than 50 percent of voters would then have to approve the amendment before it could become law.

      With 25 percent of the seats of parliament going to the military, it would be impossible to pass an amendment that was not supported by the commander in chief.

      Moreover, in the chapter on the powers of the tatmadaw, it stated that the armed forces bear responsibility for "safeguarding the State Constitution." That principle could be invoked at any time to prevent amendments that the military sees as inimical to its interests.

      And in the event of a "state of emergency," which the military is given the authority to declare at any time, the commander in chief would assume full legislative, executive and judicial powers.

      Clearly, the draft constitution gives the commander in chief and the armed forces the dominate role and the real power.

      The May referendum will determine if the Burmese people believe something is better than nothing. They have suffered under decades of military rule without a constitution.

      If the draft constitution is approve in May - as flawed as it is - how might the lives of the Burmese people be improved?

      Commentary: Yes or no? - Meelyin
      DVB: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Referendum: It is a big word and a big opportunity for the Burmese people. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be a genuine one.

      The State Peace and Development Council has officially announced that it will hold a national referendum on its draft constitution this coming May.

      How are Burmese people inside and outside the country going to respond? Will the majority say yes to this referendum organized by the so-called government, or will they vote No?

      The referendum this May is the talk of Burmese communities inside and outside the country.

      People are advocating various responses to the referendum, with some activists campaigning for people to boycott the vote, while others are urging them to vote No.

      What is certainly true is that no one except the followers of the SPDC and the regime's leaders accepts the current dictatorship system.

      There is a wealth of evidence which shows the Burmese people's desire, including the U Thant demonstration, labour protests, the historic 1988 uprising and most recently the September 2007 protests, initiated mainly by the monks.

      People definitely comprehend the military regime's cruelty and mismanagement on a daily basis, which can be seen in rising levels of poverty, human rights abuses, forced labour, high migration rates to bordering countries, more refugees and more political prisoners, just to name a few.

      Furthermore, the uncountable abuses and killings of monks and civilians in last September's protests show how the brutal military regime known as the SPDC doesn't even care about the religion which it pretends to believe in and respect.

      Mixed messages

      What will people decide to do in the referendum? Opinions published and broadcast by the media are divided.

      On the radio, people hear messages such as, "Vote No in the Referendum" and "The constitution drawn up by the SPDC does not represent the people". In the journals and newspapers, they read, "Don't go to the polls" and "Vote No to the constitution".

      So many different campaigns and advocacy directed towards the Burmese people are currently appearing in the media, in addition to the government's pro-constitution propaganda in the state media outlets.

      However, there are many people who aren't aware of political issues, tripartite dialogue or their right to freedom of expression, since all semblances of a free media and genuine education system have been destroyed by the military regime.

      Even though people know the true nature of the SPDC, and because of this, they are already living in a world of fear.

      Fear and propaganda

      Of course people absolutely oppose the military regime, a real dictatorship which always solves problems with guns.

      Some say they will use guns again to force people to say yes to them.

      The SPDC can take advantage of people's lack of political awareness and use propaganda to disguise their genuine intentions.

      Even if the people vote No in the referendum, the SPDC has many dirty tricks up its sleeve, so there is no difference between voting Yes or No in the referendum if the outcome will be rigged by the SPDC.

      Another important factor is that the SPDC already has many well-organized groups like the Union Solidarity and Development Association, Swan Arr Shin and other so-called civil organizations, such as the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation.

      All are under the SPDC's control, and as a result, the majority will vote Yes out of fear of reprisals.

      Fighting back

      It is true that people lack awareness of politics and of the constitution. And of course everyone is afraid of being killed or living in fear amid gunshots.

      Even so, the people are always ready to express their aspirations when it is needed.

      By looking back again to protests such as the 1988 uprising and the September 2007 protests, we can see the courage of the people to stand up to the regime.

      The best evidence to show the bravery of the people is the 1990 election. Even the groups thought to be followers of the SPDC such as soldiers, civil servants and other public officials directly voted for the National League for Democracy.

      More recently, people have already had enough confirmation from seeing how the army tortured the monks in September to know that the SPDC doesn't even care about religion in its determination to stay in power.

      Thus, in the May referendum, the majority of people will unquestionably say No again, despite their fears.

      Before you decide to vote Yes or No, think of the young generation and consider how they are living under the military regime. Think of how the SPDC has killed people and how they are destroying various religions, especially in the September protests inside Burma.

      How about you? How would you vote: Yes or No?

      Pro-constitution leaflets circulating in Rangoon - Maung Too
      DVB: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Rangoon residents said unknown groups of people have been distributing leaflets across the former capital urging people to vote Yes in the national referendum in May.

      The leaflets carried the headline "Let's just vote Yes" and encouraged people to vote in favour of the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum.

      Witnesses said government authorities seemed relaxed about the leaflets being distributed, in contrast to their sensitivity about other groups who have promoted a No vote.

      Under the government's referendum law, approved in February this year, campaigning against the referendum is an offence punishable by up to three years in prison.

      Buddhists who stand up - Matthew Weiner
      IHT: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Westerners tend to think of Buddhism as a passive religion, focused on silent meditation and personal spiritual growth. The image of the Buddha seated with a smile sums it up.

      So while the West is highly familiar with conflict and activism in other religions, the "saffron revolution" in Burma and the "high altitude revolt" in Tibet have come as a surprise to many.

      In fact, there is a healthy tradition of Buddhist activism. Often called "engaged Buddhism," a term coined by Thich Nhant Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, it encourages a Buddhist critique of governmental and economic structures and other efforts to alleviate social suffering.

      In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya Movement works in over a thousand villages to empower the poor. Maha Ghosanand, a revered Cambodian Buddhist monk, led thousands in peaceful walks through the "killing fields" to seek reconciliation with the Khmer Rouge. Nhant Hanh himself called on both North and South Vietnam to stop their bloodshed.

      In Thailand, the "Forest Monk" Prachak "ordained" trees in the forest by wrapping monks' robes around them to save them from loggers. The Taiwan-based Tzu-Chi movement has thousands of volunteers who respond to natural and man-made disasters.

      The Reverend Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church holds an annual service on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. After 9/11, he recalled America's use of internment camps in World War II and called on all Buddhists to help Muslim citizens. Nakagaki is fond of showing an image of the Buddha who is standing up.

      He says that Buddhism is about having a peaceful mind, but not just sitting there.

      Buddhist activists cite Buddhist scriptures to argue that they say they are simply following what the Buddha taught. In one, the Buddha confronts a murderer who was on the verge of killing his mother; in another, he stopped a war between two tribes.

      A third example is the idea of the Bodhisattva: a being who works tirelessly to save all other beings from suffering.

      One source of the Western misunderstanding of Buddhism is our fascination with meditation. While meditation is as critical to Buddhism as prayer is to Christianty, Judaism and Islam, it does not preclude action, any more than prayer does.

      In fact, the Buddhist focus on meditation emphasizes a state of mind that can lead to a particular kind of activism - walking meditation and nonviolent resistance - as demonstrated by the Maha Ghosandanda in Cambodia or the monks in Burma.

      The misunderstandings continue with the term "Buddhist monk." "Monk" is a Christian term for religious ascetics who generally practice their faith in isolation from the world. The word comes from the Greek "monos," "alone."

      But "Bikkhu," the Buddhist term for monk, translates literally as "beggar."

      Bikkhus are required to teach and guide the lay community and to beg for their food. From their very inception in Buddhist practice, Bikkhus have had a deeply recriprocal relationship with the lay world - including the government - as teachers and spiritual models. They have always been active in the world.

      Another notion that does not stand up under historic scrutiny is that all active Buddhists are peace activists; indeed, there are those who argue that there has never been a Buddhist war. But there are also unfortunate examples throughout history of Buddhist participation in government oppression and violence.

      Yet it is the peaceful activism for which Buddhist monks are best known and most respected. That they have opposed injustice in Burma and Tibet should not be a surprise; that they have not met violence with violence should be commended.

      * Matthew Weiner is director of programs at the Interfaith Center of New York.

      At least 40 protesters convicted in secret Myanmar trials: Amnesty
      AFP: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      At least 40 protesters in Myanmar, including seven Buddhist monks, have been sentenced to prison after secret trials over last year's pro-democracy marches, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

      In September, Buddhist monks spearheaded the biggest anti-government protests in Yangon in nearly 20 years, but the military regime violently suppressed the movement by opening fire on crowds and beating people in the streets.

      Officially, more than 3,000 people were arrested during the crackdown. The junta says the vast majority have been released.

      But Amnesty said in a statement that at least 700 are still behind bars, and at least 40 of them have been sentenced to prison after secret trials.

      The rights watchdog said its research found protesters had been convicted "for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly."

      "Three people were sentenced merely for giving water to monks on the street," the statement said.

      The group urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution reflecting the international community's concerns over the country, after a visit in March by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari yielded no progress on the human rights situation.

      "Rather than comply with the Security Council's appeals, the Myanmar authorities have instead moved to the next phase of their crackdown and suppression of the human rights of the Myanmar people with these sentences," Amnesty said.

      "The Council cannot allow this to continue."

      The United Nations estimates that at least 31 people were killed during the crackdown six months ago.

      In addition to the 700 jailed protesters, Myanmar has another 1,150 political prisoners held prior to the monks' marches in September.

      Most famous among them is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner who has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

      She led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in 1990 elections, but the military never recognised the result.

      Engage, don't isolate
      Hindustan Times: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      This week's visit of the Burmese junta's vice-Chairman, General Maung Aye, who is also the army chief, will formalise an agreement to launch an India-funded multi-nodal transportation corridor linking north-east India with Burma's Sittwe port. The $ 135-million Kaladan Corridor has been made imperative by Bangladesh's refusal to grant India transit access - a blinkered approach holding up the BIMSTEC free-trade area accord.

      Maung Aye's visit is an occasion to remember that Burma today is one of the world's most isolated and sanctioned nations - a situation unlikely to be changed by its junta scheduling a referendum next month on a draft constitution. The junta's reclusive chairman, Than Shwe, announced last week that the military would hand over power to civilians after elections in two years' time. But the junta still holds out the threat to debar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting.

      Burma is an important State. First, size matters: this is not a Bhutan or a Brunei but a country that boasts the largest Indochina land area. Second, it is a resource-rich nation with copious natural-gas reserves. And third, it is a natural land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and thus critical to the economic advancement of India's restive north-east. Such is its vantage location that Burma forms the strategic nucleus between India, China and Southeast Asia.

      Burma's present problems and impoverishment can be traced back to the defining events of 1962, when General Ne Win deposed elected prime minister, U Nu, an architect of non-alignment. Ne Win, a devotee of Marx and Stalin, sealed off Burma, banning most external trade and investment, nationalising companies, halting all foreign projects and tourism, and kicking out the large Indian business community.

      It was not until more than a quarter-century later that a new generation of military leaders attempted to ease Burma's international isolation through modest economic reforms. Such attempts, without loosening political controls, came after the military's brutal suppression of the 1988 student-led protests that left several thousand dead or injured - a bloodbath that coincided with the numerology-dedicated Ne Win's announcement of retirement on the 'most auspicious' day of August 8, 1988 (8.8.88).

      Twenty years later, China, also addicted to the power of number 8, may be courting trouble by launching the Beijing Olympics on 8.8.08 at 8.08 am. The Games - communist China's coming-out party - have already been besmirched by the brutal crackdown on the monk-led Tibetan uprising, just six months after Burmese monks spearheaded a challenge to authoritarianism in their own country through street protests that had an underlying anti-Chinese tenor. In fact, Burma's majority people, the ethnic Burmans, are of Tibetan stock. The resistance against repressive rule in both Burma and Tibet is led by an iconic Nobel laureate - a symbol of soft power standing up to hard power.

      Western penal actions against Burma began no sooner than the junta refused to honour the outcome of the 1990 elections, won by Suu Kyi's party. But Burma became a key target of the US sanctions policy only in this decade, as underlined by the 2003 Burma Freedom and Democracy Act (which bans all imports from that country) and a series of punitive executive orders. The new missionary zeal is due to a Burma activist in the White House - not the president but his wife.

      Laura Bush's activism has only been aided by the junta's remarkable short-sightedness. The regime invited a new wave of US-led sanctions by killing at least 31 people during last September's mass protests. It continues to detain Suu Kyi, besides isolating itself from the public by moving the national capital to remote Nay Pyi Taw. With Burma's 58 million people bearing the brunt of the sanctions, China - a friend to every pariah regime - has emerged the only winner.

      The oversized military fancies itself as the builder of a united Burma. In a country that has been at war with itself since its 1948 independence, the military has used the threat of Balkanisation to justify its hold on politics. It trumpets its successes between the late 1980s and early 1990s in crushing a four-decade-long communist insurgency and concluding ceasefire agreements with other underground groups that left just a few outfits in active resistance. The period since has been viewed by the military as a time to begin state-building, while to the opposition it has been an unending phase of repression.

      Given Burma's potent mix of ethnicity, religion and culture, democracy can serve as a unifying and integrating force, like in India. After all, Burma cannot be indefinitely held together through brute might. But make no mistake: the seeds of democracy will not take root in a stunted economy, battered by widening Western sanctions.

      Also, if the Burmese are to break their military's vise on power, why has much of the world accepted the 1989 name change to Myanmar? As was evident from Ceylon's 1972 renaming as Sri Lanka to give it a distinct Sinhala identity - a move that helped further alienate the Tamil minority - a name change represents powerful symbolism. The junta restored the traditional name, Myanmar, for nationalistic reasons. But a name change ought to have an elected government's imprimatur.

      The grim reality is that sanctions have put Burmese society in a downward spiral of poverty and discontent while strengthening the military's political grip. Burma is proof that sanctions hurt those they are supposed to protect, especially when they are enforced for long and shut out engagement. A calibrated approach is called for, with better-targeted sanctions and room for outside actors to influence developments within. Instead of targeting the junta, the widening sanctions have sought to choke off industries - from tourism to textiles - on which the livelihood of millions of Burmese depends. Many female garment workers made jobless by sanctions are being driven into prostitution, as one US official, Matthew Daley, warned as far back as 2003.

      Yet, in the face of a visibly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Burma, Laura Bush has championed more sanctions, roping in the EU. Her husband, underscoring how power respects power and the weak get bullied, spits fire at Burma but accepts despotic China's invitation to the Olympics. He should see how the Burma sanctions are holding its people "economic hostage", as Burmese author Ma Thanegi told Stanley Weiss in an interview.

      Such is Laura Bush's ability not only to influence US policy but also to orchestrate an international campaign that she announced last December 10 that, "India, one of Burma's closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta". New Delhi has still to confirm that. Nor has it repudiated the ban. Who can contradict a first lady whose fury on Burma reputedly flows from a meeting with a minority-Karen rape victim and information from a relative with an erstwhile connection to that country?

      If the Burmese are to win political freedoms, they need to be first freed from sanctions that rob them of jobs, cripple their well-being and retard civil-society development. Years of sanctions have left Burma bereft of an entrepreneurial class but saddled with the military as the only functioning institution. To avert a humanitarian catastrophe, the same international standard applicable to autocratic, no-less-ruthless regimes in next-door China, Laos and Bangladesh should apply to Burma - engage, don't isolate.

      Construction of GMS sectional highway begins in Myanmar
      Xinhua: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Construction of one more sectional highway, which is included in the East-West Economic Corridor and covered by the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program, has begun, the local Voice news journal reported Tuesday.

      Quoting Minister of Commerce Brigadier-General Tin Naing Thein who met local entrepreneurs recently, the report said the 22-km road to be built lies between Thingan Nyinaung and Kawkareik in southeastern Kayin state after a ground survey was made earlier this year.

      The overall Myanmar section in the GMS East-West Economic Corridor, which stretches as Myawaddy-Thingan Nyinaung-Kawkareik-Mawlamyine with a total length of about 1,400 km, stands on the Asian Highway.

      The prior 18-km Myawaddy-Thingan Nyinaung section was completed with the assistance of Thailand last year, it said.

      The East-West Economic Corridor under the GMS program links the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, which is from Vietnam's Danang Port in the East to Myanmar's Mawlamyine in the West. The Mawlamyine-Danang land route will take only 1,000 km whereas the sea route which passes through the Malacca Straits takes 4,000 km.

      Once the remaining 1,360-km section from Kawkareik to Mawlamyine, where a planned deep-sea port locates, is built, it will provide a link to Europe through Asia's China, India and Thailand, experts said.

      The deep seaport project at Mawlamyine in Myanmar's southern Mon state, which will contribute to the development of the East-West corridor in terms of regional cross-border transportation and trade, has been underway. On completion of the project, Myanmar will become a key seaport in the GMS region and will benefit from being lying in the corridor.

      The development of the East-West Economic Corridor constitutes part of the strategic program for the current decade starting 2002of the six GMS countries - Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

      The GMS economic cooperation program was initiated by the Asian Development Bank in 1992.

      Meanwhile, the Asian highway constitutes a network of 140,000 km of roads crisscrossing the continent and linking up to Europe. The network, which will signify promotion of regional integration and cooperation, is expected to be completed by 2010.

      Rice price increase hits Burma - Wai Moe
      Irrawaddy: Tue 1 Apr 2008

      Soaring rice prices across Asia have hit Burma as well, with sources in Rangoon reporting price hikes of nearly 14 percent over the past week, from 22,000 kyat to 25,000 kyat (US $19.80-$22.50) for a 38 kg bag.

      Despite the drastic increase, however, observers say there is no immediate fear of a crisis, as most of the rice consumed in Burma is produced domestically.

      A Burmese rice trader at his shop in a wholesale market in Rangoon.

      "There was a big rise in the price of rice this week, but I don't see a big impact at the moment," said a businessman who spoke to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

      "There should not be a rice shortage in Burma, because the authorities know that rice is a strategic commodity," said Rangoon-based economist Khin Maung Nyo. He added: "This is a very sensitive issue for everyone."

      He cited the increasing use of bio-fuels as one possible cause of the soaring price of rice in Asia, at a time when many experts are debating whether the use of agricultural products as sources of alternative energy could have a negative impact on food supplies.

      By the end of March, rice prices had risen 50 percent over a period of two months; since 2004, they have more than doubled. Experts blame the rising price of fuel and fertilizer, as well as disease, pests and climate change. There are concerns that prices could rise a further 40 percent in coming months.

      The World Bank warned in a press release on Tuesday that food and fuel prices that have soared in recent years have become a pressing problem for governments in Asia. Since 2003, oil and many other commodity prices have doubled or tripled.

      "While the subprime crisis will have its impacts - possibly on some countries more than others - the more immediate concern is that in virtually every East Asian country, inflation is climbing to uncomfortable levels," Jim Adams, vice president of the World Bank's East Asia and the Pacific region, said in the press release.

      Higher fuel costs, with crude soaring above US $100 a barrel and threatening to stay that way, have been a major factor in the crisis, making fertilizer more expensive and increasing transport costs.

      In Southeast Asia, disease, pests and an unparalleled 45-day cold snap that extended from China to Vietnam in January and February have also hurt harvests. Flooding in the Philippines and Vietnam has added to the growing crisis.

      Medium-grade rice exported from Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, reached $760 a metric ton, up from $360 a ton at the end of last year. Meanwhile, governments of rice importing countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, are expressing concern that rising prices could spark unrest.

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